By BIBI MARTÍ
Louise Glück, the 12th Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry, marked the end of the literary season with a reading of her work on the evening of May 4 at the Library of Congress.
Prosser Gifford, director of the Library's Office of Scholarly Programs, began the program with comments about the characteristics of Louise Glück's work.
"One of the privileges of my position is that I become acquainted over the years with successive poets laureate, come to know them somewhat, and their poetry better, because poetry can be captured and held in the hand; that's more difficult with poets. We are here tonight to hear Louise Glück share with us some of her new work. She's a poet who said early of herself, ‘Each book I've written has culminated in a conscious, diagnostic act—a swearing off.'"
Gifford explained that those who have followed Glück since she wrote the books "Ararat" (1990), "Through the Wild Iris" (1992), "Meadowlands" (1996), "Vita Nova" (1999) and "The Seven Ages" (2001) "have come to see each of these books as complex, interrelated, sustained poems. Yet each is a separate narrative, a coherent story comprising many poems. The poems she has written are autobiography, but divested of the trappings of chronology and comment."
Gifford described the threads of Glück's poetry as "tonalities that are similar; the poetic voice is recognizable from one book to the next, and yet each is a different telling of growing up, of love, of loss, of persistence, of the vivid particular informing the yearning abstract. The poem Louise wrote in 1993 may embody perception so luminous it seems truth, but what keeps it alive is not fixed discovery but the means to discovery. What keeps it alive is intelligence. One keeps re-reading Louise again and again because it is a life set out in a series of stories, each complete in itself, but each entwined both with, and enriched by, what has come after and what has come before."
Whatever the subject of Glück‘s poems, Gifford continued, "these are the layers of a life, our life, all life, of the mind struggling to give voice to what it is to live."
Glück approached the stage and said that she would be reading selections from her new book, "Averno" (to be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 2005), the bulk of which she wrote in February 2004. The title, explained in the book's epigraph, is from the ancient name "Avernis," a small crater lake 10 miles west of Naples, Italy, regarded by ancient Romans as the entrance to the underworld.
"Tonight you'll hear the mind struggling to give voice to what it is to die and then to live again," Glück said.
Because most of the poems in "Averno" are lengthy, Glück chose to present sections from the book that demonstrated "thematic preoccupations" reflecting the focus of the book, which Glück described as "the traffic between birth and death."
Without pauses between sections, to give the audience "some sensation of inertia," Glück read the first poem, "Landscape," consisting of five sections.
"Landscape" is full of imagery of chestnut trees and drowsy panoramas, the hum of the ocean somewhere in the background, while the narrator watches a stranger, his horse and his dog in the distance. The passage of time is indicated with the turn of seasons. In the poem's later sections, winter takes the role of protagonist, and the poem's narrator becomes distressed and disoriented that time could have slipped by. The cold and barren land that winter brought create a sort of suspended animation, physically and emotionally:
Winter emptied the trees, filled them again with snow.
Because I couldn't feel, snow fell, the lake froze over.
Because I was afraid, I didn't move;
My breath was white, a
description of silence.
Glück next read "A Myth of Devotion," one of the
poems in "Averno" about the Greek mythical figure Persephone,
daughter of the god and goddess Zeus and Demeter. It begins with Hades'
preparation for Persephone's inevitable arrival in his dark
lair and concludes with a morbidly poignant twist: "In the end,
he decides to name it ‘Persephone's Girlhood.'"
The next poem Glück read, titled "Fugue," includes 22 short sections. The poem is a sketch made up of imaginary games, role-playing, girlhood guilt and relationships.
I was the man because I was taller.
My sister decided
When we should eat.
From time to time, she'd have a baby.
It also deals with sardonic humor to temper a daughter's dark fantasy;
I had a dream; my mother fell out of a tree.
After she fell, the tree died;
it had outlived its function.
My mother was unharmed—her arrows disappeared, her wings
turned into arms. Fire: creature: Sagittarius. She finds herself in—
a suburban garden. It is coming back to me."
and mourning and lamenting her lost youth.
Like a bird sealed off from daylight;
that was my childhood.
Glück finished the reading with four more poems, "Persephone the Wanderer," "Telescope," "Thrush" and "October," the last a poem in six sections. Themes in "October" include questioning existence, a return from the brink of self-annihilation and cautious optimism for recovery from a dark depression, while the narrator's memory speaks from the depths of self-criticism, ultimately straining for reconciliation through nature.
Once more, the sun rises as it rose in the summer;
bounty, balm, after violence.
Balm after the leaves have changed after the fields
have been harvested and turned.
Tell me this is the future,
I won't believe you.
Tell me I'm living,
I won't believe you.
The last lines of "October" signal a resolution, tenuous and quietly optimistic, which can be described as a sort of beacon for Glück's audience on that tranquil May evening.
my friend the moon rises:
she is beautiful tonight,
but when is she not beautiful?
Bibi Martí is a public affairs specialist in the Library's Public Affairs Office.