Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 900

Glück’s poetry challenges definitions of desire, and her work also redefines lyric and confessional poetry. Revelations of the personal are counterbalanced by the need of the woman poet to mask herself. By grounding her poems in myth, Glück distances herself from the personal, though she may be addressing issues of...

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Glück’s poetry challenges definitions of desire, and her work also redefines lyric and confessional poetry. Revelations of the personal are counterbalanced by the need of the woman poet to mask herself. By grounding her poems in myth, Glück distances herself from the personal, though she may be addressing issues of desire, relationships, or sexuality that among her contemporaries, such as the poet Sharon Olds, would be given explicit expression. Eschewing outright narratives and favoring allusive but disjunctive dramas, Glück risks a nihilistic vision in which the contemporary world is always constructed in mythic archetypes. Glück finds in classical myth and biblical allusions, however, a way of preempting narrative structures (since the stories are already known) and favoring the lyric aria or collapse that follows; for Glück, that is where the possibility of reflection is the greatest.

In “Mythic Fragment,” death and freedom are bound together in sexuality. Adapting the myth of Daphne, Glück sees in her transformation not rescue from Apollo but stasis and the loss of freedom. The myth is not recast; instead, Glück emphasizes the depth of desolation that is implicit in such myths of transformation and desire. Daphne says, “Reader,/ pity Apollo,” for in his arms she was able to stiffen into a laurel tree, thereby thwarting his desires—yet her power was granted only by her father, a river god, who otherwise abandons her: “of his encompassing love/ my father made/ no other sign from the water.” Within the compass of myth, argues Glück, female sexuality can either be denied or be the object of ravishment.

In “Marathon,” Glück utilizes elements of confessional poetry while also muting the reader’s expectations. Stylistically, “Marathon” departs from much of Glück’s poetry in its use of longer lines that are often end-stopped. Nevertheless, this emphasis on the pause or silence at the line’s end corresponds to her use of shorter lines that usually end at what would have been a caesura or at the point at which the breath breaks on an accented word or syllable. This use of end-stops is one form of control that Glück exerts over the embedded drama of her poems. Such control over the line is also found in the use of syllabically short phrases, which further underscores the necessity to pause or restrain the movement of the poem. Thus, Glück transforms the seemingly excessive emotionalism of confessional poetry into formal restraint. This corresponds to the thematic tension between desire and order, body and reason, excess and freedom. As Glück writes in “The Beginning,” the sixth section of “Marathon,” “what began as love for you/ became a hunger for structure.”

“Marathon” anchors its drama in the classical allusion of its title: It refers not only to the endurance race, in which the runner’s body tests its own limits, and to the celebrated battle in which the Athenians repelled the Persians in 490 b.c. but also to the monumental site of the tumulus that was raised over the bodies of the Athenians killed in that battle. The poem encompasses these aspects in that it is thematically concerned with conflict and endurance, as suggested in the fifth section, “Night Song”:

You’re tired; I can see that.We’re both tired, we have acted a great drama.Even our hands are cold, that were like kindling.Our clothes are scattered on the sand; strangely enough,they never turned to ashes.

The poem is also a monument, like the tumulus at Marathon: “you must have known, then, how I wanted you./ We will always know that, you and I./ The proof will be my body.” The woman’s body is the object of desire and the site where that desire is made manifest.

Desire negates identity. In sexual consummation, people lose their particularity and become, in Glück’s words in “Song of Invisible Boundaries,” the eighth section of “Marathon,” “interchangeable/ with anyone, in joy/ changed to a mute couple.” To lie “in the bright light without distinction,” Glück argues, “is what we craved.” Juxtaposed to this craving is Glück’s self-definition, “we who would leave behind/ exact records.” These lines, which conclude this section, are set off by a dash, as though to indicate their provisionality and to emphasize that, ultimately, the ethical action of witnessing is overwhelmed by desire. If the loss of self defines desire’s fulfillment, then it also negates the freedom to question and to take account of oneself. The final lines of “Marathon” emphasize this moral collapse: “the bond with any one soul/ is meaningless; you throw it away.”

The Triumph of Achilles puts forward a critique of desire. In these poems, desire is antithetical to freedom and is in fact the expression of domination and objectification of women. Transcendence through passion is impossible, as Glück relates in the title poem: Achilles, who was part god, was also “a man already dead, a victim/ of the part that loved,/ the part that was mortal.” How people construct their inner lives and their social relationships is expressed through past myths; indeed, myths are the informing deep structures of language and actions. Thus, as Glück reads relationships or myths, she sees the implicit violence of hierarchy and domination: “Always in these friendships/ one serves the other, one is less than the other.”

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