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Sunday, January 5, 2014

READING THE POEMS OF LOUISE GLUCK


robert motherwell


Today I gave myself a rare treat, one I did not know was necessary until it happened. It's been so relentlessly cold the last few days and nights, I needed to be warm, relaxed and warm. My neighbors who are away right now have a house across the road. I needed some time to sit back with a book in a warm house and I wanted a hot bath. Put clothes in the washing machine and ran the bath water as hot as I could take it, filled the tub as high as it would go without overflowing when I sat down, remembering I displace more water now than in the past. I'd pre-heated the house, making it comfortable. The floor was warm enough to walk barefoot. It would not do to take a hot bath in a cold room with a cold floor. Today I was taking a time-out from the cold. I sat down in the tub and the water rose appreciably. Feet were glowing warm in a short time, blood circulation. Warm feet was the greatest blessing of all. It felt like sitting in a sauna, the heat even all over. Almost nodded off a few times. I wanted to stay in the water on and on, but it started cooling down after a good while. I was surprised at how well the tub held the water's heat. I started getting restless. Dried off, dressed and went to the living room, sat on a warm sofa and picked up the book I'd brought to spend some time in the warm with, Louise Gluck's, Poems 1962-2012. Gluck requires close attention, focus, from word to word. She's a tight, compact poet who uses every word deliberately. Maybe I read a dozen poems, each of them half a dozen times, reading them over and over until I felt the flow of the language and followed the progression freely. From one of several poems titled Matins:
 
                          are you like the hawthorn tree,
          always the same thing in the same place,
          or are you more the foxglove, inconsistent, first springing up
          a pink spike on the slope behind the daisies,
          and the next year, purple in the rose garden?
 
louise gluck
 
I lay back on the sofa reading, bare feet up enjoying the warm air, mind enjoying the verse of Louise Gluck. I bought her first book in the late 1960s, Firstborn. She was not what you'd call a Sixties poet. Pop culture was not her ambition. She received quite a lot of positive attention, a Young American Poet of the moment. I liked her concise style with language. A quarter century later I found another of her books, Ararat, which I loved. In one of the poems I read today she wrote of standing before a window speaking to her other self reflected in the glass. The poem was one part of self talking to the other part of self. Her poems are often addressed to the other known as you. Sometimes you is another person, loosely identified, and sometimes you is another part of herself, like the mirror image self. Bob Dylan uses the device of you for another person and another part of self. I've thought several Bob Dylan songs conversations with himself. Sometimes with Dylan and with Gluck, you is both other and self at once. Her poems have a presence for me, such that each one is like a painting. Each one is uniquely itself like abstractions by Robert Motherwell. The poems are intimately personal, subjective, without being confessional. I read the poems over and over, went from last line to first and through it again, each time feeling the relationship of the words with each other, seeing it new each time, sometimes slightly new and sometimes radically new. From first reading to last I am in search of the poem Louise Gluck wrote. In some ways, I'd say she'd be a very difficult poet to translate into another language. The clarity of her word usage would be sublime for a translator, but then you get into the subtle nuances and it kinda gets past word meanings.
 
robert motherwell
 
I spent two hours with maybe a dozen poems. I wasn't explicating them or trying to figure them out. I was reading them looking for their feeling, images, what she was saying. The academic way I learned to read poetry was a good education, but I don't read like that anymore. I like to read a poem as a work of art to be taken on sight like a painting on a wall in a show. I like to read it for the story it is. I like to read a poem with the same eye that I watch a movie. Gluck's stories are not ones with beginning, middle and end, nor are they dramas. They are quiet observation. Each poem is a smooth ride through her thinking process. I like the quiet her poems ease into my mind. The lines pull me through the poems not by drama, but by the progression in the poem, riding its rhythm. I feel like she has a fine feeling for rhythm. Her rhythm is walking rhythm. I even feel like her poems are brief Pinter plays. I'll put here a full poem to give an idea of how she writes a complete poem. This is not to say all her poems are shaped like this one. Some have long lines and short stanzas. The poem itself determines it's physical expression on the page.
 
          SCILLA, by Louise Gluck
 
          Not I, you idiot, not self, but we, we---waves
          of sky blue like
          a critique of heaven: why
          do you treasure your voice
          when to be one thing
          is to be next to nothing?
          Why do you look up? To hear
          an echo like the voice
          of god? You are all the same to us,
          solitary, standing above us, planning
          your silly lives: you go
          where you are sent, like all things,
          where the wind plants you,
          one or another of you forever
          looking down and seeing some image
          of water, and hearing what? Waves,
          and over waves, birds singing.

 

robert motherwell
 
The buzzer on the dryer was my signal to wrap it up, fold the laundry and return home. It felt like I had just begun with Louise Gluck's poems. I could have sat with her hours more. And will. It's my book. I brought it home. Hers are internal journeys. I follow the lead of the words to see where they go, a winding trail that is never predictable. It's like driving Glade Valley Road; surprise turns left or right, the steering wheel always in motion. Attempting to drive the road too fast it becomes a struggle. Settling into it at 30 and 35 mph, it's a smooth flow going with the hills and curves. Louise Gluck's poems are a struggle to keep up with in a hurry, but slow down to the rate of flow in the poem and it becomes an easy, lilting flow something like following the dog, walking a deer trail through the woods. I come out of a round with her poems with my head feeling as clear as during a walk among the trees. It was a good cleansing today, body, mind and soul.  
 
robert motherwell
 
 
 
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