Shortly after the first anniversary of September 11, when The New Yorker had published a slew of poems memorializing the events of that day--Galway Kinnell's "When the Towers Fell" and Charles Simic's "Late September," to name a few--Louise Gluck's poem "October" appeared in the magazine's pages. Laid out in four long columns across two full pages of the magazine, the format recalled the imposing form of the twin towers. Its allusions to "terror," "violence" and "death" seemed to invoke September 11, as did its repeated questions about physical survival: "didn't he heal," "wasn't my body/rescued," "wasn't it safe," "wasn't the earth/safe," the speaker persistently asks. But unlike the poems that describe September 11 in graphic detail, this poem is about the aftermath of trauma: not September but October, not 2001 but a year later, not violence but, as Gluck twice reminds us, "after violence." The poem conveys a powerful nostalgia for "everything that was taken away." "The eye gets used to disappearances," Gluck writes, immediately conjuring New York's dramatically reduced skyline.
But now, published as a handsome if austere chapbook, the poem can be understood on its own terms. October is Gluck's first book since being anointed America's Poet Laureate in October 2003, and its diminutive size gives it a sense of intimacy and humility that is strangely at odds with her new public position. The poem is an elegy of sorts, but not one tied to September 11 in the way, say, Kinnell's poem seems to be. There is no "blackened fire," no "burning alive," no "sifting for bodies." Instead, we find Gluck's spare language and her usual tropes: the garden, the seasons, the earth, the sun and the moon.
Gluck has said about writing poetry, "No process I can name so completely defeats the authority of event." What interests her is not how the poet "transcribes" actual occurrences but how she "transforms" them into art. Her poems, she insists, originate in language, not occasions:
For me, all poems begin in some fragment of motivating language--the task of writing a poem is the search for context. Other imaginations begin, I believe, in the actual, in the world, in some concrete thing which examination endows with significance.... My own work begins at the opposite end, at the end, literally, at illumination, which has then to be traced back to some source in the world.
An extended meditation on the poet's changing relationship to language, October attempts to do just this: to locate its own sources of illumination--and darkness. For it is a "cold light" of an increasingly "darker" hue that illuminates this poem: "The light has changed," she explains. "This is the light of autumn, not the light of spring./ The light of autumn: you will not be spared." October is an ars poetica, charting Gluck's poetic development from a bookish girl ("I was young here. Riding/the subway with my small book/as though to defend myself against//this same world") through her many silences ("silenced," "silence," "silent," "not speaking," "unspeakable") to her present state as mature poet ("Bitter or weary, it is hard to say"). But it is from her stance as seasoned bard that she can look back--with a touch of irony--on her earlier work: "I can finally say/long ago; it gives me considerable pleasure." Part of this pleasure, as the enjambed lines suggest, stems from the mere fact of overcoming silence.
This is not to imply that the poem is auto-biographical in any conventional sense: It does not provide a chronological narrative of growth and fulfillment. Just as Gluck's poems are not "about" events per se, they are not "about" private experience. "Personal circumstance may prompt art," Gluck has written, "but the actual making of art is a revenge on circumstance." October is only autobiographical in the sense that, at least according to Gluck, all poems must be: "Poems are autobiography, but divested of the trappings of chronology and comment, the metronomic alternation of anecdote and response." That is, poems map a highly associative inward terrain that may or may not correlate to an external reality.
Neither could October be mistaken for a confessional poem: It is far too oblique, perhaps even, to use a word often used to describe Gluck's work, "mystical." Gluck has written extensively on the problems of reading and writing confessional poetry, most lucidly in her essay "Against Sincerity." Far from tell-all disclosure, October communicates as much through what it omits as through what it includes. Gluck praises this minimalist aesthetic in others and reveals a penchant for it in her own work: "I love what is implicit or present in outline, that which summons (as opposed to imposes) thought. I love white space, love the telling omission, love lacunae, and find oddly depressing that which seems to have left out nothing."
A self-conscious and reflective poem that traces the trajectory of her writing life, October is perhaps best described as a portrait of the artist. If in her second book, The House on Marshland, she promises (with considerable irony) to "begin/the great poems of my middle period," then here she appears to mark the end of that period. October was published a year before her appointment as Poet Laureate. But by complicating the relationship between language and events, the poem eerily prefigured the dilemmas she would face in assuming such a public role. "To my surprise I didn't hesitate," Gluck told the Washington Post after accepting the position, "even though I can't say I was unambivalently delighted. I have very little taste for public forums."
Born in New York City and raised in an affluent Long Island community, Louise Gluck grew up in a family in which everyone felt authorized to complete each other's thoughts. She says she began writing because "I wanted to finish my own sentences." Her ambitious, Wellesley-educated mother saw to it that 3-year-old Louise was well versed in Greek mythology--a foundation that shows up throughout Gluck's oeuvre--and encouraged her daughter at every turn to pursue her vocation.
As an adolescent who, by her own account, "had great resources of will and no self," Gluck developed a severe case of anorexia. In her senior year of high school, she entered psychoanalysis and was taken out of school. "For the next seven years," she reports, "analysis was what I did with my time and with my mind." But during that time she also attended Columbia University, where she studied with Stanley Kunitz--"the first human being by whom I felt entirely heard."
Gluck's career has not exactly been fast-paced. She published Firstborn, her first book, in 1968, at the age of 25. The House on Marshland did not come until 1975, a gap in years that has not been uncommon in her writing life. Such dry spells, in fact, are a conscious subject of October, whose short lines teeter on the brink of white space and whose very language exists "in anticipation of silence." Gluck writes: "I have had to get through extended silences. By silences I mean periods, sometimes two years in duration, during which I have written nothing. Not written badly, written nothing."
After Marshland, Gluck began publishing at five-year intervals: Descending Figure (1980), The Triumph of Achilles (1985) and Ararat (1990). Her early books, particularly the first four, which have now been collected in a single volume, use natural motifs to explore what she elsewhere calls "the great human subjects: time which breeds loss, desire, the world's beauty." ("What others found in art,/I found in nature. What others found/in human love, I found in nature," she reminds us in October.)
An unadorned syntax and diction characterize her work from its first incarnation:
From the beginning I preferred the simplest vocabulary. What fascinated me were the possibilities of context. What I responded to, on the page, was the way a poem could liberate, by means of a word's setting, through subtleties of timing, of pacing, that word's full and surprising range of meaning. It seemed to me that simple language best suited this enterprise; such language, in being generic, is likely to contain the greatest and most dramatic variety of meaning within individual words.
Like her earlier work, the poems in Ararat are built on such stark language, but they possess a more confessional streak, plainly depicting her father's death, her mother's anger, rivalries with her sisters (both the one who survived and the one who died as a baby) and other family melodrama. (Two poems in this volume begin, "In our family ..."; three begin with "My mother ...," three with "My sister ...," one with "My son ... ," etc.)
But it was the publication of The Wild Iris (1992), a radical departure from this confessional experiment, that established Gluck as a major contemporary poet. Awarded the Pulitzer Prize, The Wild Iris remains her most important work today (though she has since published three other full-length books). This highly symbolic work comprises a series of dialogues between various plants and flowers, the gardener who tends them and a higher spiritual authority. Gluck explicitly casts many of the poems as prayers (the first half of the book includes seven poems titled "Matins"; the second half, ten called "Vespers"). Other poems respond to these prayers, often in the form of stern rebukes and warnings: "I gathered you together;/I can erase you/as though you were a draft to be thrown away," the gardener-poet dismissively tells her subjects.
In 1976, a year after her second book came out, Gluck published "The Garden," a five-part poem that rewrites the biblical tale of Eden, as a slim fourteen-page chapbook, not unlike October. (The poem was later reprinted as part of her third collection.) In this poem, she discovers a motif that perfectly articulates her preoccupation with the inevitability of loss: "From the first," she later admitted, "I wanted to talk about death; also from the first I had an instinctive identification with the abandoned, the widowed, with all figures left behind." In the opening section of "The Garden," the speaker, a highly self-conscious Eve, predicts the Fall: "And then the losses/one after another." She spends the rest of the poem anticipating her own death.
Gluck returns to the Garden of Eden in The Wild Iris, but this time after its collapse. Written in a ten-week period, the book has the thematic unity and narrative are that led Helen Vendler to pronounce it "one long poem." In this collection's version of "The Garden," the speaker watches a young couple planting seeds and prophesies their demise: "even here, even at the beginning of love,/her hand leaving his face makes/an image of departure." The poem ends on a bleak note, which reveals more about the jaded speaker than the young woman (presumably herself years earlier) and man she describes: "and they think/they are free to overlook/this sadness."
As the most recent in this lineage of garden poems, October both extends and departs from Gluck's earlier work. The speaker is no longer the self-aware young woman who can defy "the gods," nor the self-assured gardener-deity who can declare, "I made you"; she speaks instead in a somewhat tentative voice that seems to ask for reassurance. The poem begins with a series of negative questions: "weren't the spring seeds planted," "wasn't the back garden harrowed," etc. Only after twelve such questions does Gluck venture her first statements, which are still interrupted by doubt and marked by nostalgia for a previous life in which poetry could create an alternate reality:
I remember how the earth felt, red and dense, in stiff rows, weren't the seeds planted, didn't vines climb the south wall I can't hear your voice for the wind's cries, whistling over the bare ground I no longer care what sound it makes when was I silenced, when did it first seem pointless to describe that sound what it sounds like can't change what it is.
For in this poem, Gluck not only laments her fall from grace but also her inability to use writing to "change what ... is." (Or, in the parlance of her earlier work, to take "revenge on circumstance.") September 11 may pose a real challenge to this principle, since such a "circumstance" clearly cannot be reversed through language.
Rather than find salvation in images of nature and renewal as she does in so many of her poems, here she concludes: "My friend the earth is bitter; ... /I think we must give up/turning to her for affirmation." The poet's vocation is no longer an elevated, romantic one of restoring paradise lost; instead, her job is the far more pedestrian one of describing the world as she sees it: "It is true there is not enough beauty in the world./It is also true that I am not competent to restore it./Neither is there candor, and here I may be of some use." But the world as she sees it is still a strange and beautiful place, and October is a strange and beautiful poem. The final line reveals something of the poem's complexity, giving as it takes away, at once holding out a romantic image and cutting through sentimentality: "she is beautiful tonight," Gluck writes of the moon, "but when is she not beautiful?" One is tempted to ask the same question of Gluck's poetic canon, so vividly recalled--and so strikingly expanded--in this remarkable new book.
Lexi Rudnitsky is associate director of the undergraduate writing program at Columbia.