Reviews

Like Something Alive

September 23, 2009

I have been an avid reader of Louise Gluck for years. The first book of hers that grabbed my attention was Vita Nova. Since then I’ve read each consecutive book with a fervor that I possess for few poets. With each publication my relationship with Gluck deepened as I explored Meadowlands, The Seven Ages, and Averno. After reading each of these books, I went back and read her first four books and loved them. However, her latest book, A Village Life, has left me slightly cold.

What drew me to Gluck in the first place was the urgency in her poems, the sparse and necessary language, the striking images, and her almost-confessional tone. There was usually an element of danger in her poetry. That’s just the way I’m built: I prefer poetry that has these traits.

However, A Village Life, has almost none of these qualities. Even the dust jacket confesses, “the type of describing, supervising intelligence found in novels rather than poetry.” And it also mentions that this book deals more with suspension rather than suspense. I agree. And I’m not too jazzed about this new direction for Gluck.

Honestly, the narratives throughout the book are well-craft with a deep sense of place and character. But I can’t help but feel that there is nothing at stake in these poems. If this is Gluck’s intention, then she has succeeded. There is no sense of urgency in the actual stories and Gluck’s language has gone slack to a fault. For example, here are two lines from the poem, “Burning Leaves,”:

And then, for an hour or so, it’s really animated,

blazing away like something alive.

Maybe I’m jaded, but this just strikes me as a lazy description. And there are examples of this lackluster language scattered throughout the book.

This brings me to the titles. I’m a title guy. The title of a poem should serve as a doorway into the poem; not just a few words tacked above a body of text. It’s difficult to consistently craft awe-inspiring titles for each single poem, but it just seems like the titles here were literally an afterthought. Here a few examples of her one-word or two-word titles:

  • Twilight
  • Pastoral
  • Noon
  • Sunset
  • Dawn
  • First Snow
  • A Corridor
  • Fatigue
  • Bats
  • March
  • Harvest
  • Marriage

Cumulatively, the poems aren’t very tight, the language isn’t very interesting, and the titles are quite boring. Could I be more negative? Probably not. Now, here’s the good stuff.

You’re damned if you, you’re damned if you don’t. By this I mean, I’m glad that Gluck has decided to switch up her style (at least for this book) and not write the same poem over and over again. Kudos for effort. I usually enjoy when a poet goes off in a new direction, but sometimes it’s a direction in which I don’t care to follow. So, I fully encourage change and trying out new styles.

This is why I enjoyed reading this book because I was constantly comparing it to her other books. And I can see the marked difference and this I appreciate. There may be folks out there who haven’t liked Gluck’s work thus far but perhaps this book will win them over. Basically the opposite of me.

Of course, I haven’t washed my hands of Gluck. She is an amazing poet. One sub-par book doesn’t damage my image of her and I’m still a huge fan. So, I’ll just wait for the next book and perhaps that will be more up my alley. If it isn’t, I still have her previous eight books and that’s good enough for me. But I’ll still read her new work whenever it’s published.

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