First published by Classic Book Club
Wild Iris by Louise Glück
Review supplied by Stephen Page
In The Wild Iris, Louise Glück allows flowers and other plants to speak. A gardener tending the plants also speaks, most often in prayer. Another voice, the deity prayed to by the gardener, speaks omnisciently. Glück’s garden, like life, brings unexpected joys and disappointments—the first sprouts, an early bloom, reoccurring weeds, a too-soon death. Although a reader may initially find it confusing who is speaking in the poems, I think Glück did this for a reason.
The first poem in the collection grants an iris voice:
“At the end of my suffering
there was a door.
Hear me out: that which you call death
Overhead, noises, branches of the pine shifting.
Then nothing. The weak sun
flickered over the dry surface.
It is terrible to survive
buried in the dark earth.
Then it was over: that which you fear, being
a soul and unable
to speak, ending abruptly, the stiff earth
bending a little. And what I took to be
birds darting in the low shrubs.
You who do not remember
passage from the other world
I tell you I could speak again: whatever
returns from oblivion returns
to find voice:
from the center of my life came
a great fountain, deep blue
shadows on azure seawater.”
The book’s major themes are set up in this first poem: death (as metaphoric winter), resurrection, and the role of nature. The iris has survived winter as a bulb or rhizome. It rises again in spring with a vague sense of a suffered life and a dream-like dormancy. The questions a reader may ask are: Does the flower actually speak, and, is anyone listening? A partial answer may be in the very next poem, the first in a series of ‘Matins’ (morning prayer).
“. . . Noah says
depressives hate the spring, imbalance
between the inner and outer world. I make
another case—being depressed, yes, but in a sense passionately
attached to the living tree, my body
actually curled in the split trunk, almost at peace,
in the evening rain
almost able to feel
sap frothing and rising: Noah says this is
an error of depressives, identifying
with a tree whereas the happy heart
wanders the garden like a falling leaf, a figure for
the part, not the whole.”
Here the gardener speaks to a deity while simultaneously revealing to the reader her mental state and personality—she is depressed and identifies with a plant. She projects herself into the plant. Since Noah has told her she should think of herself as an entity detached from the rest of the world, he is probably rebutting her theory that we all are a part of a whole.
The next ‘Matins’ refers to the Garden of Eden. Eve realizes her mortality and feels abandoned by God. The next three poems, ‘Trillium’, ‘Lamium’, and ‘Snowdrops,’ are plant poems that reemphasize themes of despair, death, resurrection, and instinctual (though vague) memories of past lives.
“When woke up I was in a forest. The dark
seemed natural, the sky through the pine trees
thick with many lights.
. . .
This is how you live when you have a cold heart.
As I do: in shadows, trailing over rock,
under the great maple trees.
. . .
do you know what I was, how I lived? You know
what despair is; then
winter should have meaning for you.
I did not expect to survive,
earth suppressing me. I didn’t expect
to waken again, to feel
damp in the earth my body
able to respond again, remembering
after so long how to open again . . .”
With the next poem, ‘Clear Morning,’ a reader logically concludes that Morning is speaking, because of the title but also because the previous ‘flower poems’ use similar first person points-of-view while addressing the gardener as “you.” What the reader actually hears in the poem is the voice of God.
“I’ve watched you long enough,
I can speak to you any way I like—
I’ve submitted to your preferences, observing patiently
the things you love, speaking
through vehicles only, in
details of earth, as you prefer,
of blue clematis, light
of early evening—
you would never accept
a voice like mine, indifferent
to the objects you busily name,
small circles of awe—
And all this time
I indulged your limitations, thinking
you would cast it aside yourselves sooner or later,
thinking matter could not absorb your gaze forever—
obstacles of the clematis painting
blue flowers on the porch window—
I cannot go on
restricting myself to images
because you think it is your right
to dispute my meaning:
I am prepared now to force
clarity upon you.
God is condescending, angry, fed up. He is the jaded creator, scolding and didactic, detached yet fatherly. He is tired of listening to
meager human concerns and is tired of speaking through “vehicles,” yet He paradoxically disguises himself as Morning.”
Reading back over the previous flower poems, then reading further in the book, a reader will note that the flowers and other plants expound on topics that initiate within the mind of the gardener. They also speak in a patronizing tone (a personality trait of the God
portrayed); e.g., “hear me out,” “what are you saying?” and “Not I, you idiot.”
The rest of the collection continues similarly. God scolds the gardener, flowers and plants echo the gardener in a Godly timbre, and the gardener pleads to God using plant-life analogies. They all take turns speaking, as if allowing each other input in a conversation—yet, ironically, amongst all this verbal exchange, very little communication takes place. God hears the gardener but does not listen to her. The plants scream but the gardener appears deaf. God bellows, but nobody hears him. Obviously the book is written not so the characters will learn and change, but so the reader may decipher and conclude.
Glück crafts stunning poetry in this collection. Her imagery is vibrant, her language immediate, her personification convincing. The major debate throughout the collection, whether we actually resurrect or not, comes to no clear conclusion—in fact, contradictory answers are given. In one poem it is said that the soul is eternal. In another it says nothing lasts forever. The book could be read as stating that the Biblical order of things does not exist, that florae are not the lowest forms on earth, and that we as humans do not ascend to heaven. A canonical gardener drives the collection, but Glück leaves open the option for a non-anthropomorphic God—one who has no conceivable form. Ambivalence in speaker voice may be a way to say that we are all
connected—human beings, nature, and God. Since plants attempt to answer the questions the narrator is asking, and since God speaks through the elements, it seems that Glück is saying that understanding nature is a way of comprehending the physical and
spiritual makings of the world—one only has to listen well and weigh the contradictions.