Much contemporary poetry, especially in international terms, leans automatically toward parsimony. The spendthrift school of improvident discourse seems out of joint, even immoral, in a culture already awash in its own verbosity. The reigning aesthetic in the poetry of this century has therefore been a countermove toward understatement, in which words, frugally doled out from the poet’s silence, strive by their very scarcity to recapture the fullness of nuance and resonance that was once theirs. A poet who adopts this aesthetic will find that it offers three advantages. First, the truth-value of any situation stands in wary relation to overstatement, whose fussiness tends to pervert and obscure. It prefers the lean to the fat, the cool to the hot. Second, it apprises the poet of a constant obligation: He is, by default, the custodian of the language. Third, because he constantly directs his attention to the full measure of words, he is put in touch with their mythic beginnings—and with myth itself. Resonant structures lie at his disposal. Time becomes synchronic and history transparent. He brings, consciously, the whole history of denotations, connotations, usage, and inflection to bear on his subject matter. Preeminently among the poets of her generation (those born in the 1940’s), Louise Glück has sought, with supreme indifference to fad, to hone a verbal instrument—laconic, severe, completely devoid of inconsequence—equal to the life-altering illusions, fictions, and longings she takes as the subjects of her poems.
The Triumph of Achilles, Glück’s fourth collection, continues her de-mystifications of the most central and the talismanic facts of human existence—namely, love, aggression, mortality, and knowledge. Once a time-haunted poet, she seems now to have packed away her nostalgias—as beautiful as these were—and directed her attention to what it means to live in the present tense. What once was predominantly retrospective in her poems is now by turns introspective and prospective. Instead of the personal past, she invokes myth, where the typical gains ascendancy over the individual and where, therefore, the patterns of human behavior unfold. It is as if experience, to which we bring our vaunted individuality, generates a friction that forces us to act against the grain of our singular intentions and renders us, at last, typical. The recognition of this fact, and our accommodation to it, constitute the topos of this book. The projection of our acts into myth provides the method.
In the title poem, the gods forsake Achilles, himself “nearly a god,” because he no longer aspires to their majesty and omnipotence. Instead, he grieves “with his whole being” for Patroclus, and the gods withdraw their patronage, since “he was a man already dead, a victim of the part that loved, the part that was mortal.” For all the godlike features within his nature, Achilles turns to and embraces his mortality—that which most basically typifies humanity—through his love. His mortality, then, is his triumph, and the gods know this to be so. Because of his love, they see him as “Already dead.” This implicit causal relationship between death and love permeates the collection.
Yet it is not only a case of “Because death, therefore love.” The poet intimates that the reverse relationship is sometimes true as well. In “Hawk’s Shadow,” the poet and her lover watch a hawk “hovered with its kill,” making one shadow, “Like the one we made,/ you holding me.” The opening poem, “Mock Orange,” refers skeptically to the love cry as expressive of the “low, humiliating premise of union.” The premise never blossoms into its desired conclusion. Rather, it is stunted by the romantic fiction “love,” which is not an auspice for true feeling but a license for manipulation. “Always in these friendships/ one serves the other, one is less than the other.” In “Mythic Fragment,” Apollo, the “stern god,” approaches the female speaker, the unidentified Daphne, who begs her deity-father “in the sea” to save her. Transformed into a tree, she resists the god’s advances but must forever accommodate her father’s—another god’s—silence. These transformations declare, in irrefutable terms, the death of previous states of being and the necessity both for recognition and acceptance. Considered as images, many of these poems bring to mind William Blake’s last engravings, in which human figures tunnel through realms of being that remain after they have passed. In Glück’s poems, the realms no longer remain, except insofar as they are the dead atmospheres of memory, and “no voice/ carries to that kingdom.”
Glück’s new book puts heavy...