As Reviewed By:
Seven Ages by Louise Glück. Ecco/HarperCollins, $23 cloth. 68 pgs.
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All the world's a stage,
In The Seven Ages
Glück views herself not as a person but as a protagonist, the world not as a place but as a stage. Whether or not this is the result of (seven?) years of psychoanalysis, the posturing becomes tedious. Increasingly at an imaginative loss,
Glück mines her private life in a way both exhibitionist and narcissistic. This would announce a total dissolution of poetic power were it not for her awareness of this situation in general, and in her own recent poetry more specifically. In her essay "American Narcissism" (from the Winter 1998 issue of
Threepenny Review), she writes, "Narcissistic practice, no matter what ruse it appropriates, no matter what ostensible subject,
is static, in that its position vis-à-vis the self is fixed: it expects, moreover, that the world will enter into its obsession." Though
Glück is technically not
narcissistic--she does not love herself enough (judging from her prose, she seems to be her own least favorite
person)--the steadfastness with which she focuses on herself resembles that of many patently narcissistic poets. And the assumptions behind her poems fit her own description of literary narcissism: "When narcissistic reverie converts to public form (as in literature), something like exhibitionism results. Like, but not an exact copy of. Literary narcissism, in its exclusive ardor, often suggests obliviousness: it sees no particular difference between private reverie and public display, so devoid of independent reality is the world. The world, it is assumed, will duplicate the narcissist's fascination with himself, since what else could possibly be of equal interest? … Whereas exhibitionism solicits interest, narcissism presumes it."
I was born cautious, under the sign of Taurus.
Focusing as it does on the self, the poem's mention of the Holocaust seems gratuitous, particularly considering the poet's assertion that it "hardly touched" her family. Granted, the word "hardly" could be (mis)read as the adverb of "hard," in which case the Holocaust would acquire a significance not borne out in the poem; common sense, then, requires "hardly" to be read as "barely," which is a puzzling, if not willingly offensive, statement. The first stanza of the poem, with its string of "us"
sounds--"cautious," "Taurus," "prosperous," "Holocaust," "touched
us"--offers a respite from the prose language that governs the rest of the book, but this does not salvage the poem.
I tried to be a better person.
There are no real ideas here, no philosophy, no pleasure. This crippling self-importance plays itself out in the dreariest of ways, as if
Glück were content writing "the generic contemporary poem" that Alice Fulton describes (in her 1997 essay "A Poetry of Inconvenient Knowledge") as such: "The poet's experience does not embrace spheres beyond the self; neither is it transformed into a rich imaginative realm."
It came to us very late:
To perceive, to speak, even on subjects inherently cruel--
In this mode,
Glück is reminiscent of Eavan Boland. Both have in common a predilection for portentous
repetition--repetition intended to add music to otherwise lusterless language. (Consider the following lines from Boland's recent poems: "I hear / what I am safe from. What I have lost" ["Colony"]; "Tell me that you feel the warmth still. / Tell me you will never speak about the ashes" ["Embers"]; "Long enough / to know about power and nature. / Long enough / to know which is which" ["The Pinhole Camera"]. Yet Boland has a political agenda that
Glück lacks, and an empty rhetoric with which to advance it: "We said we would not talk about the past: / About what had happened. (Which is history.) / About what could happen. (Which is fear.)" ["The Burdens of a History"]; "In the morning they were both found dead. / Of cold. Of hunger. Of the toxins of a whole history" ["Quarantine"].) Both
Glück and Boland write prose that is often more elegant and persuasive than their poems. Both simultaneously embrace and reject myth in their poetry, though
Glück's treatments of myth are more solipsistic than Boland's since she seeks to bring everything mythical back to the
self--nothing can exist in Glück's poems without somehow illuminating the emotional or psychological position of the poet. Like
Glück's, Boland's iconoclasm is no real iconoclasm, since her primary motive is and always has been the construction of a new monument: Eavan Boland.
Orderly, and out of long habit, my heart continues to beat.
What begins promisingly--a close listening to the heart over the noise of the air conditioner and the noise of the past, of absent lovers' heartbeats--ends with "ridiculous emotion" (not the emotion itself, but mention of it), therefore ridiculously. The poem starts with an emphasis on order and habit, attaining a mild sonority not unlike that of the air conditioner. But when Glück hits a snag--the awkward phrase "owing to there having been several" and the weak transition from "the beloved's heart" to "variety of hearts"--the poem quickly deteriorates. The heart is already linked to emotion--this is lyric poetry, after all--and Glück has repeatedly treated emotion as ridiculous--worthy of ridicule--so making explicit what is already present in the poem undermines it. What saves the poem from failing totally is the twisted pleasure afforded by Glück's self-absorption:
And the art always in some danger of growing repetitious.
By acknowledging the repetitiveness of her poetry--or at least the risk of it becoming
repetitive--Glück earns some credit for her candor. And the two lines after those three bathetically urgent questions slide the poem briefly away from the obvious, toward the kind of thinking that marks
Glück's best poems.
Then I looked down and saw
The mystery here arises from the unknown identities of the speakers--"I" and "he." The "I" could be the poet, imagining her entrance into the afterlife, presumably heaven, and bemoaning the ubiquity of the light. Or imagining her birth into the world, out of the darkness of the womb and into the light of the world. The "I" could be Persephone and the "he" could be Hades--a myth Glück has adapted before. The "I" could be Dante and the "he" Virgil, or the "I" Beatrice and the "he" Dante, which would connect the end of this book with Vita Nova. Or, considering the dreamlike yet banal ending of Vita Nova, the "I" could be the poet in a dream before moving somewhere sunny (California? Orlando?). Though ludicrous on the surface, such an interpretation nevertheless can find a home in Glück's recent work, which strives to balance self-hatred and vanity, trivial self-narrative and meaningful self-reflectiveness and does not avoid the ridiculous in the process; a reader might be excused for following suit. That, perhaps, is this book's primary achievement: implicating and involving the reader in the poet's own flawed project. But not everyone who buys the book will buy into "Louise Glück"; not everyone who reads the book will read it without resistance.
[Editor's Note: Brian Henry's review of Gluck's Vita Nova appeared in the Winter 2001 issue of The Kenyon Review, and his review of Meadowlands appeared in the Summer 1998 issue of Virginia Quarterly Review.]