I once hit Louise Glück after one of her readings, oddly with her own books. Of course, I did so unwittingly. During the post-reading mingle, I kept trying to place my book bag on my shoulder, but it kept bumping against something and wouldn’t stay. That something was her, and when my embarrassment met her surprised eyes, any alarm disappeared. We could see the mistake, and understanding was very clean, almost surgically so, like a line of her verse.
About a decade ago, I read Louise Glück with enthusiasm, and, in the end, fatigue at what I recognized. The poems were doses of medication. Her work has always “spoken” to me more than many poets because she examines the concerns I have about being in the world: loneliness and being alone, searching for happiness, and desiring to have my feelings validated, though they often aren’t. Her poetry is both direct and indirect, as she will talk through a feeling, but sometimes dress the speaker of the poem in a mythical mask as she uses many Ancient Greek deities and characters in The Wild Iris, Meadowlands, and Vita Nova. Her one book of essays, Proofs and Theories, published in 1994, provides further insight to her artistic philosophies. The last essay, “On Impoverishment,” has a few tempered lines on Glück’s major theme, despair:
Despair in our culture tends to produce wild activity: change the job, change the partner, replace the faltering ambition instantly. We fear passivity and prize action, meaning the action we initiate. But the self cannot be willed back. And flight from despair forfeits whatever benefit may arise in the encounter with despair.
So many times I have heard people say, “Poetry doesn’t make anything happen,” but I believe they say that out of chagrin at the way poetry is treated by the popular culture. It’s viewed as arcane, difficult, effeminate, and as useless as some humanities people regard geometry. Most poetry makes things happen off-camera. One reads it on a sofa and a line overwhelms and his or her regard for life is colored by a burnishing of the words and sounds.
At that distant time in my life I was seeking epiphany and the epiphanies Glück concocted, those ending points and moments of ultimate response, were similar to the ending of many an Ingmar Bergman film — abrupt, cruel in its truth, but spectacular. Take the “The Silver Lily” from Glück’s most prized collection, The Wild Iris. In it, the speaker of the poem, maybe God or some creator, asks the other presence, a woman, “Will speech disturb you?” Therein that first presence implores her to look at the bounty of nature and the universe, in particular the moon:
In spring, when the moon rose, it meant
time was endless. Snowdrops
opened and closed, the clustered
seeds of the maples fell in pale drifts.
Finally the being offers:
We have come too far together toward the end now
to fear the end. These nights, I am no longer even certain
I know what the end means. And you, who’ve been with a man—
after the first cries,
doesn’t joy, like fear, make no sound?
Here Glück attacks the normal configurations of despair produced by a life of pain. So she won’t get sad at the end of the connection, which will also be the end of poem, the being reminds her of sex she has had and how joy and fear end in the same silence. The consolation of nature is fractured as the being tells the pained woman all feelings are born in the same stream in which they will also die. There is a good deal of white space on the page, including the gap after the em dash, and there one can imagine the ghosts of words that Glück doesn’t use to fight this force. The ending question cancels out any response from the woman and nature, both devoid of speech — the world remains mystifying to the humans who depend on it to renew their belief in the life they live.
Once I showed my uncle, who had originally piqued my interest in Louise Glück, her poem “Purple Bathing Suit,” where a woman speaks to a man in such a suit. After its sucker punch, “your back is my favorite part of you, / the part furthest away from your mouth,” my uncle said, “Boy, she really hates men.” And men can hate women, because the book is a documentation of both, the complete war. But I think after most Glück poems there is insight and disturbance, and to some, maybe the majority of people who seek poetry, disturbance is as alluring as sunset, because that sensation is what drove them to read poetry and often what drove poets to write it. In Glück’s world, to be ultra-conscious is to be conscious of pain and the words that delineate that indelicacy are the simplest. Ideas and questions that act as deep pools are inhabited by everyday words and often in short lines, like Emily Dickinson before her. When, in “The Silver Lily,” she says, “doesn’t joy, like fear, make no sound?” she brings basic words together. Two of them, “joy” and “fear,” are very hot. The others, “doesn’t,” “like,” “make,” “no,” and “sound,” we use to get through most days. Like T.S. Eliot, she reorders the familiar musically (that last line is iambic) to train the reader to trust her words and isolate them and so to slow down life.
One night last winter, while I read again each book of Louise Glück’s in the original slim hardbacks, I sat in a car taking an hour break from my homeless outreach job in Manhattan. My co-worker and I were parked just off 41st Street between 9th and 10th Avenues, near a hotspot of homeless activity. It’s a dirty street, one of the many garbage dumping areas in Hell’s Kitchen, where men set up lean-to’s and shanties out of industrial cardboard boxes to sleep among rats crawling about for food. While my co-worker sat napping, I reread Glück’s 1988 collection Ararat. When my co-worker couldn’t sleep she thumbed through the scrolling Instagram feed on her phone. “Can I read you a poem?” I asked and she quickly agreed, almost as if she longed for a reason to quit the endless stream of information, welcoming any distraction from distraction. I read the last poem, “First Memory,” because it was short and powerful, the way I remember it from when I carried Ararat like a bible, with its final lines, “…from the beginning of time, / in childhood, I thought/that pain meant / I was not loved. / It meant I loved.” An apt summary to a book of such dredging and loosening, all those years ago it seemed I didn’t read poems but readouts from a heart cooked by memories and impatient to re-season them into an idea of some order and clarity. The message still held, though the word “loved” carried very different meanings from its first use to the next, beyond the passive and active tenses. It meant in 10 years I had loved and had been loved and I now loved differently because of time. The speaker of the poem can only come to her sweet conclusion from a distance of years, and only with 10 more years of experience, of loves lost and gained, could the startling already past tense of “love” trigger a charge and a recognition of the beauty of responsibility.
I read it to her slowly, in a voice that I thought the speaker of the poem would adopt if the speaker’s voice could be heard. After I finished my co-worker immediately popped up, turned the car light on, and told me to hold the book still. She took a picture of “First Memory” with her phone and then shared it.
I was suspicious of Ignatz before I had read anything more than the table of contents. I shouldn’t have been; I liked Monica Youn’s first book, Barter, a collection of lovely, wary lyrics with strange but precise allusive force. But I was suspicious of Ignatz’s subgenre: poetry books that are designedly books rather than collections, their titles linked by a single unifying conceit. The category was proliferating, it seemed to me, cultured by a world of book prizes and writing programs, or encouraged by distinguished precedents and obvious advantages. A constitutive donnée, in a book of poems, offers the writer a ballast and the reader a guide; a thematized volume can presume on an initial trust, or expand on an initial idea, rather than hope for repeated, different arrests of attention. But then, such arrest is one of the genre’s glories—the intense singularity of each bounded, ramifying lyric. It would be a shame to forgo that energy too often, I thought, to read poems merely as stepping-stones on a narrative path or pieces of a nonfictional whole. Plus there were the particularities of that whole, in the case of Ignatz: the title refers to the mouse from Krazy Kat comics who constantly beans Krazy with bricks which the lovelorn cat misinterprets as signals of affection. George Herriman’s original strip, which ran from 1913 to 1944, is not only a cherished influence for artists and a beloved classic for readers but also a long-cited instance of comics’ aesthetic potential. I was suspicious of poetry that might wield the high-culture credibility of a pop-culture form. I didn’t want more irony. I knew what that was like. I wanted beauty—I wanted surprise.
I found it. Reading Ignatz undid my defensive misgivings—dissolving them, steadily, in its sure and powerful affect. If I had to name that emotion, I’d call it vulnerability: it’s the suffering of an eternal and impossible ardor, in all its guises, that pervades these delicately phrased and toughly conceived poems. “When you have left me / the sky drains of color // like the skin / of a tightening fist,” says the speaker of “Ignatz Oasis,” for example, who ends by hiding “in the coolness I stole // from the brass rods / of your bed.” In Youn’s world, “The Labors of Ignatz” distill Hercules’s grief-stricken atonement into imagistic bits of yearning: “the belt / of your bathrobe // forlorn / on the floor” replacing the girdle of Hippolyta as elsewhere, “chain-stitches / of sparrow-song // crudely suture // the tattered sunrise” with a violence as threatening as that of Stymphalian birds. The poems don’t worry much about recreating the original material, with the comic’s colloquial-grandiose language and meandering quests through frames that often stretch, tilt, or dissolve. At the start, Youn does conjure an Arizonaish desert-dreamscape similar to the one that Herriman created: in “Ignatz Invoked,” for example, when “a passing cloud / seizes up like a carburetor // and falls to earth, lies broken- / backed and lidless in the scree,” or when “Landscape with Ignatz” tells of “the rawhide thighs of the canyon straddling the knobbled blue spine of the sky.” But Youn’s scenery easily shifts to the more sylvan pastorals of the final section, or the urban block of “X as a Function of Distance From Ignatz,” a wonderful poem which takes place in any city that includes idling cabs and confused lovers. Youn takes up Krazy not for its setting or speech but for the basic geometry of its emotions—configurations of pursuit and subjection too ingenuous, in her interpretation, to be labeled with the perversity of sadomasochism or the routine of codependency. It’s the opposite of what I’d expected: rather than nestle our need in the protective cover of pop connoisseurship, Ignatz would expose the stupid, omnipresent pith of human want. William Randolph Hearst was wild about Krazy Kat, apparently, and kept the strip running in his newspapers; as I read through Ignatz, I thought a few times of newsprint pages on the lonely breakfast table of an ersatz-Xanadu mansion. Ignatz is smart enough to know where pathos lurks and brave enough to expose it.
Ignatz seems intensely romantic, then, and intensely lyric, despite its unified presentation as a single book-length work. In fact, the untitled, lovelorn ballads that open each section seem like bits of some proto-lyric folk song made more universal by its anonymity: “A silverleafed bower / of shivering shade: / I will weave you a shelter / of my living hair,” Youn writes. Reading this collection thus made me reflect on how each successful poem, wherever and whenever it comes, must construct a book-size realm—each poem daring a myth that its language must then make credible—even if some are closer than others to what we call reality. “If after I read a poem, the world looks like that poem for 24 hours or so, I’m sure it’s a good one,” Bishop writes in a letter. In this, good poems help us to perceive the myths and worlds that we construct or accept all the time without knowing it, as well as the myths and worlds that we need all the time without admitting it, while good poems also show us alternative fulfillments and multiplied possibilities. The thematized collections of recent years, then, as they heighten and reflect on this world-making power, might reveal the difficulty of viable myths in the overmediated, under-felt world of contemporary culture. There’s an extradiegetic pathos here, perhaps, as well as that internal to the work. So much seems the case in the work of Louise Glück, for instance, whose books are as self-consciously unified as Ignatz, immersing readers in the pastoral allegories of Wild Iris, for example, or the communal meditations of A Village Life. Both poets use the alienation of a slightly alternative universe to surprise readers with the force of familiar emotions.
Youn’s work is more indebted to familiar idiom than Glück’s and more open to psychological fragmentation—somewhere, perhaps, between Glück and Rae Armantrout. And Youn’s is not quite as strong a book, for me, as either Glück or Armantrout’s recent work; while even a line of the latter two can be a mood-making moment, Youn’s effect depends more on the accumulation of pages and poems. Among many works of strength—among them “Ignatz Pursuer,” “On Ignatz’s Eyebrow,” “The Subject Ignatz,” “Winged Ignatz,” besides those quoted above—there are some that seem filler. Yet the volume as a whole shows how to isolate the lyric thread in unlikely stuff and then weave it into a serious new wisdom. The unifying theme, in this collection of individual poems, is not a quirk or a crutch but a truth that can’t be ignored.