For the lucky, born into a geography not visited by war or political terror, the events in life that leave the soul scarred and disoriented are death and divorce. Divorce is a kind of death. Even for people who are glad to get out of relationships, the props of a life have to be remade, families, habits, houses, even towns. And it can leave a life stripped bare. I think about Elizabeth Bishop's poem "One Art," which begins "The art of losing isn't hard to master" and goes on to do a wry inventory:
I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.
It's not surprising that it is a subject for poetry, but it is surprising how little serious and sustained examination of the subject there has been in our poetry, given how common and how devastating the experience can be.
For the last 10 years Louise Gluck, one of the purest and most accomplished lyric poets now writing, has turned from the form of her early books, traditional collections of poems written over a period of time, to a series of book-length sequences. They are written in her characteristically spare and elegant style. They are books of individual poems, but they make a narrative sequence, and so they are able to explore a subject in many moods and from many points of view in a way that is reminiscent of the old sonnet sequences that explored all the phases of a love affair. The first one, Ararat, dealt with a family of three women in the aftermath of the death of a husband and father. The second one, the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Wild Iris, was a meditation on the turning of the year in a northern New England garden. The third, Meadowlands, based on the story of Ulysses and Penelope and Telemachus, was about a marriage coming apart. The newest one, published this year, is Vita Nova (Ecco). Its subject is life after divorce. It begins from something like the place Emily Dickinson described so accurately:
After great pain, a formal feeling comes --
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs --
Here are a couple of the poems:
My soul dried up.
Like a soul cast into a fire, but not completely,
not to annihilation. Parched,
it continued. Brittle,
not from solitude but from mistrust,
the aftermath of violence.
Spirit, invited to leave the body,
to stand exposed a moment, --
trembling, as before
your presentation to the divine --
spirit lured out of solitude
by the promise of grace,
how will you ever again believe
the love of another being?
My soul withered and shrank.
The body became for it too large a garment.
And when hope was returned to me
it was another hope entirely.
Conventions of the time
held them together.
It was a period
(very long) in which
the heart once given freely
was required, a formal gesture,
to forfeit liberty: a consecration
at once moving and hopelessly doomed.
As to ourselves:
fortunately we diverged
from these requirements,
as I reminded myself
when my life shattered.
So that what we had for so long
was, more or less,
And only long afterward
did I begin to think otherwise.
We are all human --
we protect ourselves
as well as we can
even to the point of denying
clarity, the point
of self-deception. As in
the consecration to which I alluded.
And yet, within this deception,
true happiness occurred.
So that I believe I would
repeat these errors exactly.
Nor does it seem to me
crucial to know
whether or not such happiness
is built on illusion:
it has its own reality.
And, in either case, it will end.
"The Garment" and "Earthly Love" from Vita Nova 1999, by Louise Gluck.
Reprinted by permission of Ecco Press and HarperCollins.