The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 558

“Lamentations” consists of four brief lyric poem sequences in free verse. Each sequence has its own title: “The Logos,” “Nocturne,” “The Covenant,” and “The Clearing.” Individual sequences contain from three to four stanzas each. These vary from two to seven lines in length, and the lines themselves mimic the stanzas through the economy of words used.

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The title of this poem, “Lamentations,” suggests mourning for something irrevocably lost. It especially recalls the Old Testament’s Hebrew prophets lamenting the folly of the Children of Israel and their resultant separation from Jehovah. There are also correspondences between Louise Glück’s sequence titles and the New Testament gospel of Saint John. For example, the title of the first sequence, “The Logos,” recalls John’s story of Jesus Christ, as the gospel of John opens with the phrase, “In the beginning was the Word.” One definition of “word” in this context is the Greek word logos. “The Logos” can be described as cosmic reason or, according to ancient Greek philosophy, as the source of world order and intelligibility. The title of “The Logos” therefore suggests a story of cosmic origins and mythical figures that echoes both Greek and Christian mythology. Indeed, the poem’s first stanza describes archetypal figures of a woman—described as “mournful”—and a man. These figures in turn recall the Genesis story of the Garden of Eden and the origins of humankind. The figures are not alone, according to the poem: “god was watching.”

The second sequence, “Nocturne,” indicates, if not a literal setting, a mood of dusk, with a landscape bathed in twilight that projects feelings of both human warmth and “panic.” Here the reader begins to feel a division between the figures from the preceding sequence: There are three distinct entities, “the man, the woman, and the woman’s body.” The unity of “The Logos” sequence, in which there is woman with man “branching into her body,” is gone. With night comes separation and fear.

The result of this fear is an attempt to procure security in the third sequence, “The Covenant”: “Out of fear, they built a dwelling place.” However, this attempt at unity is thwarted by the “child [who] grew between them.” The division of “man” and “woman” as well as the realization of a child’s dependence upon them force the figures from the first sequence to realize that they are now “mother and father.” They are responsible, and like the god who watched them in “The Logos,” they watch the developing “small discarded body” of their creation.

The final sequence, “The Clearing,” speaks further of the separation and alienation begun in “Nocturne.” Even the familiar becomes strange: “Nothing was as before,” and language, the source of communication, is compared with wounds that show distinctly on the “white flesh” of humans. God, now spelled with a capital G, leaves the children of his creation and ascends into heaven. This final separation between the creator, God, and his children is not openly lamented; instead it is quietly described from the viewpoint of God, who, the narrator muses, must have been awestruck by the beauty of Earth when seen for that first time “from the air.” There is a sense in this closing stanza of both despair at the separation of God from his Creation and wonder at the beauty of that Creation.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 437

“Lamentations” abounds with rich mythic imagery that serves as the poem’s touchstone. The four sequences recall the days of Creation that began with the word, or logos, and ended with night. “The Covenant” echoes the Genesis Creation story, in which God makes a covenant between himself and “the man” and “the woman.” At the conclusion of six days of Creation, God rests from his work and calls it “good.” “Lamentations” ends with a corresponding note with the lines, “How beautiful it must have been,/ the earth, that first time” as God saw it when He “leapt into heaven.”

“Lamentations” sets archetypal figures against a backdrop of nature. The man, woman, and child are seen within a world of stripped-down imagery. Readers see the primitive beginnings of humankind, set within a natural world of flowers, beasts, day, night, and they are made aware of the minimal human needs of shelter, warmth, security, and food. The simple, direct imagery of “Nocturne” illustrates the tone of the poem with images of a “forest,” “hills,” “dusk,” “reeds,” and “leaves.” Beasts, “wolves,” and “the man, the woman” populated this environment. “Nocturne” concludes with a line reminding one of the moon glancing off night trees with a “moan of silver.” Such mythic images are explicit metaphors for fundamental human impulses and emotions.

Glück’s sparse language mirrors her use of mythic imagery. Her style in this poem is characteristically pared, chopped, and brief. Calvin Bedient, in an essay in Parnassus (Summer, 1981), compares her style to Ezra Pound’s Imagist poetry, full of “hard light, clear edges.” In an essay published in the American Poetry Review (September/October, 1993), Glück wrote: “I am attracted to the ellipsis, to the unsaid, to suggestion, to eloquent, deliberate silencethey haunt because they are not whole, though wholeness is implied.” Her style is exhibited in the tightly compressed sequences, stanzas, lines, and words of “Lamentations.” Each of its sequences has no more than four stanzas, and no line has more than nine words. The lines themselves are also clipped, with no more than three or four stresses. Lines from the second stanza of “The Logos” illustrate these tendencies: “But god was watching,/ They felt his gold eye/ projecting flowers on the landscape.”

Despite the poem’s brevity, the poetic sequence suggests the entire cycle of creation, and elemental human emotions of “panic,” hunger, and isolation. These themes are explored in a simple language that leaves much to the reader’s imagination. Everything is reduced to a minimum, as if the poet—like the god in “The Logos”—“want[s] to be understood” but cannot adequately explain.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 123

Diehl, Joanne Feit, ed. On Louise Glück: Change What You See. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005.

Dodd, Elizabeth. “Louise Glück: The Ardent Understatement of Postconfessional Classicism.” In The Veiled Mirror and the Woman Poet: H. D., Louise Bogan, Elizabeth Bishop, and Louise Glück. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1992.

Harrison, DeSales. The End of the Mind: The Edge of the Intelligible in Hardy, Stevens, Larkin, Plath, and Glück. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Upton, Lee. Defensive Measures: The Poetry of Niedecker, Bishop, Glück, and Carson. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 2005.

Upton, Lee. “Fleshless Voices: Louise Glück’s Rituals of Abjection and Oblivion.” In The Muse of Abandonment: Origin, Identity, Mastery in Five American Poets. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1998.

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