A fortunate misfortune

 

Lament

by Louise Gluck

 

Suddenly, after you die, those friends

who never agreed about anything

agree about your character.

They’re like a houseful of singers rehearsing

the same score:

you were just, you were kind, you lived a fortunate life.

No harmony. No counterpoint. Except

they’re not performers;

real tears are shed.

 

Luckily, you’re dead; otherwise

you’d be overcome with revulsion.

But when that’s passed,

when the guests begin filing out, wiping their eyes

because, after a day like this,

shut in with orthodoxy,

the sun’s amazingly bright,

though it’s late afternoon, September—

when the exodus begins,

that’s when you’d feel

pangs of envy.

 

Your friends the living embrace one another,

gossip a little on the sidewalk

as the sun sinks, and the evening breeze

ruffles the women’s shawls—

this, this, is the meaning of

“a fortunate life”: it means

to exist in the present.

 

Group of graves for a family named “Quaintance.”

 

Ah, the last of the poems in the Cemetery Series, and just in time. What with the hurricanes, floods, fires, earthquakes, and today the sixteenth anniversary of 9/11, I don’t like piling on the pervasive sense of death and destruction.

Interesting that Louise Gluck’s poem is called “Lament.” Lamentations are usually expressions of grief by those left behind. We read their thoughts (“Lamentations” in the Book of Jeremiah) or look at pictures of them grieving (Giotto’s Lamentation of Christ) or watch them dance it out (Martha Graham’s iconic Lamentations), so that we can enter into the desolation they feel, to understand or just to witness. Forget about the feelings of the dead person. Depending on your belief system, the dead person is either resting in unconscious peace or has found better digs. We save our sympathies for those who have to sort through the clothing, face an empty breakfast table, sell the baby stroller.

 

Not here. In Gluck’s “Lament,” we’re asked to dismiss the grief of those left behind. After all, they enjoy sunshine, affection and diverting conversation. Instead Gluck asks us to imagine the emotional life of the dead person. By using the conditional tense, the poet assures us the dead don’t have emotions even as she brings those emotions to life–

you’d be overcome with revulsion

 

and later, watching the guests file out into the sunlit afternoon–

that’s when you’d feel

pangs of envy.

 

The “fortunate life” mentioned in the eulogy belongs, in the end, to the living–

 “a fortunate life”: it means

to exist in the present.

 

This is no comfort. I find this poem existentially horrifying. The dead seem stuck in perpetual regret and longing.

Louise Gluck was born in 1943 in New York City, the second of three daughters. Her older sister died before she was born. Her father, a Hungarian Jewish immigrant, was instrumental (pun intended) in inventing the X-Acto knife.  At sixteen she suffered from anorexia and almost died and entered psychoanalysis for the next seven years. She attended both Sarah Lawrence and Columbia but graduated from neither.

 

Gluck has published fifteen books of poetry and two books of essays, the second one just out this year. She’s taught at University of Iowa and now Yale University. She’s received the Pulitzer and National Book Award for Poetry among many other awards and was named Poet Laureate of the United States in 2003.

 

A 2012 New Yorker profile names her “among the most moving poets of our era, even while remaining the most disabusing.”

 

Details on her personal life are difficult to find beyond that she’s been married and divorced twice and has a son.

 

R.I.P. to all victims of 9/11, the dead and the living alike.

 

4 Comments

  1. B. Cholewa

    Finally a poem I “get” although the use of revulsion threw me a bit. When you may, at times, wonder what others truly think of you, it’s at the gathering of your own death that you hear the “truth?” Sad and final and understandably s time to lament. Thanks for sharing!

  2. akleneth

    Thanks for sharing this poem! It really does touch on the one thing that is so… sorrowful about death. That their ability to experience, just, normal life, those little, living moments, is gone…

  3. Trish Rawlings

    Maggie, loved the Cemetery Series. Don’t know how I feel about this last one. It’s chilling but the conceit it’s based upon nullifies the chill for me. It’s like being passed by a white wraith on a dark sidewalk only to discover it’s a child under a fluttering sheet running by. . . For me it’s a better poem than idea, if that makes any sense.

    Somewhat related to your Series is this snippet that I thought you might like–although, knowing you, you probably are familiar with it already. It’s by Wendell Berry and is from The Country of Marriage. It’s the most wondrous bit of writing about death that I’ve yet to encounter. . . .

    What I am learning to give you is my death
    to set you free of me, and me from myself
    into the dark and the new light. Like the water
    of a deep stream, love is always too much. We
    did not make it. Though we drink till we burst
    we cannot have it all, or want it all.
    In its abundance it survives our thirst.

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