As mentioned in my previous post on the subject, I intend to focus whole-heartedly on poetry this year. What better place to start, then, than one of the paragons of contemporary poetry: Louise Glück.
Glück accolades are, quite simply, astounding. Among her many awards she can list the Pulitzer Prize, the title of US Poet Laureate, and the National Book Award, which was awarded for Faithful and Virtuous Night.
Faithful and Virtuous Night isn’t my first foray into her work; I actually read The Wild Iris (for which she won the Pulitzer) back in college. I remember quite liking that book, but somehow I hadn’t picked up another copy of her work until my sister-in-law, with her excellent taste in books, gifted me a copy of Glück’s most recent book this year for Christmas. I immediately dove in.
The first two poems in this book are some of my favorites in the entire collection and they do a wonderful job of setting up the book’s epic, almost journey-esque tone. This is a book of highly connected poems, and the narrator that flows from one poem to the next seems to go on a journey through time and perception of the self. I found myself immediately impressed upon by the stark and direct quality of the writing, which is characteristic of Glück’s work. Her poems read almost like prose with line breaks. They are not flowery. Rather, a sparse narrative quality defines her poems.
I’d like to make sure my comment on the line breaks isn’t seen as pejorative. Glück’s use of line breaks is positively masterful. Too often a poet shies away from harsh line breaks or overuses them in a way that feels sloppy or choppy, but Glück’s line breaks help to define cutting images and moments, to force the reader to pause at just the right moment.
In addition to expert line breaks, I also admired Glück’s ability to couple long, loquacious (for her) stanzas with single lines. I particularly liked this pairing in the opening of “Midnight” (one of my favorite poems in the collection):
“At last the night surrounded me;
I floated on it, perhaps in it,
or it carried me as a river carries
a boat, and at the same time
it swirled above me,
star-studded but dark nevertheless.
“These were the moments I lived for.”
She lilts the reader up on a pillow of description and then anchors it all down with a single jolting line that brings the reader back to reality. Brilliant. And this little passage also contains an excellent line break between “a river carries” and “a boat.” A line break such as this allows the reader to be caught up in this floating, carrying feeling of the river and then be brought into a more realistic image by being asked to picture a boat, almost separate from the concept of the river.
I this book, Glück explores themes of childhood and family, particularly of a car accident that strips the narrator of both mother and father; the passage of time, most often represented in images of day turning to night; emptiness and stillness, often seen as a desert or a void the narrator is floating in and embracing; the concept of floating; and death, always followed by rebirth. Recurrent images include snow, winter, mist, trees, sunset, and the night sky. While it is not a particularly uplifting book–none of her work is–it is also not morose or overly macabre. For example, despite both focusing on darker subjects, I couldn’t find Gluck and Plath to be more different in their poetic voice. More than anything this collection has the tone of a narrator who is working through difficult things–the death of a parent, understanding the concept of growing up and accepting all the darker nooks and crannies of the self–with a sense of agency and calm.
My favorite poems in this book include “Parable”, “An Adventure”, “Utopia”, “Afterword”, “Midnight”, “Forbidden Music”, “A Foreshortened Journey”, “The White Series”, and “A Work of Fiction.” Topping that list is probably “An Adventure.” The only poem I didn’t particularly care for was “The Sword in the Stone”–I found it a bit meandering and the ending felt a touch like it was written just for the sake of having the last word in the argument she held with the friend that was in the poem. Even so, it’s not a bad poem, it just doesn’t have the same level of punch and polish as the rest of the poems in the collection.
Faithful and Virtuous Night is a stellar book, fully deserving the praise and awards it has received. I found myself unable to put it down–I read the whole thing in a single sitting. This may have been aided by the fact that many of the poems were linked. An image or idea from the end of one poem would be tied into the beginning of the next–always in a subtle, skilled way. I expect you’ll have the same experience I did if you decide to crack this one open, and you should.