The poet Louise Glück has become the first American woman to win the Nobel prize for literature in 27 years, cited for “her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal”.
Louise Glück : 17 poems
The Drowned Children
You see, they have no judgment.
So it is natural that they should drown,
first the ice taking them in
and then, all winter, their wool scarves
floating behind them as they sink
until at last they are quiet.
And the pond lifts them in its manifold dark arms.
But death must come to them differently,
so close to the beginning.
As though they had always been
blind and weightless. Therefore
the rest is dreamed, the lamp,
the good white cloth that covered the table,
And yet they hear the names they used
like lures slipping over the pond:
What are you waiting for
come home, come home, lost
in the waters, blue and permanent.
It is not the moon, I tell you.
It is these flowers
lighting the yard.
I hate them.
I hate them as I hate sex,
the man’s mouth
sealing my mouth, the man’s
and the cry that always escapes,
the low, humiliating
premise of union—
In my mind tonight
I hear the question and pursuing answer
fused in one sound
that mounts and mounts and then
is split into the old selves,
the tired antagonisms. Do you see?
We were made fools of.
And the scent of mock orange
drifts through the window.
How can I rest?
How can I be content
when there is still
that odor in the world?
Night covers the pond with its wing.
Under the ringed moon I can make out
your face swimming among minnows and the small
echoing stars. In the night air
the surface of the pond is metal.
Within, your eyes are open. They contain
a memory I recognize, as though
we had been children together. Our ponies
grazed on the hill, they were gray
with white markings. Now they graze
with the dead who wait
like children under their granite breastplates,
lucid and helpless:
The hills are far away. They rise up
blacker than childhood.
What do you think of, lying so quietly
by the water? When you look that way I want
to touch you, but do not, seeing
as in another life we were of the same blood.
The Fear of Burial
In the empty field, in the morning,
the body waits to be claimed.
The spirit sits beside it, on a small rock–
nothing comes to give it form again.
Think of the body’s loneliness.
At night pacing the sheared field,
its shadow buckled tightly around.
Such a long journey.
And already the remote, trembling lights of the village
not pausing for it as they scan the rows.
How far away they seem,
the wooden doors, the bread and milk
laid like weights on the table.
1. The Logos
They were both still,
the woman mournful, the man
branching into her body.
But God was watching.
They felt his gold eye
projecting flowers on the landscape.
Who knew what He wanted?
He was God, and a monster.
So they waited. And the world
filled with His radiance,
as though He wanted to be understood.
Far away, in the void that He had shaped,
he turned to his angels.
A forest rose from the earth.
O pitiful, so needing
God’s furious love—
Together they were beasts.
They lay in the fixed
dusk of His negligence;
from the hills, wolves came, mechanically
drawn to their human warmth,
Then the angels saw
how He divided them:
the man, the woman, and the woman’s body.
Above the churned reeds, the leaves let go
a slow moan of silver.
3. The Covenant
Out of fear, they built a dwelling place.
But a child grew between them
as they slept, as they tried
to feed themselves.
They set it on a pile of leaves,
the small discarded body
wrapped in the clean skin
of an animal. Against the black sky
they saw the massive argument of light.
Sometimes it woke. As it reached its hands
they understood they were the mother and father,
there was no authority above them.
4. The Clearing
Gradually, over many years,
the fur disappeared from their bodies
until they stood in the bright light
strange to one another.
Nothing was as before.
Their hands trembled, seeking
Nor could they keep their eyes
from the white flesh
on which wounds would show clearly
like words on a page.
And from the meaningless browns and greens
at last God arose, His great shadow
darkening the sleeping bodies of His children,
and leapt into heaven.
How beautiful it must have been,
the earth, that first time
seen from the air.
I said you could snuggle. That doesn’t mean
your cold feet all over my dick.
Someone should teach you how to act in bed.
What I think is you should
keep your extremities to yourself.
Look what you did—
you made the cat move.
But I didn’t want your hand there.
I wanted your hand here.
You should pay attention to my feet.
You should picture them
the next time you see a hot fifteen year old.
Because there’s a lot more where those feet come from.
Parable of the Swans
On a small lake off
the map of the world, two
swans lived. As swans,
they spent eighty percent of the day studying
themselves in the attentive water and
twenty percent ministering to the beloved
their fame as lovers stems
chiefly from narcissism, which leaves
so little leisure for
more general cruising. But
fate had other plans: after ten years, they hit
slimy water; whatever the filth was, it
clung to the male’s plumage, which turned
instantly gray; simultaneously,
the true purpose of his neck’s
flexible design revealed itself. So much
action on the flat lake, so much
he’s missed! Sooner or later in a long
life together, every couple encounters
some emergency like this, some
drama which results
in harm. This
occurs for a reason: to test
love and to demand
fresh articulation of its complex terms.
So it came to light that the male and female
flew under different banners: whereas
the male believed that love
was what one felt in one’s heart
the female believed
love was what one did. But this is not
a little story about the male’s
inherent corruption, using as evidence the swan’s
sleazy definition of purity. It is
a story of guile and innocence. For ten years
the female studied the male; she dallied
when he slept or when he was
conveniently absorbed in the water,
while the spontaneous male
acted casually, on
the whim of the moment. On the muddy water
they bickered awhile, in the fading light,
until the bickering grew
slowly abstract, becoming
part of their song
after a little longer.
You saved me, you should remember me.
The spring of the year; young men buying tickets for the ferryboats.
Laughter, because the air is full of apple blossoms.
When I woke up, I realized I was capable of the same feeling.
I remember sounds like that from my childhood,
laughter for no cause, simply because the world is beautiful,
something like that.
Lugano. Tables under the apple trees.
Deckhands raising and lowering the colored flags.
And by the lake’s edge, a young man throws his hat into the water;
perhaps his sweetheart has accepted him.
sounds or gestures like
a track laid down before the larger themes
and then unused, buried.
Islands in the distance. My mother
holding out a plate of little cakes—
as far as I remember, changed
in no detail, the moment
vivid, intact, having never been
exposed to light, so that I woke elated, at my age
hungry for life, utterly confident—
By the tables, patches of new grass, the pale green
pieced into the dark existing ground.
Surely spring has been returned to me, this time
not as a lover but a messenger of death, yet
it is still spring, it is still meant tenderly.
The Empty Glass
I asked for much; I received much.
I asked for much; I received little, I received
next to nothing.
And between? A few umbrellas opened indoors.
A pair of shoes by mistake on the kitchen table.
O wrong, wrong—it was my nature. I was
hard-hearted, remote. I was
selfish, rigid to the point of tyranny.
But I was always that person, even in early childhood.
Small, dark-haired, dreaded by the other children.
I never changed. Inside the glass, the abstract
tide of fortune turned
from high to low overnight.
Was it the sea? Responding, maybe,
to celestial force? To be safe,
I prayed. I tried to be a better person.
Soon it seemed to me that what began as terror
and matured into moral narcissism
might have become in fact
actual human growth. Maybe
this is what my friends meant, taking my hand,
telling me they understood
the abuse, the incredible shit I accepted,
implying (so I once thought) I was a little sick
to give so much for so little.
Whereas they meant I was good (clasping my hand intensely)—
a good friend and person, not a creature of pathos.
I was not pathetic! I was writ large,
like a queen or a saint.
Well, it all makes for interesting conjecture.
And it occurs to me that what is crucial is to believe
in effort, to believe some good will come of simply trying,
a good completely untainted by the corrupt initiating impulse
to persuade or seduce—
What are we without this?
Whirling in the dark universe,
alone, afraid, unable to influence fate—
What do we have really?
Sad tricks with ladders and shoes,
tricks with salt, impurely motivated recurring
attempts to build character.
What do we have to appease the great forces?
And I think in the end this was the question
that destroyed Agamemnon, there on the beach,
the Greek ships at the ready, the sea
invisible beyond the serene harbor, the future
lethal, unstable: he was a fool, thinking
it could be controlled. He should have said
I have nothing, I am at your mercy.
Mother and Child
We’re all dreamers; we don’t know who we are.
Some machine made us; machine of the world, the constricting family.
Then back to the world, polished by soft whips.
We dream; we don’t remember.
Machine of the family: dark fur, forests of the mother’s body.
Machine of the mother: white city inside her.
And before that: earth and water.
Moss between rocks, pieces of leaves and grass.
And before, cells in a great darkness.
And before that, the veiled world.
This is why you were born: to silence me.
Cells of my mother and father, it is your turn
to be pivotal, to be the masterpiece.
I improvised; I never remembered.
Now it’s your turn to be driven;
you’re the one who demands to know:
Why do I suffer? Why am I ignorant?
Cells in a great darkness. Some machine made us;
it is your turn to address it, to go back asking
what am I for? What am I for?
A Village Life
The death and uncertainty that await me
as they await all men, the shadows evaluating me
because it can take time to destroy a human being,
the element of suspense
needs to be preserved—
On Sundays I walk my neighbor’s dog
so she can go to church to pray for her sick mother.
The dog waits for me in the doorway. Summer and winter
we walk the same road, early morning, at the base of the escarpment.
Sometimes the dog gets away from me—for a moment or two,
I can’t see him behind some trees. He’s very proud of this,
this trick he brings out occasionally, and gives up again
as a favor to me—
Afterward, I go back to my house to gather firewood.
I keep in my mind images from each walk:
monarda growing by the roadside;
in early spring, the dog chasing the little gray mice
so for a while it seems possible
not to think of the hold of the body weakening, the ratio
of the body to the void shifting,
and the prayers becoming prayers for the dead.
Midday, the church bells finished. Light in excess:
still, fog blankets the meadow, so you can’t see
the mountain in the distance, covered with snow and ice.
When it appears again, my neighbor thinks
her prayers are answered. So much light she can’t control her happiness—
it has to burst out in language. Hello, she yells, as though
that is her best translation.
She believes in the Virgin the way I believe in the mountain,
though in one case the fog never lifts.
But each person stores his hope in a different place.
I make my soup, I pour my glass of wine.
I’m tense, like a child approaching adolescence.
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 the child has no say whatsoever.
When I was a child, I did not foresee this.
Later, the sun sets, the shadows gather,
rustling the low bushes like animals just awake for the night.
Inside, there’s only firelight. It fades slowly;
now only the heaviest wood’s still
flickering across the shelves of instruments.
I hear music coming from them sometimes,
even locked in their cases.
When I was a bird, I believed I would be a man.
That’s the flute. And the horn answers,
When I was a man, I cried out to be a bird.
Then the music vanishes. And the secret it confides in me
In the window, the moon is hanging over the earth,
meaningless but full of messages.
It’s dead, it’s always been dead,
but it pretends to be something else,
burning like a star, and convincingly, so that you feel sometimes
it could actually make something grow on earth.
If there’s an image of the soul, I think that’s what it is.
I move through the dark as though it were natural to me,
as though I were already a factor in it.
Tranquil and still, the day dawns.
On market day, I go to the market with my lettuces.
A Sharply Worded Silence
Let me tell you something, said the old woman.
We were sitting, facing each other,
in the park at ___, a city famous for its wooden toys.
At the time, I had run away from a sad love affair,
and as a kind of penance or self punishment, I was working
at a factory, carving by hand the tiny hands and feet.
The park was my consolation, particularly in the quiet hours
after sunset, when it was often abandoned,
But on this evening, when I entered what was called the Contessa’s Garden,
I saw that someone had preceded me. It strikes me now
I could have gone ahead, but I had been
set on this destination; all day I had been thinking of the cherry trees
with which the glade was planted, whose time of blossoming had nearly ended.
We sat in silence. Dusk was falling,
and with it came a feeling of enclosure
as in a train cabin.
When I was young, she said, I liked walking the garden path at twilight
and if the path was long enough I would see the moon rise.
That was for me the great pleasure: not sex, not food, not worldly amusement.
I preferred the moon’s rising, and sometimes I would hear,
at the same moment, the sublime notes of the final ensemble
of The Marriage of Figaro. Where did the music come from?
I never knew.
Because it is the nature of garden paths
to be circular, each night, after my wanderings,
I would find myself at my front door, staring at it,
barely able to make out, in darkness, the glittering knob.
It was, she said, a great discovery, albeit my real life.
But certain nights, she said, the moon was barely visible through the clouds
and the music never started. A night of pure discouragement.
And still the next night I would begin again, and often all would be well.
I could think of nothing to say. This story, so pointless as I write it out,
was in fact interrupted at every stage with trance-like pauses
and prolonged intermissions, so that by this time night had started.
Ah the capacious night, the night
so eager to accommodate strange perceptions. I felt that some important secret
was about to be entrusted to me, as a torch is passed
from one hand to another in a relay.
My sincere apologies, she said.
I had mistaken you for one of my friends.
And she gestured toward the statues we sat among,
heroic men, self-sacrificing saintly women
holding granite babies to their breasts.
Not changeable, she said, like human beings.
I gave up on them, she said.
But I never lost my taste for circular voyages.
Correct me if I’m wrong.
Above our heads, the cherry blossoms had begun
to loosen in the night sky, or maybe the stars were drifting,
drifting and falling apart, and where they landed
new worlds would form.
Soon afterward I returned to my native city
and was reunited with my former lover.
And yet increasingly my mind returned to this incident,
studying it from all perspectives, each year more intensely convinced,
despite the absence of evidence, that it contained some secret.
I concluded finally that whatever message there might have been
was not contained in speech—so, I realized, my mother used to speak to me,
her sharply worded silences cautioning me and chastizing me—
and it seemed to me I had not only returned to my lover
but was now returning to the Contessa’s Garden
in which the cherry trees were still blooming
like a pilgrim seeking expiation and forgiveness,
so I assumed there would be, at some point,
a door with a glittering knob,
but when this would happen and where I had no idea.
more information on Louise Glück :
Louise Glück, a former Poet Laureate of the United States, is the author of over a dozen books of poetry including Faithful and Virtuous Night (winner of the National Book Award for Poetry) and her recent anthology, Poems: 1962-2012. Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Hass has called her “one of the purest and most accomplished lyric poets now writing.”
Glück taught at Williams College for 20 years and is currently Rosenkranz writer-in-residence at Yale University. She is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and in 1999 was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. Her numerous books of poetry include A Village Life (2009), The Seven Ages (2001), and The Wild Iris (1992), for which she received the Pulitzer Prize. Louise Glück says of writing, “[It] is not decanting of personality. The truth, on the page, need not have been lived. It is, instead, all that can be envisioned.”
Louise Glück with Peter Streckfus, Conversation. Recorded at the Lensic Theater in Santa Fe, New Mexico on May 11, 2016. This was a Lannan Literary event.
Louise Glück, is introduced by Peter Streckfus and then read from her work.