Deep Blue Shadows on Azure Seawater: On the Haunting Beauty of Louise Glück's Poetry
"We're all dreamers; we don't know who we are." Louise Glück, Mother and Child.
When the winner for this year's Nobel Prize for Literature was announced, I was a little disappointed. Vying for Margaret Atwood or Mary Oliver, I wasn't all too pleased to find Louise Glück, a Professor at Yale University and the poet laureate of the USA bag the coveted prize. Though tabloids are rife with Glück's biography and the numerous prestigious awards she has bagged over the years and comments from associates, few have delved into her poetry, or rather the nature of it. To quell my doubts, I decided to start with Glück's poetry, only to be overwhelmed by a serene yet distant voice that holds the hand of the reader and guides them through the cold yet comforting landscape that is her verses.
After going through some of her poems, the fact that the Swedish Academy stressed on her "unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal" didn't come as a surprise. Glück deals with everyday emotions of confusion, slight tremors of heartbreak, advancing age, marriage in her poetry and lends them a therapeutic quality. She makes the prosaic poetic. I disagree with the term qualifying Glück as an "autobiographical poet" for it undermines the fluid, shape-shifting nature of her poetic voice that whispers the transformation of Persephone or the silent rage of Circe with the same lyrical pace as while narrating a woman's trail of thoughts on Hudson.
Glück is known for reinventing and recasting Greek myths, and she employs in her poems Myth of Devotion, Myth of Innocence and Persephone the Wanderer (from her poetic collection Averno) the mythic figures of Hades, Demeter and Persephone to demonstrate a struggle for possession and freedom. She describes the myth of Persephone as an "argument between the mother and the lover" (Persephone the Wanderer) where the daughter, central character Persephone is reduced to a 'meat'. To undo the historical damage, Glück charts the growth of Persephone from a maiden to a woman who finds freedom in belonging nowhere, a fluid figure resisting binaries of Earth or Hell, much like the her own poetic voice. To Glück, Persephone "has been a prisoner since she has been a daughter" (Persephone the Wanderer) and it is only in death that she finds solace.
"That we're at ease with death, with solitude", Celestial Music.
The whispering and soothing poetic voice and lyrical words of Glück flitting between that of a distant observer and Persephone in these poems join the platform of the myriad poetic voices housing the likes of Plath's hot rage throbbing through Daddy, the deathly stillness of Emily Dickinson's poems, and Walt Whitman's self discovering non-conformist poetry.
Glück's poetry channels a philosophical strain that, at times, confounds the reader with universal lines such as, "the love of form is a love of endings" (Celestial Music) again re-emphasising the fluid, nonbinary nature of love. At other times, her poetic voice takes a dark, existential turn where the it moans, "It is terrible to survive/as consciousness/buried in the dark earth" (The Wild Iris).
In the very short Early December in Croton-on-Hudson, Glück traces the stream of thoughts of this voice which can leave the reader with perhaps the same longing and desire,
Spiked Sun. The Hudson's
Whittled down by ice.
I hear the bone dice
Of bone gravel clicking. Bone-
pale, the recent snow
Fastens like fur to the river.
Standstill. We were leaving to deliver
Christmas presents when the tire blew
Last year. Above the dead vines pines pared
Down by a storm stood, limbs bared…
I want you.
Critic Don Bogen rightly described Glück as "the poet of a fallen world." A world where Glück's poetic voice roams like the Zephyr, guiding others over the rough terrain of life, moulding mountains of confusion into metaphors - her verses defy conventions and easy categorisation, and can only be read while in search of the graceful poetic voice. It is this poetic voice that parallels Persephone who lives in and escapes both Hell and Earth.
"My heart shattered with the strain of trying to belong to the earth" (Persephone the Wanderer).