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Posts Tagged ‘Louise Gluck’


Back in the March 18 issue of the New Yorker, Gibbons Ruark presented us with a poem, “Lightness In Age,” that I am still trying to get my head around. “It means not having to muscle your bag / Onto the baggage rack…A girl your daughter’s age will do that for you.” A poem about the irony of getting old, then. The slight bitter flavor that comes, but the appreciation as well: “Those lightnesses are not to be taken lightly…” After the description of moments in the narrator’s life that define the narrator’s age, the poem turns to detailed images of birds — “the goldfinch feathering down at morning…” then ends with a consideration of the love the narrator has for his/her person. And it IS a poem of light touch, a love poem, nothin’ deep. Why did Muldoon choose this poem? It’s skilled, surely enough, and does a nice job of handling a moment hard to describe without getting klunky. Sometimes the editor just likes to include a simple, straightforward poem done very well, we’ve seen that before.

In the April 1 issue, Yusef Komunyakaa gives us “Night Gigging,” a poem about spearing frogs. “A silhouette lingers, cleaved from the kneeling man, / back to hunger & simple philosophy of the spheres…” Komunyakaa tends to go thoughtful about little moments like this, at least that’s my impression of his approach. It gives us something to chew over, to unwrap in the poem. “There’s a ghost poised between free will & the gig, / waiting for the song…” I like the images of this poem, and I like the ending. Can a sign of success in a poem be simply the willingness of the reader to linger on the language, after it’s done?

And the other poem in this issue is by Louise Gluck, “An Adventure,” almost a bookend poem with the one in The Threepenny Review I discussed a couple blogs ago. Like that one, this poem deals with end-of-life issues. “It came to me one night…that I had finished with those amorous adventures / to which I had long been a slave…” The second stanza develops this idea — “The next night brought the same thought, / this time concerning poetry…” The third stanza goes into the land of death and the dead. “Now I could hear them because my heart was still.” She rides into/through the land of death. “All around, the dead were cheering me on…As we had all been flesh together, // now we were mist.” Note the pun there. But it is all just a dream. She ends by waking from the vision, and in referring to a second person, the narrator’s love, we assume, wraps the poem up in a satisfying way. And the reader is left with…

Well, the direct confrontation with death gives the poem a weight and grandeur that’s rare these days. But the poem twists away from conclusion. From taking a stand. Are conclusions not to be a part of top-end American poetry anymore? Do editors feel they would be fools to buy such a work? Must today’s poems always wear their cloak of irony, be elusive, duck away from the ineffable? As though our whole culture still were terrified of meaning, of taking a stand? Of the grand failure?

For me, that unwillingness to go that last step, to lay out the fear that nothing is there on the other side of death, or the faith that something is…to grab for that melting sense of something more, a connection with us, with something, is a sad loss for poetry.

I want to shout out, what is poetry for, if not such moments? I want to argue, this unwillingness is a failure of courage.

Whether or no, Gluck refuses to go that last step in either of these poems, even at what seems the end of her life. Is that refusal one of the reasons she has done so well in today’s poetry environment, where more bold visionaries would be rejected? Is this unwillingness endemic to the many, many editors who do not seem to ever buy such work, from her or anyone else?

I do conclude this: unlike her other poem, this poem feels as though it had another step to take. In current American poetry, who may be willing to take it? No, let me say instead, who has the courage to publish a poem that did take it?

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

My eBook of poems, Against The Night, a sweet, rueful look at love in a long marriage, is available on Amazon, and at other fine e-retailers.

Related blog posts:

The New Yorker – Apr 2 2018

The New Yorker – Jan 22 2018

The New Yorker – Nov 20, 17

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Louise Gluck, for me, is one of our great poets who nevertheless can put out work that doesn’t move me at all, so when I saw she was in the Spring 2013 issue of The Threepenny Review, I had hopes but also suspicions. Well, having read the poem, I now think she blew the lid off. “Approach of the Horizon” is a poem about a narrator who suffers a physical incident, a stroke perhaps, late in life, and now teeters on the edge of death. The poem concerns what results from that — needing a secretary because she can no longer write, the failures of the body as death approaches, and so on. Yet she retains a sense of balance in her tone, a matter-of-factness that adds tremendous power: “There is a sense / of gaiety in the air, / as though birds were singing.” Even a sense of amusement: “My birthday…is fast approaching. / Perhaps the two great moments will collide / and I will see my selves meet, coming and going…” She takes a moment to tease the poor secretary: “He sits…with his head down, / possibly to avoid being described…” But does not seem to hold much hope for an afterlife: “The sky, alas, is still far away…” It is a tour-de-force, as though she has spent her whole career paring away all the unneeded, even the slightest excesses of personality, in order to create this one last, great poem: “I have no heirs / in the sense that I have nothing of substance / to leave behind. / Possibly time will revise this disappointment.” As per usual, I won’t give away the ending — but she revisits an image she weaves throughout the poem, with the very last word having two meanings that give a gut-kick of power. A poem beyond praise, really.

Kimberly Rasmussen is a poet I don’t recall encountering before — she seems to be relatively new voice. She gives us “Man Mopping,” a short free verse poem, which seems like a good bookend to the Gluck poem, above: “you are circling toward a memory / with your mop, your persistence.” And “…each squeeze from your bucket / is a brief rain.” I like what she did with this poem. There are currents in it not easy to define, that give it flavor.

And then Andrea Cohen, who I have encountered and liked before, has a quick little poem, “Explanation (Hiroshima)” in short non-rhyming couplets about telling children the meaning of what they are seeing in a museum “all that’s left / of a girl and boy” with a stunning ending (that does rhyme) that makes the whole poem worth it.

Good stuff this time.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

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