Louise Glück Poetry: American Poets Analysis
Louise Glück’s poetry has been remarkably consistent, both in its controlled, spare, laconic language and in its thematic interests. The universe, as portrayed in a poem such as “The Racer’s Widow” (from Firstborn), is a violent assault, in which “spasms of violets rise above the mud,” and the poet faces loss and estrangement in every human relationship. For consolation there is myth, art, language, and occasionally love between a man and a woman. With these consolations, however, there often comes either an oppressive permanence or an admission of terrible impermanence.
Another consistency seen in Glück’s work is the refusal to romanticize one’s predicament. There is a relentless vision in Glück’s books as well as a gradual loosening of her tight syntactical grip. She can be relentless, sparse, and, in later works, vulnerable. The door to emotion has been set ajar. “Birth, not death, is the hard loss,” Glück said in Firstborn. That remains true, but the poet has learned how to transform loss into art. In her career, Glück has consistently written with a spare tautness that has gained for her much respect among her contemporaries and among an older generation of poets and critics.
Firstborn, Glück’s first book, was published when the author was only twenty-five. The book is arranged in three sections: “The Egg,” “The Edge,” and “Cottonmouth Country.” The titles of the book’s sections give little clue to the book’s subject matter: the squalor of city and suburb, domestic and family tension, the coldness between people, and the bitter disappointment of marriage. Fully three-quarters of the volume consists of formal poems, often sonnet-like, which employ a tight, albeit “slant,” rhyme scheme.
Typical of the first section is the opening poem, “The Chicago Train,” which details the shocking sight of a couple with a child on a commuter train. The writer spares no detail as she practically recoils from the smell and sight in recollection: “just Mister with his barren/ Skull across the arm-rest while the kid/ Got his head between his mama’s legs and slept.” The air is “poison,” and the couple appears riveted in place, “as though paralysis preceding death/ Had nailed them there.” Glück uses colloquial language to heighten the shock: “I saw her pulsing crotch . . . the lice rooted in that baby’s hair.”
Again and again the speaker is the onlooker, watching with a detachment that is both ironic and bitter. In “Thanksgiving,” Glück details the holiday atmosphere in the suburbs where the speaker’s sister is circled by “a name-/ less Southern boy from Yale” much the way a cat prowls the driveway outside, “seeking waste.” Hardly festive, the day wears on toward “that vast consoling meal.” The mother is seen with “skewers in her hands,” and the turkey itself is a vision of “pronged death.” Glück’s vision here is relentlessly dark, the images those of waste and destruction. For this, by implication, the speaker is supposed to give thanks.
The second section, “The Edge,” consists entirely of dramatic monologues spoken by various personas. The speaker might be a bride, a cripple, a nun, a child’s nurse, or a man speaking about spring. Most powerful here (as well as typical) are “The Edge” and “The Racer’s Widow.” The former poem foreshadows much that is to come in Glück’s work, especially the alienation of the female speaker from her husband. The speaker’s heart is tied “to that headboard,” and her “quilted cries/ Harden against his hand.” The tension between them is palpable; the buried violence threatens to overwhelm the poem: “Over Mother’s lace I watch him drive into the gored/ Roasts, deal slivers in his mercy.” The speaker is trapped, “crippled with this house.”
Also typical is the obsession with the physical body that gives “The Racer’s Widow” much of its power. The speaker must face the loss...
(The entire section is 5,132 words.)