Stepchild of the Sublime

From the archives (April 8, 2017):

Review of Louise Glück’s Faithful and Virtuous Night (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014)
by Cyril Wong

At the heart of every book of poems by Louise Glück, there is a journey-arc of thought and philosophical exploration; a building of stark-to-fuller insight dramatised through familiar and (more often than not) nameless personae. For a poet, Glück is also popular; maybe not as popular as Mary Oliver or Lang Leav, but well-regarded enough to be quoted in a popular horror novel (a far more widely-read genre, which I love alongside lyric poetry), Fear Nothing by Dean Koontz, in which Glück’s writing is acknowledged as “wonderful and moving”. But with any poet that is popular, there is an accompanying surge of critics eager to use the poet’s work as an example of what poetry should never be, or as yet more proof that modern poetry is declining.

William Logan, my favourite “nasty” reviewer of American verse, incidentally but accurately sums up the qualities of Glück that I admire, while also inserting entertainingly snide remarks about her failures in The New York Times: “[A] minimalist’s minimalist, moody, anxious to her fingertips—a nail biter’s nail biter… Perhaps I’m not the only reader who finds Glück hilarious, in a ghoulish way—like a stand-up vampire.” Glück is anxious, moody, even tragic and dark; but she can also be funny and self-mocking. A fundamental sense of private truthfulness in her poems fits in with this statement from her introduction to The Best American Poetry 1993 about how all poems “are autobiography” while also evincing a “metronomic alternation of anecdote and response.” Her poems are personal—they might even sound confessional—but they also transcend stereotypical notions of lyrical confessing through strategic anonymity and symbolic fictionalisation. Anyone could be speaking inside her poems, even to the extent that I sometimes find myself speaking as her poems do inside my head: I hear myself echoing her same inquiries and revelations about beauty, loneliness, existential unknowability and death, using the same words and tonality as in her poetry (at the same time as I am reading it). Perhaps this is the particular nature of Glück’s appeal to a particular type of reader.

The author’s book-length arc of internal exploration often culminates in new and hard-earned insight, renewed whimsicality, and sometimes despair. Her earlier collection Ararat, grounded in the troubles of family-relations, resonated towards its end with a pained yet wondrous acceptance of a newfound link between beauty and finitude—”The love of form is a love of endings” (“Celestial Music”). In The Seven Ages, two spirits in the afterlife approach what one terms Nirvana; then the other ends the collection with a haunted thought, “But the light will give us no peace” (“Fable”)—making the final point that what we bring to the present from our own hearts and minds matters more than any reality we find ourselves in. That usual structure of an arc straining towards greater insight is subverted in an intriguing way in Faithful and Virtuous Night, when that final surprise of revelation is already presented, in fact, at the front of the book. The first poem, “Parable”, depicts aimless travellers on a mountain pass who have travelled for so long that they arrive at this knowledge: “… those who believed we should have a purpose / believed this was the purpose, and those who felt we must remain free / in order to encounter truth felt it had been revealed.”

Then the book dives into the life and mind of a male character whose family members died in a tragic car accident. Anxieties about death, mourning, serrated reflections on unknowability, and semantic interconnectedness undermining private desires for stability of meaning and happiness, are now what follows after the first poem’s seemingly proleptic finality and wisdom. The second (and also the title) poem begins by speaking about speaking—the poet’s unrelenting self-reflexivity and second-guessing paranoia about the absolutism of any kind of knowledge, merging almost imperceptibly with the persona’s fictionalised perspective:

[My] story begins very simply: I could speak and I was happy.
Or: I could speak, thus I was happy.
Or: I was happy, thus speaking.

The pain of childhood growing to the isolation of adulthood, all familiar themes from the poet’s past books, echo here now in a more laconic way, their fictionalised contextualisation in this case made newly memorable and engaging through the authenticity of the persona’s anxiety-ridden voice and Glück’s ever-confident, summative evocations of a life. The poem moves quickly, so the once-young speaker’s eventual insight comes hard and brutal by the end:

[There] is no perfect ending …
or perhaps, once one begins,
there are only endings.

This is reminiscent of “Celestial Music” at the end of Ararat. But there is neither transcendental wonder here nor any implicit movement towards a future negative capability. The poems that follows continue to whinge and lament (the poet has been accused of “whining” before now—in The Wild Iris, for example, as described by Ann Keniston in Overheard Voices: Address and Subjectivity in Postmodern American Poetry). In “Visitors from Abroad” from Night, I wonder if maybe a little more of Glück peeks through from behind the anonymous lyric-mask, when the speaker’s ghostly parents in the writerly speaker’s head complain that there is “[hardly] a mention of us anymore”; or when the depressed speaker sighs resignedly: “Joy is sleeping like a baby.” In “Afterword”, the speaker/writer articulates (rather than simply complaining) more elegantly: “I was constantly / face-to-face with blankness, that / stepchild of the sublime, // which it turns out / has been both my subject and my medium.” Literal death and the limits of knowing (about what comes after life, or more tragically, the death of a loved one) are conflated with the limits of language and writing, leading ironically to a “blankness” of thought that constantly delays the possibility of fulfilment in one’s existence.

The writerly speaker’s over-intellectualism (resulting in “blankness”) is symbolic of a broader human tendency to over-think without living with depth and deeper feeling. The consequence of this is poignantly depicted in another parable-poem, “The Melancholy Assistant”. The speaker’s professional assistant is “melancholy” and, planning to leave forever, has “packed his bags … though it was night / and the snow was falling” (nature imagery, redolent of Romantic sublimity, is often backgrounded then subverted into pathos-stricken banality in Glück’s hands). He is instructed by the speaker (a last request) to weep for the speaker “as Christ wept for mankind” (we know not why the speaker is worth weeping for). Grand emotions are quietly and satirically rendered as superficial and merely conceptual until the assistant tells his master: “[You] have given / meaning to my suffering”; the speaker notes that the moment feels “both deeply fraudulent”—as the whole poem feels, too, in an acutely self-mocking manner—”and profoundly true, as though such words as emptiness and meaninglessness / had stimulated some remembered emotion / which now attached itself to this occasion and person.” The belaboured diction is sadly funny, mirroring a central paradox leading to authentic revelation in the space of the speaker’s little exchange. Stimulated to suddenly remembered feeling, the speaker enters empathy without the stultification ofintellectual analysis.

Other poems quickly demonstrate the pain of actually feeling things, such as separations and departures. In “A Summer Garden” (reminiscent of “October” in Averno for a similar use of pithy lines and razor-precision in depicting psychological brokenness), the speaker returns to that earlier context of having just lost one’s parents:

How alone I am,
no mother, no father—

… Maria was folding the washing;
the stiff sheets became
dry white rectangles of moonlight.

How alone I am, but in music
my desolation is my rejoicing …

Mother slept in her bed,
her arms outstretched, her head
balanced between them.

Through these different poems, the book strives to approach an equipoise between grief and calm, intellectualism and emotional abjection; as connoted in the poem’s closing image of a parent in a state of physical balance (a balance that is merely corporeal, perhaps, but the speaker’s hope for a deeper balance can be represented here, too; at least for this reader.)

Unlike earlier books like Ararat, however, Faithful and Virtuous Night is more successful in conveying a transcendent sense of balance outwardly than through the portrayal of the speakers’ state of mind in individual poems. One could feel the speaker in Ararat learning and arriving at a greater maturity; but here, as readers, we are left in the air with our own conflicted thoughts and an overhanging desire to attain equanimity. This might leave some readers cold. I would still insist that the book is structurally persuasive in showing us that the answer has already been here with(in) us the whole time—a mental equipoise that is both a challenge and, paradoxically, not requiring of effort at all. Such a state of equilibrium is available to us, or it will come; the book seems to be calling us to have faith in this eventuality.

Hope is not a common feeling propagated by Glück’s poetry, but the book’s final poem conveys hope movingly. In “The Couple in the Park”, a woman (maybe a stranger) touches a man’s hand and “a little ballerina made of wood” springs from her heart. But the man only thinks, “I have created this … still she is a dancer … not simply a block of wood.” The poem’s last line then depicts the man’s impending awareness of potentially enjoying untrammeled passion: “This must explain the puzzling music coming from the trees.” Intellectual detachment is a disguise for one’s fear of falling into fuller feeling—into the fullness of being present and emotionally alive, embracing the flux of reality (the now) without dangling fecklessly from the steely wire of high-mindedness. If the first poem in the book (“Parable”) emphasised freedom from trying too hard to find a purpose (via argumentation and long-drawn analysis), the last poem references this freedom—by promising us that the result of being free is one of genuine or wholehearted feeling. The developmental arc in Glück’s book, then, becomes one of moving from promise to actual living. The book becomes both a terrifying standing on the precipice of impermanence (all relationships must end, as any nail-biting Glück-ian speaker readily reminds us) and a call for the reader to move (whatever we choose to do, we only have everything to lose) beyond the precipice (that “puzzling music” no longer “puzzling” to our ears, if only we let the music in).


Cyril Wong is a poet, fictionist, and critic from Singapore. His last book was The Lover’s Inventory (Singapore: Math Paper Press, 2015).