by Louise Glück
I think this is my second wind,
my sister said. Very
like the first, but that
ended, I remember. Oh
what a wind it was, so powerful
the leaves fell off the trees.
I don’t think so,
I said. Well, they were
on the ground, my sister said. Remember
running around the park in Cedarhurst,
jumping on the piles, destroying them?
You never jumped, my mother said.
You were good girls; you stayed where I put you.
Not in our heads,
my sister said. I put
my arms around her. What
a brave sister you are,
Reading this poem I feel like I’m walking into the middle of a conversation well underway. My brain is trying to do two things at once: keep up with what each person is saying and piece together what the heck was said before.
Which is difficult because Louise Glück’s “Second Wind” is a transcript of a strange conversation. Seems like the three people—two sisters and their mother—are discussing something that doesn’t really need to be discussed. Was there a wind that blew leaves off the trees or wasn’t there? Did the girls jump in the leaf piles or not jump? Why are such inconsequential details in dispute? Can’t the poor woman just have her little childhood memory without such nitpicking and hairsplitting?
You’d think I’d be more sympathetic to the correctors, being something of nitpicker and hairsplitter myself. But wait. Hold on. Just in writing that sentence I’ve had a eureka moment about a similar experience, a story one of my daughters told when she was a little girl. To this day she half-jokingly insists it was true. After going to a local fair, she claimed she went on a scary pirate ship ride. It was a ludicrous story. I was with her the whole time and knew exactly how her roll of tickets was used. Not to mention she was a cautious child (she would call herself fearful) and would not have willingly been tipped half upside-down fifty feet in the air. Her siblings and I laughed and were confused and teased her. But she would not give ground. She went on that pirate ship ride, by herself.
Suddenly it makes sense. My heart almost breaks for her. She wanted to be brave. She wanted to be fearless. She wanted to break out of the box she was in, to be bold. She created the version of herself that she wanted to be.
And the poem makes sense to me now, too. This is a tightly controlled family. You were good girls; you stayed where I put you, says the mother. Wind, by contrast, goes where it pleases. It knocks things down, it’s powerful. Participating in the power of wind, whether by having a second wind in midlife or by jumping wildly in leaf piles as a child, speaks to a freedom of movement the mother has always tried to prevent.
While the sister’s version of the story may not be literally true, it is true to who she wants to be and how she sees herself. She is breaking free of her mother’s narrative and prescriptions. Her life, from this point on, will be her own. This is why the speaker tenderly calls her sister brave.
Glück is known for autobiographical poetry, and “Second Wind” lives in that vein. Here’s what she wrote about her mother in her Nobel Prize biography: “My mother was a housewife and celebrated cook, well-educated but without any particular sense of vocation. Nevertheless, she had the temperament and stamina and force of an empire builder.” As a teenager Glück developed anorexia nervosa, she has said, in part to become independent of her mother.
That is one heckuva fraught mother-daughter relationship. Hope my pirate-ship-riding daughter has not experienced such.
From a previous poem elf post in 2017 (with an important addition—she won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2020):
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.
Just thank you. I really enjoyed this.
Appreciate your reading it!