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Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $12 (paper)
Readers familiar with Louise Glück’s work might consider the ordeal of Persephone an unsurprising or even predictable choice of thematic frames. In truth, Averno reminds us, a poet does not so much determine her themes as decide how to work through them. Averno is an important collection in that it shows Glück struggling with certain givens, such as the supposed certainty of myths, or the hopeful premise that poetry represents the possibility of change. But the one true change, Averno suggests with complete candor, has in fact already occurred—in its speakers’ sudden and traumatic matriculations from innocence to experience. To this end, each poem’s consolation rests in its existence as an exquisitely rendered, formal experience outside ordinary time, a notion for which the poem “Telescope” provides this analogy: while gazing up at the night sky, “You exist as the stars exist, / participating in their stillness”—until, that is, “you move your eye away” and realize “not that the image is false / but the relation is false.” Through Averno we come to see that Glück’s skepticism is not about poetry’s supreme fictions but about the relation between these fictions and the non-fictions of experience. “Snow began falling over the surface of the whole earth. / That can’t be true. And yet it felt true.” Composed largely of serial poems whose open-endedness charts the mind of a writer dispossessed of conclusions, Averno has the feeling of an urgent inner dialogue between the believer and the skeptic, the survivor and the analyst, the first person and the third. Refreshingly, the third person takes precedence throughout much of Averno, where rather than impersonations of Persephone, for example, the Persephone myth is examined for its interest as a story: “Now over and over / her mother hauls her out again—// You must ask yourself: are the flowers real?”
Zack Finch is a doctoral candidate in the poetics program at the State University of New York at Buffalo and teaches periodically as a visiting lecturer in creative writing at Dartmouth College.
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