Like Dolls with Their Heads Cut Off

Laura Quinney

  • October by Louise Glück
    Sarabande, 32 pp, US $8.95, April 2004, ISBN 1 932511 00 8

Louise Glück, the poet laureate of the United States for 2003-2004, belongs to the line of American poets who value fierce lyric compression. This tradition was established by Emily Dickinson and her followers: H.D., Louise Bogan and Elizabeth Bishop. It is a tradition predominantly, though not exclusively, of women poets; the opposing tradition of ornate or discursive amplitude has been predominantly male (Whitman, Crane, Pound, Eliot, Ginsberg). Wariness and rigour characterise this genus of poetry by American women. Dark, incisive and severe, it treats every species of indulgence with mistrust, from rhetorical excess to wilful illusion.

Glück’s poetry, though largely autobiographical, is never confiding. She has gradually moved from the chilling, impersonal style of her first books to a freer, though still carefully calculated use of the first person. Her apprentice work, the volumes Firstborn (1968) and The House on Marshland (1975), is supremely reticent: the first collection is imperious and grim, the second distant, lyrical, surreal. Her poems become less emotionally rigid with Descending Figure (1980), The Triumph of Achilles (1985) and Ararat (1990). Meadowlands (1996) and Vita Nova (1999), which deal with her separation and divorce, expand into a bolder use of autobiography. The Seven Ages (2001) and, most recently, October are retrospective but scrupulous. The exception to this autobiographical trend is the inspired experiment of The Wild Iris (1992), in which questions of faith, existence and meaning are debated in a garden, by God, the gardeners and a chorus of flowers. Glück’s recent books take rhetorical risks unthinkable in her earlier work. But she remains on guard. All her later volumes work to dispel the appearance of spontaneity: they all frame their ‘disclosures’ in relation to a literary model (the Odyssey in Meadowlands, Dante in Vita Nova and Shakespeare in The Seven Ages), thus signalling the contrived or artful character of these putatively expressive poems. To Glück, the ‘confessional’ mode is odious.

In ‘Education of the Poet’, a brief literary autobiography, included in Proofs and Theories: Essays on Poetry (1994), Glück describes how, as a six-year-old, she disdained ‘the windy, dwindling kind’ of poem, preferring the terseness of ‘poems that seemed so small on the page but that swelled in the mind’. These poems had an implosive quality, as a result of intense pressure being applied to a spare vocabulary: ‘What I responded to, on the page, was the way a poem could liberate, by means of a word’s setting, through subtleties of timing, of pacing, that word’s full and surprising range of meaning.’ Naturally, she went on to write poems of this sort: taut performances that dart and swerve, rivet and surprise.

Her poems are usually short and narrow, making emphatic use of enjambement to slow the pace and to suggest the labour of the utterance.

In my first dream the world appeared
the sweet, the forbidden
but there was no garden, only
raw elements

I was human:
I had to beg to descend

the salt, the bitter, the demanding, the pre-emptive

And like everyone, I took, I was taken
I dreamed

I was betrayed:

Earth was given to me in a dream
In a dream I possessed it.

(‘The Seven Ages’)

Antithetical forms of urgency compete in these lines: the requirement of precision versus the impetus of expression. Pauses of various lengths are introduced through punctuation, abbreviated line lengths and stanza breaks, while momentum comes from apposition and anaphora (the catalogue of phrases beginning with ‘I’). The conflict between momentum and delay creates rhythmical tension. In this way, Glück produces the suspense she admires. But the underlying drama is psychological: the speaker’s words reflect the longing to tell her story but also show constraint, hesitation and self-mistrust. In speaking at all, she seems to be combating a momentous counterforce, or pair of counterforces: the seduction of silence and the temptation of falsehood.

Utterance in Glück’s poems appears to occupy a narrow, liminal space, or to chart an arduous course between internal and external inhibitions. We often see a speaker battling self-delusion and self-glorification, as well as a poet resisting the magnetism of empty beauty, false sentiment and false authority. Glück has written that her ‘education’ in psychoanalysis taught her ‘to use my tendency to object to articulated ideas on my own ideas, taught me to use doubt, to examine my own speech for its evasions and excisions’. The internalised analyst is a vital presence in her poems. Her ‘I’ is rigorously self-conscious. The speaker sifts her words for mendacity and evasion. They are being monitored as they are uttered, and often they are immediately, ironically corrected:

Orderly, and out of long habit, my heart continues to beat.
I hear it, nights when I wake, over the mild sound of the air conditioner.
As I used to hear it over the beloved’s heart, or
variety of hearts, owing to there having been several.
And as it beats, it continues to drum up ridiculous emotion.

(‘Summer Night’)

Exactingness is the virtue of the voice and of the poems. And yet the comparison with psychoanalysis is slightly misleading, since Glück’s poems do not pursue self-knowledge for its own sake. The poems expand to embrace universal truth: the truth about herself is important in so far as she is representative. Seeking the essential, the language presses towards condensation and generalisation, and so towards summary forms such as aphorism and abstract. Often the poems converge on judgments of lapidary force:

Early spring, late desolation.
The bird circled the bare yard making
efforts to survive
on what remained to it.

(‘Nest’)

You must think of our passion that way:
Each kiss was real, then
each kiss left the face of the earth.

(‘Parable of Flight’)

death cannot harm me
more than you have harmed me,
my beloved life.

(‘October’)

In these austere moments the drama lies not in the speaker’s attitude towards her own utterances but in the grim force of the language and sentiment.

Glück’s strengths are exemplified by ‘The Sensual World’, which shows how she uses restraint and precision to build up tension that is finally released in a devastating judgment. The poem is exquisitely paced. It begins in a mock-monitory vein:

I call to you across a monstrous river or chasm
to caution you, to prepare you.

Earth will seduce you, slowly, imperceptibly,
subtly, not to say with connivance.

The admonition is sincere but not serious: as the poem goes on to show, no one can resist the seduction of the earth. Glück tells her own exemplary story, a story of the innocent in the Garden, betrayed not by sin, but by nature:

I was not prepared: I stood in my
grandmother’s kitchen,
holding out my glass. Stewed plums, stewed apricots –

the juice poured off into the glass of ice.
And the water added, patiently, in small increments,

the various cousins discriminating, tasting
with each addition –

aroma of summer fruit, intensity of concentration:
the coloured liquid turning gradually lighter, more radiant,

more light passing through it.
Delight, then solace. My grandmother waiting,

to see if more was wanted. Solace, then deep immersion.
I loved nothing more: deep privacy of the sensual life,

the self disappearing into it or inseparable from it,
somehow suspended, floating, its needs

fully exposed, awakened, fully alive –
Deep immersion, and with it

mysterious safety. Far away, the fruit glowing in its glass bowls.
Outside the kitchen, the sun setting.

Glück’s delaying techniques draw us into the speaker’s ‘deep immersion’. This is the ‘selfless’ self-concentrating trance of pleasure that Glück calls the ‘deep privacy of the sensual life’. Out of this trance comes the pitiless awakening:

I was not prepared: sunset, end of summer. Demonstrations
of time as a continuum, as something coming to an end,

not a suspension; the senses wouldn’t protect me.
I caution you as I was never cautioned:

you will never let go, you will never be satiated.
You will be damaged and scarred, you will continue to hunger.

Your body will age, you will continue to need.
You will want the earth, then more of the earth –

Sublime, indifferent, it is present, it will not respond.
It is encompassing, it will not minister.

Meaning, it will feed you, it will ravish you,
it will not keep you alive.

With its emphatic repetitions, the poem mounts to a crescendo of dismay. Glück is speaking in her own voice until the dash towards the end. She ‘cautions’ the reader in a series of second-person prophecies, but we know, and she knows we know, that she is really turning her own bitterness against us. She builds phrases up with ominous anaphora: ‘You will never let go, you will never be satiated.’ This is close to rant, and the rant in turn prepares for the move from Glück’s voice to impersonality. This enters with the shift from ‘you’ to ‘it’, and from future to present, prophecy to proposition. This is the hard truth now: ‘Sublime, indifferent, it is present, it will not respond.’

The conclusion is dire. Loving eternity, the subject lives in time. Our bodies participate in a natural scheme that is indifferent, even insulting, to our emotions. With age, we increasingly savour the ‘sensual world’, but it is ultimately hostile to us. The final images recall the destructive maternity of nature in Stevens’s ‘Madame La Fleurie’:

His grief is that his mother should feed on
him, himself and what he saw,
In that distant chamber, a bearded queen,
wicked in her dead light.

Glück’s poem too arrives at a commanding impersonality. Looking back at it, we can see that it is designed with this end in view.

In her first collection, Glück pursued authority of this kind almost exclusively. She has keenly criticised one of her own early poems, ‘La Force’, on these grounds. She had sought strength by speaking in the voice of ‘fate’, brutally conceived. ‘La Force’, she begins,

Made me what I am.
Grey, glued to her dream
Kitchen, among bones, among these
Dripping willows squatted to imbed
A bulb: I tend her plot. Her pride
And joy she said. I have no pride.
The lawn thins; overfed,
Her late roses gag on fertiliser past the tool
House. Now the cards are cut.
She cannot eat, she cannot take the stairs –
My life is sealed. The woman with the hound
Comes up but she will not be harmed.
I have the care of her.

‘La Force’ deals in freezing certainties: as Glück memorably describes it, ‘the poem is all endings, its sentences fragmented, often lacking subjects, like dolls with their heads cut off.’ The language imposes at the expense of the thought: ‘The poem has ferocity without depth.’ It is over ‘before any dramatic situation declares itself’. Yet it is valuable for plainly displaying the original aim of her poetry, an aim she has never relinquished: ‘force’ – rhetorical strength, clarity of style and purification of thought. What distinguishes this poem from her later work is that it is rigid and unsubtle in its presentation. It clings to its malicious authority. ‘Romance is what I most struggle to be free of,’ Glück wrote in 1989, borrowing the word perhaps from Stevens, for whom it designates humane longings and projections at odds with impassive reality. ‘La Force’ admits none of the deviations of ‘romance’, seeming fearful of compromising its rhetorical strength.

In Glück’s later poems, particularly those in the last four, autobiographical volumes, banality and wishfulness enter freely. Her diction relaxes and she abandons insistent language, but she also allows into the poems the ‘dramatic situation’ of her own mental wavering, her inclination towards ‘romance’, and the conflict it wages with her self-discipline. She tempers authority with bathos. Vita Nova ends: ‘I thought my life was over and my heart was broken./Then I moved to Cambridge.’ Now Glück’s themes converge with the Romantic tradition: What is eros? Does it touch on reality? Or do we dwell in illusion? What is there to love, after disenchantment? These questions arise particularly in the context of growing older:

My body has grown cold like the stripped fields;
now there is only my mind, cautious and wary,
with the sense it is being tested.

(‘October’)

The songs have changed, but really they are still quite beautiful.
They have been concentrated in a smaller space, the space of the mind.
They are dark now, with desolation and anguish.

(‘October’)

My soul withered and shrank.
The body became for it too large a garment.

And when hope was returned to me
it was another hope entirely.

(‘The Garment’)

These self-portraits echo Ammons’s description of himself as ‘an old man having/ gotten by on what was left’. Many of Glück’s poems seem to sympathise with his conclusion: ‘time collapses, so that nothing happened, and I didn’t exist, and existence/ itself seems like a wayward temporising.’ She has also treated these notions with acceptance, or resignation or joy: this equivocal attitude is part of the tradition. Her later poetry has a much greater range of rhetoric and feeling than her early work, and her themes have been burnished to a classical grandeur. Yet the strength of hard truth continues to provide the ballast of many poems.

I asked for much; I received much.
I asked for much; I received little, I received
next to nothing.

(‘The Empty Glass’)

The power of Glück’s poetry when it is passionate eventually makes the reader impatient with her wryness. Other poets who are good at lofty pathos – Stevens, Ashbery and Ammons – balance it with wit and humour, but the range of variation in Glück’s tone and mode is narrow. Presumably this has something to do with her desire to create intense effects through small, dynamic gestures, but it makes the reader restless. She introduces variety by undercutting pathos with irony or qualification, a strategy which works well in the second stanza of ‘Summer Night’:

So many passionate letters never sent!
So many urgent journeys conceived of on summer nights,
surprise visits to men who were nearly complete strangers.
The tickets never bought, the letters never stamped.
And pride spared. And the life, in a sense, never completely lived.

The speaker’s feeling that her life has not been completely lived is given integrity by the qualification. But the use of qualification can also be pedantic. It joins up with Glück’s self-consciousness and irony, which can appear too contrived, too self-satisfied.

It is true there is not enough beauty in the world.
It is also true that I am not competent to restore it.
Neither is there candour, and here I may be of some use.

(‘October’)

The last phrase is acutely self-aware, but this cannot justify its false modesty. If used automatically, irony can become archness:

Come to me, said the world.
This is not to say
it spoke in exact sentences
but that I perceived beauty in this manner.

(‘October’)

Here Glück’s diction is typically strict: crisp staccato syntax, no contractions. But the effect is punctilious. Of course the world did not speak in exact sentences and it seems coy to specify this. It isn’t quibbling to object to such subtle failures, when Glück’s poems turn on the perfect calibration of tone and nuance.

In The Wild Iris, her most engaging book, the voices are multiple, and Glück brilliantly imagines for the flowers a not-quite-human experience, and allows them to speak without qualification:

At the end of my suffering
there was a door.

Hear me out: that which you call death
I remember.

(‘The Wild Iris’)

There is relief here from Glück’s self-monitoring irony.

The most obvious model for Glück is Dickinson, her inspiration in the aesthetics of the short, barbed, ominous lyric.

Safe in their Alabaster Chambers –
Untouched by Morning –
And untouched by Noon –
Lie the meek members of the Resurrection –
Rafter of Satin – and Roof of Stone!

Grand go the Years – in the Crescent – above them –
Worlds scoop their Arcs –
And Firmaments – row –
Diadems – drop – and Doges – surrender
Soundless as dots – on a Disc of Snow –

Like Glück, Dickinson admired the implosive effect: ‘If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.’ ‘Safe in their Alabaster Chambers’ is, and is intended to be, a terrifying poem, imperious and chilling. It is a poem without any evident humour or variation of tone, yet it is, strange to say, lively and lavish all the same. Thematically it is dark, but rhetorically it is gay. This is due to the extravagance of the figures: worlds scoop their arcs, and firmaments row. There is delight in the play of language. Taking her cue from Dickinson, Glück works to achieve a sharp force, stripping away many of the resources of pleasure in thought and poetry – the adornments and consolations. But she may have stripped away too much, left too bare a skeleton.