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Photograph: Brian Wehrung
Faithful and Virtuous Night
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $23 (cloth)
“Whatever the truth is, to speak it is a great adventure,” concludes Louise Glück’s 1994 tribute to her teacher, Stanley Kunitz. Most of the essay narrates an episode in which Kunitz told her flatly that a cache of new poems of which she was ashamed was, in fact, terrible. It is an episode she remembers with gratitude, not because it gave her pleasure to write badly or suffer criticism but because, as she writes, “I wanted approval, but more than that I wanted to be heard, which is, I think, a more convincing proof of existence.”
This says a great deal about how Glück has become the poet she is. She wrote first in an effort to prove existence, and now, in her newest book, the National Book Award–winning Faithful and Virtuous Night, to prove, as far as one can, what comes after existence. Perhaps more than any other poet now writing she can be described as a truth-teller without sentimentality. Glück is anything but sentimental, though she is ferociously attached to the past, to its ruthless bearing on the present. In her world, there is no escape from the pains and traumas of childhood, of youth, or, especially, of family, that microcosm in which one’s existence is forever cast into doubt, the tribunal before which one is ever submitting proofs to the contrary. And yet Glück does not merely rehearse her traumas in art; she works to connect them to myth, to narrative, to a hedging kind of spirituality—not so much in order to transcend them but to make of them a voice that tells the penetrating truth of one kind of human experience. Glück’s experience is a late twentieth-century American kind, in which language, rather than religion, must serve as moral mirror.
From the beginning Glück has had a melancholy and skeptical sensibility. Her delivery is always deadpan, like British humor but without the jokes. Her poems shun excitement but somehow court surprise, in the form of revelation. There are few Glück poems that do not draw back some kind of veil and expose facts that the imprecisions of language and experience would otherwise conceal. I come away from her poems wiser, though rarely happier: confirmed in my existence, but afraid of what I now know I know.
Glück endeavors to render, vividly, the transfer of the self to oblivion.
Glück has been refining, deepening, and focusing her vision for decades, as her Poems 1962–2012 shows. She switches out lenses like an eye doctor, looking through the glasses of myth, autobiography, ventriloquy, until they have nothing more to show her. In Faithful and Virtuous Night, she layers these lenses. She creates a future fiction extrapolated from her own past: a male version of the daughter in Glück’s autobiographical Ararat (1990), a painter rather than a poet, an artist who can look ahead toward dying—directly at dying—with the same cold gaze she has trained on her own past. To see death—which is, of necessity, beyond view—as a fact, Glück extrapolates and invents rather than record or remember. She turns to allegory, to a self not unlike herself but specifically not herself. This inverted mirror self, with its capacity to observe and characterize, becomes her mature expression.
Faithful and Virtuous Night may be Glück’s strangest work yet, the hardest to describe or put in line with the others. It is like a novel in its short vignettes with lines instead of paragraphs, though of course Glück’s language is tense, careful as ever, not prose. She tries some technical tricks here, nothing revolutionary as far as poetry goes but new for her: multi-page sequences of numbered parts with different stanza shapes, poems of many unbroken pages, prose poems, and fables.
The poems all have a dreamlike quality, hinting at befores and afters to which we do not have access. This quality suggests the portrayal of memory, which is, at best, a poignant gloss of what actually happens, a summary revised in light of later events. The facts are poorly recorded, Glück asserts in the title poem, perhaps her longest ever at ten pages. Here are a couple of beautiful, scene-setting stanzas:
The day had become unstable.
Fissures appeared in the broad blue, or,
more precisely, sudden black clouds
imposed themselves on the azure background.
Somewhere, in the far backward reaches of time,
my mother and father
were embarking on their last journey,
my mother fondly kissing the new baby, my father
throwing my brother into the air.
This vision emerges from “somewhere in the far backward reaches of time,” a place into which language itself reaches, drawing forth what it can. What comes up may not be what was desired—may, in fact, be nothing. The poem’s “day” is destabilized by memory, by the inner life’s interruption into experience—the “sudden black clouds” are projections, emblems of the speaker’s parents “embarking on their last journey,” adulthood, which ends in death. The baby is kissed, as if kissed goodbye, the brother is launched “into the air,” separated metaphorically from the parents, who begin to recede as their children come to the fore.
In such poems Glück has found the precise tone for someone yielding to her history, someone who has accepted that no bright new future will be cut loose from the past. “Passions and sensations were . . . / set aside forever, and each night my heart/ protested its future, like a small child being deprived of a favorite toy,” she writes in “An Adventure.” The protestation is natural: death makes no sense to the heart, whose job is to continue beating, to proceed. But the mind, the will, must counter it: “these farewells, I said, are the way of things.”
This is the tone of resignation, though it is not quite the tone of giving up: Glück remains interested in the phenomena of her mind’s experience, no matter how disappointing. Having uttered her resignation, she proceeds bravely, with curiosity, adventurousness even, as “a glorious knight riding into the setting sun, and my heart / . . . the steed underneath me.” Death, like the rest of life’s suffering and joy, is, among other things, surprising to the inner eye.
The story of Faithful and Virtuous Night, inasmuch as there is one, is the story of a painter with an older brother—like and unlike Glück, a poet with a sister. The painter’s parents died when he was a child—“You have no idea how shocking it is / to a small child when / something continuous stops”—and the siblings were raised by an aunt who took fastidious if slightly distant care of them in the English town where the painter now lives after suffering some kind of breakdown. He has returned to the town to remember a long and sad life and, essentially, to await death.
Why, in order to face life’s ending, does Glück wear a mask? I see this choice as a kind of fake out, a misdirection, a trick played by the poet on her own mind. The mind balks at anticipating its own extinction, so Glück has crafted a thin disguise to trick herself into vulnerability. It is a trick like that of The Wild Iris (1992), in which Glück speaks as God and flowers, who can flatly say what she herself is unable to admit. As for the mask’s particulars: painting, after all, is much like poetry, as it traffics in not-quite-paraphrasable meanings, images, and suggestions. And, for Glück, a woman’s identity pulls toward love, like the daughter searching for the father-hero in Ararat, or away from it, like Eurydice in Averno (2006). To face death, Glück needs to escape that pull, to be alone, to become a man. Glück imagines herself in the part of the abandoning father of Ararat, the “hero” of the poem “A Novel,” in which we read, “No one could write a novel about this family: / too many similar characters. Besides, they’re all women; / there was only one hero.” Glück’s male painter is the recast father now living out the daughter’s part: he is abandoned rather than abandoning. It is a kind of comeuppance, a balancing of scales that can happen only in writing.
Non-chronological episodes from the painter’s life are interspersed with short prose pieces narrating dreams, frequently involving artists in various mediums. The book as a whole operates as a fable about how artistic creation relates to lived life. Certainly, in Glück’s view, art does not heal pain. It may magnify it. But more, it seems a habit native to a particular disposition, one that is unable to deny the wreckage of loss and so has developed an obsessive interest in it. Glück’s truth-telling has its roots in a passivity the artist must hone, the ability to observe the mind and the world working on each other, changing each other. The artist doesn’t change the world; she watches it, watches her mind interpreting it. The artist’s greatest sacrifice is involvement in her own life, an involvement that would prevent her from writing it or painting it.
The same sacrifice is required of the artist who wants to observe death, for which this book seeks, through its mask, an accurate figure. What does it feel like to accept death, to approach it, not without protest but without any false hope that it might be avoided? What does dying look like, were one merely to look? What if, drowning, you didn’t flail your limbs at all, but thought—or painted, or wrote? Glück’s vision of dying in “Approach of the Horizon,” the climax of the book, feels as accurate as possible, given that it must be imaginary. She has had plenty of practice by now describing what can’t be seen:
My birthday (I remember) is fast approaching.
Perhaps the two great moments will collide
and I will see my selves meet, coming and going—
Of course, much of my original self
is already dead, so a ghost would be forced
to embrace a mutilation.
The sky, alas, is still far away,
not really visible from the bed.
It exists now as a remote hypothesis,
a place of freedom utterly unconstrained by reality.
I find myself imagining the triumphs of old age,
immaculate, visionary drawings
made with my left hand—
“left,” also, as “remaining.”
The painter has lost feeling in her right arm, her painting arm, and as it becomes impossible to create, it becomes impossible to live. Glück imagines a kind of heaven in which life is the ideal: neither pure imagination nor pure experience, but pure. This would be heaven for someone who has stood conflicted for a lifetime at the crossroads of description and interpretation, of what happens and what it means, whose life’s work has been to render the shiftings of the inner world. “The sky, alas, is still far away,” she says, because death, and what might lie beyond it, is ever inaccessible to the living—is, finally, imaginary. The living are offered no preview of death, and no transition to it: it comes complete, the end of, perhaps the solution to, both life and imagination.
What Glück struggles here to do, and what she comes closer to doing than anyone I can think of, is to render, vividly, what might immediately precede that change, that transfer of the self to oblivion—a place from which no poet, no matter how patient and precise, can report. No one publishes that kind of posthumous book.
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