A Village Life
Louise Glück’s poems are really good at feeling bad. In “Retreating Figure,” the best poem in her Pulitzer-winning collection The Wild Iris, Glück imagines what God might say about His absence. Her best known poem remains “Mock Orange,” a one-page lyric in which she says of the flowers in the title, “I hate them. / I hate them as I hate sex.” Ararat, the book she wrote between those two strange intensities, is my favorite work of hers. The plainspoken tendency in American poetry is never sharper nor darker:
My sister and I reached
the same conclusion: the best way
to love us was to not
spend time with us.
(from “Animals,” Ararat)
Ararat centers around mourning the death of the father; I intentionally don’t say Glück’s father. Glück always means the definite article and the declaration of importance the word the implies. In a Glück poem, you feel what you’re told to feel, on the double. I mean that as praise. Glück can be amazing, a catharsis machine, the true minimalist who gives not as little as possible but as little as necessary.
Where I start qualifying my praise is where she cuts short investigating what prompts all the depressing rage:
Long ago, I was wounded. I lived
to revenge myself
against my father, not
for what he was—
for what I was: from the beginning of time,
in childhood, I thought
that pain meant
I was not loved.
It meant I loved.
(from “First Memory,” Ararat)
It might have meant both those things, actually. There’s no room in Glück’s decisive poetics for ambivalence, though—especially when it comes to emotion—and that puts a limit on how profoundly she can affect readers.
A Village Life is Glück’s eleventh book. The anxious insistence on isolation has achieved its aim. The conflicts at the heart of her best work are dormant here. The speakers of these poems are wistful, detached, not overpowering or freaked out. This passage from “Before the Storm” is typical:
No sound. Only cats scuffling in the doorways.
They smell the wind: time to make more cats.
Later, they prowl the streets, but the smell of the wind stalks them.
It’s the same in the fields, confused by the smell of blood,
though for now only the wind rises; stars turn the field silver.
For the longest time I thought Glück stood for everything I couldn’t tolerate in American poetry. What little of her poetry I’d read struck me as not only premeditated, but also arrogant. She clearly rejected joy, happy surprise, I’ve already mentioned sex, not to speak of the small pleasures—unexpected turns of phrase, stray details. Eventually it dawned on me that she might be writing with something other than pleasure in mind. Something greater, to her mind.
One night that summer my mother decided it was time to tell me about
what she referred to as pleasure, though you could see she felt
some sort of unease about this ceremony…
(from “At the River”)
Glück can be seen as part of a broader trend in American culture—the cult of the aspirational insult. You may have heard about it in coverage of Neil Strauss’s dating manual, The Game, in which hapless men are instructed to get the attention of attractive women by insulting them. The more attractive the woman is, the greater the insult has to be. It’s called negging. It works on men too. For that matter, it can work on a whole society at once.
Does negging lead to a close connection, a truer understanding, real love? Is that question for real? What it leads to is power. To some extent, you can see patterns of negging in the work of a lot of writers enjoying critical favor now, especially the poets—what is Frederick Seidel but a walking neg? but there are more than traces of this withholding tendency in less controversial and arguably greater, more successful writers, from to Anne Carson to Franz Wright. This is to say that in itself negging as a literary strategy is neither good nor bad. When it’s the only emotional color available to a writer, though, it’s bullying.
After The Wild Iris, Glück’s work takes a turn for the vague. In The Village Life, she’s still got the will to pass off her brutal streak as candor:
No one really understands
the savagery of this place,
the way it kills people for no reason,
just to keep in practice.
That’s fine. But the commanding tone loses its credibility when she uses it to speak untruths:
But no signal from earth
will ever reach the sun. Thrash
against that fact, you are lost.
If you think signals from earth radiating away from the earth reach the sun constantly, please be assured you are not lost.
The command that we associate with Glück is a product of will and ingenuity. We believe her, when we believe her, even when we have no way to know whether she’s right, because she makes a point of stopping short, of heading off questions. It’s all or nothing, which is great when the bets pay off, disastrous when they don’t. The lines quoted above are among the shortest in the book. It may be that this is her way of signaling that in these poems she’s trying to speak in voices other than her own. It doesn’t work. The price of developing a commanding voice over several books is that now she always sounds exactly like herself.
A few themes recur—moldy produce, men who alternate between complete availability and total withdrawal, adolescent pre-sexual flirtation, disappointed hopes. “In the Café” is the most like her best work, a narrative about a man who “falls in love a little too easy,” a serial monogamist vampire who becomes not what his lovers are, “but what they could be / if they weren’t trapped in their characters.” Afterwards, when the women complain to their next lovers about “how amazing it was, / like living with another woman, but without the spite, the envy,” Gluck’s follow-up is everything we want from her:
And the men tolerate this, they even smile.
They stroke the women’s hair—
they know this man doesn’t exist; it’s hard for them to feel competitive.
And she’s entitled to mourn the loss of youth, as in “Walking at Night,” which begins “Now that she is old, / the young men don’t approach her” and ends recalling “the body she had as a young woman, / glistening under the light summer clothing.” The subject comes back again in “Crossroads,” where the speaker addresses her body, “it is not the earth I will miss / it is you I will miss.” Fair enough. But does she have to be a spoilsport and remark to someone in love, “Just be glad you were in bed, / where the cries of love drown out the screams of the corpses.” Do we still have to listen?
Reading A Village Life, I had the sense that no one had the nerve, or maybe the necessary affection, to say that the problems with this book are not trivial. Surely someone among the advance readers, hearing Gluck’s rhetorical questions, must have said no?