The title of Louise Glück’s latest collection of poems, Vita Nova, suggests that it is a work built on the structural theme of renewal by love in Dante’s famous sonnet sequence. However, the new life of which Glück speaks in these poems is not only a renewal of life but also an acceptance of death; it is closer to a lebenstod or love-death song than the discovery of a transcendent love. In addition, Glück uses myths and allusions from classical literature, especially Dido and Aeneas from Vergil’s Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.; Eng. trans., 1553) and Orpheus and Eurydice in this book; in contrast, she uses only a few allusions to Dante or his La vita nuova (c. 1292; Vita Nuova, 1861).
The poems are written in a spare style that is simple and direct in language and often ironic and mocking in tone; that simplicity is very intense and each poem is filled with startling natural images, especially those dealing with light. There are also many voices in the poems, and Glück uses an interrogator of her own and such mythic speakers as Eurydice and Dido. This creates a dialogue within her own poems that adds to the complexity of the poems and the book as a whole.
“Vita Nova” is the first poem in the collection, and it does have some Dantean overtones. It begins with renewal: “You saved me, you should remember me.” The “you” is, perhaps, similar to Beatrice in Dante’s poem. However, the savior “should” remember the speaker of the poem and does not. This line is followed by images of renewal, of “apple blossoms,” and of feelings from childhood. A beautiful scene from “Lugano” and a memory of a joyful moment intensify this renewal: “. . .so that I woke elated, at my age/ hungry for life, utterly confident.” The poem evokes such “moments” again and again in these poems; this allows Glück to use juxtaposition and questions that produce various resolutions to the apparent renewal provided by such glowing moments.
The last stanza announces the renewal: “Surely spring has been returned to me this time.” However, the discovery of renewal in spring is not, as it is in Dante, associated with a “lover” but with “a messenger of death.” The speaker of the poem welcomes this discovery: “yet/ it is still spring, it is still meant tenderly.” The embrace of death is as tender as that of a lover and is “still spring.” This notion is a clear revision of the tradition and the source of this poem.
“Aubade” varies the poetic genre as well; an aubade is an ancient song that speaks of the parting of two lovers with an announcement of dawn. Glück’s poem is instead a return to the dawn of one’s life, childhood; however, that blissful time is shattered by the acknowledgment of “time,” the “tragic dimension.” Images of a room and especially those of light bring back the ideal time with “the self at the center.” In this evocation of a beautiful moment, there is still something unsatisfying, “time stirring, time/ crying to be touched, to be/ palpable.” Earlier in the poem, “time” was “tragic,” whereas now it is a way out of “stasis.” The poem ends with an interesting resolution of these opposites. The speaker returns to childhood “in the presence of riches”; however, “I didn’t know what the riches were made of.” The common desire to return to a time of innocence is qualified by the fact that any return must be accompanied by the full weight of experiences of a later time. The poem is a complex interrogation of some of the most common romantic themes.
“The Queen of Carthage” is the first of a number of poems that deal with Dido’s rejection by Aeneas and subsequent suicide. Glück once more unites love and death. The poem is primarily a recitation of the memories of the coming of Aeneas and his bringing the gift of “passion.” Dido describes the coming of Aeneas and her release in passion in terms of “the Fates.” Again, the focus is on the moment:
. . . What difference
between that and a lifetime: in truth, in such moments,
they are the same, they are both eternity.
Dido accepts “suffering” as she had accepted the “favor” of love; the dual nature of love and suffering is clearly a major theme of the book.
The next poem on Dido, “The Burning Heart,” has an interrogator who doggedly questions the feelings of Dido: “Ask her how he touched her.” Dido’s reply includes many of the traditional descriptions of the visitation of Eros: “His gaze touched me/ before his hands touched me.” The interrogator prods: “Asks her if the fire hurts.” He is referring, of course, to the fire of passion and to the fire of Dido’s pyre on which she is burned. Her reply stresses the union of the lovers. They are first together, and gradually Dido realizes the differences as well: “though neither of us ever moved/ we were not together but profoundly separate.” The last...