Meadowlands

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 386

In this dramatic tour de force of voices, Gluck tempers humans’ narcissistic but inescapable attachments to their own natures with a passionate, white heat. The organization of the book is a woven design in patterns of three. There are three sets of poems interwoven with each other throughout the book....

(The entire section contains 2461 words.)

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In this dramatic tour de force of voices, Gluck tempers humans’ narcissistic but inescapable attachments to their own natures with a passionate, white heat. The organization of the book is a woven design in patterns of three. There are three sets of poems interwoven with each other throughout the book. The relevance of each set of poems is not confined to those who have been or are married. In fact, the unexpected “stars” in the Odyssey poems are the “third wheels”: Telemachus, the empassioned, confused son, trying to find out who he is among the pyrotechnics of his parents obsessions and fantasies, and Circe, the “other woman,” who both creates the problem by detaining Ullysses and then solves it by aiding him in his return to Ithaca. The poem, “Circe’s Power,” begins with Circe’s laconic but sincere remark: “I never turned anyone into a pig./ Some people are pigs; I make them/ look like pigs.” As part of Gluck’s latest re-creation of poetic voice, such direct, plainspoken diction reaches deep into the heartbeat of human pain, or the fleeting sigh of human bliss.

Perhaps no other woman poet writing today is less inclined to volunteer a correlation between her life and the subject of her own work than Gluck. Yet, the woman as writer (and by corollary wife/lover/mother/possessor of cold feet) is clearly identified in the you/I couple of MEADOWLANDS (“The Wish,” p. 58), which suggests an innovative level of familiarity between the writer of the poems and the woman’s voice that has spoken from them throughout the years. This development, however, is not a sign of “easing up” in terms of aesthetic discipline. Absolutely nothing in MEADOWLANDS is superfluous, even the rare but authentic moments of humor. Few individuals could muster the relentless striving for perfection of expression that continues to inform the stately, absolute economy of Gluck’s voice and style.

Sources for Further Study

Bloomsbury Review. XVI, May, 1996, p. 17.

Boston Globe. April 28, 1996, p. 67.

Library Journal. CXXI, March 15, 1996, p. 74.

The Nation. CCLXII, April 29, 1996, p. 28.

The New York Times Book Review. CI, August 5, 1996, p. 6.

The New Yorker. LXXII, May 13, 1996, p. 93.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIII, March 18, 1996, p. 66.

The Village Voice Literary Supplement. June 4, 1996, p. 28.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVI, July 28, 1996, p. 3.

Women’s Review of Books. XIV, November, 1996, p. 24.

Meadowlands

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2075

Sometimes connections between poetry and popular culture occur in the most surprising and least likely contexts conceivable. For example, the plot of a 1996 episode of a Friday night television situation comedy involved two high school boys who hope for a stolen weekend of skiing but end up doing dishes for their high school principal in the family cabin he is about to sell. The principal’s watch is carelessly knocked into the sink and then inadvertently down the drain. It clearly distresses him, yet he keeps it to himself and says good-night for the evening. Later that evening, the boy who thinks he has nothing in common with the principal ends up reading his diary only to discover they are not so disparate: The man once “cut school” to have an intimate weekend with his wife, and often, on those weekends, the two of them “never made it to the slopes.” The boy also discovers that the watch had been a gift from his late wife. The next morning, in true situation comedy style, the boy emerges from the principal’s septic tank with the lost watch and a new bond of appreciation emerges.

In her essay, “Education of the Poet” (Proofs and Theories, 1994), Glück writes that from as early as her teenage years she has “experience(d), as a reader, two primary modes of poetic speech. One, to the reader, feels like confidence; one seems intercepted meditation. My preference, from the beginning, has been poetry that requests or craves a listener.” So what “grabs” or demands a reader in this day and age, when most of us would be lying through our teeth to say we spend at least as much time a week reading or thinking about the Greek myths as we do watching television? What has this statement and the preceding plot description have to do with Glück’s Meadowlands, which, according to the book jacket’s description, weaves “the dissolution of a contemporary marriage with Homer’s Odyssey”? Aren’t the rarified positions of the noble Penelope and Ulysses and their princely son, Telemachus, beyond such puerile and banal analogies? Although Glück’s style often renders the personal, the everyday as banal as a situation comedy plot it also renders the same banality glowing with an integrity that derives from being the only show in town—that of the human condition. Such tension creates Glück’s intriguing genius for reinventing voice as she delivers to her readers what she herself craves when reading: “the complement . . . of speaking in order to be heeded.”

The brilliance of this accomplishment lies in the success with which the voices of these mythic figures resemble our own, and conversely, the way in which the voices of the contemporary couple echo as if through an empty hall. It is they who are the ghosts in their own conversations, their own marriage, while Penelope, Telemachus, and Circe speak as if they are in the room directly addressing the reader, current with every nuance of contemporary life right up to the latest thirty seconds. The immediacy of these voices is startling in its effectiveness, not unlike the effect the principal’s diary has on the student who is sure he is an “old stick in the mud” with whom he has nothing in common. In this dramatic tour de force of voices, Glück tempers humans’ narcissistic but inescapable attachments to their own natures with a passionate, white heat. The paradox is that personal emotions remain ours, and are powerful enough, like Circe’s magic, to change us into swine. The poem, “Circe’s Power,” begins with Circe’s laconic but sincere remark: “I never turned anyone into a pig./ Some people are pigs; I make them/ look like pigs.” The direct, plainspoken diction of these lines is another distinguishable earmark of Glück’s career as a poet. In her ongoing re-creation of poetic voice, “big words” are not needed to reach deep into the heartbeat of human pain, or the fleeting sigh of human bliss.

Therefore, the seemingly absurd comparison of the reader to the boy on the television show perusing the diary is unexpected yet apt because the reader, like the boy, discovers the design of his own life in a place he least expected to find it. Seldom do we, as readers, and even as writers, expect such surprising and unwavering equivalences between ancient Greek literature and our own lives as Glück makes in her writing. This is true across the board of her body of work; in fact, the years have only deepened and refined this tendency, matured it, as they do good wine or the fine wood of a violin. Few other writers would state with such bald, precise absolutism that “as long as one is working the thing itself is wrong or unfinished: a failure” (Proofs and Theories) The assumptions behind such a statement are breathtaking, painfully startling, and ultimately illuminating to the serious reader of Glück’s poetry. In reading her work, to be authentically addressed by it, one has to be willing to respect her relentless drive to “use the mind to explore the resonances of . . . images, to separate the shallow from the deep, and to choose the deep.” That having been established as a baseline, one can turn more meaningfully to how the series of poems titled Meadowlands addresses its readers, since it is direct address and not “intercepted meditation” that is its brilliant and sorrowful gift.

The organization of the book is a woven design in patterns of three. There are three sets of poems interwoven with each other throughout the book: poems in which the characters Telemachus, Circe, Penelope from the Odyssey all speak in the first person (the only one not to use the first person is Ulysses himself), poems spoken by a “you” and “I” who are or have been married to each other in late twentieth century America, and poems titled “parables.” Perhaps this structural design could be metaphorically considered the loom at which Penelope weaves and unweaves the work that delays her suitors indefinitely. The parables are the loom, the “Odyssey” poems are the warp (the lengthwise series of “yarns” extended across the loom), and the “you/I” poems form the woof, the filling thread in a “yarn” or weaving.

The parables constitute the most formal way the book has of directly addressing the reader and are indicators of Glück’s most characteristic rendering of poetic voice. “The Parable of the Trellis” begins with a stanza that is one of the most beautiful examples of this type of address in terms of its incisiveness and lyricism:

A clematis grew at the foot of a great trellis.
Despite being
modeled on a tree, the trellis
was a human invention; every year, in May,
the greenwires of the struggling vine
climbed the straightforward
trellis, and after many years
white flowers burst from the brittle wood, like
a star shower from the heart of the garden.

It is hard to find a passage anywhere in contemporary poetry that exhibits the muscled, lyric control of these lines. Yet the poet herself undoes their tautology in the very next stanza by beginning it with the statement: “enough of that ruse.” She then goes on to say how both the “you and I” of the other poems know how the vine can grow without the trellis, “how it sneaks along the ground” like a “snake.” This rhetorical undoing of the parable’s power to teach in a voice of absolute third person authority is perhaps one of the most interesting experiments in this set of poems, since in other ways they are the least interesting set because they form the loom for the weaving, or, as in this parable, the trellis that the vine does not really need in order to grow (just as the boy in the television sitcom does not think he needs the principal’s words of wisdom). This tension over beauty versus structure and their need for each other, a fundamental tenet of Glück’s aesthetic agenda, is illustrated strikingly later on in this same poem by two different rhetorical approaches: the question and the statement. The question asks, “what is life in the dirt/ with its dark freedoms/ compared to supported ascent?” The answer claims that because “the vine has a dream of light,” the “structure [of the trellis becomes] beautiful in itself, like/ a harbor or willow tree.”

The sets of poems forming the warp and woof on the loom’s frame are as powerful and beautiful as the vine with its “star shower” of “white blossoms like headlights.” Their relevance is not confined to those who have been or are married. The unexpected “stars” in the Odyssey poems are the “third wheels”: Telemachus, the impassioned, confused son, trying to find out who he is among the pyrotechnics of his parents’ obsessions with and fantasies about themselves and each other, and Circe, the “other woman,” who both creates the problem by detaining Ulysses and then solves it by aiding him in his departure when he feels he must leave. Circe’s most memorable words in the first person have been quoted above (see “Circe’s power”). Although Telemachus has many wonderful lines, the poem “Telemachus’ Confessions” is perhaps the most important one for a number of reasons. In terms of technique, it seems to cross that line between “intercepted meditation” and direct address, while not falling short of what is best in both modes. In fact, his musings carry strength because he is directly addressing us, simultaneously admitting he was “amazed” to realize that “ultimately [he] was better off” when his father left. So while the poem is important because it describes the apex of Telemachus’ internal “Odyssey” to find out who he is and how he sees what has happened, it is also important because it links all the sets of poems to the title in the haunting statement, “I no longer regret/ the terrible moment in the fields.” Mythologically, this line refers to the story of Ulysses feigning madness by pretending to sow salt in his own fields to avoid the Trojan War until Telemachus is placed before his plow as a test and he must prove himself sane or kill his own son. Compositionally, it unites the mythological set of poems with the title and the “meadow” beyond the contemporary couple’s house where all their regrets, wishes, and fantasies seem to reside, eluding them every time they go out walking to find them.

One of the reasons to read more established, mature poets is to learn from their obsessions, not necessarily as people, but as writers, for it is there we learn of dedication, of commitment, by example. The beautiful design of this collection evokes the following speculation: Perhaps no other woman poet writing today is less inclined to volunteer any correlation between her life and the subject of her own work than Glück. Yet the woman as writer (and, by corollary, wife/lover/mother/possessor of cold feet) is clearly identified in the you/I couple of Meadowlands (“The Wish,” p. 58), which seems, at the very least, to indicate or suggest an innovative if not unprecedented level of comfort or familiarity between the writer of the poems and the woman’s voice that has spoken from them throughout the years. Yet this development is not a sign of “easing up” in terms of aesthetic discipline. Absolutely nothing in Meadowlands is superfluous, even the rare but authentic moments of humor (cold feet on the husband’s genitals, the cat who hunts only dead birds). Even that small number of human beings who in earnest dedicate a regular number of their living hours to reading, to writing, to words on the page, would be hard pressed to say they have focused the kind of relentless striving for perfection of expression that continues to inform the stately, absolute economy of Glück’s voice and style.

Sources for Further Study

Bloomsbury Review. XVI, May, 1996, p. 17.

Boston Globe. April 28, 1996, p. 67.

Library Journal. CXXI, March 15, 1996, p. 74.

The Nation. CCLXII, April 29, 1996, p. 28.

The New York Times Book Review. CI, August 5, 1996, p. 6.

The New Yorker. LXXII, May 13, 1996, p. 93.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIII, March 18, 1996, p. 66.

The Village Voice Literary Supplement. June 4, 1996, p. 28.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVI, July 28, 1996, p. 3.

Women’s Review of Books. XIV, November, 1996, p. 24.

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