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Ahead Was Silence: Matthew Buckley Smith on Louise Glück

Reviewed: Faithful and Virtuous Night by Louise Glück. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014.

Reading a good poem by Louise Glück is like taking a slap to the face in a large, cold bathroom. Resonant, if not always enjoyable. A psychiatrist told me once that the depressed often speak with an odd combination of flatness and exuberance, a blend that—without speculating about Glück’s psychological state—feels true to my experience of her poems: “Mother died last night,” begins the last section of one poem, “Mother who never dies.” Her new book, Faithful and Virtuous Night, winner of the National Book Award, includes a poem that takes place during a session of psychoanalysis—which, recalcitrant soul that she is, Glück favors over modern pharmacotherapy:

My analyst looked up briefly.
Naturally I couldn’t see him
but I had learned, in our years together,
to intuit these movements. As usual,
he refused to acknowledge
whether or not I was right.

The poem, called “The Sword in the Stone,” appears a little over halfway through Faithful and Virtuous Night, and it follows the speaker through the end of the analysis session, out of the building, onto the street, and across town to a restaurant where she has been expected, wine poured, conversation waiting. “As usual,” the speaker observes, “a small argument erupted over dinner, ostensibly / concerning aesthetics. It was allowed to pass.” This voice, the voice of “The Sword in the Stone” and of much of the collection, is familiar to readers of Glück. If it came on the PA in an episode of This Is Your Life, one would know right away who was speaking, though it’s hard to imagine Glück making an appearance in anyone’s life but her own:

He was a writer. His many novels, at the time,
were much praised. One was much like another.
And yet his complacency disguised suffering
as perhaps my suffering disguised complacency.
We had known each other many years.

Here, as in earlier books, the voice betrays a tell-tale, careless urgency: at once lofty and low-key, light on contractions, heavy on elisions, never quite maintaining eye contact—like a suicide note constructed ransom-letter-style out of scraps torn from a fashion magazine. The voice in this book is familiar, but the character is not, at least not altogether. Across several long poems, Glück ventriloquizes through a male, probably British, painter orphaned in early childhood. (That is, if ‘ventriloquizes’ is what Apollo did to the Sibyl.) This painter may or may not be the one who sits down to supper in The Sword and the Stone, the title of which recalls a much-mulled childhood memory of lying in bed while his brother read tales of King Arthur and his knights. That memory appears in the long title poem, which reads like a Dictaphone transcription of a nice old man who’s been asked to narrate his life story immediately after taking laudanum:

Mild for late April. Puffy
clouds overhead, floating among the apple trees.
I picked up My First Reader, which appeared to be
a story about children—I could not read the words.

On page three, a dog appeared.
On page five, there was a ball…

In a curiously pun-rich book, even the central phrase, “Faithful and Virtuous Night,” gets attributed to mishearing rather than cleverness, taken from the title of the brother’s book of Arthurian legend. The ten-page account of this painter’s early life is studiously undramatic, tragic in only the most ordinary of ways. As poetry, the whole performance is something like Marilyn Levine’s marvelous ceramic sculptures, which so exquisitely resemble aging leather boots, jackets, and briefcases that they transcend their own sublimity and go back to being boring. But Glück’s poem is even stranger than that, because all the while the speaker is mumbling on, the voice still belongs to Glück. It’s actually closer to watching Anna Deavere Smith explain the origin of her pompadour in an uncomfortably exact impersonation of the Reverend Al Sharpton. Or it’s like the hours of footage Smith presumably discarded after obtaining that single winning anecdote.

Glück’s painter character, convincingly mild in his first scene, becomes in subsequent poems ever more swimmingly indistinguishable from Glück herself, or at least from her poetic self. The ghosts of dead relatives, the artistic striving and despair, the grand self-mocking pretensions, even the practice of painting, of which Glück has a history, all make it hard ever to say for sure who’s talking: the painter or the poet. Sometimes the speaker is referred to as male, sometimes female. Whatever his identity, he has the same birthday as Glück, and he can’t resist mentioning that he shares it with Immanuel Kant. A passage in “Aboriginal Landscape” seems to enact this ambiguity, tracking the narrator’s attempt to escape a cemetery by appealing to a ghostly train conductor, her own existence becoming all the while increasingly uncertain:

Do not forget me, I cried, running now
over many plots, many mothers and fathers—

Do not forget me, I cried, when at last I reached him.
Madam, he said, pointing to the tracks,
surely you realize this is the end, the tracks do not go further.

The pun on “plots,” the “many mothers and fathers,” and most of all the repeated plea not to be forgotten—all give away the writer behind the speaker, the self-conscious maker of her own identity, both in her own verse and (as every poet hopes) in the prose of history.

There are other species of poems in the book, though, like a series of parabolic prose poems that recall nothing so much as the smirking late vignettes of Glück’s contemporary, Mark Strand. Here is an example from Faithful and Virtuous Night:

Theory of Memory

Long, long ago, before I was a tormented artist, afflicted with longing yet incapable of forming durable attachments, long before this, I was a glorious ruler uniting all of a divided country—so I was told by the fortune-teller who examined my palm. Great things, she said, are ahead of you, or perhaps behind you; it is difficult to be sure. And yet, she added, what is the difference? Right now you are a child holding hands with a fortune-teller. All the rest is hypothesis and dream.

And here is one from Strand’s 2012 collection, Almost Invisible:

The Social Worker and the Monkey

Once I sat in a room with a monkey who told me he was not a monkey. I understood his anguish being trapped in a body he detested. “Sir,” I said, “I think I know what you are feeling, and I would like to help you.” “Treat me like a monkey,” he said. “It serves me right.”

They’re not uncharming, these knowing highbrow pratfalls by stately elder poets, and one can understand the appeal they hold for the poets themselves. It isn’t hard to get a laugh in church, after all, but it can still be fun. This slippage of the voice, though, this adoption of a cheeky tone (recognizable to any prose poet—at least since Baudelaire) suggests also Glück’s struggle with a painful theme that grows more and more distinguishable as the book goes on, like a figure emerging slowly from a street-lit bank of fog. It is the old theme of succession, the theme of artistic futility.

Like Strand, Glück has cultivated a unique poetic voice, and like Strand, she’s chosen an appealing voice to cultivate, a voice we want to listen to. She’s enjoyed unusual success from an unusually early age, and with unusual consistency. In the tiny, decadent kingdom of poetry, she is counted without question among the number of the elect. She is known, she is fêted, and—most mouthwatering of all—she is actually read. But she is also still alive: writing, giving readings, teaching at Yale, and spritzing herself with the gloomy mystique of one who—we feel this—can say the noun ‘poet’ in casual conversation without cringing. But she knows, as Plato warned us long ago, that every book is left defenseless after its author’s death. In her essay, “Education of the Poet,” she calls this fear by name, “for those of us attempting dialogue with the great dead, it isn’t a matter of waiting: the judgment we wait for is made by the unborn; we can never, in our lifetimes, know it.” The voice that stalks the halls of Faithful and Virtuous Night is preoccupied with exactly this condition. Toward the end of “The Sword in the Stone,” the poem that began in the analyst’s office, we hear the particulars of the argument that broke out over supper with the novelist:

Once again, I had accused him of laziness.
Once again, he flung the word back—

He raised his glass and turned it upside-down.
This is your purity, he said,
this is your perfectionism—
The glass was empty; it left no mark on the tablecloth.

The novelist friend continues his despairing rant in the poem’s closing lines:

It is the critics, he said,
the critics have the ideas. We artists
(he included me)—we artists
are just children at our games.

Caustic stuff—and even if no more so than Glück’s early work, what gets burned here is more and more the tissue of the artist’s own illusions. Kafka says the writer chooses to write in lieu of living, but what if, as Glück’s proxy fears, by doing so, he actually forfeits both? In the face of this anxiety, the poem’s title bares sarcastic teeth. For what after all is the sword in the stone? It is a vicious joke, no less vicious for being very old.

The legendary object most associated with Disney’s 1963 animated feature, which takes its title from the first part of T. H. White’s 1938-1958 Arthurian serial epic The Once and Future King (which in turn draws inspiration from Thomas Malory’s 1485 Le Morte DArthur), the sword in the stone is the quintessence, in a single tidy image, of what Joseph Cambell called the “monomyth,” or, more memorably, “the hero’s journey.” Campbell was neither the only nor the first to identify certain formal links across the heroic myths of various world cultures, but he was the one who most successfully conjured a public aura out of the job, beginning with the publication of his 1949 book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Since then, the adaptation of the hero’s journey to the conventions of screenwriting has resulted in the spectacular homogenization of American cinema, a process which has made the shape of the hero’s journey immediately recognizable for anyone who’s spent time in this country since, say, 1977. To review, then, the hero’s journey as popularly understood today goes, roughly, like this:

A child of modest upbringing is summoned to action
by a mysterious elder who reveals to the youth
his secretly royal origins and urges him to journey forth
into the wilderness, where he will test himself against the forces of temptation
before returning as a man to the arena of moral and mortal combat, where he will
face his own shadow-self and gradually
give way to profound despair, but at the last moment
sacrifice of his own free will all his previous selfish interests,
which climactic choice results in a new life of prosperity for the kingdom and of
joy and public honor for the hero.

In other words, the solipsist’s autobiography. Powerful in individual instances, as a formula it is inane — which is why it can support such varied incarnations as Dionysus, Jesus, Octavian, Luke Skywalker, Telemachus, and George W. Bush. And perhaps most perfectly formed of all its variations is the story of King Arthur, whose own hidden greatness is theatrically brought to light by the device of a sword lodged immovably in an anvil inscribed with the legend: “Whoso pulleth oute this swerd of this stone and anvyld is rightwys kynge borne of all Brytaygne.”

What is the most important word in this stirring inscription? The answer is “borne.” Because crucially, the hero of the hero’s journey—though he ultimately proves himself through wandering and sacrifice—has always already been the hero. None of those other poor knights ever really had a chance. The hero is born into his role. From the beginning, his destiny is assured. All that remains is for the world to recognize his innate specialness. Eventually, he will be plucked from the masses by the hand of God and held up to all for admiration. Though the hero may spend his childhood living in provincial obscurity, he has a feeling all along that something bigger is awaiting him, that his environment has in some subtle way been prepared for his arrival, that he, unlike all the other farm-boys, will someday be known to the mind of the world. Why does this myth continue to appeal to us? Why does it in some eerie way ring fundamentally true? Because it is true, albeit in the puniest respect. Behind Joseph Campbell’s thousand faces, the hero of the hero’s journey is simply the First Person. It is the ‘I’ that sees the world never objectively but always through the frame of its own existence. The world is created in the birth of the First Person, it is shaped around the First Person’s perception, and it ends in the annihilation of the First Person. The hero’s journey is for this reason an enduring myth. It is the truth we tell in order to realize a greater lie.

But Louise Glück knows all this. She knows it and it galls her. In a poem called “Afterword,” the collection’s spectral doublegoer seems to lose hold of the very conceit that gave rise to him. It’s as if Glück is interrupting her own poetry reading to admit that she’s only now noticed that none of this is real:

One speaks a word: I
Out of this stream
the great forms—

I took a deep breath. And it came to me
the person who drew that breath
was not the person in my story, his childish hand
confidently wielding a crayon—

Had I been that person?

The poem ends with a searingly simple verdict:

Shall I be raised from death, the spirit asks
And the sun says yes.
And the desert answers
your voice is sand scattered in the wind.

Like the hapless character described in the Prologue of Beaumont’s The Knight of the Burning Pestle, the speaker here seems to have been jarred out of her part and left unsure of the next line of dialogue. But this is no stage, and there are no other actors to fill the silence, and neither is there the dignity of actual, audible silence. The poem, like many in Faithful and Virtuous Night, wanders for pages in a state of crackly-jointed uncertainty. This aimlessness, this mumbling unease, is—more so than the trip-wire timing of farce or the austere humiliations of absurdism—genuinely mimetic of the indignities that accompany old age. There was pain as well as wit in the final words of Richard Feynman: “I’d hate to die twice. It’s so boring.”

If the consolations of the hero’s journey are not available to a speaker like that of Faithful and Virtuous Night, then where can its mortal first person look for solace? More to the point, if the hero’s journey is only psychic wish-fulfillment, then what happens to the mortal first person who actually has been plucked from the masses and held up to all for admiration? What if she knows, as Glück does, that such celebration usually proves as mortal as its subject? The speaker of Faithful and Virtuous Night has been lucky. As a painter-and/or-poet, she has been permitted by fate to make good work and to have it gain an audience. She has not been bowed by decades of manual labor. She has not, as Glück wrote of her own father, “lacked the adamant need which makes it possible to endure every form of failure.” She has lived as an artist (one who can even afford an assistant—“I had an assistant, but he was melancholy, / so melancholy it interfered with his duties”) and she will in the fast-approaching future die as an artist. But what will happen to the work? Threads of futility litter the book like the lengths of some enormous, unwinding clue. In “Visitors from Abroad,” Glück contests her dead mother’s claim that she never writes about her lost family. Really, she says, it’s worse than that:

I lay in the dark, waiting for the night to end.
It seemed the longest night I had ever known,
longer than the night I was born.

I write about you all the time, I said aloud.
Every time I say, “I,” it refers to you.

The implication is that everything she’s written has simply been misunderstood. In “Cornwall,” she concludes a struggle with blocked inspiration by quietly accepting defeat:

I shut my book.
It was all behind me, all in the past.

Ahead, as I have said, was silence.

In these lines, as in some of the other poems, it seems there will be no more writing. And the limitations of even the existing work are made explicit in “The Open Window,” a prose poem about an elderly writer who composes each story by placing a stack of blank paper on top of a single sheet marked, THE END:

In summer, he liked the window open. How then, in summer, did the winter wind enter the room? You are right, he cried out to the wind, this is what I have lacked, this decisiveness and abruptness, this surprise—O, if I could do this I would be a god! And he lay on the cold floor of the study watching the wind stirring the pages, mixing the written and the unwritten, the end among them.

An avowed anti-romantic, Glück would surely object if a reviewer were to claim that much of the pathos belonging to Faithful and Virtuous Night enters with the spectacle of a famed and virtuosic performer beginning, after decades of sober artistry, to falter.

On some readings, the entire book can feel like a muffled scream of outrage at the steady approach of oblivion. An unsuccessful poet can console himself with the hope that later generations will discover his achievement. But a successful poet? She snarls with knowledge of the fickleness of literary fashions. Like all serious poets, Glück looks on praise with a fine blend of credulity and contempt. And her sidelong gaze has a keener edge than most. She’s expressed more than once a skepticism of contemporary poetry tastes, voicing particular impatience for what she calls “our present addiction to sincerity.” In the essay, “The Idea of Courage,” she weighs (with a Rhadamanthine scale) the notion that any poetry written in America today could seriously be thought ‘courageous.’ With barely controlled disdain, she suggests that American poets—deprived of censorship and secret police and the romance of true despotism—have actually come to envy poets living elsewhere under oppressive regimes, and she mercilessly continues:

But reasonable envy does not excuse muddled thought, nor can assertion of another, more amorphous species of courage convincingly argue the issue of peril.

In its local use, the term “courage” responds to poetic materials felt to be personal: in doing so, it concentrates attention on the poet’s relation to his materials and to his audience, rather than on the political result of speech.

And in “Against Sincerity,” which, along with “The Idea of Courage” appears in her 1994 essay collection, Proofs & Theories, she identifies the weakness of poetry in our time as “a preference for abandon, for the subjective ‘I’ whose impassioned partiality carries the implication of flaw, whose speech sounds individual and human and fallible.” And what’s the harm in the elevation of this way of writing poetry? Nothing, so long as the poet doesn’t object to being forgotten.

The ancients looked on nature as neither properly mortal nor immortal, but rather as regenerative. Every year, the plants and animals died down in winter, and every year, they came back the same in spring. The life of an individual flower or an individual bird was thus meaningless, as each year’s crop perfectly recapitulated the previous one. (Hence, incidentally, the shocking newness of the Sermon on the Mount.) Homer himself notes that the sorrow of human existence is that each man is in himself irreplaceable, while each generation of men is like a single season of leaves: fresh and lovely in youth, then withered and fallen in age, then trampled by the feet of those admiring the next season’s fresh and lovely youth. If what makes poetry good is no more than simple honesty, then every generation can produce as many good poets as it has conscious bodies willing to expose themselves in print. One man’s mere honesty is no better than another’s. Such a democratic abundance, as Glück knows, doesn’t mean that there’s no longer a reason to read poetry, it just means that there’s no longer a reason to read any particular poet. As with songbirds, the voices of each generation can entirely replace those of the last. One doesn’t grown nostalgic for the voice of any one particular lark.

This is Glück’s nightmare. That a poet so severe, so intolerant of romance, so cunningly, metonymically frank—that she too could be drowned out by a forestful of twittering sincerists—that she too could be doomed to the songbird’s, rather than the artist’s, immortality—this is too much to bear in silence. And in one of the plainest, most humane poems in Faithful and Virtuous Night, she tells a version of this story, which is at once the story of age and the story of art. It is the poem that begins the book, and it is one of the very few poems that ends with neither confusion nor despair:

               we were still at that first stage, still
preparing to begin a journey, but we were changed nevertheless;
we could see this in one another; we had changed although
we never moved, and one said, ah, behold how we have aged, traveling
from day to night only, neither forward nor sideward, and this seemed
in a strange way miraculous. And those who believed we should have a purpose
believed this was the purpose, and those who felt we must remain free
in order to encounter truth felt it had been revealed.

Before Faithful and Virtuous Night won the 2014 National Book Award for poetry, another collection had been widely favored for the prize. Among the finalists, Citizen: An American Lyric, by Claudia Rankine (under whom I briefly studied as an undergraduate), had been singled out for notice by the Washington Post, the Guardian, the LA Times, and the New Yorker. Since losing to Glück’s collection, Citizen has been nominated for two National Book Critics Circle Awards—in poetry and in criticism—and has received no lack of attention from national publications. The book is a long meditation in prose—accompanied by color photographs—on race in America, specifically addressing the public mistreatment of Serena Williams, the recent killings of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and other black American men, and Rankine’s own private experience of, in her words, “what it means to live in a racist society.” Citizen makes extensive reference to the culture and events of the day, deriving its emotional potency from the context of racial discrimination and insensitivity in which its publication has become a national event. Rankine’s prose baldly identifies numerous major and minor offenses suffered by the author and by others with whom she appears to stand in solidarity. Its unexpected nomination for a prize in criticism arguably suits its public subject and polemic style. Were it not for Rankine’s reputation as a poet, what would truly be surprising is its nomination for a prize in poetry.

Apart from the recognition they’ve both received, Citizen and Faithful and Virtuous Night would seem to have little in common. Though neither collection includes metrical verse and both give generous space to prose, Glück’s book devotes the majority of its pages to broken lines, whereas Rankine’s gives more pages to pictures than to verse, free or otherwise. Citizen could only have come out right now, leaning as it does on the news of the day and voicing the zeitgeist’s guilty conscience. Faithful and Virtuous Night, however, might well have been published anytime in the last fifty years, so timeless is its subject and so high its register. Rankine’s book seeks the acclaim of the immediate present, Glück’s the admiration of the distant future. They are vastly different collections. But in a radical sense, both are unmistakably books of their time. Rankine’s for the obvious reasons of subject, style, and tone, and Glück’s less obviously because its very presence on the surface of our literary culture is a sign of our age’s obsession with personality.

Like the readers of any era, we cannot know which books will survive the cold eye of posterity, but one can say with some confidence that Glück has in previous collections already taken her most formidable swipe at immortality. Absent her name and public persona, Faithful and Virtuous Night is a book one would hardly imagine finding a large readership, let alone a publishing deal with FSG or recognition with a major national award. But this is not to say it isn’t worth reading. It’s only to say that, like nearly every good poetry collection published in America today, almost no one would pay it any attention. Faithful and Virtuous Night, with all its jaws that bite and claws that catch, is a public success because, as a late collection of a celebrated poet, it dramatizes both this celebration and this lateness. A mordant creature, the interest it generates is largely—and unjustly—prurient. Considered this way, the book bears a distinct likeness to Citizen: An American Lyric, for these are if nothing else books representative of this moment in literary history. They are of our world no less surely than in it. Will either be remembered in times to come? All one can say with certainty is that both have their reward already.

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Matthew Buckley Smith is the author of Dirge for an Imaginary World, winner of the 2011 Able Muse Book Award. His poems have appeared in or are forthcoming from Beloit Poetry Journal, Commonweal, Iron Horse Literary Review, Southern Poetry Review, Threepenny Review, and Best American Poetry. He lives in Carrboro, NC, with his wife and daughter.

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One Response to “Ahead Was Silence: Matthew Buckley Smith on Louise Glück”

  1. Renee Watkins says:

    Dear MBS,

    I found your review interesting as a comment on the dream of fame, lasting fame. Also on the acceptance of transience. Also, of course, on Gluck. Well, thank you.

    Renee

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