The Books of My Numberless Dreams

To the underworld

Posted on: July 18, 2007

What will you do,
When it is your turn in the field with the god?

It is no surprise that death is a potent presence in a book entitled Averno. After the title page we are given its definition: “Ancient name Avernus. A small crater lake, ten miles west of Naples, Italy; regarded by the ancient Romans as the entrance to the underworld.” The Cumaean Sibyl lived in a cave near the crater in Cumae and was a guide to the underworld, an activity which perhaps influenced her decision to avoid for as long as possible. Louise Glück is inclined to meet death in a more conciliatory fashion. The unfathomable idea of not existing, the experiences that evoke or replicate it to lesser extents, the stories that address such themes, are subjects she explores in this poetry collection.

So far. I’ve only read the first three, which does not sound like much, but “October” is composed of six different poems. There are only six poems total in the first section, excluding the opening poem that acts as a prologue of sorts. As I read I noticed that the first dozen or so of Shakespeare’s sonnets shared major elements with Glück’s; all that information swirling in my head precluded me from reading any more just yet. I need to write this out and blog it before I’m overwhelmed, I thought.

Shakespeare employed nature heavily in his little lyrics, bent it to his rhetoric aimed at convincing his lover that his beauty should naturally instill in him a need to breed before he got old and ugly. The cyclical nature of the seasons was held up in contrast to the transience of his role as “the world’s fresh ornament”. The earth would go through winters to be completely renewed come spring but for youth it would be a losing battle. Winters would “besiege thy brow,/ And dig deep trenches in thy beauty’s field”. He used agricultural metaphors in the third sonnet to insert the human element directly into the natural world order. Despite this Shakespeare exhibited no intimate connection with nature himself. It was simply a rhetorical advice, one of many others, that most effectively conveyed whatever motivation for reproduction he could think of.

Glück has a more personal connection. From the third poem in “October”,

What others found in art,
I found in nature. What others found
in human love, I found in nature.

It is in nature that she finds beauty and solace and it is the seasons, nature’s behaviour and its elements that act as a prism through which she approaches or processes her themes. In “October” the first poem surprises by depicting winter. The speaker is bewildered at its early return and produces line after line of alarmed questions dampened by a lack of question marks. The stanzas are only two or three lines long, most of the words are composed of only two syllables, occasionally punctuated with commas and a dash here and there. The effect is rushed with the dashes and a longer word momentarily slowing the reader down and then you’re off again.

Is it winter again, is it cold again,
didn’t Frank just slip on the ice,
didn’t he heal, weren’t the spring seeds planted

didn’t the night end,
didn’t the melting ice
flood the narrow gutters

wasn’t my body
rescued, wasn’t it safe

didn’t the scar form, invisible
above the injury

terror and cold

For Glück winter is more nakedly hostile, treacherous, more violent than even Shakespeare’s military imagery implied. (Probably because it is harder for me to conceptualise military violence, despite Hollywood’s help.) In the poem there is also agricultural activity with Glück directly involved, of course, for she wonders at the fate of the seeds they (she and Frank, I assume) planted, and what happened to the growing vines. The harvest period has been stunted by the early cold. She is not spared from its deadening effect: she is “silenced”, a profound effect for a poet. A wind blows obscuring Frank’s voice but she doesn’t care anymore, she finds it all pointless.

The lines “wasn’t my body/rescued, wasn’t it safe/didn’t the scar form, invisible/above the injury” were some of the most intriguing lines for me. The meaning seemed to be a reverse of the usual ideas about winter and spring. Snow and cold usually cover everything but beneath life is waiting to re-emerge. Shakespeare gave a good example in the fifth sonnet:

For never-resting time leads summer on
To hideous winter and confounds him there,
Sap checked with frost and lusty leaves quite gone,
Beauty o’er-snowed and bareness every where:
Then were not summer’s distillation left
A liquid prisoner pent in walls of glass

But in “October” no. 1 the warmer seasons were a healing agent that formed a scar “invisible/above the injury”. In no. 2 she supports this by describing summer as a “balm after violence”. Winter is the more quintessential state. That may not be too far off the mark as humans descend, weaken, wilt into death.

I tried to go beyond the more literal interplay of ideas about seasons and what not to learn what else Glück could be referring to in this poem. Is she describing some traumatic experience in her life? I don’t think it’s death literally. The more abstract, weaker replica of that permanent state in October no. 1 works nicely with my idea that it’s posed as a contrast to the “prologue” poem “The Night Migrations”. As she contemplates berries and birds migrating she she baldly question of what it feels like to be dead, if the soul registers any sensation at all. Would one miss such sights at night or is it a vacuum? It’s a good introductory poem and it even kinda kids you into thinking you have a handle of what this poet is up to, then she swerves out with something more abstract, more open to conjecture and wider interpretations.

Both poets wrote about music. For Shakespeare, in the eighth sonnet, the harmonious melodies were a perfect exhibition of how sweet life could be if a certain stubborn bachelor would get himself a wife and have a child to complete the happy unit. Glück’s music is from nature. She does not literally hear the trees or the morning light sing, it is how she interprets the visual bounty.

Snow had fallen. I remember
music from an open window.

Come to me, said the world.
This is not to say
it spoke in exact sentences
but that I perceived beauty in this manner.

In “October” no. 3 there is a warmer tone, inspired by a memory from “long ago”. It’s a spring memory: the melting snow and the green shoots peeking out of the thawed soil gave her a satisfying pleasure others garnered from art or human affection. It’s my favourite poem probably because of the confident air at the end. It’s a somewhat odd last stanza because the previous ones describe a memory that seems wholly benign (then one considers the first “October” poem). The depth of experience behind it adds a weight that’s irresistible.

death cannot harm me
more than you have harmed me,
my beloved life.

I’ll post that poem in entirety because it’s the sort that can make you laugh and cry at the same time, I think.

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2 Responses to "To the underworld"

[…] other Summer Poetry Challenge entries here are my posts on “Persephone the Wanderer” by Louise Gluck and Paradise Lost by John Milton. (I may eventually list then […]

[…] want love?” He pulls back in the sixth, his questions more subdued and restrained (see “October“) after that revealing moment. but the long sentence and the hyphen at the end where he […]

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