A Village Life
by Louise Gluck
Reviewed by Adam Fitzgerald
Louise Gluck's A Village Life, her eleventh collection of poetry, breaks all the rules, or at least the ones for which she's so distinguished: no excessive language, narrative, or sentiment whatsoever. Marriage, divorce, sex, loss -- if these are the tired themes of too much contemporary poetry, Gluck has proven in her oft-praised books that she can tackle the matter with brute, abstracting lines that sound like poetry but have the force of fact. It isn't as easy as following the tired workshop rules "less is more" or "show, don't tell." Gluck has never seemed to have an inclination for more -- less was enough. What was plain and simple in her hands sufficed to astonish. If the stark poems had something to tell, then better tell it frankly. If they had something to show, then show it in shorn, clipped lines.
Glancing at these new poems, one notices the change immediately. Take the final stanza of one of the longest poems, "March":
Nothing can be forced to live.
The earth is like a drug now, like a voice from far away,
a lover or master. In the end, you do what the voice
It says forget, you forget.
It says begin, you begin again.
These demanding lines come at the end of two-and-a-half pages. The earlier Gluck would have scrubbed the poem clean, making it less than a page and certainly erasing from the final stanza all but the oracular and ruthless "Nothing can be forced to live." In fact, all of these lines sound like infamous Gluck endings: from the ultimate finality of the first, to the dying fall of the second, to the litany of commands that follow.
And so in seventy pages we have a book surprisingly full of long poems and almost windy lines. Yes, something has changed, even more than in the extended sequence of her 2006 title, Averno. Even the handful of poems still in the shorter, condensed arrangement -- "Sunset," "Primavera," the two "Bats" poems -- digest and luxuriate in an American prosy vernacular, part suburban TV speak, part poesy, with knots of local color weaved with recurrent details about town weather. Gluck, a master of leaving things out, of honoring absence and classical restraint, has loosened her measures, her mood, and balanced the bleak stroke of her lyrical gifts with something closer to ambient music than marble ruins.
Though it resembles her others least, A Village Life may come to be seen as Gluck's most beautiful and moving book so far. One can't dwell too long on the volume's length, nor waste time fishing through the poems to notice the threads of the fabric stocked with unusual diction. "Compared to the sun, all the fires here / are short-lived, amateurish." Amateurish? Though not such a strange word in 2009, these types of phrases planted furtively in A Village Life are peculiarly contemporary for the timeless, quasi-mythic spaces Gluck creates. The prosaic and colloquial abounds: the chatty ("And then, for an hour or so, it's really animated"); the clumsy ("hasn't gotten"); the flat and laconic ("When I'm in moods like that, / I go to a bar, watch sports on television.")
These aren't, however, imperfections or crudities that come at the expense of being less ascetic. Rather, they signal that Gluck's lexicon has become willing to absorb the contemporary, seeing in the un-poetic a chance to soften her approach, to pull readers in almost artlessly, familiarizing them to the terrain and expansiveness of these new works before hitting them with a one-two punch. A Village Life is set in the vague landscape that is both every village and nowhere quite locatable, basking in the airs of flora and fauna, harvest and herbage, relishing in the sensuous more than the sensual. To achieve such a supreme efficacy paradoxically meant writing longer, mellower verse -- something akin to the exuberant, harsh melodies of Whitman or the sterner, lusher, long poems of Stevens.
Such abundance shows a ripening of Gluck's genius, her mastery for depicting the things of this earth. Most of the poems begin with summer, or night, a field of buoyant wheat, a barn door or a cold light. What begins as pastoral quickly turns elegiac. Aptly, pastoral is a tradition where nature's cycles embody the existence we participate in as much as avoid, relishing and repressing. In this pastoralist's late summer and autumn bounty, winter is never far behind. The presence of sickness and death can be felt in the stark, elided sentences stuck jagged within the longer phrases. This effect reminds us A Village Life is not just a sprawling celebration of living, it's also a slow dance in the face of death.
These poems aren't as successful when they seek to develop fuller characters or life episodes; when Gluck goes beyond her classic device of establishing an implicit narrative by simply stating "she" or "he," the poems lose force. Since Gluck's strength is in constructing a largely vatic, inward landscape -- sharpened with contemporary speech and balanced in longer, descriptive music -- narrative details about those that might live in this "village" can't help but interest us less. It's the difference between allegory and fiction: in the prior, we don't want details, because we realize the characters are important for their singular figurative quality. So too do we feel this tedium when the tone drags through too autobiographical-sounding reminiscences; it's only then that the magic of these dusky, middle-aged reveries threatens to become transparent and long-winded.
Gluck's poetry has always been composed of equal parts image and psyche, deftly combining the minimalist tendencies of Pound, Williams, and Oppen with the psychological portraiture of Lowell, Plath, and other confessional poets. Yet A Village Life resists being anatomically dissected to uncover its glorious mechanisms. It is a whole book, and it should be wholly read, even with its vagaries and flaws. Approached in this way it can be seen as the work of a master poet who has done what many poets long to do: she has written about death immortally.