Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Louise Glück gave a reading of work from several of her books of poetry on Wednesday evening in Brooks-Rogers Recital Hall. After being introduced by Professor of English and Department Chair John Limon, Glück read for about an hour and paused frequently to enlighten her audience as to the inspiration behind her verse.
Glück began with a word of advice: “A way to stay alive as a writer is to be surprised by what you do.” As a reader, I was definitely and pleasantly surprised by the marriage of Glück’s emotionally and spiritually intense lyrics with the tranquil texture of her voice.
She first read a poem titled “Mock Orange,” from her fourth book, The Triumph of Achilles: “I hate them. I hate them as I hate sex … and that cry that always escapes, the low, humiliating / premise of union,” Gluck began. “In my mind tonight / I hear the question and pursuing answer / fused in one sound / that mounts and mounts and then / is split into the old selves, the tired antagonisms. So you see? We were made fools of. And the scent of mock orange / drifts through the window.”
The poet continued with a reading of “Metamorphosis,” which Glück explained is a three-part poem. As with “Mock Orange,” “Metamorphosis” also makes use of the emotional and the sensory as these two elements work in tandem throughout each piece: “The angel of death flies low over my father’s bed. Only my mother sees … She is so used to mothering that now she strokes his body as she did the other children’s … I feel no coldness that can’t be explained. Against your cheek, my hand is warm and full of tenderness,” Glück read from her prose.
According to Glück, her 1992 book The Wild Iris taught her “how to write a book as a single enterprise.” It’s also one in which the speakers of the poems are flowers. “If your subjects are death and love, it’s complicated to find a variety of approaches that will give those subjects a sense of being discovered anew,” she said. “Humans speak in regret and complaint … Flowers speak in chastisement.”
The tone in Glück’s poems from The Wild Iris is of a wiser and more assured speaker compared to the wondering, questioning tone of “Mock Orange.” In “The Red Poppy,” one of Glück’s flowers claims that “the great thing is not to have a mind … What could such glory be if not a heart? I speak because I am shattered.”
In introducing another of her books, Meadowlands, Glück articulated that she had been “trying to write a spatial, terrestrial comic book” modeled on The Marriage of Figaro; she hoped her emulation would use of a mixture of scenes from The Odyssey and from the lives of a bickering married couple. She told the audience that after a friend suggested that she incorporate Telemachus into her next book, Glück began to experiment with the story of this mythological Greek son. She quickly thought “this is the sound I need, this is the mind I need,” and thus “Telemachus’s Guilt” was born.
The poem, which is set in a distant and mythical Greece, is a story of the age-old parent-child relationship. The difference is that in this piece, Telemachus claims that his father, Odysseus, was full of a “rage” that has “infected” his childhood, while his mother Penelope was patient and “from her perspective I did not exist.” Telemachus “was proud of my father for staying away … even if he stayed away for the wrong reasons.”
Glück ended her reading with a presentation of her three most recent books of poetry: The Seven Ages, Averno and A Village Life. She explained that The Seven Ages deals with “poems about youth and erotic life,” and to prove her point read from “Eros”: “I was … in love, and yet I wanted nothing. It seemed unnecessary to touch you to see you again … I needed nothing more. I was utterly sated.”
“Landscape,” a poem in five parts from Averno which Glück said is mainly inspired by “traffic between this world and the underworld,” is a poem that Glück described as “a little cryptic.” Within the poem, a life’s journey is detailed by an amalgam of various speakers all in the midst of their interrupted stories. The poem is rich with the imagery of time and, quite enjoyably, a subtle-but-rich brand of synesthesia: “Under the past the future stirred. If you fell into it you died. Seeing time float above the white trees … In late autumn a girl set fire to a field of wheat … The horses don’t understand it. ‘Where is the field?’ they say, the way we would say, ‘Where is home?’”
Glück closed the event with a brief selection from A Village Life, highlighting the book’s namesake poem. “A Village Life” tells the story of a speaker who walks her neighbor’s dog on Sundays so the neighbor can “go to church to pray for her sick mother.” At midday when the church bells ring, the fog lifts and a mountain is visible in the distance. Of the neighbor: “She believes in the Virgin the way I believe in the mountain, though in one case the fog never lifts. But each person stores his hope in a different place.”