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Reading Louise Glück Out Of Context

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Is it possible that while reading a book of poetry, certain lines hit you stronger than the others? If, and bear with me here, we were to go on a journey of isolated lines, ripped apart from their construct, could we still aspire to true meaning? Emily Dickinson writes, “Tell the truth, but tell it slant.” This article tends to such subjective truth-telling.

So, again, this writing is just about a journey I went on, while surrealistically perusing Louise Glück’s poetry. This linguistic experiment does have a backing though, a certain premise that makes it somewhat more concrete. In Semantics classes at Eastern Michigan University I did the same with a few isolated lines from T.S. Eliot’s work, but that is a story for another day.

Let us get to Glück’s poetic world. The first couple of lines that struck me in an indelible way were: “Don’t listen to me; my heart’s been broken.” These have been taken from “The Untrustworthy Speaker.” The title and the line in question make Glück an unreliable narrator. Every poem I touched from here on, was in a way laced with ambiguity. It also raises the question: Can a heart-broken person be trusted at all?

The next set of lines I wish to explore are:

“Then you kissed me – I felt

Hot wax on my forehead.

I wanted it to leave a mark:

That’s how I knew I loved you.”

These are taken from “The Encounter” and coming from the one not to be trusted, I find their romance dwindling. And yet, there is a dangerous tendency here – to be ‘marked,’ to be owned as in a stamp of ownership or to be changed forever. The speaker of this poem wanting her identity to be altered for the ‘kiss’ is not just a tattoo mark here, but rather a reaching into her emotions. It thus delves into the emotional realm, beneath or attached to the body. The poem reads on: “because I wanted to be burned, stamped”.

Some other Glück lines for you to ponder over:

“All my life

I have worshipped the wrong gods.” (From, “The Reproach”)

What could these ‘gods’ constitute? She is not referring to the one true God. So, they are mythological, man-made, or false gods. Could these gods be signified by the patriarchy? Or perhaps, authority figures or even those we succumb to, those we love. These gods have been ‘worshipped,’ so the speaker has given them all – only to find out that it was a flawed life.

The next set of lines that caught my eye, from “From the Japanese”:

“At first, I saw you everywhere.

Now only in certain things,

At longer intervals.”

The language is simple here, yet with an aligned and absolute accuracy. The passing of time is captured, the brevity of all things (given the larger ‘time’ context) and how even what we feel is impossible, also eventually transpires. It is time’s victory that a singular force is more powerful than any human construct. However, that is when time ends, Glück’s poetry also recounts on when time starts:

“But I know, like Adam

I was the firstborn.

Believe me, you never heal,

You never forget the ache in your side,

The place where something was taken away

To make another person.”

This stanza makes you think of a child’s first realization of a lost empire, where s/he now is no longer the ‘first’ and only in everything. However, the subtle play with the “Adam” reference and his subsequent love for Eve, tells a tale of a different kind of aching loss. Longing for union is now entrenched in that loss. The paradisiacal utopia which is a romantic loss could also be a branching out interpretation of these lines. A fourth insight that comes to mind is with Satan’s expulsion. For was he not the favorite one, before Adam was created? “Believe me, you never heal…the place where something was taken away.” The words turn on themselves and new meanings open up. Still in this mood of Satan’s lament, I reach out to these lines from Glück’s “Mock Orange”:

“How can I rest?

How can I be content

Where there is still

That odor in the world.”

Perhaps Satan roams the worlds now, restless with the sense that Adam’s creation created in him. Or then, the angels cannot rest, with Satan’s “odor” still in the world. However, I speak half in jest here, as “Mock Orange” is about a deeper, more womanly distaste.

Let’s shift gear with “Snowdrops”: “Do you know what I was, how I lived? Do you know what despair is; then winter should have meaning for you.” Directly confronting the reader, these lines render our understanding of winter incomplete, if we haven’t tasted of despair. As winter finally hits Karachi, Glück makes us consider, do we really have what it takes to embrace it?


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