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Archive for the ‘Louise Gluck’ Category

 

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.

 

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Continuing with my previous post, here’s three more poems I left behind on a recent trip to the Porcupine Mountains in Michigan’s beautiful Upper Peninsula.

Louise Gluck’s riveting “Gretel in Darkness” is a favorite poem of mine and I couldn’t resist putting it in these enchanted woods.  Gluck imagines Gretel years after she has pushed the old witch into the oven and burned her to death.  When you think about it, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder seems a much more likely outcome for fairy tale characters than Happily Ever After.

Gretel in Darkness

BY LOUISE GLÜCK

This is the world we wanted.

All who would have seen us dead

are dead. I hear the witch’s cry

break in the moonlight through a sheet

of sugar: God rewards.

Her tongue shrivels into gas. . . .

 

Now, far from women’s arms

and memory of women, in our father’s hut

we sleep, are never hungry.

Why do I not forget?

My father bars the door, bars harm

from this house, and it is years.

 

No one remembers. Even you, my brother,

summer afternoons you look at me as though

you meant to leave,

as though it never happened.

But I killed for you. I see armed firs,

the spires of that gleaming kiln—

 

Nights I turn to you to hold me

but you are not there.

Am I alone? Spies

hiss in the stillness, Hansel,

we are there still and it is real, real,

that black forest and the fire in earnest.

 

Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays” I left on a trail that runs along 3 spectacular waterfalls.  (An earlier post on that poem here.) Winters in the U.P. are brutal.  My neighbor who grew up near the Porkies now wears flip flops year round because Detroit winters are just not that cold to him after a childhood of playing outside in twenty below.

And finally, Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Spring and Fall.”  (A much longer  post on that poem here.)

Will the poem outlast the leaves?

Goodbye, U.P.!  Till next year!

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