September 28, 2013

Louise Gluck: SUMMER NIGHT

Louise Glück

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.

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.
And the art always in some danger of growing repetitious.

Why not? Why not? Why should my poems not imitate my life?
Whose lesson is not the apotheosis but the pattern, whose meaning
is not in the gesture but in the inertia, the reverie.

Desire, loneliness, wind in the flowering almond—
surely these are the great, the inexhaustible subjects
to which my predecessors apprenticed themselves.
I hear them echo in my own heart, disguised as convention.

Balm of the summer night, balm of the ordinary,
imperial joy and sorrow of human existence,
the dreamed as well as the lived—
what could be dearer than this, given the closeness of death?

from The Seven Ages (Ecco Press, 2005) Used by permission.

On Louise Gluck's "Summer Night"

Several months have passed since I enjoyed the kind of summer night Louise Glück describes in her poem "Summer Night" from The Seven Ages (Ecco, 2001).

Image by Jan Bickerton, courtesy of Red Edge Images
And maybe "enjoy" isn't the right word. The summer nights I'm thinking of involved some pretty difficult transitions, as we moved my father from the family home where he lived with my mother into a nursing home.

Also, it isn’t exactly enjoyment Glück’s poem invites, as the speaker lies awake, wrenched by waves of memory and feeling.

"Summer Night" comes near the end of the book, late in a sequence that stares down death. Glück’s "I" is personal, and not particularly constrained by circumstance, at least, not overtly. She gets to sit around on porches and terraces, in gardens, in temperate climates. She stares at stars, lives out her ordinary days. She isn't reporting for work, say, in a factory in Bangladesh. Yet the journey embraces the general, shared condition of mortality, of passion and compassion; what she refers to in "Screened Porch," which immediately precedes "Summer Night" in the book, as "the terrible harrowing story of a human life/the triumph of love."

Amused detachment, wry self-observation, understatement­­— hallmarks of Glück’s style—colour the first stanza. The speaker lies listening to her heartbeat “over the mild sound of the air conditioner.” The small act of noticing the sound (or noticing herself noticing it, since this is a Louise Glück poem) conjures the memory of former lovers’ heartbeats and gives rise to the “ridiculous emotion” catalogued in the next stanza.

Image by Girts Gailans, courtesy of Red Edge Images
The language of this catalogue of feeling and things left undone is iterative and gently obsessive. It leads the speaker to contemplation of “the life, in a sense, never completely lived./And the art always in some danger of growing repetitious.”

I admire this frankness. Glück does not avoid getting to know her edges. In this she reminds me of the Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva, in her most naked lyrical moments.

Then, channeling Emily Dickinson, Glück shifts her concerns. “Why not? Why not? Why should my poems not imitate my life?” Lesson and meaning, the poem claims, are found not in the highlights of our lives, but in the patterns of the ordinary.

The “great, the inexhaustible subjects/to which [her] predecessors apprenticed themselves" become a balm, "of the summer night, balm of the ordinary."

And not just the subjects themselves, but thinking of them, reiterating them in life and in art. Surely Glück has the Chinese and Japanese masters in mind, when she names those great subjects: "Desire, loneliness, wind in the flowering almond—" 

Image by Daniel West, courtesy of  stock.xchng
-- and because I am lying awake reading this poem in my father's former bed while my mother sleeps in the next room, or tries to, I would add grief, especially the grief that comes before, and not just with, inevitable loss. There must be a word for exactly that, the grief that anticipates grief to come, in some language somewhere in the world.

They echo through the heart, these great subjects, "disguised as convention." I put away the supper dishes, turn out the lights in the living room. The night is warm, and the window blinds click gently against the screens. The French mantel clock ticks its low tock as it has throughout my parents' married life. My concerns this summer night are nothing like the ones in the poem; my balm is, well, I don't know that there is one just then. Nevertheless, the poem has done its work, and "what could be dearer than this, given the closeness of death?"

September 16, 2013

On Louise Gluck's "Telescope"

Louise Glück

There is a moment after you move your eye away
when you forget where you are
because you've been living, it seems,
somewhere else, in the silence of the night sky.

You've stopped being here in the world.
You're in a different place,
a place where human life has no meaning.

You're not a creature in a body.
You exist as the stars exist,
participating in their stillness, their immensity.

Then you're in the world again.
At night, on a cold hill,
taking the telescope apart.

You realize afterward
not that the image is false
but the relation is false.

You see again how far away
each thing is from every other thing.
                   from Averno (FSG, 2006)                            

We know the sun is the center of our solar system, that Earth orbits it along with seven (or eight) other planets and assorted moons, but many of us typically regard our place in the sun this way:

Image from Arun Shanbhag

In fact, the relation between us and Out There is more like this. Earth is the speck mid-way down and to the right that looks like a dust mote your Screen-Kleener missed:
Image from NASA

This is a fact Louise Gluck captures brilliantly in Telescope, a disarmingly direct poem told in  Gluck's signature matter-of-fact voice. Here we are on a hillside at night, we're informed through the intimate "you," having just spent some time -- time we can't quite measure -- looking at the night sky through a telescope.

Moving our eye away from this technological extension, we are momentarily disoriented, lost in a wilderness of time and place, existing however briefly outside the usual measured constraints of time and place.

This internal wilderness is a match for the vast wilderness we've glimpsed through the telescope. But almost as soon as we recognize it, perhaps because we recognize it, the sensation vanishes; ordinary sequences are restored and we put away our telescope.

What's left from this telescoping of distance, though, like an imprint on the retina, is the insight that our usual understanding of our place in the world is false. In fact we are immeasurably small; the wilderness doesn't know us.

The poem invites a further telescoping, as we consider what it means to be so small: we won't be missed. Could this relative insignificance be one reason many people ignore or disregard our destructive impact on our planet? It's possible to find a certain comfort in such smallness, one that might enable us to be complacent in the face of the immense loss that is looking increasingly inevitable.

It would be an empty sort of comfort, though. If space is so vast we could colonize and destroy a hundred planets and nothing would really change, what do our lives and actions contain? What do we have, what do we hold, if we don't feel and mourn and try to prevent its loss?

September 9, 2013

On Light and Radishes

Every morning (roughly speaking) I throw on a slip or dressing gown -- such an elaborate name! evoking the vestige of what extended procedure for preparing to face the day i can't imagine; if I remember to drag a brush through my hair I figure I'm doing well -- and push open the curtains, four of them, to reveal the floor-to-ceiling view of sickly urban trees, brick walls, metal roofs, hydroelectric poles and wires, squirrels and birds, or not, cars, sky, and in the distance, very small, the freeway on its crumbling concrete legs. On rare occasions, my action coincides with the sun just cresting the buildings east of mine, so that light bounces all over the leaves and branches and wires and bricks, picking out the smallest details, endowing every texture, each bit of debris and apparatus, with apparent significance. For a moment, and if I'm lucky the moment extends to half an hour or, when I'm very lucky, an hour or more, I watch.

There are times, increasingly often, that language is slow to come to me. Of the possible forms of expression -- the hug or kiss in greeting, for example, or gesturing down the street and around the corner for a stranger -- the verbal sometimes takes more energy than I can muster.

Japanese radishes drying. Image by risumiru
And this is not always a bad thing. Issa, in Robert Hass's translation: "The man pulling radishes/pointed my way/with a radish." We even have a handy aphorism, actions speak louder than words, a little nutkin of wisdom that turns up like a clutch of mushrooms under leaf mold when we're tempted toward believing someone or something we should know better than to, if we've been paying attention.

And what about that highly-polished nut, A picture's worth a thousand words? It's often used to sell, usually (paradoxically) things we aren't meant to examine very closely. And if we were to take it literally, we'd soon stop using language altogether, and instead invent a system of pictograms pointing our way to....

You can see the problem of "being a writer," if being a writer means making with language. It may be more useful to a writer to think of writing as a circling back to cave paintings and lines scratched in shifting sand.

Not every morning offers up that radiance. But so much of writing poetry is about attending, by which I mean showing up and waiting around for nothing to happen (if I may alter the context of what Auden supposedly said). It's in this window I sometimes find my way.