Since the 1968 birth of her inaugural collection, Firstborn, Louise Glück has been writing the poetry of modern myth. Ararat (1992) tells a demotic mythology of the modern family, and Meadowlands (1997) chronicles the quiet displacement of a modern marriage alongside the interior love story of Homer’s Odyssey. But Glück’s Pulitzer Prize winning collection, The Wild Iris, is able to make much more from a modern mythology. She is loyal to her naturalistic trope, but cultivates a garden, a co-creation between gardener and nature, with which she tells the myth of the soul as it lives, dies , and cements the beauty of what goes beyond existing as a ‘self,’ or an individual.
The poet’s voice mixes with the voices of flowers, the morning, with an unnamed god, and with the voices of the dead. In the title poem, we see an iris bulb’s return from a winter under the earth as a return from death:
You who do not remember
passage from the other world
I tell you I could speak again: whatever
returns from oblivion returns
to find a voice:
—the iris’ resurrection includes a push through the unbearable silence of frozen earth, and an entrance into something more than the state of selfhood. The flower, reborn, is a soul that remembers what is outside of its daily self:
At the end of my suffering
there was a door.
Hear me out: that which you call death
Besides existing as a powerful precursor to the sentiment that Jean Valentine called the ‘door in the mountain,’ these lines suggest an awakening beyond the usual trappings of life, beyond the pain of being a ‘self.’ Helen Vender has called this voice ‘archetypal,’ and ‘mysteriously significant . . . [one] of spiritual prophecy.’
It is this kind of high poetic that begins by suspending the reader in a hammock of eerie beauty until he is primed for the death blow that Glück rarely fails to deliver—one immediately thinks, for example, of the devastating closes in her “Mock Orange,” “The Red Poppy,” and “Telescope.” Those who call ourselves Glück’s ‘fans’ can become dependent on this sharp deliverance, and are left with a feeling of confusion when Glück drapes us, instead, in the rural dailiness of more and more cold winters, dog-walking, deep shade, and dinners with wine—this is the milieu of her most recent book, A Village Life.
The tenor of A Village Life, to this end, undermines the force of the primal question Glück asks in The Wild Iris: ‘Is it enough/only to look inward?’ While The Wild Iris reminds us of what is greater than our daily struggle, Glück’s latest collection binds the reader further to the pain of being an aging body, a person who must stay alive every day; where The Wild Iris dazzles us with the desperate romance of natural existence, A Village Life cracks us over the head with the vulgarities of generic dissatisfaction, or the pain the poet finds in the commonness of a much cruder garden:
The fountain rises at the center of the plaza:
on sunny days, rainbows in the piss of the cherub.
The difference between these two collections is, after all, the difference between a spiritual text and a daily journal. Both kinds of writing can be applauded, but for readers of poetry—those who attempt to access the deep heart’s core—which is more important? and as Virginia Woolf queried, which sort of text could we sink to the bottom of the sea with, contentedly?