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Book World: Louise Gluck’s ‘Poems 1962-2012’

By Steven Ratiner,

Six hundred and thirty-four pages, just shy of three pounds: a life in letters. No, more essential than that: Louise Gluck’s “Poems 1962-2012” is weighted with the dark matter of the human universe, invisible in our everyday interactions but at the core of our conscious experience. Though Gluck lays bare the most intimate moments of longing and loss, these poems are not what we think of as confessional. They are more like the record of a shipwreck survivor trying to come to terms with the strain of isolation and the stark horizon of her island. Language is the castaway’s only refuge.

Gluck has garnered awards and accolades at every stage of her career. Her poetic voice has evolved perfectly to suit the material she explores. Her first publication came in the pages of Mademoiselle (a magazine we no longer associate with cutting-edge literature) as did Sylvia Plath’s before her, and, at the outset, many saw Gluck as Plath’s heir-apparent. But beginning with her second book, “The House on Marshland,” she began steering a new course. The voice slowly became more dispassionate, exacting, remote — even as the subject matter grew more psychologically harrowing. The fierce gestures were replaced by quiet juxtapositions and subtle modulations of tone; now the core of each poem seemed to reside in a haunting absence, purposely unseen, unsaid.

If every poet secretly hopes to lay claim to one aspect of experience beyond the reach of other practitioners, by default Gluck’s metier became estrangement.

She has created, in the 11 volumes collected here, the most scrupulously observed, painfully frank accounts of estrangement in all its diverse forms: from family, community, history; from the beloved and the idea of love itself. She writes in “Parodos”:

Long ago, I was wounded.

I learned

to exist, in reaction,

out of touch

with the world: I’ll tell you

what I meant to be —

a device that listened.

Not inert: still.

A piece of wood. A stone.

Early on, she developed an intellectual discipline that would serve as both cloister and confinement. “Birthday” makes this plain, even as it reveals the price to be exacted:

Staring blindly ahead, the expression of someone staring into utter darkness.

And thinking — which meant, I remember, the attempts of the mind

to prevent change. . . .

Riddled with self-doubt, self-loathing,

and at the same time suffused

with contempt for the communal, the ordinary; forever

consigned to solitude, the bleak solace of perception.

The acid of Gluck’s scrutiny can strip not only varnish from polished surfaces but flesh from bone.

Book by book, the poet set new challenges for herself, new psychic provinces to conquer and colonize.

Many consist of full-length sequences unfolding webs of connections and correspondences. Often, she returns to Greek and Roman mythology for elaborate metaphors for her own bedeviled domesticity. She channels voices like wayward Odysseus and long-suffering Penelope, Orpheus and Eurydice, and Persephone in Hades. But no matter the costume, Gluck is always resolutely herself. Peering out through every mask or literary convention, she wants to distill what is uniquely her own, capturing every feint and evasion of the mercurial self.

There are times in the recent work when the poems feel somewhat prolix, the language veering dangerously toward the banal, but there is no critique I can aim at this poet that she hasn’t already used as a cudgel against herself. As her marriage is dissolving, she observes coldly, “Such a mistake to want/ clarity above all things” (“Moonless Night”). And in “Summer Night,” she bemoans her self-exile: “And the life, in a sense, never completely lived./ And the art always in some danger of growing repetitious.”

I find myself despairing sometimes about the generations of bleak solipsists that this strain of contemporary poetry has spawned — many without the imaginative resources Gluck brings to the task — but that does not diminish the power of this poet’s achievement.

Physicists tell us the universe is constantly expanding, and there are certainly poets whose work seems driven by a similar creative force: Neruda, Roethke, Szymborska come quickly to mind. But Gluck’s experiment aims at an inverse infinitude: the vast universe compressed within the conscious self, small as a monk’s cell and as solitary.

Visiting that involuted realm, I continue to marvel at how universal such a singular vision can be. But these days, I can remain in her underworld for only so long before I need to close the book and step out into sunlight.

Ratiner’s interview collection, “Giving Their Word: Conversations With Contemporary Poets,” has been reissued in a new paperback edition.

POEMS 1962-2012 By Louise Gluck Ecco/Farrar Straus Giroux. 634 pp. $40

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