In her new collection, Louise Gluck writes of originary griefs and joys mediated by memory, in a recovery of aboriginal feeling prior to any intellectualising process. The poetry is open ended and inconclusive; its modes are parabolic, or narrativised, or staged as a prose poem, and the poetic persona she adopts throughout is male, possibly a distancing device. How to place her? Her procedures are very reminiscent of the kind of soul-body dialogues once in vogue during the seventeenth century. but her sense of the quotidian as sacralised by the passage of time is thoroughly Wordsworthian. Her title poem, “Faithful and Virtuous Night”, could plausibly be read in gentle counterpoint to The Prelude. There is that same haunted preoccupation with how a poet’s mind emerges into the poetic, how it is originally constituted (we read, in “Midnight”, of “the great excursion of my childhood”, an explicit Wordsworth allusion).
The sensibility moving through these poems is not devotional as such, any more than Wordsworth’s was. Indeed, she asserts (in a gesture to Blake), “religion [is] the cemetery where / questions of faith are answered” (“Afterword”). But even so, certain archetypes persist. We are told, in the title poem: “I suppose I can simply wait to be interrupted / as in my parents’ case by a large tree”. This sounds like it refers to some terrible, accidental bereavement; and so it may. Yet it is almost immediately preceded in that poem by mention of “those who wish to keep moving / and those who want to be stopped in their tracks / as by the blazing sword” – which was, Genesis tells us, whirling to prevent our first parents re-entering Eden, from which they had been expelled. It’s a recurring motif, relayed in identical phrase: “the tree that confronted my parents” (“Cornwall”); “the tree that confronted my parents” (“Afterword”). The phrasing acquires cumulative force and value, such that personal losses, no matter how primal, are subsumed by a still more primitive and universal deprivation. This then is one version of the human search for lost solidarities, for an evanescent meaning in commonality. It helps us access the contingency of these poems.
Faithful and Virtuous Night justifies and environs, too, that query in “Parable”, as to whether we are “pilgrims rather than wanderers”; and it renders intelligible the strange fact (posed famously if differently by T.S. Eliot) that “(after many years) we are still at that first stage, still / preparing to begin a journey, but we were changed nevertheless.” The possibly quixotic nature of the quest is acknowledged in “An Adventure”: “I became / a glorious knight riding into the setting sun, and my heart / became the steed underneath me.” Yet what pilgrims seek is confirmed in “A Sharply Worded Silence”, namely “expiation and forgiveness”, and this again invokes the archetype of the Fall.
This collection is nostalgic for childhood in the garden, as an instance of what the man-child and the girl-woman lost in the very beginning. “[W]e artists / are just children at our games” (“The Sword in the Stone”). The potential for sentimentality looms close here. As in “A Foreshortened Journey”, it is not always resisted.