Ecco Press, $22
by Elizabeth Macklin
Over the past 30-odd years, the poet Louise Glück has been
a problem-solver, an increasingly lyrical engineer of diagnosis and analysis.
And, since Ararat (1990), part of her skill has been to disclose her own tools
at work, though it's the current she reveals, more than the circuitry. A first-time
reader read through her book The Wild Iris (1992) thinking, "And this 'you'-is
it plural or singular, vocative or imperative, formal or familiar?" Of
course, the true dilemma in The Wild Iris was the nature of a human identity:
Is it divine or is it vegetal, or is it actually somehow human?
The poems of Glück's latest book, Meadowlands, perhaps
by way of their breakthrough overtness of tone, humor, and setting, know who
the "you" is-the book is about a marriage-and are interested in
third-person roles, "he" and "she," and also the first-person
"we." While each poem here is discrete, a world, in sequence they
make a near-novel-in trajectory like one of Christa Wolf's short books or,
even more, like a late Alice Munro, one that extends back and forth through
time. Meadowlands is the novel of a marriage whose ancestors are, among others,
Penelope and Odysseus during and after the Trojan War, but it's a marriage
that's trying to be different-between equals-and has no simple models at hand.
Its metaphors aside, Meadowlands' marriage takes place now, in the real world,
which means within the context that includes, for example, last spring's Congressional
debate on marriage:
Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill): . . .If two men want to love each
other, go right ahead. If you want to solemnize your love affair by some ceremony,
create one. But don't take marriage, which for centuries has been a union
between man and woman. . . and try to say that what you're doing is American.
Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass): . . . There are plenty of people
here who have had marriages that have meant a great deal to them. I salute
that. I don't for a minute understand how it demeans, and I would ask the
gentleman. . . . The gentleman's marriage, the marriages of other members
here are based on a deep love, a bond between two people. . . . How does anything
I do in which I express my feelings toward another demean the powerful bond
of love and emotion and respect of two other people?. . .
Hyde: Because many of us feel that there is an immoral-
Frank: How does it demean your marriage? If other people are
immoral, how does it demean your marriage? That's what you're saying.
Meadowlands is as stark-and often as darkly funny-as this,
but much more realistic, in its outlook on marriage; also more imaginative.
It's not a polemic, for one thing, though it contains at least one argument.
The husband and the wife of Meadowlands, in their own way, sound like nobody
I never liked.
One thing I've always hated
about you: I hate that you refuse
to have people at the house. Flaubert
had more friends and Flaubert
was a recluse.
Another thing: name one other person
who doesn't have furniture.
Nine of Meadowlands' 46 poems are eavesdropped remnants of
one of those long-rhythmed low-grade "discussions" that go on in
every marriage settled in for the long haul-conversations half-funny when
spoken, but later, off in the other room, dead-serious.
But these characters are articulate in new ways. Some Wild
Iris-styled disorientation remains; we aren't always clued in as to who exactly-husband
or wife-is speaking, whose consciousness we're in, although, oddly, we always
guess right. Meadowlands catches us in our assumptions. Glück's work
has never courted voyeurs, and this book doesn't either; but its mode is clarity.
From the start we're grounded: in the settings of a postwar romance-house
and yard, in a small-town neighborhood ("It's early summer; / next door the
Lights are practicing klezmer music. / A good night: the clarinet is in tune");
then, or simultaneously, the Greek palace where Penelope waits ten years for
her husband; the Mediterranean islands Odysseus is drawn to, or the beach
at Troy, where he got the idea of travel. Most of all, we're grounded in the
characters-Circe or a siren; the wife and the husband, Penelope and Odysseus;
and (especially) their son Telemachus, who in seven poems speaks about his
Toward the end of the third, "Telemachus' Kindness," we notice
a disjunction. "When I was younger I felt / sorry for myself / compulsively,"
the poem begins:
I had no father; my mother
lived at her loom hypothesizing
her husband's erotic life.
Gradually, as if in a seer's voice (purely perceptive, not
archly "knowing"), Telemachus lays out the parental problematic:
a life my mother had, without
compassion for my father's
suffering, for a soul
ardent by nature, thus
ravaged by choice, nor had my father
any sense of her courage, subtly
expressed as inaction. . . .
Wartime or postwar, Telemachus tells us, all that's simply
a given now: "as a grown man / I can look at my parents / impartially and
pity them both," adding, "I hope / always to be able to pity them." It's once
he's said "as a grown man" that we abruptly rehear the underlay of Meadowlands'
and defended women, and see that his
understanding is worlds beyond mere
The reverberation of generations-up, down, sideways-is Meadowlands'
greatest realism. Directly and indirectly, the book continually raises questions
of feeling-coolness or passion, intensity-so that you're aware of it and of
median worldly reactions to it. The dictions Glück's women use vary;
they aren't always "call out to him. . . with your dark song, with your grasping,
/ unnatural song-passionate, / like Maria Callas" ("Penelope's Song"). For
the men (whose voices are laconic, though also changing), intensity is prized
in a lover but considered a failing in a wife. And the supreme intensity may
be poetry, the writing of it, the capturing and understanding. Here it's Glück's
accurate metaphor for a mode of passion: an independent footing in delight,
or a counterpart to Circe, and frightening in a similar way.
What do you think I wished?
I don't know. That I'd come back,
that we'd somehow be together in the end.
I wished for what I always wish for.
I wished for another poem.
The range of shifting, momentary moods in a marriage-joy to total
irritation to longing or pleasure or sorrow-clarify themselves in nine "parables,"
lyrically narrative, like dreams; because of their placement, they sound like
alternative tales the wife might reread to herself, perhaps read to her husband,
in lieu of the immutable and unhelpful Penelope-Odysseus story.
Originally published in the October/ November
1996 issue of Boston Review
The poems in Meadowlands are constantly exchanging information,
nudging, touching, receding, rethinking. "Midnight" dynamites the cliché
of abject Penelope at her loom: "where is your sporting side, your famous /
ironic detachment?" "The Parable of the Swans" addresses love as "what one did,"
as distinct from "what one felt in one's heart." Telemachus reports that every
other child on his wartime island was in the same situation he was: "I could
share these perceptions / with my closest friends, as they shared / theirs with
me, to test them, / to refine them." In Meadowlands, Glück is most unsparing
toward herself, but nobody here is willfully ignorant for long. Thus even the
Greek soldiers (in "Parable of the Hostages") on the beachhead at Troy: "a few
grow / slightly uneasy: what if war / is just . . . a game devised to avoid/profound
The Penelope Glück starts off with ("Little soul,. . . perpetually
undressed one, / do now as I bid you, climb / the shelf-like branches of the
spruce tree; / wait at the top, attentive. . . . / He will be home soon") is
very probably Rep. Hyde's kind of wife. (Though even she remarks, "too many
falling needles.") Conceivably, Telemachus could be Rep. Frank's kind of husband:
"I never / wish for my father's life." From all sides, Meadowlands tests the
dilemmas of late 20th century marriage: so fluid, so constantly reinvented;
it's hard to live with an equal when the equal is different. Glück, while
cognizant, never has to resort to the phrase "the Other"; these poems are way
too specific-too loving-for that.
At the end, the marriage is over, and yet not over in its essentials.
The last poem, "Heart's Desire," is one of the conversations. Together in the
house, the woman and the man are considering, in their tough back-and-forth,
planning a party. "For one night, affection will triumph over passion," the
woman's saying. "The passion will all be in the music." Back on page 9, a wife
had noted that "the answer / depends on the story." Now the woman adds, " If
you can hear the music / you can imagine the party. . . ." That, of course,
is the heart's desire: "First Norma/then maybe the Lights will play." n