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#239:  LIKE A SMALL BIRD SEALED OFF FROM DAYLIGHT.  Reading about Louise Gluck, you hit these words repeatedly: trauma, depression, illness, dark.  Her first collection was described as “hard, artful, and full of pain”—that didn’t change, except in its degree of accomplishment.  The early work followed in the narrowed path of Plath and Lowell, what I think of as the very fifties world of anger, cigarettes, alcohol, suicide and psychotherapy.  The danger of that is simple: if you’re going to tear your guts out, you have to do, not jut honestly, but skillfully; you have to do it well.  Otherwise you end up with just a table covered in viscera.

       I don’t think the harshest—or perhaps most dismayed—of Gluck’s critics could deny either her courage or her dedication to the art of poetry.  She wrote steadily, published steadily, and each book, with varying degrees of success, showed a writer determinedly at work.  Her methods, from first on, are poetic: autobiographic or no, there is no taint of prose, no disguised essays: metaphor, myth, rhythm, lineation are all considered, all put to maximum use.  She drags us into the cave, but there is nothing of narcissism or easy choice involved: this is the subject matter that has chosen her.  Loss, dysfunction, angst that reaches all the way into terror, a terrible struggle with the parental shadow; she speaks of those throughout her long career.  She also dares to assume we know what she’s talking about.

        Of course we do, but how do you speak of such things?  Having picked up Poems 1962-2012, her omnibus volume (she published two more collections before her death in 2023), for once I gave up following the King’s advice of beginning at the beginning and going on until I reached the end, and opened to the penultimate title, Averno, from 2006, not knowing that in an interview Gluck had recommended it as a good place to start with her work.  Averno, if you don’t remember, is the volcanic crater a few miles west of Naples that, because of its poisonous fumes, was thought to be the entry to the underworld, and Gluck’s book is her long riff on the myth of Persephone.  The myth fits her like a glove, and shows, among many other riches, how the Greek stories were natural to her voice: they surface throughout her work, she has them at her fingertips, and there is no mannerism, no pose in her use of them.  They give her the shape and distance she needs for what she imperatively, almost involuntarily, has to say.  Averno for me is one of those books where an artist completely hits form, and gets to the mountaintop with an almost awesome show of strength.  If you write poetry yourself, Gluck will make you want to write better poetry than you have; as a reader, her work will make you grateful that you have words and images for and knowledge of things you didn’t have before, hard as that news might be.


                             I know what you want—

                             you want Orpheus, you want death.


                             Orpheus who said “Help me find Eurydice.”


                             Then the music began, the lament of the soul

                             watching the body vanish.




Averno.  Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2006.

Poems 1962-2012.  Farrar, Stauss & Giroux, 2012.


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