Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1215
Line 1 The first line of Glück’s “The Mystery” foretells the poem’s outcome. After taking the reader through the trying recollections of depression and loss, the speaker survives the dark side of her life to become “a creature of light.” This line would work just as well as a last...
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The first line of Glück’s “The Mystery” foretells the poem’s outcome. After taking the reader through the trying recollections of depression and loss, the speaker survives the dark side of her life to become “a creature of light.” This line would work just as well as a last line, for it serves as the resolution to the speaker’s—Glück’s, actually— problem.
Glück acknowledges that she wrote all the poems collected in Vita Nova at a rapid pace, completing a draft of the entire manuscript in only three weeks. She has said that they were written in hotel rooms and elevators, on airplanes, and while she was visiting friends in California. Apparently, “The Mystery” was written in her friend’s “driveway in California” where yellow roses bloom nearby. The first stanza is full of references to the bright color, which represents the “light” she feels she has entered into. California is known as the “Golden State,” the flowers she sees match the color of bright red fire hydrants, and a baby rolls by in its yellow stroller. The mention of the baby that makes “bubbling fishlike sounds” (as normal babies do) sets up a metaphor later in the poem when Glück compares her own situation to that of a baby in a stroller.
Line 6 parallels line 2, but it narrows down the description of where the poet is sitting: “in a folding chair” in the driveway, reading a mystery novel. The fact that she is “reading Nero Wolfe for the twentieth time” is ironic in that one does not usually read the same mystery over and over. After all, the excitement of a “whodunit” is over when the reader knows who committed the crime and how. But that is precisely why Glück keeps poring over the book—the mystery has become comforting, or “restful,” to her.
In these lines, the poet tells why the book is restful. After reading it so many times, she obviously knows “who the innocent are,” and she even feels that she has picked up some of the savvy detective’s ability to deduce a solution from the available evidence. Her own mind is nearly as “supple,” or agile, as that of “the master” because it, too, can envision both the past and the future—in other words, move “in two directions.” Note here that Glück does not say she knows who the guilty is (or are), but the innocent. This is another ironic twist since the average reader is more likely to say, “I know who did it now,” emphasizing the criminal instead of the victim(s). Innocence plays a bigger role in the poet’s emergence from the dark, as she will describe later in the poem.
On one hand, these two lines simply refer to the way a good detective solves a crime. His or her mind must be able to move “backward / from the act to the motive” to understand what made the criminal commit the crime in the first place. Then, the mind needs to move “forward to just resolution” to bring the case to a close. On the other hand, these lines represent Glück’s own mind thinking back on why (“the motive”) her husband left her (“the act”) and then resolving to look to the future (“forward”) and leave the past behind.
In this stanza, Glück directly addresses her own heart, telling it never to be afraid again. Playing off the idea of becoming “a creature of light,” she tells her heart that the only thing that may now bring darkness is the “shadow” of a “narrow [palm]” trying to squeeze it. But she assures her heart that the shadow—most likely her exhusband’s— cannot “enclose you absolutely.” The “shadows of the east,” meaning the eastern United States, where she and her husband lived and where their marriage ended, had apparently been strong enough to enclose her heart in complete darkness, but she no longer has that fear.
These two lines imply a helplessness on the speaker’s part, based on the way line 18 is worded. Notice that she does not say, “I went many places in my life,” but, instead, speaks of her life as though it is an entity separate from herself: “My life took me many places” (italics added). She then claims that those places were “very dark,” reaffirming the notion that she has now come forth into the light.
These lines make up the metaphor referred to earlier regarding the baby in the stroller. Still viewing her life as a separate, free-willed being, she claims that it “took me without my volition”—that is, without her own conscious choice or decision. She compares her life to the person pushing the baby in the yellow stroller. Here, her life is the one “pushing me from behind, / from one world to another,” and she is the “fishlike baby” who has no control over where it is going.
Lines 24 and 25 seem almost accusatory, as the poet claims her past life pushed her around in an “entirely arbitrary” fashion with no apparent plan or “form” to follow.
These three lines again imply the “mystery” metaphor, but here the “threats and questions,” “search for justice,” and series of delusions that one typically finds in a good detective story are part of the make-up of Glück’s former marriage and relationship with her husband. Apparently, she was the one who felt the need to search for justice in all that transpired between them, for the end of the poem implies that even though she was the victim in their eventual divorce, she benefited from it as well.
Lines 29 and 30 allude to some of the benefits. Her life—or her husband, perhaps—may have pushed her around willy-nilly, but she “saw amazing things” along the way, becoming “almost radiant” toward the end of her journey through marriage, divorce, depression, and, finally, acceptance of it all. Glück again refers to brightness and light, using the word “radiant” to describe her new life, or “vita nova.”
Referring back to the Nero Wolfe novel, the speaker claims that she carried the book everywhere, “like an eager student.” Apparently, she finds the “simple mysteries” comforting—thus, the need for “clinging” to them—because they are much easier to grasp than the puzzle that real life often becomes.
Glück ends the poem by revealing her reason for “clinging to these simple mysteries”: understanding the simpler riddles, or even crimes, makes it easier for her to stop accusing herself of doing something wrong in her marriage, to stop blaming herself for its failure, and perhaps for the state of depression she fell into afterwards. Line 36 is typical of Glück’s style of writing poetry, for she often includes a series of questions and answers as lines or full stanzas in a poem. Generally, the questions and answers represent an inner dialogue, or self-examination, as a means of understanding her emotions and thoughts. The final line of “The Mystery” implies that she feels a need to identify the person she now is and to find a purpose for her new existence as a “creature of light.”