Louise Glück, 1943-2023: 5 Great Poems to Read

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Speaking of cinematic, this poem from Glück’s 1996 collection “Meadowlands” borrows delightfully from the world of film noir to portray the other woman in a love triangle: “I became a criminal when I fell in love./Before that I was a waitress,” the opening stanza reads. The poem continues: “I didn’t want to go to Chicago with you./I wanted to marry you. I wanted/your wife to suffer./I wanted her life to be like a play/in which all the parts are sad parts.” If this cheeky swerve into genre and character-acting feels unexpected coming from Glück, it shouldn’t. For one thing, she always had a novelist’s knack for inhabiting the characters in her work (and in fact wrote a spare novel late in life). For another, it helps to understand that the book “Meadowlands” as a whole is a riff on the “Odyssey,” taking Penelope and Odysseus and the epic’s other figures as archetypes for the contemporary marriage the book explores. In that sense “Siren” is about, well, a siren, of the singing-on-a-rock variety, and we’re back in the world of mythology and desire that Glück wrote about with such authority. This time, she just happened to have more exuberant fun with it. (Read the full poem here.)

Glück’s 2014 collection “Faithful and Virtuous Night,” which won the National Book Award in poetry, dealt as explicitly as any of her work did with themes of death and art, and continued her evolution away from her early confessional poems to a more imagined, novelistic world that centered, in this book, on a painter at the end of his life. It also embraced a wider variety of forms than Glück’s earlier books did, with long lines and long poems (the title poem runs to 10 pages) and a smattering of Zen-like prose poems interspersed throughout. “Theory of Memory” is one of those, and it has the charming and mysterious quality of a wry fable that reads like a Lydia Davis short story. The narrator is “a tormented artist, afflicted with longing yet incapable of forming durable attachments,” but “long, long ago,” he informs us, “I was a glorious ruler uniting all of a divided country — so I was told by the fortune-teller who examined my palm. Great things, she said, are ahead of you, or perhaps behind you; it is difficult to be sure. And yet, she added, what is the difference? Right now you are a child holding hands with a fortune-teller. All the rest is hypothesis and dream.” (Read the full poem here.)

This is the final poem in Glück’s final collection, “Winter Recipes From the Collective,” a stripped-down and death-haunted book of just 15 poems that appeared in 2021, a year after Glück had won the Nobel Prize in Literature. It again takes art and death as its central preoccupations, and this poem — which returns to the terse lines and stark imagery of Glück’s early career — amounts to a conversation between the ailing speaker and her ceramist friend Leo, who “makes the most beautiful white bowls” and is “teaching me/the names of the desert grasses.” There is an astringency to the poem (which you can read here), and a mournfulness; the speaker knows she will never live to see the grasses in person. But there is also a kind of hope, in which we see Glück’s earlier yearning toward God transformed into a plangent desire for the durability of art: “Leo thinks the things man makes/are more beautiful/than what exists in nature,” the speaker says, and, a few lines later, “He is teaching me/to live in imagination.” The poem ends with a vision that casts Glück appropriately in the role of desert prophet, and offers up a perfect elegy in its final couplet:

I can see his house in the distance;
smoke is coming from the chimney

That is the kiln, I think;
only Leo makes porcelain in the desert

Ah, he says, you are dreaming again

And I say then I’m glad I dream
the fire is still alive

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