30 November 2012

If Stone Could Speak

"Look at me. You think I don't understand?
What is the animal
If not passage out of this life?"
 - excerpted from Horse by Louise Gluck


"I never turned anyone into a pig.
Some people are pigs; I make them
Look like pigs.

I'm sick of your world
That lets the outside disguise the inside. Your men weren't bad men;
Undisciplined life
Did that to them. As pigs,

Under the care of
Me and my ladies, they
Sweetened right up.

Then I reversed the spell, showing you my goodness
As well as my power. I saw

We could be happy here,
As men and women are
When their needs are simple. In the same breath,

I foresaw your departure,
Your men with my help braving
The crying and pounding sea. You think

A few tears upset me? My friend,
Every sorceress is
A pragmatist at heart; nobody sees essence who can't
Face limitation. If I wanted only to hold you

I could hold you prisoner. "
 - Circe's Power by Louise Gluck

If the title Louise Gluck: Poems: 1962-2012 pulls you up short, it is because it underlines  the precociousness of a writer still in her sixties.  Like a jazz musician, she started young, changed her mind about the direction of her work, and offers no apologies.  The trajectory of her work, as this compendium demonstrates, has the logic of the author and not the critic.
George Oppen, a poet Gluck admires, preferred to write about the "world of things,"  rather than the emotional apostrophes we learn to read as students. (William Carlos Williams also comes to mind.)  Oppen, and Gluck, for categorizing purposes, belongs with poets whose work is objective, or at least restrained.  Call it classical in intention.  Its voice is the opposite of the insistent "I."
In Gluck's poems,  figures from the mythologies of Greece and Rome (Achilles, Circle, Penelope, Persephone) and biblical places (Ararat) function as objective correlatives for contemporary experience.  This is a tricky thing to pull off and, in  my estimation, Gluck succeeds.  Were her lines less adroit, the whole enterprise would seem presumptuous. But her voice speaks through these familiar stories,  persuading the reader that her chosen symbols are apt.
For Gluck's purposes the New Jersey meadowlands and Giant Stadium provide as much scope for the imagination as the Aegean Sea and the Acropolis.  In Meadowlands (1996) she has Odysseus accuse the poets: "You don't love the world,/ If you loved the world you'd have/ images in your poems..."  In a more affirmative version of her  method, uttered in her own voice, Gluck has said: "in my own mind I'm invisible, -  that's why I'm dangerous."
What results is a kind of poetry that examines the personal from  a vantage point outside the self,  freed from the claustrophobia of the first person even while speaking in its voice.

Raphael Gaillarde (b. 1940) is a French architectural photographer.   As you can see here in Immortality Overtaking Time he, like Gluck, finds ways to incorporate classical tropes and familiar sites into his work, but refreshed.  These images come from a portfolio taken after the most recent renovations of the Grand Palais in Paris

Poems 1962-2012 is published by Ecco Press and Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York.
For more about Louise Gluck visit Library of Congress.

Images: by Raphael Gaillarde,Collection Raphael Gaillarde,  RMN.
1. L'Immortalite devancant le temps - Grand Palais.
2. Colomnade et statue de l'entree principale du Grand Palais,


Timothy Cahill said...

This is the most succinct and persuasive description of Gluck's poetry I know. Thank you.

Jane said...

Having recently visited the inaugural exhibition at the Wellin Museum at Hamilton College (Affinity Atlas, inspired by Aby Warburg's Mnemosyne Atlas) I'm more attuned to this type of selection process. Not exactly iconography, not exactly iconology, but interesting because it has a lot to do with how we experience art, even though it's often difficult to put words to. I saw Robert Gaillarde's photographs for the first time, (online)and I thought of Lousie Gluck.
But it's making more work, too. After just reading about Gustave Moreau I have to rework a piece I did about Fernand Khnopff's interest in him. Similarities I wondered about are now glaring at me. But the writer never mentions Khnopff when listing artists who were influenced by Moreau. And I'll have to dig up the precise words by Eric Chevillard to the effect that the roundabout way is often the quickest because the straight line is so crowded.