Stand-Up Vampire

Gillian White

  • Poems 1962-2012 by Louise Glück
    Farrar, Straus, 634 pp, £30.00, November 2012, ISBN 978 0 374 12608 7

The difference between ‘selected’ and ‘collected’ poems, Wallace Stevens wrote in a letter in 1954, is that ‘people read selected poems but don’t buy them’ and ‘buy collected poems but don’t read them’. The symbolism of a collected volume worried him: ‘A book that contains everything that one has done in a lifetime does not reassure one. Then, the fact that I am 75 begins to seem like the most serious thing that has ever happened to me.’

Louise Glück’s Poems 1962-2012 appeared just before she was 70, collecting in order of appearance 11 books of poems (627 pages and 395 poems in all), written over 50 years. The blurb puts Stevens’s view before us plainly enough: the work has been ‘wrested’ from a body ‘fated to die’. It makes sense as an introduction: Glück’s poems have been half in love with death (and half outraged by it) since Firstborn, her first collection, published in 1968 when she was 25. In her latest, A Village Life (2009), more than a third of the poems concern death, dying or ageing.

Glück appears to have decided early on to devote herself to melancholy subjects. In the darkly funny ‘To Autumn’ from The House on Marshland (1975), her second collection, the poet sees azaleas and thinks, ‘I am no longer young. What/of it?’ and wishes for ‘the long/decaying days of autumn when I shall begin/the great poems of my middle period’. In her many poems about female adolescence and sexuality, often using mythical figures (she writes throughout her career from the perspectives of Persephone, Dido and Eve), fear of sex, the body and death incite a desire for control – of hunger, of susceptibility to romance, of poetic form. ‘Romance is what I most struggle to be free of,’ Glück has said, and almost all her work holds in tension reverence, grief, wry humour and disappointment: ‘It is true there is not enough beauty in the world,’ she writes in the multi-part poem ‘October’, from Averno (2006). ‘It is also true that I am not competent to restore it./Neither is there candour, and here I may be of some use.’

When you look at her earlier collections, especially the very candid Ararat (1990), it’s tempting to assume the worst of her childhood: we find murdered children, drowned children, ghostly infant sisters, children starved (almost literally) of affection – Glück’s imagination is gothic. She was born in New York in 1943 and raised on suburban Long Island; her parents were well-to-do and educated. Her older sister died in infancy before Glück was born; she keeps returning to the subject, and to the aftermath of her father’s death. In ‘Lost Love’, from Ararat,

Then it seemed to me my sister’s body
was a magnet. I could feel it draw
my mother’s heart into the earth,
so it would grow.

This touch of melodrama is complicated by Glück’s self-awareness about her ‘dark nature’, as in ‘“Parodos”’:

I was born to a vocation:
to bear witness
to the great mysteries.
Now that I’ve seen both
birth and death, I know
to the dark nature these
are proofs, not
mysteries –

Glück likes the word ‘proof’ for its implication of logic; her book of essays and lectures is called Proofs and Theories. Her speakers often sound chillingly clear-headed in the face of great grief (the critic William Logan once called her a ‘stand-up vampire’), but that’s because they are, as here, caught in their own defensive logic. ‘Like anyone, I have my dreams,’ the speaker in ‘Confession’ says. ‘But I’ve learned to hide them,/to protect myself/from fulfilment.’

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