At A Remove
I gorged on poems all my life; my nervousness was never anorexic. But after high school I went on to study not what I had thought (psychology), but what I’d loved (architectural design). It seemed quite natural to me, during my twenties, to plan and build a writing shack, beside the sea in Maine.
What would surprise me, after the New Yorker‘s Howard Moss published my teenage lyric (called “Divorce”), was finding myself at work in the belly of America: Missouri, in the 1970’s, where a job at Stevens College would confer a fund for women’s arts.
It was the early occupation of a moving, if tenacious, literary focus. Top of my wish-list back then were two figures: Gwendolyn Brooks and Louise Glück. I had the luck (and Stevens lucre, too) to nab them both for endowed readings.
Ms. Brooks was already a monumental figure, one full generation into making literature her form of history. Louise had only recently put out her second book. But in the context of the era’s feverishly-fashionable white confessionals, Louise’s work was rivetting and cool. Her classical motifs afforded staging for a whole new interpersonal dynamic, reframing emotional life as analytic architecture. Or so it seemed to me.
Stylistically the voice was spare, unsentimental, philosophical—an antidote to all the gushers others had put forth. It hooked a book-lover like me, after my adolescent sottedness with Plath, my English mother’s high horses of Shakespeare and King James, my father’s Dylan Thomas, street-life’s down-and-dirty passions scored as R&B, and sex as loudest sounding-board.
To celebrate her reading in Missouri, I planned for Glück a down-home spare-rib bake-off. It took on gladiator aspects when my partner Gregory encountered something in an eager challenger, there at the barbecue pit. (John Dranow came to the reception with our pal the poet Larry Levis from the university nearby. Since Levis was the incarnation of an easy-going colleague for our stretch in mid-America, he was a natural for company. But he was also how, in one small food-crazed corner of Missouri, Louise Glück would meet John Dranow, who would follow her to Plainfield and propose to marry. That would be another tale, entirely. We eventually, and soon enough, all wound up back in old New England.)
I received an invitation to Vermont to sign on with what would be, in those days, a fledgling MFA design for fictioneers and poets, having 10-day residencies twice each year, each with a heavy study schedule every week for six months afterwards, by pony post. Invited to conduct (as independent contractors) suites of literary correspondence, early study-leaders came to bless the program’s bright originator Ellen Bryant Voigt for building, well before a hundred imitators, creative writing platforms that would prove ideal for grad credentials in creative writing. (Ellen’s husband Fran began a culinary program that would rival California’s. Dranow wound up with his fingers in that second pie as well, for better or for worse. That story is for someone else to tell.) But Glück was born for poetry.
From cool removes of allegory, works of her succeeding decades would transform (through slow, perhaps excruciated, acts of sublimation) complex knots of life and love into the clarities of analytic instance. Time was her true quarry (which is to say, timelessness was). Of her books, I loved the third book most, Descending Figure, where the title’s tip-of-hat to modernist designs (the staircase of Duchamps, the bold cascading moves of serious new music) enlarged all notions of relationship via local record of the children drowned in ponds, in news.
The author’s sympathies at last are not for the dilemmas of mortality, or youth, but something harder for our human sympathies to comprehend: dilemmas of divinity. Glück figures forth a God from older testaments who, finding he is alien among the creatures of his new-made world, must then invent a heaven he can leap into, away from them.
That leap becomes Louise’s signature. Humans themselves turn out to be the quintessential instances of all descending figures, from that perspective.
Such overlooks may well comport with iciness of temperament. In any case from early on, the figure Glück would offer public audiences exuded airs of cool remove. She rarely seemed amused, except in irony, and gained a reputation at the podium for chastening the crowd that laughed appreciatively at an insight. That, she ‘d stop the show to tell them, wasn’t funny.
She became her own persona, rare on People’s Campuses: her own democracies were sworn to highest standards via disappointment at the popular, or middle, placators of art. In league with the dominions of the Dead, she turned the classics to advantage for their ageless models, arbiters of the unsparing kind. The Greeks had made it plain: the greatest soul is dry. But the America of 1945 and onward had (like Rome) made Mercury its god of commerces; the Russians and Americans alike took astronauts for interstellar heroes, flasks of helmet, smiles of fog.
It would be Hermes (not his fallen alter ego, Mercury) that answered best for Glück, a messenger from earlier (and fiery) underworlds, available to those who can relinquish histories of heavy breathing, and turn away from humid human atmospheres. The farm and pond were not Louise’s dream, the busy pecker and the patient hen. The problem with the living love is want of scope, the upper case. She was examiner, not advocate: a faith in honesty won’t just cast light, but shade.
Our fabled speech is an expense. It takes your breath away. It’s fit that we remember, who admired her work, one crucial ending from Descending Figure, where the poem’s words afford divinity the best escape, from a begat humanity.
Glück knew why ancient eyes were glittering.
From bitterness of insight. From glacial altitude, and breadth of view.
For second place among the manyness of men, we others pay in shares, with earthly love. But true originality’s a contract with fatality.
“How beautiful the Earth must have seemed,” she wrote—”that first time, seen from above.”
–Heather McHugh, October 2023