October, by Louise Glück

October
By Louise Glück
Quarterback Chapbook Series
Sarabande Books. $8.95. 20 pages.
Reviewed by Stephen Page

Autumn After the Fall

October CoverWhile I as reading Louise Glück’s chapbook “October”, I noted a theme that threaded throughout the poem–aftermath. October has always been a special month for me. A time of change. A time of clarity. It begins with the autumnal colors in full show and ends with the trees bare and sometimes a first snowfall. I remember October well when I was growing up. It was a month of crystal cognizance. The air smelled of damp earth and drying leaves. Each breath I took cleared my mind and brought in focus my sense of being with the world. I felt good. But, there was also this lurking feeling of finality. Another year had passed. Summer was over.  I often asked myself, had I done what I wanted to do this past year, or was I in the same place is was last year? Had I accomplished what I needed to accomplish? Most often, I had mixed feelings, yeses and no’s, a sort of sweet melancholy–sad that the year was over but happy that another year was about to begin. I had another year to do what I wanted to do. Yes, as a child, the New Year was always in October, not in January. It was an end, and a beginning. Winter was on the way and, yes, it would be cold. There would be snow. But, snow to me meant snowball fights, snowmen, snow angels, snow-caves cut out in the banks on the side of the road that the snowplows piled up, and of course, snow days—those special breaks from school. Winter represents death to many people, but it meant fun and rest for me. Trees, plants, grass–they weren’t dead, they were just resting, sleeping late, waiting to wake up in spring and flourish in summer. After winter, there was spring and summer vacations, baseball, girls.

Life on earth is measured in seasons and renews itself yearly. For Glück, as I think it is for most North–Hemispherians, October is a sad month, but one that also has hope.

Part I of “October” goes like this:

It is winter again, is it cold again,
didn’t frank just slip on the ice,
didn’t he heal, weren’t the spring seeds planted

didn’t the nether end,
didn’t the melting ice
flood the narrow gutters

wasn’t my body
rescued wasn’t it safe

didn’t the scar form, invisible
above the injury

terror and cold,
didn’t they just end, wasn’t the back garden
harrowed and planted—

I remember how the earth felt, red and dense,
in stiff rows, weren’t the seeds planted,
didn’t the vines climb down the south wall

I can’t hear your voice
for the wind’s cries, whistling over the bare ground

I can no longer care
what sounds it makes

when I was silenced, when did it first seem
pointless to describe that sound

what it sounds like can’ change what it is—

didn’t the night end, wasn’t the earth
safe when it was planted

didn’t we plant the seeds,
weren’t we necessary to the earth,

the vines, were they harvested?

Something obviously traumatic has passed here. A scar has formed, terror has happened, something was planted but is no longer there (and I think it is more than just plants in the garden) for the “wind whistled over the bare ground.” The narrator was devastated by an occurrence, so much so she was “silenced.” Most notable is the poem’s form—short lines, long sentences—making the poem appear tall.

The entire poem continues like that–short lines, tall poem. And the there is a horrible sensation of after-violation sliding down the poem:

Violence has changed me . . . (repeated twice in part II)
everything that was taken away . . .
you can’t touch my body now.
It has changed once, it has hardened . . .
My body has grown cold . . .
balm after violence . . .
Tell me I am living,
I won’t believe you.
Death cannot harm me
more than you have harmed me . . .
the light has changed . . .
you will not be spared . . .
the unspeakable//has entered them . . .
I strained, I suffered . . .
So much has changed . . .

Yes, something has happened, and I don’t just think it is the harvest. Because of the form of the poem, and some of Glück’s references, it seems something very tall has come down, or collapsed. Something that was once there no longer is:

They eye gets used to disappearances . . .
Above the fields,
above the roofs of the village houses,
the brilliance that made all life possible
Become the cold stars.

Glück might be talking about an object, a tall structure (or structures, if you notice the plural is used in the relation between the words “disappearances” and “become”), or she might be talking about ideals (as she refers to often in part IV). She might be talking about both. Whatever the case, she uses the barren-field association of the month of October as representation of something monumental that no longer exists on the horizon. A careful reader will note that October obviously comes after September, and that two monumental somethings fell once in the month of  September.  Glück does spy a kind of hope though, as she leaves the poem on a positive note

my friend the moon rises:
she is beautiful tonight, but when is she not beautiful?

This Review first published in: Gently Read Literature

Read the review on the Issuu site: Gently Read Literature Issuu and turn to page 18.

An Iris Anthropomorphized 

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
I remember.

Overhead, noises, branches of the pine shifting.
Then nothing. The weak sun
flickered over the dry surface.

It is terrible to survive
as consciousness
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,

tendrils
of blue clematis, light

of early evening—
you would never accept

a voice like mine, indifferent
to the objects you busily name,

your mouths
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.