Louise Gluck’s poetry has been highly praised. She has been called one of the foremost lyric poets of her generation, and Ararat provides a continuation of her lyric tradition. Her fourth book, The Triumph of Achilles, won the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Boston Globe Literary Press Award, and the Poetry Society of America’s Melville Kane Award. She has also been awarded numerous grants, including ones from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.
Gluck used Greek myths as the launching pad for the poems in her fourth book, and this volume also utilizes myths. The myths in Ararat are all related, in one way or another, to families, and all of them are primordial and terrifying stories. Gluck’s chief source here is the Bible, and she uses such stories as the Creation, Cain and Abel, and King Solomon and the baby. Families in Gluck’s world are not Norman Rockwell families; they are units with deep divisions, severe fissures, and wounds that go back to the prehistoric era. Her families do not represent togetherness but rather demonstrate the terrible separation that occurs within their circle. Gluck examines the characters in her contemporary family: the father, the mother, two sisters, and one dead sister. She also sees her aunt and the aunt’s family, and finally, there are poems about her own child and her own struggle with motherhood. Her style in dealing with this material is carefully controlled, as it has been beginning with her first book, Firstborn (1968); in Ararat she hones her restrained language to an even finer edge. As she perfects the use of myth to invoke image and echo, she can allow more spaces in her poems, intervals that the reader can fill in. Her technique of condensation, saying only enough to call up familiar stories and familiar emotions, is both subtle and extremely powerful in this volume. There is no tone of celebration here, but rather a fine boding of despair.
Although the poems in this volume can stand alone, when read in sequence they present a narrative of a family life that was divided by silence and by sibling rivalry. Gluck’s poem “Snow,” about a child going to the circus with her father, paints a stark picture of the relationship between the two. The father holds her on his shoulders, ostensibly so that she can see better, but she knows that “My father liked/ to stand like this, to hold me/ so he couldn’t see me.” The narrator’s father, whether real or imagined, was an extraordinarily silent, self-contained person. Although her mother wanted to travel and go to museums and theaters,
What he wanted
was to lie on the couch
with the Times
over his face,
so that death, when it came,
wouldn’t seem a significant change.
When he was in fact dying, he explained to the daughter that he was not feeling any pain, only a kind of weakness. “I said I was glad for him, that I thought he was lucky.” When it came time for her to leave, they said goodbye as they usually did, with “no embrace, nothing dramatic.” Although her mother always waved and blew kisses, her father never did. Gluck paints the scene this way:
But for a change, my father didn’t just stand there.
This time, he waved.
That’s what I did, at the door to the taxi.
Like him, waved to disguise my hand’s trembling.
The distant father represents one of the major divisions in the family. He seems to stand on one side of a chasm and his wife and daughters on the other. In “A Novel,” in which Gluck looks at all of them as if they were characters in a fiction, she finds that the wife and two daughters are “all determined to suppress/ criticism of the hero After the father is dead, they cannot voice what they really know—that he was weak—and although the scenes in the book say that a hero is called for, that was ’not his nature.” Still, as they busy themselves with the mundane chores of the house, they find: “Each heart pierced through with a sword.”
The father in this narrative is distant; the mother is not, but she is divided between the two daughters and part of her rests with the daughter who died. Gluck noted the change in her mother when the baby passed away, as her heart became “like a tiny pendant of iron”:
Then it seemed to me my sister’s body
was a magnet. I could feel it draw
my mother’s heart into the earth,
so it would grow.
Although the daughter who died was a rival, it was the living sister who was the most dangerous. When the two...
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