Louise Glück — Can I Only Love That I Conceive?
by Elmer G. Wiens
While Louise Glück's narrators and characters change from one poem to another, a persona controls the themes and subjects of each book of poems. This persona imitates an oracular voice scored with another voice, two voices that undercut, support, follow up, and disagree with each other to produce the arc of the book's poems. The oracular voice combines Judeo-Christian religion and Greco-Roman mythology. The other voice is that of a woman at an explicit stage of her life. Replicating the maturation of this woman over time, Glück's sequence of books reveals her evolution as a poet. Poems occur within the span of time and place covered by a specific book. While any one poem can be interpreted on its own merit, the poems in these books reflect on each other, contributing to the narrative of the book as a whole. In the following paragraphs, I present my perceptions and interpretations of the poems in The Wild Iris and how they interact with one another.
The Wild Iris picks up from Glück's previous book, Ararat. In "Celestial Music" a friend of the narrator says that "when you love the world you hear celestial music" (257), to which the narrator is deaf because of her painful experiences. The narrator is fearful because she sees her friend "caught in a net deliberately cast over the earth" (258). In Ararat's last poem, "First Memory," the book's persona, possibly Glück, explains that "from the beginning of time, / in childhood, I thought / that pain meant / I was not loved. It meant I loved" (259).
In The Wild Iris, Glück assesses the poetic consequences of loving and not loving, and of being loved and not loved, mediated by the net that religion and mythology cast over the book's garden. The oracular voice is pantheistic; the woman's voice, menopausal. Iris, the goddess of the sea and sky, has descended on a rainbow to distribute its colours and to inhabit the garden's flowers. The woman has reconciled herself with the anguish that spread from the wound of Ararat's first poem, "Parados," and has fulfilled her desire for a vocation as a poet (215).
The individual voices of flowers, the gardener at prayers, and a deity speaking through the phenomena of nature like winter and twilight amplify the voice of the persona in The Wild Iris.
As John points out in "Song" (27), it is not an actual garden, but a virtual garden of poems. Nevertheless, it is a very strange garden of poems due to the absence of bees. Bees are never mentioned. It is an infertile garden. The flowers voicing their poems are not anxious to reproduce. With no bees to pollinate the flowers, what is the purpose of the plants' beautiful blooms or their delightful scents? Since most of the flowers are perennial why should they care if they don't propagate through fertilization and seeds? Do the poem flowers bloom so fabulously for narcissistic self-gratification?
Who are the flowers to love, their mistress the gardener? Are they beautiful so that she will again bend, tend and care for them as she did before the garden went wild? Why did she stop creating beauty and tranquility in her garden? Who or what did she love before? Has she stopped loving John because she is infertile and cannot conceive? Were her emotions the product of hormones released by her ovaries?
This spring the weak sun's daily arc north failed to arouse the erotic desire between Glück's avatars — the flowers and the missing bees, the gardener and John, and the gardener and the deity. Consequently, the supplicant gardener in "Matins" (3) asks the deity, the "Unreachable father" of Judeo-Christian religion, to regard how her partner and she had "exhausted each other" labouring in their garden, and to overlook their neglect in worshiping him erotically, since it "wasn't human nature to love only what returns love."
The pantheistic, oracular voice in "Clear Morning" (7) impatiently undercuts this woman's voice. The gardener's prayers reach for the Judeo-Christian god in the heavens the way the clematis climbs to the porch window to obscure it with its blue flowers. Human beings have been unable to transcend their limitations. Their finiteness restricts their reach. The images the gardener's poems generate are inadequately creative, obscuring the meaning of the infinite deity who is now prepared to "force clarity" on her.
The harsh voice of "Spring Snow" (9) supports "Clear Morning" with its "two selves, two kinds of power," the power of snow to smother and protect, and the power to reflect the deity of the sun. Lying on the window ledge, the snow has watched the gardener react. The gardener's prayers are not based on "belief, but capitulation / to authority, which depends on violence." This observation follows up on the voice of "Lamium" (5) which said that not all living things need the love of the deity or "require / light in the same degree." For some it suffices to "live for truth and, by extension, love / all that is cold" without being loved in return. Why ingratiate oneself with a manipulating, violent deity one doesn't need?
In "Matins" (12), Glück laments her own menopausal infertility and the infertility of imagination. The gardener asks her Judeo-Christian deity to forgive her for lying about loving him. She cannot conceive him. So how can she love him? What narcissistic, passion induces her to think that the deity cares about her love or her lies? The conception of the deity she projects in her prayers returns as a hollow echo. Humanity's finitude in being "one thing / is to be next to nothing" (Scilla 14) compared with the deity's infinitude. Human lives are like "the bird's flight / which begins and ends," with measure of the "arc from the white birch to the apple tree" (Retreating Wind 15).
Recognizing her insignificance, the gardener hopes a strategy of a humble attitude will engender a sympathetic response from the "Father" deity. In "Matins" (26) Glück's avatar abases herself as the lowest of creatures, "following, the thriving aphid and the trailing rose." She asks the deity to practice his compassionate trait and to alleviate her guilt and "the stigma of isolation." Why should she be isolated for special treatment? Why should he break her heart "over and over / like a plantsman testing his new species," so that she doesn't affect the "healthy members" of her tribe? Is it his Judeo-Christian plan to create a new "sound" species from her, sound in the way she was during her "mistaken childhood" or earlier before she was born?
Perhaps the weeds have the right attitude about being loved and not being loved. They don't care if they are hated. They don't need the gardener's care or "praise / to survive." The gardener's efforts to impose her paradigm of beauty onto her garden, based on her "personal passion," are futile. Eventually, the weeds will choke out her weak, anorexic, sterile poem flowers. Her garden "was not meant / to last forever in the real world." Disorder will reign. The weeds "will constitute the field" again when only the sun, moon, and the sea remain (Witchgrass 22-3).
The voices of the "Field Flowers" (28) and the "Red Poppy" (29) disagree. While looking disdainfully beyond a field of wild buttercups, humanity can't apprehend the deity and heaven. Heaven isn't the "absence of change," with a guarantee of being better than earth. The ideas of human beings aren't compelling enough to justify eternal life for their souls? With their overreaching minds, they have lost touch with their feelings. The red poppy flower feels the heat of its "lord in heaven, called the sun." Feelings govern its opening to reveal the passion of its heart. Shattered by its personification as a symbol of the horrors of war, the red poppy speaks to human beings. It blooms not in narcissistic gratification, but in glory for its lord.
As the season slips deep into summer, Glück's virtual garden dissolves to reveal John standing at the horizon in a real garden. The tone of "Heaven and Earth" (32) is optimistic: "Midsummer— / everything is possible." The horizon separates the "band of blue" of the heavens from the "band of green and gold" of the earth, as the "summer sun / truly does stall," painting the horizon "green and deep rose." In referring to a stalling sun, Glück invokes Joshua asking the sun to stand still while his fighters defeat an enemy army. Glück's Promised Land is a garden of poems; Joshua's Promised Land is Israel. The real garden fades into a net of metaphor and metonymy leaving the reader of the poem to re-visualize Glück's virtual garden.
The deity of "Midsummer" (34) objects to Glück's personalized interpretation of the setting sun. All of the earth's numerous entities call out their needs, contending with each other for "space and air," adequate moisture and their time in the sun. They all "want different things." They were created together in "all diversity." The gardener and the flowers should not expect special treatment since she and all the others "were not intended / to be unique."
As summer wanes, the gardener exchanges her morning prayers (Matins) with evening prayers (Vespers). A note of desperation enters her prayers as the time left for her (probably real) garden to flower and to produce a crop of vegetables diminishes. The fig tree she planted in Vermont didn't survive (Vespers 36); her tomatoes aren't getting enough sunshine (Vespers 37); the deity loves "the beasts of the field" who are thriving more than he loves her (Vespers 38); he abides in the garden with John who "alternates fifteen minutes of intense effort" with "fifteen minutes of ecstatic contemplation" (Vespers 42). While "peace never leaves" John, peace eludes Glück, or at least her avatar gardener.
In "Vespers" (43), she relates climbing "the small hill above the wild blueberries." In the silence her deity usually contributes to the physical world during her walks, she descends inwards in a process of self-examination. Although she lives "essentially in darkness"—spiritually, inspirationally, and existentially—on occasion the deity will appear to her in the way he appeared to Moses, because she needs him. But which deity is this? Is this the avatar deity of Glück's poem? Is this the deity of the Bible that came to Moses, speaking to him from a burning bush in the wilderness, and later descending on Mt. Horeb to give him the laws? Is this the personal deity Glück invokes as inspiration when writing poetry? Is Glück referring to Apollo, the god of poetry, light and the sun, coming down as his "fiery self"? The "red sun neither falling nor rising" seems to invoke the same image of Joshua as in "Heaven and Earth." Briefly, she permits herself to believe this illusion and that the pasture reflecting the red setting sun is "a pasture of fire," perhaps alluding to Iris inciting the Trojan women to destroy the Trojan ships in Book V of Virgil's Aeneid. Is Glück's gardener rebelling against the metaphysical journey Judeo-Christian religion imposes on her? Isn't Judeo-Christian religion's destination her Promised Land? Can she trust her vision, given her preference to see what she wants?
As the gardener indicates in Vespers (44), the problem is not only the images she visualizes, but also the lies she inhabits to appease the deity. She says, "I remember / lying in a field, touching my brother's body," and reciting "the terms of our punishment." She says they denied these memories to console the deity, although she remembers enough to know the deity exists. "Early Darkness" (45) explains they are suffering not because they touched each other, but because their memories are not powerful enough to understand themselves. They are suffering because their birth separated them from the deity so that they can have a life of their own. The deity is not responsible and cannot succeed with all things born.
Assuming the role of a teacher, the pantheistic voice of "Retreating Light" (50) chides the gardener and human beings for not telling their own stories, even after all those years of listening. They should think things through for themselves. Only after the deity gave human beings lives with passion and tragedy were they able to dream their own. The deity is pleased with their independence because now it "can attend to other things."
As summer fades, the gardener continues trying to contact her Judeo-Christian deity in her evening prayers. The flowers—"The White Rose" (47), "The Silver Lily" (59), "The Gold Lily" (62), and "The White Lily" (63)—feel the cold morning, the cool nights, imminent death, and the evening turn "cold with terror." The deity's "voice is gone" (Vespers 55). However the pantheistic voices of "End of Summer" (40-1), "Harvest" (46), "Sunset" (57), and "September Twilight" (60-1) respond—dismissively, impatiently, tenderly, and eventually disinterested. The flowers, the gardener, John, and the phenomena of nature were summoned into existence by the persona of the book. Their "chaos / of the living world" can be dispensed. They can be erased as though they "were a draft to be thrown away / an exercise." The author is finished with her poem garden, her menopausal "vision / of deepest mourning."
Works Cited and Consulted
Glück, Louise. Ararat. The First Five Books of Poems. Manchester: Carcanet, 1997. 213-59.
- - -. The Wild Iris. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.
- - -. Meadowlands. Hopewell NJ: Ecco Press, 1996.
Morris, Daniel. The Poetry of Louise Glück: A Thematic Introduction. Columbia: U of
Missouri Press, 2006.
The Bible: Authorized King James Version with Apocrapha. Eds. Robert Carroll and Stephen
Prickett. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1997.
Virgil. Aeneid. Trans. Robert Fagles. New York: Penquin, 2006.
© Elmer Wiens