A Village Life (Magill's Literary Annual 2010)
In her well-crafted collection of poetry, A Village Life, Pulitzer Prize-winner Louise Glück escorts her readers to an unnamed and undated Mediterranean village so universal that it could be anywhere. In these poems, Glück’s major focus is on time and its rapid and relentless movement forward. In one poem, “Primavera,” Glück declares, “Alas, very soon everything will disappear:In the end,/ even the earth itself will follow the artist’s name into oblivion.”
Glück observes that humans resist and resent the merciless march of time. In “A Slip of Paper,” she writes, “To get born, your body makes a pact with death/ and from that moment, all it tries to do is cheat.” The stages of life, childhood, adolescence, adulthood, old age, and death are all universal but are experienced differently by each person. Using incisive themes, creative image patterns, and abrupt shifts in tone, Glück elevates common life experiences to uncommon art in the forty-one poems of A Village Life.
Mutability and the transience of all living things is a major theme that informs A Village Life. Not only do adulthood and old age move rapidly, inexorably toward death, but also even childhood, Glück asserts, coexists with its opposite. “The fountain is for the young who still want to look at themselves,” Glück writes in “Tributaries,” while old age stands over youth’s shoulder. In “At the River,” childhood itself rapidly expires to make room for adolescence as, “that summer we understood that something was going to happen to us/ that would change us.” Similarly, in “Abundance,” a boy feels, “for the first time he’s touched a girl, so he walks home a man.”
For Glück, emblems of death are never too far from images of youth. Time accelerates exponentially, so that the thinly clad young bathers in the quarry of “Midsummer,” dive off “cool and wet” stones, which later serve as “marble for graveyards.” “I’ll just keep being a child,” says the narrator in “Noon,” because change is “an avalancheand the child standing underneath/ just gets killed.”
Youth also morphs painfully into difficult adulthood, especially relationships and marriage. In “In the Plaza,” Glück asserts that the female has power in a premarital relationship, but only the man controls the marriage, while “In the Café,” argues that people lose themselves when they look to a partner to be the answer to their lives. Youth and adulthood collide in “At the River,” when a young person strives to face her parents’ dysfunctional marriage and her father’s alcoholism, while her mother describes marital “pleasure” to her, “more like a speech about mechanical engineering.”
In the ironically titled “Marriage,” violent anger drives a couple apart, while in “A Corridor” a husband and wife’s relationship is so claustrophobic that “they suffocate, as though they were living in a phone booth.” “Figs” chronicles the death of marital love as the speaker mourns, “He’s trying to turn me into a person I never was,” while in “Olive Trees” despair just turns to silence. Most painfully, love deteriorates into devastation in “Fatigue,” where “Nothing remains of love,/ only estrangement and hatred.”
The death of love slowly becomes the death of life, preceded by old age. In “Walking at Night,” an old woman realizes that she can now walk safely because young people pay her no attention. Glück describes “the country of death” in “A Slip of Paper” as a trap door through which one is violently shoved by the living since, “they want you there first, ahead of them.” In “March,” Glück refers to death chillingly as “erasure.”
Glück also continues her theme of life’s inevitable mutability by choosing to give three different poems the same title, “Burning Leaves.” In the first poem, Glück compares a farmer burning dead leaves at sunset to human death, as well as to the cycle of nature whereby “death [makes] room for life.” In the second poem, the burning leaves yearn to escape the confines of their fiery grave, “those last sparks/ still resisting, unfinished.” In the third poem, the dead leaves flare, are self-consumed, and disappearan apt metaphor for the brevity of life and the permanence of death. Glück writes, “How fast it all goes, how fast the smoke clears./ And where the pile of leaves was,/ an emptiness that suddenly seems vast.”
Similarly, Glück includes two poems, each named “Bats,” that deal with the quick passage of life into death. The...
(The entire section is 1939 words.)
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