The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 578

“Metamorphosis” is a forty-nine-line lyric sequence divided into three numbered sections: “Night,” “Metamorphosis,” and “For My Father.” It is written in free verse. Louise Glück has written a number of poems about her father; in this one, like the others, she seems to identify closely with her first-person narrator. She describes the metamorphosis of her powerful father into a childlike, dying man and her own development from fearful daughter into resilient adult.

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“Night,” the first section of the sequence, is a double portrait of the poet’s parents. It begins by envisioning the couple at night in the father’s sickroom. The father will die soon—as evidenced by the “angel of death” hovering over the scene—but only the mother perceives that death is in the room. The second stanza describes the mother ministering to the father. Gently touching his hand and forehead, she treats him as if he were a child instead of her husband. The poet says that her mother touches the sick man’s body “as she would the other children’s,/ first gently, then/ inured to suffering.” While the dying man is portrayed as a vulnerable child, his wife is seen as a full-time mother who is used to suffering along with those in her care.

In the last stanza, the poet announces ambiguously, “Nothing is any different,” possibly implying that her parents have always had a child-mother relationship. Then she identifies the cause of the father’s dying: “Even the spot on the lung/ was always there.” These lines end the first section on a despairing note; death is an omnipresent force in everyone’s life.

The second section, “Metamorphosis,” focuses on the relationship between the poet and her dying father. Again she describes him as childlike: “Like a child who will not eat,/ he takes no notice of anything.” The poet, unlike her depiction of her mother in the first section, does not envision herself as a benevolent figure tending to his needs.

In the section’s opening lines, she feels neglected by him, and then she compares his unseeing gaze at her to a blind man staring at the sun. Now that he is dying, he is beyond her power to affect him. In the last stanza, the sick father turns his face away from his daughter. She sees that his metamorphosis is complete: He is physically incapable of making any responsible, meaningful connection—or “contract”—with her.

The third section, “For My Father,” shows the poet undergoing a metamorphosis of her own. Instead of describing her father in the third person, as she does in the poem’s first two sections, she addresses him directly. She tells him that she will be able to live without him and that she is no longer afraid of death—his or her own. She also tells him, indirectly, that she loves him and will miss him after he dies: “I know/ intense love always leads to mourning.”

The poet concludes by saying that she is no longer afraid of her father’s body, thus hinting that he was a threatening figure in her childhood. Like her mother in the first section, she can now touch her father’s face. She can acknowledge feelings of rejection and fear (“I feel/ no coldness that can’t be explained”) and treat her father with benevolence. She has metamorphosed into a kind parent figure, while he has metamorphosed into the helpless child she once was.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 441

The poem exemplifies Louise Glück’s penchant for combining the personal with the abstract. As in most of her poems, the language is stark, the ideas are briefly stated, and the overall effect resonates with significance far greater than the actual scene described. In “Metamorphosis,” a relatively short poem, she mentions or alludes to the following: death, dying, excitement, suffering, solitude, love, mourning, fear, shock, and tenderness. These abstract words heighten the emotional impact of the sequence’s three brief scenes: the mother tending to the father, the daughter observing the sick father, and the daughter tending to the father.

The abstractions occur in lines that are otherwise understated and conversational, such as the beginning of the second section: “My father has forgotten me/ in the excitement of dying.” Glück’s poems often reflect this overlapping of the ordinary with the extraordinary. A line that begins with a seemingly simple declaration suddenly evolves into a powerful observation or epiphany. This pattern is also seen in whole poems. In each section of “Metamorphosis,” the concluding lines cast a new light on the images and emotions sketched in the preceding lines.

The first section’s abrupt conclusion has a pained, almost hostile feeling to it. The poet refuses to sentimentalize the mutually dependent relationship between her parents. In the second section, the ending succinctly portrays a lifelong communication gap between father and daughter. Again, the last lines suggest that Glück refuses to soften her perceptions of her father even as he is dying. The last section ends on a more forgiving note. The poet seems to be moving toward an understanding of her father and his significance in her life. The concluding image of her hand against his cheek contrasts surprisingly with the blunt, aggressive statements she makes earlier in the section.

“For My Father” reverses the surprising course of the first two sections. Instead of moving away from potential sentimentality toward startling objectivity, the last section moves from objectivity toward a subtle expression of love. The poem’s division into three parts contributes to the overall effect of a metamorphosis. Each section functions as a freeze-frame, portraying the poet’s attitude toward her father.

In the first, she seems to feel removed from both of her parents; she is even not present in the scene she imagines. In the second, she is actively involved in the scene, but she is still unable to make contact with her father. In the third, she is finally able to address him directly—at least directly within the poem—and express a gentleness which seems meant as much for herself as for him.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 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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