Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1904
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 sisters fought, the older one usually sat on the smaller one and pinched her; but the smaller one retaliated by biting. Gluck says: “in forty years/ she never learned/ the advantage in not/ leaving a mark.” Although this line is ironic, the iron in Gluck’s irony runs deep. Even though the sister is now an adult, she still seems to be the mother’s favorite. Because the family loved flowers, the sister pores over nursery catalogs all year long. In the fall she plants bulbs, but the relationships this signifies are complex. Gluck says, “my mother pays; after all,/it’s her garden, every flower/planted for my father. They both see/the house as his true grave.” The flowers are of immense importance to the sister, and when it rains the day some pink poppies bloom, ruining them before the sister has a chance to see them, the mother is extremely upset. She knows how this will affect the sister, that she will “feel deprived again.” The narrator, looking at this pattern, says of her sibling, “the face of love, to her,/ is the face turning away.”
The sister and the sister’s pull on the mother is a persistent topic. Perhaps Gluck’s strongest statement about the relationships between these three women occurs in “A Fable.” In this poem, she turns on its head the biblical story of King Solomon deciding which woman was the true mother of a child. Here she presents a mother torn between two daughters. The narrator, one of the children, says:
what could you do
to save her but be
willing to destroy
yourself—she would know
who was the rightful child,
the one who couldn’t bear
to divide the mother.
Whatever the daughter is willing to sacrifice for her mother’s love, the hurt of being superseded remains. The two children were opposites, the narrator dark, the sister light. The sister shared her mother’s characteristics, the narrator those of the father. They “… were like day and night,/one act of creation.” The elder one, the narrator declares that, like Adam,
Believe me, you never heal,
you never forget the ache in your side,
the place where something was taken away
to make another person.
This set of family poems also includes the mother’s sister, who is also a widow. In “Widows,” Gluck emphasizes the loneliness of these women who play a card game taught them by their mother. Significantly, the name of the game is Spite and Malice. The object of the game is to get rid of all one’s cards. The game ends like their lives, “the one who has nothing wins.”
Now that Gluck is herself the mother of a son, she examines her emotions in the light of her own mother-child experience and finds that “I don’t love my son/ the way I meant to love him.” She had believed that she could be like the scientist who could look at a lovely thing but not need to possess it. She discovers that this is not what she is’ after all—that she is indeed the scientist but that she comes to the child-flower with a magnifying glass and that she cannot leave.” . . though/ the sun burns a brown/ circle of grass around/ the flower. Which is/ more or less the way/ my mother loved me.” What the narrator learns is that she must .” . . forgive my mother,/ now that I’m helpless/ to spare my son.”
These are lyric poems that do not spare the skin or the flesh but go straight to the bone. They have a mythic power that speaks to the presymbolic communication between mother and child and to the Oedipus complex, as well as to the primitive rivalry that is older than Cain and Abel. Gluck’s language is seemingly spare and clear, but it is making mythic connections beneath its smooth surface. It is more slippery than it appears; it is water over water. Her seemingly transparent style serves as a barrier against the chaos beating on the other side. The reader feels the tremors of this chaos in every line.
Gluck insists that: “They’re the emotional ones,/my sister and my mother.” Yet it is obvious that the narrator’s emotions are intense just below the surface. The reader is reminded of Marianne Moore’s assertion: “The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence;/not in silence, but restraint.” Surely these lines, pared down delicately to the finest, pale covering over the bones, are marvels of constraint.
Because Gluck uses compression, language which seems artless, and myths that go back to primal emotions, much of the power behind her poems occurs in the interstices. There is so much more in what she does not say than in what she says, so much strong feeling in the spaces between what she is able to declare and what lies behind the declaration, that the reader knows the force of the emotion that is being held back. For example, in the last stanza of her poem “Labor Day,” which is about the anniversary of her father’s death, she says:
One day, you’re a blond boy with a tooth missing;
the next, an old man gasping for air.
It comes to nothing, really, hardly
a moment on earth.
Not a sentence, but a breath, a caesura.
Gluck’s poems are like this—the breath between, the pause in the middle of the line that is so painful that it cannot be spoken, so full of hurt that only a pause will contain it. Only the awful mouth of silence can say it. Poem after poem uses this technique, letting the spaces speak where the heart is too full to say.
The first poem in the collection, “Parodos,” tells the reader Gluck’s qualifications and intentions. She says, “I was born to a vocation:/ to bear witness/ to the great mysteries.” The mysteries of the violent feelings of the family are all here, laid out cleanly but with evocation. Gluck, the nature goddess, says: “Now that I’ve seen both/ birth and death, I know/ to the dark nature these/ are proofs, not/ mysteries.” In Ararat, she has written a masterpiece of restraint in a clairvoyant voice. The American lyric has not been in better hands since Marianne Moore.
Sources of Further Study
American Poetry Review. XIX, July, 1990, p.17. Library Journal. CXV, April 1, 1990, p.118.
The New York Times Book Review. XCV, September 2, 1990, p.5.
Poetry. CLVII, November, 1990, p. 101.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVII, February 16, 1990, p.63.
San Francisco Chronicle. May 20, 1990, p. REV4.
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