On Louise Glück'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—" 

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-- 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 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?"