Loads of Learned Lumber

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Louise Glück, _Faithful and Virtuous Night_

ONE KNOWS BETTER than to put stock in the inside flaps of dust jackets, true, but this particular instance really pulled me up short.

You enter the world of this spellbinding book through one of its many dreamlike portals, and each time you enter it's the same place but it has been arranged differently. [...] Louise Glück's Faithful and Virtuous Night tells a single story, but the parts are mutable, the great sweep of its narrative mysterious and fateful, heartbreaking and charged with wonder.

Somewhere out there is a book that this passage describes, I daresay one by David Mitchell, but it isn't this one. I've read each collection by Glück at least once, and she has never been one to bind readers with spells, to my mind--she's one of the great poets of disenchantment. The reader can count on several pans of cold water right in the face with each volume, and this one is no exception.

As for the "great sweep of its narrative," I will concede it has a narrative. Glück has long tended towards coherent, unified volumes, with A Village Life getting downright novelistic, and this one does as well, with a first-person narrator, male, painter, orphaned in childhood, tracked over a lifetime. The painter's poems are the spine of the book, we might say, its ribs the interspersed prose poems usually in the third person, which do (I will also concede) have an oneiric quality. But the narrative is (as my metaphor suggests) skeletal rather than sweeping. It feels a lot more spare than that of Carson's Autobiography of Red, for instance.

It is also the case that some poems (e.g., "An Adventure," "A Summer Garden") seems more about Glück's circumstances than the painter's, and the blend does feel a bit uncanny...it just doesn't feel like the video game that the dust jacket flap copy describes.

Wouldn't say I loved the book (not that it needs any love from me, having won the National Book Award)--it suffers in comparison to Autobiography of Red, I think--but the title poem was amazing. It's in the voice of the painter and recalls a particular day about the time he lost his parents. It may be just the coincidence of reading this after Doty's "King of Fire Island," which reminded me of "The Moose," but "Faithful and Virtuous Night" brought to my mind another of the great poems from Geography III, "In the Waiting Room," with the same kind of quotidian details that surrounding circumstances have given  the power to sear themselves imperishably on a child's memory. Great poem--"heartbreaking and charged with wonder," so the dust jacket copy writer got at least that right.

No comments: