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The Wild Iris.

Carol Muske's fifth book of poems, Red Trousseau, and her second novel, Saving St. Germ, will be pub She teaches in the English Department at the University of Southern California.

The world of Louise Gluck's poems has always been conventional: her god the God of revelation, the family milieu bourgeois and patriarchal, the sexual ethos unrelievedly Freudian. But Gluck's preoccupation with convention stems from a much deeper obsession with order, and with clarification: in her poems a failing world is forced to display its wounds, to pursue its logic to inevitable irrational extreme, to witness its own ambivalence toward and flight from taboo, the frailty of its moral judgments. Convention is taken apart to display pathology--and the poet's role is surgical: "This is mastery," she has said, "whose active mode is dissection."

In poem after poem, we see a moral world pinned helplessly to its dilemma of absolutes, rendered unsparingly. Thus, in an early poem inspired by Edvard Munch's The Sick Child, a mother is admonished for not turning away from her dying little one ("Then it is wrong, wrong/ to hold her--") since death will inevitably make its claim and the surviving children never forget the mother's neglect; thus in another poem, we witness the anorexic child's "need to perfect" her body (which she compares with the poet's need for precision)--"Of which death is the mere byproduct"; and finally, bitterly, a woman's body "is a grave; it will accept/ anything."

It is clear that it is genius wielding this blade, and that it is a double-edged genius: intellectual insights accrue, dazzling and implacable, but the emotions that inspire the poems are disconnected and wrenching, as if a wound (self-inflicted) could speak. She resists the trappings of mastery: there are no flourishes, no virtuoso effects in Gluck. From her harsh-lit starkness to the weary ascendance of the oracle--we are meant to see that the knife is wielded in service of a higher power. Unlike her literary peers, she offers little evidence of personality (even at her most psycho-anecdotal) rather she displays the unexpected passions of the zealot. The poet is simply a scribe, vatic translator of divine logos.

It is hardly surprising that there has been, till now, no god capable of withstanding Gluck's scrutiny. In her poems, perfection has become synonymous with stasis, paralysis, stopped time, morbidity--even as the blade sculpts a new image to fit her protean longing. In The 7humph of Achilles the scribe-poets themselves are chastised for the futility of testimony in words; she saves her scorn for "we who would leave behind exact records."

Still, Louise Gluck has searched for God even in despair--and in The Wild Iris, she has found her deity on earth, among the flowers. This book reads like a culmination of a divine quest-from her earliest "possessed voices" (poems from which her famous oracular presence derived) to her ransacking of the Greek pantheon for mythological narrative sufficient to the interrogations of the secular, through Dionysian Christ figures, to the Judaic God of Scripture to Ararat's dubious modern messiah, psychoanalysis.

Do you know what I was, how I lived? You know

what despair is; them

winter should have meaning for you.

("Snowdrops," p.6)

Winter, the cold retraction of promise, the cycle of withering and dying is a clue to a new perspective. Nevertheless, The Wild Iris begins on what appears to be familiar Gluck ground. There is the title's flirtation with myth: Iris is the rainbow goddess, whose prism-bridge connects sky and earth. The image calls up Wordsworth's fleeting rainbow--coupled with the particular symbology of the visual: the iris of the eye, the mind's entrapment in and by what is seen, and botanical reference. In botany, the wild or false iris, pseudacorus, is not cultivated, grows outside the gardener's borders, thus providing one of the book's central metaphors: undomesticated thriving versus the garden.

The reader struggles to find a locus in these poems--where exactly are we? The poems' structures provide some assistance. They are dialogues (or an eclogue) between the god and/or between a human speaker and the human speaker and blossoms. The timespan of the book is one season's flowering, from Spring through late Autumn. Flowers seem to speak by eerie ventriloquism: the projected voices of deity or poet, but they possess their own pathos. The poet-speaker's voice, waking and sleeping, chimes "Matins" and "Vespers"--in the liturgical tradition of The Book of Common Prayer or the Latin Office. Light, dark, morning, evening--maybe we're in the familiar split world of dualism, the Manichean god who has plagued Gluck through many avatars?

Look at the night sky:

I have two selves, two kinds of power.

("Spring Snow, " p. 9)

In fact, Gluck is using notions of duality to interrogate a new god--or a newly-cast vision of an old god. All of the speaking flowers represent the earth itself, from the garden-grown: ("The White Rose, " "The White Lily") to the insistent voices of weeds and wildflowers, who seem at first to have scattered, opinionated "identities" that reflect human preoccupations. (For example, in a poem called " Ipomoea, " the morning glory speaks bitterly about its destiny, having only one day to blossom, then turns its musings, resignedly, to faith.)

But from what, or whom, do these voices derive? Are we meant to see them as subjective meditations of the poet alone--or are they connected to a more obvious theology, mythology? There are hints, in the excited yet removed musical tone of the poems that we've entered momentousness: some great glory has recently passed from the earth (The shadow of the Romantics is as long as God's on this landscape!)--and Gluck's inspiration for these poems seems drawn direct from Wordsworth:

To me the meanest flower that blows can give

Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.

(from "Ode on Intimations of Immortality")

The talking flowers here indeed offer "thoughts too deep for tears" and they are meant to impart them as living consciousnesses of the earth--Nature is both inherently alive and representative of the soul's subjective animation--the world, Wordsworth says, which we half-perceive and half-create.

This world we half-perceive and half-create finks the poems even more strongly to the story of Orpheus and Eurydice--and to Rilke. The excerpt below (from Rilke's note to the Hogarth Press version of the Sonnets to Orpheus) both clarifies and enlarges Wordsworth's speculation on the grief of flowers and Gluck's own focus:

Transience everywhere plunges into a deep being . . . Not into a beyond, the

shadow of which darkens the earth, but into a whole, into a whole. Nature, the

things we move among and use, are provisional and perishable, but, so long as

we are here, they are our possession and our friendship, sharing the knowledge

of our grief and gladness, as they have already been the confidants of our

forebears . . . Transform? Yes; for our task is so deeply and so passionately to

impress upon ourselves this provisional and perishable earth, that its essential

being will arise again invisibly" in us.

It is Ruke's vision of the "young dead girl," the one "whose incompletion and innocence holds open the door of the grave, so that she, gone from us, belongs to those powers who keep half of life fresh and open towards the other wound-open half" that drives forward the Sonnets and Gluck's Iris. The dead girl, Eurydice, the poet's "other half" banished to the underworld:

But you now, dear girl whom I loved like a flower whose name

I didn't know, you who so early were taken away:

I will once more call up your image and show it to them,

beautiful companion of the unsubduable cry.

(from Sonnet XXV, translated by Stephen Mitchell)

you won't hear it in the other world,

not clearly again,

not in birdcall or human cry,

not the clear sound, only

persistent echoing

in all sound that means good-bye, good-bye--

("End of Winter," p. 10)

So we encounter the voice of leave-taking, the voice of the split world of the Orphic myth (what Rilke called the "Double World")--but despite this built-in lyricism, Gluck's voice is at times brutally ironic, rejecting and rejected, outspoken. The voice is Eurydice but, is, in fact, Eurydice risen--like Persephone--back for the summer, a lot wiser. Rilke may not know the name of a flower, but Gluck does, she knows each one by heart. Further, she wishes mightily to distance herself from the merely pastoral:

I am

at fault, at fault, I asked you

to be human--I am no needier

than other people. But the absence

of all feeling, of the least

concern for me--I might as well go on

addressing the birches,

as in my former life: let them

do their worst, let them

bury me with the Romantics,

their pointed yellow leaves

falling and covering me.

("Matins," p. 13)

Furthermore, as she divides her flowers into the cultivated species and the wild blossoms, also recording human preference of light over dark, she intimates the power of one "half" of perception over the other. The conventional sects that look "up" to see God in his heaven (or in disillusioned retreat from all of human creation) have tyrannized the cults that look "down" to the earth. The rational over the emotional, the intellectual over the intuitive, etc., etc.

But surely she has not made it so easy for us? Is this (paraphrased in current critical reducto-speak) Apollonian/male/sky-ish versus Dionysian/ female/chthonic? The answer's yes but with an admonition attached:

. . . No one wants to hear

impressions of the natural world: you will be

laughed at again; scorn will be piled on you.

As for what you're actually

hearing this morning. think twice

before you tell anyone what was said in this field

and by whom.

("Daisies," p. 39)

The warning to "think twice" is both a play on the notion of duality and a warning: don't assume too much. The "don't tell anyone" gives her words the power of subversiveness: cloaked figures in the field, clandestine gnomic rituals.


the soul! the soul! Is it enough

only to look inward? Contempt

for humanity is one thing, but why

disdain the expansive

field your gaze rising over the clear heads

of the wild buttercups into what? Your poor

idea of heaven: absence

of change. Better than earth? How

would you know, who are neither

here nor there, standing in our midst?

("Field Flowers," p. 28)

To be neither "here nor there" is to be human, split, dichotomized. How restore these divided parts to the whole?

Stylistically and tonally, The Wild Iris has a profound wholeness. Every poem in the book is set up in essentially the same way, and it is a style familiar to Gluck's readers. Each poem is a dramatic voice, a declarative lyric, framed in startling apostrophe. The combination of rhetorical and colloquial diction, ("Contempt for humanity is one thing") works like a brake of deadpan humor on that high-priestess interrogative tone--as if Rilke were undercut with Auden at his most acerbic.

The poems are accentual/syllabic-rarely more than seven syllables per line and a strong two-or-three stress fine. The pattern creates an hypnotic rhythm, an argument, a complaint, but with a fine carefully worked music:

. . .

doing what you always do,

mourning and laying blame,

always the two together.

("Witchgrass," p. 23)

In "Field Flowers," Nature's voice is a scornful one. The "glory" for the flower is not in flowering itself, but in the startled awakening of the seed, then seed-split, tropism, the shoot unfurling toward the great light. Vision is made a mockery, both the physical act of sight (staring at the horizon) and the visions, philosophical and pious, imposed on that eye-line. The vault of the sky has created a false belief, a blind cathedral, Orpheus's backward look. Poetic vision, including Romantic nature worship, is a joke.

Not I, you idiot, not self, but we, we--waves

of sky blue like

a critique of heaven: why

do you treasure your voice

when to be one thing

is to be next to nothing?

Why do you look up? To hear

an echo like the voice

of god? You are all the same to us,

solitary, standing above us, planning

your silly lives . . .

("Scilla," p. 14)

So much for the Solitary Reaper. So much for the Lyre. Her previous gods have indeed occupied a remote heaven; the sufferings of mortals have been viewed from this exalted position. Gluck has always associated earth with death, her recurring glimpses of the "garden" in other books were mortuarial, embalmed--but now she is closer to accepting the death earth represents.

--I am ashamed

at what I thought you were,

distant from us, regarding us

as an experiment it is

a bitter thing to be

the disposable animal,

a bitter thing . . .

("Matins," p. 31)

Bitter death lies at the center of The Wild Iris, as it does in all her Bother books. But this is the first time that this bitterness does not cause an injured turning-away from the earth. Instead she moves toward the earth, cutting through all the "lies": the Bible, the Garden, the Adamic myth, Heaven and Hell, the solitary ego of the artist, the anthropomorphic God himself, the human act of making distinctions, i.e., language, art, poetry.

Now we stare into a world which has been effectively dismantled, reduced to speaking object.

Wordsworth's exhortation: to cast aside the veil of the familiar and see, is ultimately heeded. Nature may be God, yes, but the deity no longer has to be named God. Here is a new god, nature, an impersonal force, a collective animator, not so much Wordsworth's "clouds of glory, " as the prime force Goethe set forth in his botanical writings: all is leaf (Or "white light" obscured by matter, as one poem puts it.)

But think twice: she is moving closer to Blake: Innocence after Experience, she is Eurydice risen. She is Rilke s "essential being" rising again "invisibly" to impart a message:

. . . with a child's fierce confidence of imminent power

preparing to defeat

these weaknesses, to succumb

to nothing, the time directly

prior to flowering, the epoch of mastery

before the appearance of the gift,

before possession.

("The Doorway," p. 33)

The word "possession" describes exactly the moment in which t psyche splits, becoming both active and passive, as it mirrors itself. The verb possess "reads" either way, to be claimed or to claim, sexually or otherwise. And gift and flower are active verbs as well as things. The poet's eye and the object.

It is "prior to flowering, " that we give up our mastery, or oneness, and are purchased by a vision of ourselves, our egos, and split into distinctions, fragments, shatter. If mastery's "active mode" is dissection, then this is the body entire prior to fragmentation.

Thus the outcast's voice, that of weed or wildflower, holds forth in The Wild Iris. We've rarely heard the voice of the "other order, " outside the "law" of the cultivated. The departing God is male, the Father. Here is the She-God, Demeter, Lilith, Mother Goddess: both wholeness and void.


comes into the world unwelcome

calling disorder, disorder--

("Witchgrass," p. 22)

In "Witchgrass," the defiant voice of the weed precedes a quick portrait of a man and a woman, a husband and wife, lying in bed, (one of the few "peopled" moments in the poems) wrapped in the bleakness of diminished passion.

what you see happening

right here in this bed,

a little paradigm

of failure. One of your precious flowers

dies here almost every day

and you can't rest until

you attack the cause, meaning

whatever is left . . .

("Witchgrass," p. 22-23)

It's just another way "to blame one tribe for everything--as we both know/ if you worship one god, you only need/ one enemy--I'm not the enemy." Earth, witchgrass, witch, woman--the blamed tribe, not the enemy. Rather, what she describes is another kind of mastery, whose passive mode is potential, maternality, the fertile field.

I don't need your praise

to survive. I was here first,

before you were here, before

you ever planted a garden,

And I'll be here when only the sun and moon

are left, and the sea, and the wide field

I will constitute the field

("Witchgrass," p. 23)

The authority of that last line rings through the book--joined with all things prior to flowering. If a woman's body is a grave, then surely we have here, if not a reversal of that slur, a revision of it--in order to readjust our sight, Orpheus's backward sight. Indeed, a grave will accept anything, but it is as earth, which accepts and turns death to life.

Thus the book's final image begins as a portrait of burial, but becomes a figure planting a bulb, a "dead" life.

I felt your two hands

bury me to release its splendor.

("The White Lilies," p. 63)

"During this one summer we have entered eternity," she says to her Orphic companion, and we are returned to the beginning of the book, its powerful hint of birth and rebirth:

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 Wild Iris," p. 1)

Returning to the book's first poem, the title poem, we find an extraordinary Rilkean image of a fountain pouring up from the center of "my life" and praise of the deep "blues" of the flower. To die with the flowers, to recast oblivion is--dare we use this word regarding Gluck?--an image of hope. If this is not credible to her readers, perhaps it is enough to think of her as earthbound, chthonic, but not imprisoned. Eurydice-with-a-blade will constitute the field.
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Title Annotation:critical analysis of Louise Gluck's poetry
Author:Muske, Carol
Publication:The American Poetry Review
Date:Jan 1, 1993
Previous Article:Melville's marginalia.
Next Article:From Dante's 'Inferno:' Canto V; a translator's note.

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