The Glass Essay

by Anne Carson

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The Consuming Yet Everyday Nature of Grief

Early in this long poem, the speaker reveals that a man she was with for five years, Law, has recently left. She is processing at her mother's home by reading Emily Brontë and in conversations with her therapist. She records what she later calls (in hindsight) her "spiritual melodrama":

I felt as if the sky was torn off my life.

She often brings up the unoriginality of her grief—that it is not uncommon to want to die, that it is not uncommon to feel angry. "My questions were not original," she writes. Grief is cast as ordinary and all-consuming:

There is nowhere else to go,no ledge to climb up to.

The speaker is particularly concerned with the role of memory in grieving. "Perhaps the hardest thing about losing a lover is / to watch the year repeat its days," she writes. Similarly, in a conversation with her mother, the mother tells the speaker she should not remember so much, that she should let go. The speaker replies that she cannot.

Grief also plays a role in the speaker's relationship to her father. When he is introduced, it is briefly unclear if he is dead or alive. Then it is clarified that he is alive, and yet unaware and struggling. In grieving his capacity to interact with her, communicate with language, or accept the touch of his wife, the speaker writes,

It is hard to find the beginning of dementia.

She then describes a phone call in which her father becomes agitated and confused, forgetting who is on the phone. She also notices his teeth deteriorating and grieves her father's lost consciousness and vitality during her visit to the hospital.

The poem ends in a place that has moved through grief. She eventually stops seeing the images of women in various stages of pain, and writes,

Something had gone through me and out and I could not own it.

Once the grief has passed its intense stages, she accepts its role as a strong wind that blows flesh off a body's bones.

The windwas cleansing the bones.They stood forth silver and necessary.

Love's Potency and Control

Much as in Wuthering Heights, the novel the poem continually refers to, love is explored not as an end or as a positive, but as a potentially violent force. The speaker investigates the term "love and its necessities," wondering whether love is necessary, or what about love is necessary. She describes when her heart breaks "into two pieces / which floated apart" and how she continues to be rejected by her lover.

As the poem focuses on love after the fact, the speaker is often interested in the lack of agency caused by love. She thinks of being held by her lover "like a needle in water," and when she has sex with him after the breakup, she writes that "no part of [her] body . . . could have done otherwise." She likens her positioning to Emily Brontë's (with references to the moor and the carpet), who had intense and compulsive ideas of love, and very little experience. The speaker writes about her own period of being in love for the first time,

It was like a wheel rolling downhill.

The speed and fear evoked are elements of this lack of agency.

Multiple Modes of Imprisonment

Recurring gestures toward imprisonment occur in every section of this poem. There are references to ropes, thorns, cages. The speaker's father is strapped down into his chair at the hospital. Blood and words become trapped in glass....

(This entire section contains 868 words.)

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Society's norms and expectations imprisoned Emily Brontë, who claimed to be at "peace" with her hermit lifestyle. Brontë did not engage with the external world in the expected ways of her time—marriage, friendship, children—and she worked just one job in her life, for six months. And in this way, she is also imprisoned with herself and her carpet, as the speaker notes is clear in Emily's writing. Throughout "The Glass Essay," others are confined, such as "the woman who stands pinned / to nothing by its pressure," who is trying "to lift her hand but cannot." Or her photographed father in his World War II uniform, about to be a part of a deadly mission—but the photo's "shadowless light makes him look immortal."

The speaker notes,

Well there are many ways of being held prisoner.

People are imprisoned in their own ways throughout the poem—physically and psychologically, individually and interpersonally—and, of course, by glass. For the speaker, staying in bed in the morning impinges on her sense of freedom, whereas for her mother and lover, being bound by the sheets make them feel free. "Liberty means different things to different people," she notes. Relatedly, the speaker has an argument with her mother, first about drapes, and then about rape, and this furthers the idea of individual imprisonment by external rules (via her mother's stringent ideas about a bedroom's norms and her disbelief in the freedom of expression through dress).

Earlier in the poem, she sees a "shadowless light" as freeing from death, but in the last line, a body she sees as truly free walks "out of the light."