Themes and Meanings

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“Metamorphosis” is both a dry-eyed look at a dying man and a tightly controlled expression of self-preservation. The poet is trying to resolve her feelings toward her father, understand her family’s past, and plan for her own future. Her terse, often oblique statements suggest that these related processes are difficult for her and not easily put into words.

Characteristically, Glück relies as much on the absence of detail as on specific information to convey the import of her message. Even the space between the separate sections has a weight to it; the poem moves stoically toward its resolution. “Metamorphosis” precedes by five years Glück’s fifth collection of poems, Ararat (1990), which is a sequence of thirty-two poems about her family. In the later collection, Glück’s father has died, and many of the poems deal with her continuing efforts to resolve her feelings for him.

The last poem in Ararat suggests that Glück has gone beyond the conflicting emotions and tentative reconciliation of “Metamorphosis.” In “First Memory,” she writes: “I lived/ to revenge myself/ against my father, not/ for what he was—/ for what I was.” She concludes that the emotional pain she felt while growing up did not mean that she was unloved, but rather, “It meant I loved.” The ending of “Metamorphosis” hints at such a resolution but does not state it outright. It is a poem about the process of overcoming pain and grief and moving on toward a new life; it is not about the fulfillment of that process.

“Metamorphosis” and the autobiographical poems in Ararat represent Glück’s obsessive desire to plumb the depths of personal relationships. Many of her other poems (such as the nine-part sequence “Marathon” in The Triumph of Achilles) deal with romantic love relationships. In those poems, as in those about her family, Glück wields tight control over the emotions she displays in print. She refuses to give in to the obvious, the sentimental, or the overly ornamental figure of speech.

Glück is often an unsettling poet to read, because she is so willing to grapple with conflicting emotions that many people would rather not recognize in themselves. Although her poems are often rooted in her own life, the sketchy details, the reliance on abstractions, and frequent allusions to mythology give them broader application. Despite her seeming coldness at times, Glück’s poems often return to the theme of love. In “Metamorphosis,” a complex psychological portrait, she recognizes implicitly at the poem’s end that the seemingly inappropriate emotions she has felt—hostility, neglect, and fear—may coexist with, and even heighten, her strong feelings of love for her father.

“Metamorphosis” is an example of Glück’s continuing effort to look at herself and the world with a clear, unstinting gaze. Never one to sugarcoat a scene or ignore the drama of a small gesture, she captures in “Metamorphosis” the story of her own growth, which ironically, but perhaps inevitably, parallels the story of her father’s decline.

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