“death cannot harm me
more than you have harmed me,
my beloved life.”
I think that was the point that I fell in love with this collection, coming from the third part of a series of poems under the name of October that form the first pass in Louise Glück’s collection Averno. The title of the collection refers to a small crater lake in southern Italy which was believed by the Roman’s to be the entrance to the underworld. So, in this collection, Glück explores the line between life and death, the point at which we look into the abyss and see our end before us. Perhaps this is not a surprising subject as Glück herself had turned 60 at the time of writing this collection so perhaps she too is standing on the edge of the crater, facing her own end.
Despite the subject matter, this is not an entirely melancholy collection. If anything it is quite clinical, detached. This is, perhaps, an accusation which has been flung at Glück over the years, that her poems lack emotion, that she is clinical as a poet. I think this is what I enjoy about her. Her poetry is clean, it is logical, Glück concerns herself with semantics, exploring the meaning of words and their intent. When reading Glück’s poems, a kind of wisdom shines through, a clarity. As she expresses here, in the fifth section of October:
“It is true there is not enough beauty in the world.
It is also true that I am not competent to restore it.
Neither is their candour, and here I may be of some use.”
Candour is certainly something that shines through her poems. Candour and wisdom. Sometimes the poems are obscure, sometimes they seem like a logical puzzle. Like here, in the series Prism which explores Glück’s relationship with her parents, her sister and the question of love:
The room was quiet.
That is, the room was quiet but the lovers were breathing.
In the same way, the night was dark.
It was dark, but the stars shone.
The man in bed was one of several men
to whom I gave my heart. The gift of the self,
that is without limit.
Without limit, though it recurs.
The room was quiet. It was an absolute,
like the black night.”
There is a sense throughout these poems of a search for truth, for an unflinching gaze at what is to come. Yet there is something extremely soothing about them. There is truth, it is honest, and yet truth is barely reachable. It takes whole poems to find even a glimmer of it. Glück does not fall into cliché, she exposes cliché; she exposes it in a way that reminds us how cliché, how routine and ‘words of comfort’ are used to anaesthetise us to the truth. Though Glück may not find truth in her poems, she exposes reason and she offers us a glimmer of understanding into what it means to approach death.
There are two many poems that have meaning to me to quote them all here. I could quote 90% of the book, reciting them by heart like a total fangirl and I guess that’s what I am. Glück’s poems are not without their flaws, and she is a poet, I think, who will not appeal to everyone. She is sharp, her words are precise, her poems an exercise in stripping away self-deception. In the course of doing this, she may strip away ours. This is an exercise not many people are prepared for. Neither am I, but perhaps I first read this book when I was in the right place, the right frame of mind. Consequently I can return to it and return to it. The poems never grow old, they face the abyss of death and try to tell us a kind of truth about it. Which is what the one poem I will quote in its entirety suggests. This is Averno, the first part, which I will leave you to enjoy.
You die when your spirit dies.
Otherwise, you live.
You may not do a good job of it, but you go on –
something you have no choice about.
When I tell this to my children
they pay no attention.
The old people, they think –
this is what they always do:
talk about things no one can see
to cover up all the brain cells they’re losing.
They wink at each other:
listen to the old one, talking about the spirit
because he can’t remember anymore the word for chair.
It is terrible to be alone.
I don’t mean to live alone –
to be alone, where no one hears you.
I remember the word for chair.
I want to say – I’m not interested anymore.
I wake up thinking
you have to prepare.
Soon the spirit will give up –
all the chairs in the world won’t help you.
I know what they say when I’m out of the room.
Should I be seeing someone, should I be taking
one of the new drugs for depression.
I can hear them, in whispers, planning how to divide the cost.
And I want to scream out
you’re all of you living in a dream.
Bad enough, they think, to watch me falling apart.
Bad enough without all this lecturing they get these days
as though I had any right to this new information.
Well, they have the same right.
They’re living in a dream, and I’m preparing
to be a ghost. I want to shout out
the mist has cleared –
It’s like some new life:
you have no stake in the outcome;
you know the outcome.
Think of it: sixty years sitting in chairs. And now the mortal spirit
seeking so openly, so fearlessly –
To raise the veil.To see what you’re saying goodbye to.”