A Village Life

By Louise Glück

Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

80 pp. $23

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Reviewed by Karl Kirchwey


One idea of poetic ambition sees not the poem, but the book of poems, as a single extended imaginative act, demanding of the reader the same sustained attention that, say, a novel requires, and providing commensurate rewards. It is precisely this sustained attention that the new technologies - those by which we are encouraged to learn and feel and communicate - so routinely defeat.

Measured by this standard, which is the standard that any long poem, from the Iliad to Ezra Pound's Cantos, requires of us, Louise Glück is one of the most ambitious poets we have. Her books have been through-composed at least as far back as The Wild Iris (1992), an extraordinary set of lyrics amounting to a conversation between God, humans, and flowers, and easily one of the most important works of devotional poetry in the last 50 years. Some of her individual poems appear in journals, but they achieve their full effect only when seen in the complete arc of a book.

In her 11th book, A Village Life, Glück has created and peopled an imaginary landscape. The book's cover seems to include a Japanese print; the village identified by these poems may seem Mediterranean one moment, Alpine another. But long ago Glück insisted, with the intensity of a T.S. Eliot, on the separation between the life of the artist and the stuff of the art. And indeed the village described in this new book will never be found on a map. It is, instead, a kind of vale of souls.

There is a mountain, a river, a town plaza; there are fields and woods, and somewhere, far away, there is an ocean. The seasons pass, and we hear different voices, only some of which are human: an aging wife; an aging husband; an omniscient speaker who participates in many lives, caught at many ages; an earthworm; a bat.

Though it has the richness and detail of a Brueghel landscape, this book is obsessed, like all of Glück's work, with "the seeing beyond things which / results from deprivation." With tenderness, the poet contemplates the passage from childhood to adulthood:

Soon it will be decided for certain what you are,

one thing, a boy or girl. Not both any longer.

And the child thinks: I want to have a say in what happens

But such tenderness is balanced by an absolute refusal to be deceived by the comforts of the body or of the world it inhabits. Glück's characteristic asperity is much in evidence here:

Just be glad you were in bed,

where the cries of love drown out the screams of the corpses

or

To get born, your body makes a pact with death,

and from that moment, all it tries to do is cheat

or

You ask the sea, what can you promise me

and it speaks the truth; it says erasure.

I can think of few other contemporary poets who so tirelessly and authentically chronicle the vulnerability of the self, and the anguish of its dependency on a mortal body. For Glück, the child's innocent belief that the body and the mind are identical creates a psychic wound that can never be healed, only perhaps recapitulated in the relationship between lover and lover.

The true villain in this drama seems to be nature itself: Even the sun, shining on this ordinary village and its ordinary life, is morally culpable:

The sun disappears behind the western hills -

when it comes back, there's no reference at all to your suffering.

In its diurnal arc, the sun seems to comprehend, to illuminate, and to discount, even as the poems in this book do, all of the possibilities - for loneliness, for sexual ecstasy, for labor, and for rest - in any human life.

A Village Life, which was recently named a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle prize, lacks the prophetic power of The Wild Iris or the sardonic fury of Meadowlands; its long lines are occasionally prosaic, rather than comprehensive. But in its vision and its human wisdom, and in Glück's determination not to repeat herself - no two of her books ever do the same thing - it still stands as a kind of injunction to her contemporaries that, when it comes to poetry, it takes a village.

Karl Kirchwey (kkirchwey@aol.com) is a poet and director of creative writing at Bryn Mawr College.