Louise Gl&#252ck: stone, or ice?

Not stone, because she doesn’t shatter, nor does she retain heat. Not ice, because she doesn’t thaw, and while her poems do not radiate heat, neither do they leech it from warmer objects.

A mystery.

Here’s what I admire about Gl&#252ck’s poetry: it is the least self-flattering record of depression in contemporary letters. I don’t like that word, depression; it’s too technically pathologized, too inevitably linked to APA guidelines and serotonin levels. But I’m using it because sadness won’t work. It is too occasional — something makes you sad, something that isn’t sadness itself. That’s a flaw of English grammar, though. In some languages, you cannot make a claim of feeling a claim of identity; you cannot say I am sad, but can only say I have a sadness, there is a sadness on me. Yet even that won’t do, because it implies that beneath or free of the sadness is happiness, or at least a state less afflicted with woe. Gl&#252ck’s depression is a fact, not a feeling. For her to leave it, or for it to leave her, would not guarantee a return to a normal state. It would be an error, an ontological mistake, and in order to commit it, the poet would have to disappear from her own mind, and for all that her work superficially concerns mood, it is essentially a record of mindfulness. Any joy that obliterated that mind would be a form of suicide.

Despite its tonal monomania, the poetry isn’t featureless in its imagination of the world, at least not the kind of featurelessness that sees one thing in everything. The poet regularly admits to having felt or imagined things less despairing:

Daybreak. The low hills shine
ochre and fire, even the fields shine.
I know what I see: sun that could be
the August sun, returning
everything that was taken away—

You hear this voice? This is my mind’s voice;
you can’t touch my body now.
It has changed once, it has hardened,
don’t ask it to respond again.

But this admission, that unconsidered sentiment was once possible, is now also an admission of error. The mind’s voice is purely clinical, and even though as it speaks of beauty or pleasure or satisfaction, it does so with a knowledge that such speech is contrivance, and therefore false, unable to persuade the body that provided the raw matter of which imagination is made. The question, then, is whether imagination itself deadens meaning, or if it comes into being as a memorial function, a notice of absence. In Gl&#252ck’s case I think it’s the former, because she recognizes her nostalgia as equally erroneous as her cerebral assemblage of approximate happiness; rather than valorize that nostalgia or dismiss it, she gives it due respect as pointing to the only legitimately fulfilling happiness a self-aware mind can know. When she writes

I can verify
that when the sun sets in winter it is
incomparably beautiful and the memory of it
lasts a long time. I think this means

there was no night.
The night was in my head.

She makes a claim that is both true and false. The memory of beauty, of happiness immediate rather than recalled, only possesses power insomuch as it was once perceived as absolute, never-ending. That recollection laces the beauty with bittersweet, by recognizing it as temporary and contingent, does not mean that night is solely in the poet’s head. It means that inhabitation of night is this poet’s permanent condition.

Averno, as does much of Gl&#252ck’s poetry, relies on mythology, in this case the story of Persephone, which Gl&#252ck uses to mediate on daughterhood, motherhood, the nature of asymmetrical desire, and of course seasonal change. Where it fails, it fails by conflating the mythology Gl&#252ck has made of her own experience with these older and sturdier mythologies. As pretentious and un-ironically retro as reliance on classical references may be, I appreciate the impulse — if you want to depersonalize a state or a condition, yoking it to stories so old as to defeat the mincing details of modern human scale isn’t a half-bad compromise. But this technique cohabits somewhat uncomfortably with lines like

Why was my mother happy?

Answer: she married my father.

“You girls,” my mother said, “should marry
someone like your father.”

That was one remark. Another was,
“There is no one like your father.”

And there’s the great and terrible curse of Louise Gl&#252ck, who can write such flatly unforgiving and clear poems about terrible things, or represent emotional paradoxes without ever succumbing to the desire to dismiss the agonies they can inspire. It’s very easy to get caught up in this stuff, and then stop to ask: wait, is this about your divorce? The more personal and intimate her poetry becomes, the more petulant and peevish it risks appearing. Like Frank Bidart, who she greatly admires, Gl&#252ck is unapologetically concerned with old stories that do not fear posing intractable questions about what we want, and why we want it. But Bidart has been regularly drawn to instances of people driven mad by their feelings, and who act madly — individuals of excess in whom we do not wish to see ourselves, but must. Gl&#252ck, on the other hand, is drawn primarily to herself, and daily individual grief, however rigorously detailed, is not dramatic stuff. Tragedy is. Her disposition is tragic, but it’s often hard to see the tragedy itself, even as we recognize the degree to which a domestic tableau is meant to resemble a theatrical stage.

Of course, one of the reasons it becomes so difficult to avoid the conflict between tempests and teapots points to another admirable property of Gl&#252ck’s poetry, how consistently unmistakable she makes her meaning. For all those who insist a poem should rather be, her writing may seem intransigently dull. In selecting which of her phrases or lines to excerpt, it is far easier to find an assertion or idea worth considering than a thrilling image or compelling sound. For instance, “The girl who disappears from the pool / will never return. A woman will return, / looking for the girl she was” is a nicely encapsulation of theme, but as language, it’s merely a serviceable sentence. The most you can say about it is that it gets the job done without ostentatious effort. To be fair, though, I cannot imagine a book by Louise Gl&#252ck that loses itself in lyric pleasure. That kind of artifice would compromise the distinction she draws between mystery and fate. Mystery is dynamic; it creates constant motion between cause and effect, and derives perpetual energy from the indeterminate relationship between the two. But in a trait she shares with most depressive imaginations, Gl&#252ck is a fatalist: the details of what goes wrong may prove fascinating in their execution, but the physics behind despair are never in doubt. Happiness decays with the certainty of gravity, and its decay only ever illustrates that it was only true happiness when we did not know it would decay, which is to say it was only happiness when we were ignorant of its true nature, and therefore was never really happiness at all.

With an ounce less clarity, that idea would degrade to a miasma of ill-feeling, maudlin at best. And while I resist the possibility that the details of one’s personal life can ever really support the weight of so severe a conception of the world — disappointment is a minor sentiment, after all — I do respect the sharp edge of Gl&#252ck’s commitment to it. For her, spring can only ever mean that winter is on its way, and ice held in perpetual winter might as well be stone indeed. An unforgiving medium, but it builds a strong house, though perhaps not one always fit for human habitation.