Versions of Ascesis in Louise Glück’s Poetry

Versions of Ascesis in Louise Glück’s Poetry The idea of confessional poetry has perhaps lost specificity, given that so much poetry in our time is at least quasi-confessional, but Louise Glück is surely a confessional poet in some basic sense. She returns time and again to a series of wounding predicaments in her intimate life: the sorrows of family (the family of her childhood as well as the family of her adulthood), the costs of a longing for independence lived primarily as a stance of opposition, or the tension between a longing for independence and a longing for relationship, and an intuition that the core of human experience is loss, grief, and death. ‘Tonight’, she says in a poem in Ararat, ‘I saw myself in the dark window as / the image of my father, whose life / was spent like this, / thinking of death to the exclusion / of other sensual matters’ (p. 63).1 She has been writing about the shadow of her approaching death nearly all her adult life. The voice in which she expresses her wounds is at once spare, speculative, and confident. If the risk of a confessional poet is self-absorption, Glück has several resources for overcoming this risk, including an ironic intelligence, a sense of humour, a capacious speculative imagination, and a habit of weaving the sorrows of contemporary life through the archetypes of classical and biblical literature. She lends to each of her books from Ararat on, further, the shape of a larger sequence or story. She has spoken of her preference for paradigm over circumstance,2 and her poems do tend to be vertical, but the books lend scope to the poems. Renunciation is a major theme in Glück’s poetry. Each of her last three books, indeed, begins with a fable of ascesis. The first poem of Averno, ‘Night Migrations’, laments the way the dead lose the palpable world and then tries to imagine that perhaps ‘not being’ suffices for a soul in death (p. 1).3 The first poem of A Village Life, ‘Twilight’, evokes a stepping back from the world in a pause after work, as dusk falls, late in summer. The poem, quiet and sure in its reach, echoes at once Keats’s ‘To Autumn’ and Stevens’s ‘Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour’: ‘But it’s easy to give things up like this, experimentally, / for a matter of hours’, the speaker says at the end of the poem. ‘I open my fingers – / I let everything go. // Visual world, language, / rustling of leaves in the night, / smell of high grass, of woodsmoke. // I let it go, then I light the candle’.4 The first poem of the recent Faithful and Virtuous Night, ‘Parable’, begins by recalling a joyful ascetic from the Christian tradition: ‘First divesting ourselves of worldly goods, as St. Francis teaches, / in order that our souls not be distracted / by gain and loss, and in order also / that our bodies be free to move / easily at the mountain pass, we had then to discuss / whither or where we might travel, with the second question being / should we have a purpose’. The ascetics of this poem never quite get beyond the stage of preparing for their journey, but they are ‘changed nevertheless’, for while getting ready, they are changed by time, ‘and this seemed in a strange way miraculous’. ‘And those who believed we should have a purpose’, the poem concludes, ‘believed this was the purpose, and those who felt we must remain free / in order to encounter truth felt it had been revealed’ (pp. 3–4).5,6 Most readers recognise an ascetic impulse in the very spareness of Glück’s work. Yet the kind of letting go evoked in the poems I’ve cited here is different from the kind of letting go expressed in many of her early books. I would say there are three different ascetic bearings, or three different versions of ascesis, in her work. They are often intertwined with one another, it is true, yet it may be helpful to distinguish among them, for they have different implications and disclose different regions of experience. The first of these bearings is what I would call a practice of self-assertion through self-denial. One of the traditional purposes of ascetic practice is self-mastery and, through self-mastery, mastery of the pressure of experience. In the ancient world ascesis was understood as a path of spiritual independence. It remains a path of this sort in our world, though often without the metaphysical framework that once gave it a larger reach. A second version of ascesis in Glück’s poetry is what I would call an art of seeing through illusion. She has a formal bent for the spare, the pared down, the stripped away, the clarified. This formal bent is the expression of a temperamental and philosophical bent, too, often manifest as a movement of reduction, a movement particularly at work in Ararat, Averno, A Village Life, and Faithful and Virtuous Night. The poet of these books turns her attention to a bareness behind appearances. This version of ascesis is akin to Stevens’s reductive art of the snow man (an art that in Stevens is always in tension with an expansive art of the giant on the horizon). A third version of ascesis in Glück’s poetry is what I would call a path to reawakened openness and wonder. If the first version of ascesis involves a detachment from others, even a certain detachment from the given itself, for the sake of achieving an independent self; if the second version involves a letting go of illusion for the sake of seeing the bare truth of things; this third version involves a letting go of the self, including the self’s obsession with disillusion as a sufficient end, for the sake of a reawakened abandon or a renewed embrace of things and lives in time. This last version of ascesis involves a letting go at the heart of holding on. It seeks not an anxious defence against the world but a poised openness in the midst of the world. Always it has been the rarest way. It’s hardly the dominant bearing in Glück’s work. But it’s there at times. It’s there, above all, in what for many readers remains her greatest book, The Wild Iris. In this essay I would like to step through each of these versions of ascesis, looking at particular poems, sequences, and books in which they are expressed. I will be quite brief in addressing the first of them, for other scholars have given considerable attention to this dimension of Glück’s work, and more expansive in trying to illuminate the second and third of them, which I take to be the most resonant dimensions of Glück’s poetic of ascesis. At the end of the essay I will raise some larger questions about the place of a poetic of ascesis in contemporary culture. * * * The first version of ascesis in Glück’s poetry, then, is a path of renunciation meant to fend off the pressure of experience and to shape an independent self. What the pressure of experience meant first of all for the young Glück, according to her own testimony in ‘Education of the Poet’, was other people, dependence on other people, the claims of other people. As she sees her past, the anorexia she suffered for several years in her youth was the self-destructive expression of a passion for independence. ‘Then [in my adolescence], as now’, she says, ‘my thought tended to define itself in opposition; what remains characteristic now was in those days the single characteristic. I couldn’t say what I was, what I wanted, in any day to day, practical way. What I could say was no: the way I saw to separate myself, to establish a self with clear boundaries, was to oppose myself to the declared desire of others, utilizing their wills to give shape to my own.’7 In a reading of Glück’s well-known sequence ‘Dedication to Hunger’, Lynn Keller suggests that the young Glück’s starving of herself could be seen as a desperate resistance, not simply to others in general, but in particular to the conventional feminine roles available to women in the America of the 1950s. The fear of sexuality expressed in some of Glück’s early poems, Keller adds, might lend support to this way of understanding the desire at work in her illness. Keller thus finds feminist implications in the work of a poet not usually seen as feminist in a strong or political sense.8 ‘Dedication to Hunger’, further, is a sequence not only about Glück’s ascetic path to independence but also about the way she would come to sublimate this desire in her art. ‘What I feel now, aligning these words’, she says in the fourth poem of ‘Dedication to Hunger’, ‘is the need to perfect’, the same need she felt as an adolescent, she says, when she imagined she could ‘sacrifice’ her own ‘flesh’ in order to free herself of ‘blossom and subterfuge’.9 A passion for independence, an acute fear of dependence, could be turned into a passion for distinctive poetic achievement. Glück would find her voice by paring away all clutter. ‘I liked scale’, she says of her bias as a young poet, ‘but I liked it invisible. I loved those poems that seemed so small on the page but that swelled in the mind; I didn’t like the windy, dwindling kind.’10 Clearly she could be describing her own work here. * * * The second version of ascesis in Glück’s poetry is an art of disillusion. Averno, we are told in a prefatory note to Averno, is a small crater lake ‘regarded by the ancient Romans as the entrance to the underworld’. It’s there that, in Book VI of the Aeneid, Aeneas descends to the underworld, though this story is not explicitly recalled in Glück’s Averno. The myth of the underworld prominent in the book is the myth of Demeter and Persephone and Hades. Four poems in the book – ‘Persephone the Wanderer’, ‘A Myth of Innocence’, ‘A Myth of Devotion’, and again ‘Persephone the Wanderer’ – cast this myth as a story of innocence and experience. Persephone is seen not only as a young lover longing to break free of her mother, longing to see what the risk of life is all about, but also as the soul, a ‘rift’ in the human being formed of our belonging to earth, Demeter, and to death, Hades (p. 19).11 In the title poem, a 60-year-old woman meditates on the emptiness behind the things on which we depend: ‘I wake up thinking / you have to prepare. / Soon the spirit will give up – / all the chairs in the world won’t help you’ (p. 60). ‘October’, the most striking poem in the book, is a sequence of six poems. The first four poems move through evocations of the four seasons: winter (a fearful apprehension of imminent winter from the space of autumn), summer (a sceptical response to the illusory balm of an Indian summer), spring (a nostalgic memory of early spring perceived as an erotic invitation), and autumn (a return to the light of October, to the present, that the poet is trying to see clearly). The fifth poem reaches back in memory: the poet remembers riding a subway as a child with a ‘small book’ felt to be a defence against the world. The sixth and final poem bids farewell to the idea of a marriage of the sun and the earth, turning to the beautiful moon of a cold night. All that is left, it seems, is a reflective mind in a space of ‘bitter disgrace, coldness and barrenness’ (p. 15). The sequence was originally published in the New Yorker in October 2002, a year and a month after the devastating attack on the Twin Towers. The image of a young girl riding the subway would seem to place the poem in New York (Glück grew up on Long Island), and the forceful expression ‘violence has changed me’, repeated in the second poem, might seem to allude to the disaster of a year earlier. Yet these allusions are echoes on the edge of the poem. The poem does not engage historical violence. It’s a meditative poem cast on an existential plane. The violence of which it speaks is the violence of time that strips away our illusions as well as the things and places and people we love. The mind, in Stevens’s well-known words, ‘is a violence from within that protects us from a violence without. It is the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality.’12 ‘Violence has changed me’, the poet says in the second poem of ‘October’. ‘My body has grown cold like the stripped fields; / now there is only my mind, cautious and wary, / with the sense it is being tested’ (p. 7). The mind of the poet, being tested, is testing: sifting through different perspectives to find what will suffice. The first poem is formed of a single run-on sentence, unwinding for over a page, punctuated only with commas and dashes until the final question mark. The echoing questions convey a sense of bewilderment: 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           (p. 5) The title of the sequence, and the sense of a return to the present of autumn in the fourth poem, suggest that the initial question here arises out of a startled awareness of approaching winter. This in turn leads to a recollection of the previous winter and an anxious reflection on the swiftness with which the seasons have passed. The poet calls to mind spring planting, summer growth, and autumn harvest, not because this is a pastoral poem, but because these are archetypal images of human work for the sake of building a habitable and meaningful world. Here in autumn the speaker doubts the whole effort. Nothing seems safe. In the second poem the poet rejects the illusory balm provided by an Indian summer that has just passed: ‘Summer after summer has ended, / balm after violence: / it does me no good / to be good to me now; / violence has changed me’ (p. 7). The light on the hills is dismissed as insubstantial. The beauty of this spell of days is all the more poignant for being unavailable to the hardened body and the distrustful mind. The rhythm of repetition in this poem expresses not bewilderment but disbelief. ‘Tell me this is the future’, the poet says in the last stanza, ‘I won’t believe you. / Tell me I’m living, / I won’t believe you’ (p. 8). The poet continues to evade the present in the third poem, casting back in memory to the previous spring, to spring’s emergence at the edge of winter. ‘Winter was over. In the thawed dirt, / bits of green were showing’ (p. 9). What she remembers is her faith in the beauty of the world: beauty felt as an invitation, a promise of happiness, a lover’s call. ‘Come to me, said the world. / This is not to say / it spoke in exact sentences / but that I perceived beauty in this manner’ (p. 9). Here the repetitions convey wonder that one could ever have felt such things. ‘Beauty, the healer, the teacher’, the poet says, recalling the faith of spring now worn away by loss. ‘Beauty, / the healer, the teacher – // death cannot harm me / more than you have harmed me, / my beloved life’ (p. 10). The fourth poem returns to the autumnal present that is the sequence’s point of departure. ‘This is the present, an allegory of waste’, we read in the middle of the poem, a poem of October light. Here the repetitions mark a deepening (‘The light has changed’, ‘This is the light of autumn’, ‘you will not be spared’). The poet begins by dismissing the songs of morning and the songs of spring: The light has changed; middle C is tuned darker now. And the songs of morning sound over-rehearsed. This is the light of autumn, not the light of spring. The light of autumn: you will not be spared.           (p. 11) Now the world speaks in a different voice than it did in early spring: come to me has turned into you will not be spared. ‘So much has changed’, the speaker says: the season, the light, the music, the life that tells of these changes, the mind that a wind has come and taken apart. The songs, she says, ‘are still quite beautiful’, but they ‘have been concentrated in a smaller space, the space of the mind’, and ‘they are dark, now, with desolation and anguish’ (p. 11). And yet this poem of the changed light of autumn turns out to be the most deeply affirmative poem in the sequence. The poet acknowledges the pressure of reality and passionately presses back against it. ‘And still’, she says, ‘you are fortunate: / the ideal burns in you like a fever’ (p. 11). And though she hears the autumn light say, ‘you will not be spared, nor will what you love be spared’, she says to herself, ‘how privileged you are, to be still passionately / clinging to what you love’ (p. 12). ‘Surely it is a privilege’, she says in the last lines of the poem, ‘to approach the end / still believing in something’ (p. 12). The counter-movement of spirit here is powerful. The language, it is true, is a little abstract, leaving us to guess what loves and beliefs, what fortune and privilege, the poet is speaking of. What does the repeated word ‘privilege’ mean here? This word appears, too, in the last sentence of ‘On Impoverishment’, a commencement address given by Glück in 1993. In this address she speaks of periods of desolation that, if endured, can carry us to a reawakened openness to things, a deepened gratitude for all we have been given. ‘Realize, then’, she says, ‘that impoverishment is also a teacher, unique in its capacity to renew, and that its yield, when it ends, is a passionate openness which in turn re-invests the world with meaning.’ What is found on the other side of impoverishment, she says, ‘is not the primary gift of the world but the essential secondary gift of knowledge, a sense of the significance of the original gift, the scale of our privilege’.13 The privilege is to have been given both life and the capacity to see, to say, what life is all about. What if ‘October’ had concluded with this fourth poem? At this point the mind has contemplated winter, summer, spring, and autumn. It has circled through its fears, hopes, doubts, beliefs. It has remembered an old trust in the energy of nature and work, an old perception of the promise of the world, an old faith in the teaching and healing power of beauty. It has felt the unsparing movement of time. Despite all, it has held to what it loves, held to ideals to live by. It has seen the deepened light. It has composed a distinctive autumn song in a tradition of autumn songs. The fourth poem, for all its poise, is more passionate than either Keats’s ‘To Autumn’ or the last canto of Stevens’s ‘Sunday Morning’. Its clarity is steep. But the sequence doesn’t end here. It steps into the dark. The poet begins the fifth poem by recalling the old question of the relationship between beauty and truth, recast here as beauty and candour, or beauty and truthfulness. ‘It is true that there is not enough beauty in the world. / It is also true that I am not competent to restore it. / Neither is there candor, and here I may be of some use’ (p. 13). The rest of the poem recalls George Oppen, both in its spare, hinge-like movement and in its vocabulary and concerns. The poet speaks of misery, solitude, a resistance to false consolation, a saving faith in speech and companionship, a saving faith in the power of a poem in the dark. The bland misery of the world bounds us on either side, an alley lined with trees; we are companions here, not speaking, each with his own thoughts …           (p. 13) The word ‘hope’, the poet says, is ‘itself / false, a device to refute / perception’ (p. 13). Yet just here, as though this candid statement were too bleak to stay with, she descends into the past: I was young here. Riding the subway with my small book as though to defend myself against this same world: you are not alone, the poem said, in the dark tunnel.           (p. 14) At the end of the fourth poem, the poet says to herself, ‘the forfeit of hope has not destroyed you’ (p. 12). There the absence of hope means a heightened presence of mind. Here the absence of hope means an acknowledgement of the misery of things, the loneliness of everyone, and the poet responds to this by seeking a defence in the poem. In the sixth and last poem of the sequence, the dark tunnel of the fifth poem becomes the vault of the night sky. The gorgeous light of autumn encountered in the fourth poem becomes the reflected light of the moon. ‘The brightness of the day becomes / the brightness of the night; / the fire becomes the mirror’ (p. 15). The poet recalls the memories of the first poem, memories of agricultural growth, and in a Stevensian echo says farewell to them. All has been reduced to what the fourth poem calls ‘an allegory of waste’: My friend the earth is bitter; I think sunlight has failed her. Bitter or weary, it is hard to say. Between herself and the sun, something has ended. She wants, now, to be left alone; I think we must give up turning to her for affirmation.           (p. 15) The earth brought to life by the sun will no longer suffice: it has proven to be an illusion. The deepened light of autumn has gone. All has become cold: ‘the brilliance that made all life possible / becomes the cold stars’. The poet concludes with a severe letting go of everything but the night sky: Lie still and watch: they [the cold stars] give nothing but ask nothing. From within the earth’s bitter disgrace, coldness and barrenness my friend the moon rises; she is beautiful tonight, but when is she not beautiful?           (p. 15) The poet has two friends, the earth and the moon, but one is ruined – dark, barren, bitter, disgraced – while the other rises in reflective beauty. Perhaps the moon here is an image of the solitary mind searching in the aftermath. Is this all that is left to affirm in a poetry of candid disillusion? Is this the bare place the ascetic of truth comes to? The most difficult question raised by ‘October’, to my mind, is the relationship between the first four poems, on the one hand, and the last two poems, on the other. The first four poems trace a movement of the mind through four seasons, each of which evokes a different psychic state. These poems come to a provisional end with the fourth poem’s powerful affirmation of the poet’s ‘privilege’ amid the clearings of autumn. The fifth and sixth poems evoke the misery of the world and a failure of the earth. The last word of the sequence, it is true, is ‘beautiful’, and earlier in the sequence beauty is called ‘the healer, the teacher’, so perhaps we are to look for a healing, a teaching, in this late light touching a barren world. The moon is the muse of Glück’s ascetic art of seeing what remains once illusion has been stripped away. The power of this austere sequence lies not least in its power to test our own sense of what will suffice. The sequence, like nearly all of Glück’s poetry, tests our sense of what will suffice on a formal as well as an existential plane. The existential bareness it explores is echoed by its formal spareness. ‘Winter was over. In the thawed dirt, / bits of green were showing’. ‘The brightness of the day becomes / the brightness of the night; / the fire becomes the mirror’. How does Glück make this language of plain statement so resonant? In ‘October’ the resonance comes in part from the circling repetitions. It comes in part from a kind of Stevensian appositional unfolding and a sure authority. It comes in part from the subtle but distinct modulations of voice: a voice by turns anxious, bewildered, nostalgic, dry, passionate, questioning, lyrical, austere. The spare diction here, as in so many of Glück’s poems, is given depth and range by this confident and supple voice. Yet there remains the mystery of Glück’s capacity to lend the commonplace such reach or, in a phrase of Virginia Woolf’s, such power of suggestion. Glück, like Oppen, has a gift for simplicity of statement. Poets of this type, if at times they risk flatness, seem to touch a deep root in the lyric tradition, a root we could call compression, the art of leaving out, the art of saying so much by saying so little. ‘From the beginning’, Glück says in an essay from which I cited earlier, ‘I preferred the simplest vocabulary … . What I responded to, on the page, was the way a poem could liberate, by means of a word’s setting, through subtleties of timing, of pacing, that word’s full and surprising range of meaning. It seemed to me that simple language best suited this enterprise; such language, in being generic, is likely to contain the greatest and most dramatic variety of meaning within individual words.’14 Thus Glück’s account of the music of the commonplace. The plain becomes the spacious. Ariel’s poems, as Stevens puts it in ‘The Planet on the Table’, are meant to bear ‘Some lineament or character, // Some affluence, if only half perceived / In the poverty of their words, / Of the planet of which they were part’.15 * * * The moon as an image of the solitary soul returns in the last poem of A Village Life (p. 71).16 This book, like ‘October’, like Averno as a whole, is shaped by Glück’s art of seeing through illusion. But here, as in Ararat or Meadowlands, the disillusion is found, not in a Stevensian autumn, but in a peopled world. It’s the sort of disillusion studied in novels and short stories: the disillusion that so many ageing souls come to in the ordinary world of work and relationship. The village of the book, though not given a precise location, appears to be Mediterranean, perhaps Greek, perhaps Italian, perhaps not far from Averno. The village has a market, a plaza with a fountain, a river where the young gather in the evening; beyond it lie mountains and fields of olive trees; in the distance there’s a city that the young dream of going to, a city where some of the villagers have moved and grown unhappy. The village seems old-fashioned. Perhaps it’s an Old World of the mind, a quasi-archetypal village, the site of the book’s brooding anthropology. ‘All you need to know of a place’, the voice of one poem says, ‘is, do people live there. / If they do, you know everything’ (p. 58). The book as a whole has a novelistic texture as well as a novelistic field of concern. The poems are more expansive than many of Glück’s poems: their long, unfurling lines, enjambed but unhurried, lend the book a cadence of melancholy and recollection. The story the book tells is the story of innocence and experience. It tells this story, not in the romantic terms of childhood and adulthood, but in the contemporary terms of adolescence and adulthood, or the promise of youth and the burden of middle and old age. The promise of youth is discovered in the experience of eros, night, touch, possibility. The burden of age is found in the reality of work, fatigue, marital estrangement, lost love, lost hope, lost time, lost promise. To grow old in this village is first of all to be worn down. ‘He comes home, he’s tired’, a wife says of her husband in one poem. ‘Everything is hard – making money is hard, watching your body change / is hard. You can take these problems when you’re young – / something’s difficult for a while, but you’re confident’ (p. 48). The book as a whole is orchestrated and occasionally voiced by its older author, but distinct characters speak in many of the poems, and the voices are variously bitter, resigned, nostalgic, reflective. Even the young, for all their curiosity, sound not adventurous so much as wary. Interspersed with these poems of the peopled world are two series of poems that could be called speculative parables. One is a series of poems spoken by creatures: two of them, titled ‘Earthworm’, are spoken by an earthworm that tells of a wholeness that only death or a return to the earth could bring to the divided human creature; two, titled ‘Bats’, are spoken by bats that tell of finding one’s way in the dark. The other series is a series of ‘burning leaves’ poems. These are brief meditations occasioned by the sight of a farmer burning a pile of leaves: they are preoccupied with the fire in things, the fire that is life and death at once, the fire whereby everything arises and perishes. These poems present a natural analogue of the existential arc of youth and age that is the book’s central concern. In an early poem in the book, ‘Noon’, a boy and a girl on summer vacation, a boy and girl for whom ‘freedom hasn’t gotten boring’, walk to a meadow, have a picnic, and walk home in the dusk together, ‘not holding hands but still telling each other everything’ (p. 9). They haven’t yet reached the age of touch that will stir them and, they guess, make them ‘strangers’ to each other. Another poem, ‘At the Dance’, evokes the longing to touch and be touched that, the speaker tells us, is part of what adolescent dances are about. In ‘At the River’ a woman recalls an experience she had as a young girl. Her mother, with the aid of a book, haplessly tried to explain to her the realities of sex. Then, slipping away on a summer evening, she was at the river with her friends, joking with them about her mother’s lesson. ‘More and more that summer’, she says, ‘we understood / that something was going to happen / that would change us’ (p. 22). The girl went home later that night to find that her mother had gone to bed while her father had stayed up reading. ‘Your mother and I’, he said to her, ‘used to drink a glass of wine together / after dinner’ (p. 23). This is the condition of marriage in the book. ‘Nothing remains of love, / only estrangement and hatred’, as it is put in a poem titled ‘Fatigue’. All the married couples in the book have come to feel exhausted, estranged, hopeless. A mother puts her child to bed early because ‘she’s sick to death of her life / and needs silence’ (p. 19). A wife whose cooking fails to please her husband is as worn down by the domestic world as he is by work (pp. 47–9). Apparently there are no fulfilling marriages anywhere in the village. The adults are all defeated, at most nostalgic for a past in which they felt love and promise. The roads of the village are called ‘Avenue of Broken Faith, Avenue of Disappointment, / Avenue of the Acacia Trees / … / Avenue of Lost Time, Avenue of Liberty that ends in stone’ (p. 7). What is left for the poet to affirm in this world of pervasive disappointment? Here, as everywhere in Glück, contemplation provides a partial consolation. The first and last poems, with their quiet grace, frame the grim picture of village life as a whole. But there is another dimension of grace here that is perhaps surprising to find in a book otherwise so bleak. It has to do with the poet’s concern with the body. There is a nostalgia for the body on the threshold of adulthood. There is a tenderness towards the body just learning of the wonder of eros. There is a tenderness towards the life of touch that is so easily exhausted and calloused in the world. The wife whose husband complains about her cooking remembers the nights when they were first married and still in love. ‘When we were young’, she says, ‘it was different. / My husband and I – / we were in love. All we ever wanted / was to touch each other’ (p. 48). In another poem an older woman walks through the streets of the village on a summer night, aware that ‘the young men don’t approach her now’ (p. 27), and remembers how ‘the young people used to gather’ by the river, and momentarily feels again the pulse of her young body alive to the world. ‘Everything still smells of summer. / And her body begins to seem again the body she had as a young woman, / glistening under the light summer clothing’ (p. 28). In what may be the most poignant poem in the book, clearly an autobiographical poem, an older woman apologises to her body for the way her fearful, violent soul has treated it: My body, now that we will not be traveling together much longer I begin to feel a new tenderness toward you, very raw and  unfamiliar, like what I remember of love when I was young – love that was so often foolish in its objectives but never in its choices, its intensities. Too much demanded in advance, too much that could not be  promised – My soul has been so fearful, so violent: forgive its brutality. As though it were that soul, my hand moves over you cautiously, not wishing to give offense but eager, finally, to achieve expression as substance: it is not the earth I will miss, it is you I will miss.           (p. 62) She will miss both, for sure, as the first poem of Averno makes clear, as the whole of The Wild Iris makes clear. For this beautiful apology to the body, this tenderness for the body, is part of a tenderness for the earth. It’s as though the poet were releasing herself a little from the spell of her long ascetic search for spiritual independence and the insight of disillusion. And this tenderness has such depth of feeling that it becomes nearly a figure for another sort of release that can be seen only in outline, as it were, against all that has come to burden the adults of the village described in this book. What has come to burden them is fatigue, isolation, disillusion, bitterness. Often the letting go the middle-aged need is a letting go of the grievances that have come to shape their souls. The difference between disillusion and tenderness in A Village Life is like the difference between defensiveness and openness. * * * The path to an openness beyond disillusion is yet another version of ascesis in Glück’s poetry. The Wild Iris is its most beautiful expression. The book, a meditation in a garden, is a sequence of dramatic monologues spoken by three types of beings: flowers (or occasionally grass, clover, a vine, a tree), the poet (who now and then cites her husband and son), and some sort of divine presence (whom we might call God). Linda Gregerson, in a fine account of the sequence, has clarified that the poems that the flowers speak are usually addressed to the poet, the poems that the poet speaks are usually addressed to the divine, and the poems that the divine speaks are usually addressed to the poet.17 The floral poems are titled for the flowers that speak them, the human poems are titled ‘Matins’ in the first half of the sequence and ‘Vespers’ in the second half, and the divine poems are titled for times of day, times of year, or qualities of wind and light. The book is at once apostrophic, dialogical, and multi-perspectival. Tracing a movement from dawn to dusk as well as from spring to autumn, recalling biblical images and themes, it’s resonantly mythopoetic. And while the individual poems are lean, the sequence as a whole is capacious. It wrestles with fundamental questions of our lives: beauty, love, longing, loss, death, grief, memory. Its deep rhythm is the psalmic rhythm of lament and praise. Above all, I think, it’s a meditation on what it means to inhabit a transient paradise. ‘Look at you, blindly clinging to earth / as though it were the vineyards of heaven / while the fields go up in flames around you’, the divine voice says in ‘Harvest’, adopting a tone of tacitly sympathetic impatience. For as this voice acknowledges at the end of the poem, the earth is indeed our paradise, given only to be taken away, again and again: If what you fear in death is punishment beyond this, you need not fear death: how many times must I destroy my own creation to teach you this is your punishment: with one gesture I established you in time and in paradise.           (p. 46).18 The Wild Iris is a Rilkean book. It may sound surprising to say this, given that Glück has been critical of Rilke on those occasions when she has written of him (though, as Paul Breslin and William Logan have noted, these criticisms sound ambivalent).19 A forceful criticism she makes of Rilke is that there is a measure of bad faith in his teaching of the art of letting go. Probably most of us need this teaching, since most of us desperately resist loss, but Rilke, Glück says, finds letting go too easy, preferring an idealisation of the dead in inwardness to an actual engagement with people in life. What he really needs to learn, she says, is how to hold on.20 She has a point. It’s a perceptive criticism. Could an analogous criticism be made of Glück’s poetry at times? Does she at times too readily adopt the defence of an ascetic stance? She has herself raised this question. ‘I had two desires’, she says in Vita Nova, a book in part about her recovery from the ruins of divorce, ‘a desire / to be safe and a desire to feel’.21 This is a clear statement of a common enough human predicament. Elsewhere in the same book she says: ‘I was afraid of love, afraid of being taken away. / Everyone afraid of love is afraid of death’.22 What will we do with this fear? The Wild Iris is Glück’s greatest book because its author, surpassing her fear, holds on and lets go at the same time. Here, more than elsewhere, she ‘includes the evocation of plenitude along with mourning for its inevitable loss’.23 This is after all a Rilkean lyrical bearing. The Duino Elegies and the Sonnets to Orpheus recast in humanist terms a longing essential to the history of religion: the longing for a meaningful response to loss. If a traditional Christian response to loss is to affirm a transcendent source and destiny, Rilke’s concern is to affirm the transient without any reliance on an older myth of transcendence. Rilke has two ways of engaging this challenge. One is to turn the space of transcendence into the space of inwardness. At the end of the Ninth Elegy he asks: ‘Earth, isn’t this what you want: to arise within us, / invisible? Isn’t it your dream / to be wholly invisible someday?’24 An elegy for the transient becomes a hymn to inwardness. Rilke’s other way of engaging the mystery of transience, though, is in tension with this first way. It’s to turn the space of transcendence into the space of openness. This openness is related to, though not identical to, the open that in the Eighth Elegy animals are said to move in.25 The openness that human beings can enter is evoked less in the Elegies, I think, than in the Sonnets. It’s as though the ultimate circumference of things were no longer a transcendent source but the spaciousness of everything in time. This is the region we see in the last of the Sonnets. ‘In this immeasurable darkness’, the speaker says at the end of the poem, ‘be the power / that rounds your senses in their magic ring, / the sense of their mysterious encounter. // And if the earthly no longer knows your name, / whisper to the silent earth: I’m flowing. / To the flashing water say: I am’.26 All emerges and vanishes in this open of mysterious encounter. In much of her work, no doubt, Glück is a poet of inwardness, a poet of the soul, though in our time Rilke’s abyssal inwardness is no longer a possibility. The transcendent and the inward alike have been scaled down, as it were, and Glück’s inwardness is a sparer thing: a clear room rather than a baroque cathedral. Yet, as in Rilke, this is not her only bearing. Now and then she is also a poet of the astonishing open of things that the soul enters when it goes free. There are moments like this in ‘October’. There are moments like this in The Seven Ages. This is the region of life brought to words in the sweep of The Wild Iris. Glück, it is true, doesn’t partake of a larger transvaluation of values in the way Rilke does: the translation of the transcendent into spiritual depth or the open of things, an immense cultural drama in Rilke’s time, has become a more familiar frame in our time. And Glück hasn’t the sensuous metaphorical gift that makes reading Rilke feel like walking beside a high river that goes on and on. Yet The Wild Iris is sensuous in a way absent from Rilke’s work: it expresses erotic longing and loss. Its subtle humour, further, allows its deeper voices of wonder and lament to be heard all the more clearly. It’s a spirited and erotic Rilkean song for our time. The first poem of the sequence, the title poem, is a poem of rebirth, return to life after dormancy, recovery of voice after silence: ‘At the end of my suffering / there was a door’, the poet says in the first lines. ‘Hear me out: that which you call death / I remember’ (p. 1). This oracular confidence, characteristic of Glück, is heard again at the end of the poem: ‘You who do not remember / passage from the other world / I tell you I could speak again: whatever / returns from oblivion returns / to find a voice’ (p. 1). Early in the sequence there is another beautiful poem of reawakening, ‘Snowdrops’, a poem expressing a renewal of erotic feeling after a winter of despair and retreat (p. 6). Yet more prominent in the book than the experience of renewal is the experience of grief. In the third poem the poet speaks of our ‘exile’ from another world, and our encounter with ‘beauty’ in this world, beauty ‘designed to teach a lesson’, though we are unable to understand what it is. In the fourth poem, ‘Trillium’, the flower discovers grief as it discovers the word for grief: ‘only a moment ago, I didn’t know my voice / if one were given me / would be so full of grief, my sentences / like cries strung together. / I didn’t even know I felt grief / until that word came, until I felt / rain streaming from me’ (p. 4). A little later the divine voice reminds the poet that human lives are not circular in the way natural life may appear to be (p. 15), an appearance that is in any case an anthropocentric illusion, as a dying lily makes clear in the penultimate poem of the sequence (p. 62). The same divine voice, speaking to the reader over the head of the poet and her husband, sees an ‘image of departure’ the poet’s hand makes as it touches and leaves her husband’s face, ‘even here, even at the beginning of love’ (p. 16). The departure of beauty, the departure of love, marks everything (pp. 10–11). The grief is everywhere, the divine voice clarifies, ‘distributed / between you, among all your kind’, a signature for us to be known by, ‘as deep blue / marks the wild scilla, white / the wood violet’ (p. 20). A Jacob’s ladder says to the poet that it too knows the ‘desire for paradise’ as well as grief. ‘Never / to leave the world’, it says to the poet. ‘Is this not what your tears mean?’ (p. 24). The reason any being speaks at all, the red poppy suggests, is that it is ‘shattered’ (p. 29). ‘What is my heart to you’, the poet cries to the divine, ‘that you must break it over and over / likes a plantsman testing / his new species?’ (p. 26). An important part of the lesson the poet comes to learn is the ultimate void behind everything (pp. 41, 47): the grief at the heart of life. In ‘Harvest’, a poem I cited earlier, the divine spells out the lesson: ‘how many times must I destroy my own creation / to teach you / this is your punishment: // with one gesture I established you / in time and in paradise’ (p. 46). This is our gift and our grief: that we live in a paradise where all vanishes. Our vocation is the Rilkean vocation of praise and lament in time. Along the way are epiphanies, ecstasies, or moments of being, as Virginia Woolf calls them. ‘In every life’, the poet says in ‘Presque Isle’, ‘there’s a moment or two. / In every life, a room somewhere, by the sea or in the mountains’, the rest of the poem unfolding as the recollection of a day beside a lake when there was love between the poet and her husband. In another poem, one of the many evening songs in the book, the poet at twilight watches her husband in the garden. She sees that he is at one with his work and at one with the world he is gardening in. ‘This is how he gardens’, she says, ‘fifteen minutes of intense effort, / fifteen minutes of ecstatic contemplation’ (p. 42). But these are only moments. Even here, she says, she cannot hold the peace she feels: ‘all this time’, the twilight during which she watches him, ‘peace never leaves him. But it rushes through me, / not as sustenance the flower holds / but like bright light through the bare tree’ (p. 42). In the latter part of the sequence there are several poems that sketch a fable of the history of religion, as though the poet wished to recall the historical process of coming to see that religions express not a divine reality but our own fears, passions, griefs, longings. In ‘Retreating Light’ the divine tells the poet that he gave his creatures writing, gave them their own lives and tragedies, and told them to tell their story. ‘You will never know how deeply / it pleases me to see you sitting there / like independent beings, / to see you dreaming by the open window, / holding the pencils I gave you / until the summer morning disappears into writing’ (pp. 50–1). If we have said farewell to the divine, if we have come to see in God an echo of our laments and prayers, then perhaps we can hear a divine tenderness in the evening breeze: ‘My tenderness’, the divine says, ‘should be apparent to you / in the breeze of the summer evening / and in the words that become / your own response’ (p. 57). In other poems the poet recognises that for a long time God was a name with which we troped ‘nothing’ as an invisible power that would retrieve what we had lost, make sense of our suffering: it is everywhere, when I close my eyes, birdsong, scent of lilac in early spring, scent of summer roses: you mean to take it away, each flower, each connection with earth – why would you wound me, why would you want me desolate in the end, unless you wanted me so starved for hope I would refuse to see that finally nothing was left to me, and would believe instead in the end you were left to me.           (p. 52; cf. p. 58) But in the end, as ‘Vespers: Parousia’ makes clear, the nothing is only our desperate intuition of the dimension of absence and significance that haunts everything. Everything, fading or shattering, draws our heart and thought in its wake: ‘What a nothing you were’, the poets says, ‘to be changed so quickly / into an image, an odor – / you are everywhere, source / of wisdom and anguish’ (pp. 53–4). We are left to take upon ourselves the making sense of grief. The divine, in its last words in the sequence, characterises humankind as a draft, an exercise with which he is finished, ‘vision / of deepest mourning’ (p. 61). The last poem in the sequence, ‘The White Lilies’, appears to be spoken by two lilies, one in the first stanza, another in response in the second stanza. But as the voice of the first poem is both the voice of a flower and the voice of the poet, as ultimately all the voices in the sequence are the poet’s voices set in different perspectives, so here the two voices could be two flowers, or a flower and the poet, or, on another level, the poet and her husband. The voices at once prepare for loss and affirm the wonder of love: As a man and woman make a garden between them like a bed of stars, here they linger in the summer evening and the evening turns cold with their terror: it could all end, it is capable of devastation. All, all can be lost, through scented air the narrow columns uselessly rising, and beyond, a churning sea of poppies – Hush, beloved. It doesn’t matter to me how many summers I live to return: this one summer we have entered eternity. I felt your two hands bury me to release its splendor.           (p. 27) ‘In every life, there’s a moment or two’, the poet says in an earlier poem. In every life, she says here, there’s a season or two, a summer that takes us into the depth of things in the midst of the emptiness of things. The lily is an image of natural resurrection: the burial and release of the bulb recalls the wild iris’s return from burial in the first poem of the sequence. But as other poems in the sequence make clear, cyclical time is an illusion, not a reality for any being in time. Eternity is to be found in the open of transience, in a day or a season, in two hands that in a gesture bury and release. The place of deepest mourning is the place of deepest praise. * * * I’ve spoken of three versions of ascesis, three ascetic bearings, in Glück’s work. They are like stages of a journey. The first of these is an ascetic resistance to others, and to the given in general, for the sake of spiritual and artistic independence. A fierce independence runs through all her writing. To be sure, she is too clear-eyed not to see that the self is deeply shaped by the manifold relationships through which it comes to be, but her work is nevertheless marked by a longing to protect the soul from the relationships that form and wound it. A second version of ascesis in Glück, I have said, is an art of seeing through illusion. The way she places her own longing for independence in perspective, revealing it to be a defence against vulnerability, is an example of this art. She scrutinises even the stories to which she is most attached. She goes far into the bleak in her search for a clarifying account of where we are and how we live. This art of disillusion leads to a third version of ascesis in her work. She has a keen sense of the place of greed and fear in our lives. She sees that the highest or deepest form of ascesis would be a letting go of these impulses in order to become awake to what is there. There is a version of ascesis in her work, in other words, that is akin to the paradoxical ascesis taught by the most spirited sages of the Axial Age traditions. What is the place of an ascetic art like Glück’s in the contemporary world? What does ascesis in general mean for us today? What we usually have in mind when we think of an ascetic practice is the sort of ascesis widespread in the Axial Age, the period running from the middle to the end of the first millennium bce, during which a range of religions or philosophies emerged that, for all their differences, shared important features.27 Among these religions and philosophies were Buddhism, Platonism, and Christianity. Asceticism in these traditions is a practice of renunciation meant to shape a spiritual self freed from the outward roles of ordinary social life, freed even from the outward pressures of being and time, and deeply transformed by the vision of a ‘transcendent’ or at least ‘other’ plane of reality (nirvana is not exactly transcendent). To become wise and virtuous, in these traditions, is to let go of what Plato calls the shadows of the cave, in particular wealth and power and prestige, and at a certain point to let go even of the ordinary self. Modern culture has tended to qualify or repudiate the ascetic bent of these traditions, affirming this-worldly activity, political freedom rather than spiritual freedom, ordinary life and economic production, and a release from old taboos and repressions.28 In our time we are likely to ask: What do the ascetics of old have to do with our world? Over a century ago, though, Max Weber influentially showed that an older form of Christian asceticism (what he called inner-worldly asceticism as distinct from other-worldly asceticism) was at once retained and redirected in the modern capitalist order: it became what we call the Protestant work ethic, that is, an ethic of industrious work seen as a spiritual calling.29 One needn’t accept Weber’s whole story of the relationship between capitalism and Calvinism to recognise that a this-worldly asceticism of work has indeed had a large place in the modern capitalist economy. One renounced the shadows of the cave for the sake of producing more shadows of the cave. The discipline of productivity came to replace the discipline of virtue and faith. But does this ethic not belong to an older form of capitalism? Is it not an ethic we have abandoned in the age of high-tech consumer capitalism? In fact it remains a shaping force in our world. It animates, first of all, the affluent professional classes, whose children are taught to jump through a thousand hoops, academic and extra-curricular and professional, in order to ensure that they succeed in a world of relentless competition. The habit becomes a psychic reality lasting a whole lifetime. The less privileged classes, on the other hand, have to adopt this sort of work ethic by force of necessity, since an ability to jump through a thousand hoops is demanded, in a different way, by the economy of precarious employment and temporary gigs. The disciplinary demands of the neoliberal economy are no less severe, in the end, than those of the older Fordist economy. Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz have aptly spoken of the ‘disciplinary hedonism’ of contemporary society: the demand that we work harder and harder in order to consume extravagantly, if we are rich, or to consume a little, if we are not rich.30 A work ethic still drives us in one way or another. The contemporary world economy, however, as every serious environmental historian has told us, is not sustainable. The economy of endless growth and endless consumption is likely to destroy the biosphere and, as it does so, to ruin any humane form of social life. In the midst of our high-tech society of exhausting work and frantic consumption, we are perhaps ready to hear again an older voice of ascesis, limitation, or meaningful restraint. In Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age, an account of the dangers that genetic engineering poses for our deepest intuitions of what it is to be human, Bill McKibben urges us to consider with great care just how far we wish to go in the realm of genetic engineering. We are surely part of nature, he says, and nature playing with nature, nature altering nature, is in a sense the most ordinary thing there is, even if our technological power has grown so vast as to leave us bewildered. But this, McKibben says, is only part of the story, for ‘what makes us unique is that we can restrain ourselves. We can decide not to do something that we are able to do. We can set limits on our desires.’31 The capacity for restraint, for limitation and self-limitation, is essential not only to ethical life, to a coherent relationship with others, but also to meaningful life, to any sense of living in relation to a larger horizon of care, of living for something other than simple survival.32 What McKibben says in this book, in other words, goes beyond the particular question of genetic engineering. He is presenting a broader ecological vision for our time. Essential to this vision is what I would call a naturalist recasting of an older version of ascesis: an ascetic bearing that would be put in the service, not of production and consumption, but of meaning and care. This is not the moment when I’m going to claim that Glück’s ascetic poetry is after all an ecopoetry. My concern is to trace connections, implications, resonances. One more detour here may be helpful. Glück has expressed deep admiration for George Oppen’s poetry, writing about it in a short essay, ‘On George Oppen’, and again in a longer essay, ‘Disruption, Hesitation, Silence’. Glück’s response to Oppen may initially seem surprising, for she and he are decidedly different poets, poets who come out of very different traditions. And yet the more you think about this connection, the more sense it makes. It’s clear that Glück feels an affinity for the formal spareness of Oppen’s work. She likes his aversion to cant. She is moved by his patient carefulness of statement, his scrupulous weighing of images and perspectives, his thoughtful integrity, his awareness. ‘This is a poetry of mind’, she says of his work, ‘of mind processing information – not a mind incapable of response but a mind wary of premature response; a mind, that is, not hungering after sensation. I find, in Oppen, a sanity so profound as to be mysterious: this is a sound that has, for the most part, disappeared from poetry, perhaps from thought.’33 It is the attention, the quality of attention, that above all distinguishes Oppen’s poetry. Attention in his work is an ascesis, a spiritual practice, where patience is passion, where restraint is openness, openness to what is there and openness to others. Perhaps his poetry of meditative attention will find a wider audience as it becomes clear that the restraint of which McKibben speaks is at once a social necessity and an existential bearing that might renew our sense of what matters. Glück’s love of Oppen’s poetry may tell us something important about her own poetry. I would go so far as to suggest that the open regions disclosed by Oppen’s meditative art are regions that Glück sees her own ascetic art as moving towards. In an essay that provides an account of her poem ‘Night Song’, Glück says that the poem grew out of an image that she had long retained from the story of Eros and Psyche, the moment when Psyche, in love with Eros, bends over him to find out who he is. Psyche, the soul, is at once abandoned to passion and in search of understanding. Glück sees her as free. In what does such freedom consist? ‘If “Night Song” connects the idea of freedom to rejection of the future’, Glück says, ‘what is diminished, emotionally, is greed. Not avidity, but compulsive acquisition, need projected into time, the self straining to predict and provide for all foreseeable deficiency. I think the word free has no meaning if it does not suggest freedom from greed.’34 Glück here speaks of ‘an openness to all experience’ that deep love on occasion awakens in an individual.35 Such spirited openness, she says, sets a standard. It reminds us of what freedom might be. Beyond the ascesis of independence, beyond the ascesis of disillusion, is the ascesis of letting go of fear and greed and the ten thousand defences they construct. Glück no more lives on this plane than most of us do. But her ascetic art, while illuminating all the ways we fend off the world to shape our souls, never forgets this plane of being, never forgets this possibility in human life. Perhaps, her art suggests, as Oppen’s art suggests in a different way, the last letting go would be a passion of attention, a genuine presence of mind. Footnotes 1 Ararat (New York 1990). ©1990 by Louise Glück. Quotations from this source are reprinted by permission of Harper Collins Publishers and Carcanet Press Ltd <www.carcanet.co.uk/cgi-bin/>. 2 Proofs & Theories: Essays on Poetry (New York 1994) p. 101. 3 Averno (New York 2006). 4 A Village Life (New York 2009). 5 Faithful and Virtuous Night (New York 2014). 6 Excerpts from “Averno” and “October” from AVERNO by Louise Glück and excerpts from “Twilight” “Tributaries” “First Snow” “At the River” “Fatigue” “Walking at Night” “Figs” “Sunrise” “Crossroads” “Noon” from A VILLAGE LIFE by Louise Glück from POEMS 1962–2012 by Louise Glück. Copyright © 2012 by Louise Glück. Excerpt from “Parable” from FAITHFUL AND VIRTUOUS NIGHT by Louise Glück. Copyright © 2014 by Louise Glück. Reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux; and Carcanet Press Ltd <www.carcanet.co.uk/cgi-bin/> CAUTION: Users are warned that this work is protected under copyright laws and downloading is strictly prohibited. The right to reproduce or transfer the work via any medium must be secured with Farrar, Straus and Giroux and/or Carcanet Press Ltd. 7 Proofs & Theories, p. 10. 8 Lynn Keller, ‘“Free of Blossom and Subterfuge”: Louise Glück and the Language of Renunciation’, in Leonard M. Trawick (ed.), World, Self, Poem: Essays on Contemporary Poetry from the ‘Jubilation of Poets’ (Kent, Ohio 1990) pp. 121–3. Paul Breslin addresses similar issues in ‘Thanatos Turannos: The Poetry of Louise Glück’, in Joanne Feit Diehl (ed.), On Louise Glück: Change What You Can See (Ann Arbor 2005) pp. 99–103. 9 The First Four Books of Poems (New York 1995) p. 133. 10 Proofs & Theories, p. 4. 11 In this part of the essay, references to Averno are given in parentheses in the text. 12 Wallace Stevens, The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination (New York 1951) p. 36. 13 Proofs & Theories, p. 134. 14 Ibid., p. 4. 15 Wallace Stevens, The Palm at the End of the Mind, ed. Holly Stevens (New York 1971) p. 386. 16 In this part of the essay, references to A Village Life are given in parentheses in the text. 17 Linda Gregerson, ‘The Sower against Gardens’, in Diehl (ed.), On Louise Glück, pp. 28–47. 18 The Wild Iris (New York 1992). ©1990 by Louise Glück. Reprinted by permission of Harper Collins Publishers and Carcanet Press Ltd <www.carcanet.co.uk/cgi-bin/>. In this part of the essay, references to this book are given in parentheses in the text. 19 Breslin, ‘Thanatos Turannos’; William Logan, ‘Nothing Remains of Love’, review of A Village Life, The New York Times (27 Aug. 2009). 20 ‘American Narcissism’, The Threepenny Review, 72 (Winter 1998) pp. 5–6. 21 Vita Nova (New York 1999) p. 3. ©1990 by Louise Glück. Reprinted by permission of Harper Collins Publishers and Carcanet Press Ltd <www.carcanet.co.uk/cgi-bin/>. 22 Ibid., p. 15. 23 Breslin, ‘Thanatos Turannos’, p. 127. 24 Rainer Maria Rilke, Ahead of All Parting: The Selected Poetry and Prose, ed. and trans. Stephen Mitchell (New York 1995) p. 387. 25 Ibid., p. 377. 26 Ibid., p. 519. 27 Karl Jaspers, The Origin and Goal of History, trans. Michael Bullock (New Haven 1953) pp. 51–60. 28 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge 2007). 29 Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Talcott Parsons with an introduction by Anthony Giddens (London 1992). 30 Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, L’Événement anthropocène: La Terre, l’histoire et nous (Paris 2013) pp. 183–5. See also Wolfgang Streeck, How Will Capitalism End? (London 2016) pp. 40–45. 31 Bill McKibben, Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age (New York 2003) p. 205. 32 Ibid., pp. 206–14. 33 Proofs & Theories, p. 81. 34 Ibid., p. 105. 35 Ibid., p. 103. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Cambridge Quarterly. All rights reserved. For permissions, please email: journals.permissions@oup.com This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices) http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png The Cambridge Quarterly Oxford University Press

Versions of Ascesis in Louise Glück’s Poetry

The Cambridge Quarterly , Volume Advance Article (2) – Jun 1, 2018

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Abstract

The idea of confessional poetry has perhaps lost specificity, given that so much poetry in our time is at least quasi-confessional, but Louise Glück is surely a confessional poet in some basic sense. She returns time and again to a series of wounding predicaments in her intimate life: the sorrows of family (the family of her childhood as well as the family of her adulthood), the costs of a longing for independence lived primarily as a stance of opposition, or the tension between a longing for independence and a longing for relationship, and an intuition that the core of human experience is loss, grief, and death. ‘Tonight’, she says in a poem in Ararat, ‘I saw myself in the dark window as / the image of my father, whose life / was spent like this, / thinking of death to the exclusion / of other sensual matters’ (p. 63).1 She has been writing about the shadow of her approaching death nearly all her adult life. The voice in which she expresses her wounds is at once spare, speculative, and confident. If the risk of a confessional poet is self-absorption, Glück has several resources for overcoming this risk, including an ironic intelligence, a sense of humour, a capacious speculative imagination, and a habit of weaving the sorrows of contemporary life through the archetypes of classical and biblical literature. She lends to each of her books from Ararat on, further, the shape of a larger sequence or story. She has spoken of her preference for paradigm over circumstance,2 and her poems do tend to be vertical, but the books lend scope to the poems. Renunciation is a major theme in Glück’s poetry. Each of her last three books, indeed, begins with a fable of ascesis. The first poem of Averno, ‘Night Migrations’, laments the way the dead lose the palpable world and then tries to imagine that perhaps ‘not being’ suffices for a soul in death (p. 1).3 The first poem of A Village Life, ‘Twilight’, evokes a stepping back from the world in a pause after work, as dusk falls, late in summer. The poem, quiet and sure in its reach, echoes at once Keats’s ‘To Autumn’ and Stevens’s ‘Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour’: ‘But it’s easy to give things up like this, experimentally, / for a matter of hours’, the speaker says at the end of the poem. ‘I open my fingers – / I let everything go. // Visual world, language, / rustling of leaves in the night, / smell of high grass, of woodsmoke. // I let it go, then I light the candle’.4 The first poem of the recent Faithful and Virtuous Night, ‘Parable’, begins by recalling a joyful ascetic from the Christian tradition: ‘First divesting ourselves of worldly goods, as St. Francis teaches, / in order that our souls not be distracted / by gain and loss, and in order also / that our bodies be free to move / easily at the mountain pass, we had then to discuss / whither or where we might travel, with the second question being / should we have a purpose’. The ascetics of this poem never quite get beyond the stage of preparing for their journey, but they are ‘changed nevertheless’, for while getting ready, they are changed by time, ‘and this seemed in a strange way miraculous’. ‘And those who believed we should have a purpose’, the poem concludes, ‘believed this was the purpose, and those who felt we must remain free / in order to encounter truth felt it had been revealed’ (pp. 3–4).5,6 Most readers recognise an ascetic impulse in the very spareness of Glück’s work. Yet the kind of letting go evoked in the poems I’ve cited here is different from the kind of letting go expressed in many of her early books. I would say there are three different ascetic bearings, or three different versions of ascesis, in her work. They are often intertwined with one another, it is true, yet it may be helpful to distinguish among them, for they have different implications and disclose different regions of experience. The first of these bearings is what I would call a practice of self-assertion through self-denial. One of the traditional purposes of ascetic practice is self-mastery and, through self-mastery, mastery of the pressure of experience. In the ancient world ascesis was understood as a path of spiritual independence. It remains a path of this sort in our world, though often without the metaphysical framework that once gave it a larger reach. A second version of ascesis in Glück’s poetry is what I would call an art of seeing through illusion. She has a formal bent for the spare, the pared down, the stripped away, the clarified. This formal bent is the expression of a temperamental and philosophical bent, too, often manifest as a movement of reduction, a movement particularly at work in Ararat, Averno, A Village Life, and Faithful and Virtuous Night. The poet of these books turns her attention to a bareness behind appearances. This version of ascesis is akin to Stevens’s reductive art of the snow man (an art that in Stevens is always in tension with an expansive art of the giant on the horizon). A third version of ascesis in Glück’s poetry is what I would call a path to reawakened openness and wonder. If the first version of ascesis involves a detachment from others, even a certain detachment from the given itself, for the sake of achieving an independent self; if the second version involves a letting go of illusion for the sake of seeing the bare truth of things; this third version involves a letting go of the self, including the self’s obsession with disillusion as a sufficient end, for the sake of a reawakened abandon or a renewed embrace of things and lives in time. This last version of ascesis involves a letting go at the heart of holding on. It seeks not an anxious defence against the world but a poised openness in the midst of the world. Always it has been the rarest way. It’s hardly the dominant bearing in Glück’s work. But it’s there at times. It’s there, above all, in what for many readers remains her greatest book, The Wild Iris. In this essay I would like to step through each of these versions of ascesis, looking at particular poems, sequences, and books in which they are expressed. I will be quite brief in addressing the first of them, for other scholars have given considerable attention to this dimension of Glück’s work, and more expansive in trying to illuminate the second and third of them, which I take to be the most resonant dimensions of Glück’s poetic of ascesis. At the end of the essay I will raise some larger questions about the place of a poetic of ascesis in contemporary culture. * * * The first version of ascesis in Glück’s poetry, then, is a path of renunciation meant to fend off the pressure of experience and to shape an independent self. What the pressure of experience meant first of all for the young Glück, according to her own testimony in ‘Education of the Poet’, was other people, dependence on other people, the claims of other people. As she sees her past, the anorexia she suffered for several years in her youth was the self-destructive expression of a passion for independence. ‘Then [in my adolescence], as now’, she says, ‘my thought tended to define itself in opposition; what remains characteristic now was in those days the single characteristic. I couldn’t say what I was, what I wanted, in any day to day, practical way. What I could say was no: the way I saw to separate myself, to establish a self with clear boundaries, was to oppose myself to the declared desire of others, utilizing their wills to give shape to my own.’7 In a reading of Glück’s well-known sequence ‘Dedication to Hunger’, Lynn Keller suggests that the young Glück’s starving of herself could be seen as a desperate resistance, not simply to others in general, but in particular to the conventional feminine roles available to women in the America of the 1950s. The fear of sexuality expressed in some of Glück’s early poems, Keller adds, might lend support to this way of understanding the desire at work in her illness. Keller thus finds feminist implications in the work of a poet not usually seen as feminist in a strong or political sense.8 ‘Dedication to Hunger’, further, is a sequence not only about Glück’s ascetic path to independence but also about the way she would come to sublimate this desire in her art. ‘What I feel now, aligning these words’, she says in the fourth poem of ‘Dedication to Hunger’, ‘is the need to perfect’, the same need she felt as an adolescent, she says, when she imagined she could ‘sacrifice’ her own ‘flesh’ in order to free herself of ‘blossom and subterfuge’.9 A passion for independence, an acute fear of dependence, could be turned into a passion for distinctive poetic achievement. Glück would find her voice by paring away all clutter. ‘I liked scale’, she says of her bias as a young poet, ‘but I liked it invisible. I loved those poems that seemed so small on the page but that swelled in the mind; I didn’t like the windy, dwindling kind.’10 Clearly she could be describing her own work here. * * * The second version of ascesis in Glück’s poetry is an art of disillusion. Averno, we are told in a prefatory note to Averno, is a small crater lake ‘regarded by the ancient Romans as the entrance to the underworld’. It’s there that, in Book VI of the Aeneid, Aeneas descends to the underworld, though this story is not explicitly recalled in Glück’s Averno. The myth of the underworld prominent in the book is the myth of Demeter and Persephone and Hades. Four poems in the book – ‘Persephone the Wanderer’, ‘A Myth of Innocence’, ‘A Myth of Devotion’, and again ‘Persephone the Wanderer’ – cast this myth as a story of innocence and experience. Persephone is seen not only as a young lover longing to break free of her mother, longing to see what the risk of life is all about, but also as the soul, a ‘rift’ in the human being formed of our belonging to earth, Demeter, and to death, Hades (p. 19).11 In the title poem, a 60-year-old woman meditates on the emptiness behind the things on which we depend: ‘I wake up thinking / you have to prepare. / Soon the spirit will give up – / all the chairs in the world won’t help you’ (p. 60). ‘October’, the most striking poem in the book, is a sequence of six poems. The first four poems move through evocations of the four seasons: winter (a fearful apprehension of imminent winter from the space of autumn), summer (a sceptical response to the illusory balm of an Indian summer), spring (a nostalgic memory of early spring perceived as an erotic invitation), and autumn (a return to the light of October, to the present, that the poet is trying to see clearly). The fifth poem reaches back in memory: the poet remembers riding a subway as a child with a ‘small book’ felt to be a defence against the world. The sixth and final poem bids farewell to the idea of a marriage of the sun and the earth, turning to the beautiful moon of a cold night. All that is left, it seems, is a reflective mind in a space of ‘bitter disgrace, coldness and barrenness’ (p. 15). The sequence was originally published in the New Yorker in October 2002, a year and a month after the devastating attack on the Twin Towers. The image of a young girl riding the subway would seem to place the poem in New York (Glück grew up on Long Island), and the forceful expression ‘violence has changed me’, repeated in the second poem, might seem to allude to the disaster of a year earlier. Yet these allusions are echoes on the edge of the poem. The poem does not engage historical violence. It’s a meditative poem cast on an existential plane. The violence of which it speaks is the violence of time that strips away our illusions as well as the things and places and people we love. The mind, in Stevens’s well-known words, ‘is a violence from within that protects us from a violence without. It is the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality.’12 ‘Violence has changed me’, the poet says in the second poem of ‘October’. ‘My body has grown cold like the stripped fields; / now there is only my mind, cautious and wary, / with the sense it is being tested’ (p. 7). The mind of the poet, being tested, is testing: sifting through different perspectives to find what will suffice. The first poem is formed of a single run-on sentence, unwinding for over a page, punctuated only with commas and dashes until the final question mark. The echoing questions convey a sense of bewilderment: 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           (p. 5) The title of the sequence, and the sense of a return to the present of autumn in the fourth poem, suggest that the initial question here arises out of a startled awareness of approaching winter. This in turn leads to a recollection of the previous winter and an anxious reflection on the swiftness with which the seasons have passed. The poet calls to mind spring planting, summer growth, and autumn harvest, not because this is a pastoral poem, but because these are archetypal images of human work for the sake of building a habitable and meaningful world. Here in autumn the speaker doubts the whole effort. Nothing seems safe. In the second poem the poet rejects the illusory balm provided by an Indian summer that has just passed: ‘Summer after summer has ended, / balm after violence: / it does me no good / to be good to me now; / violence has changed me’ (p. 7). The light on the hills is dismissed as insubstantial. The beauty of this spell of days is all the more poignant for being unavailable to the hardened body and the distrustful mind. The rhythm of repetition in this poem expresses not bewilderment but disbelief. ‘Tell me this is the future’, the poet says in the last stanza, ‘I won’t believe you. / Tell me I’m living, / I won’t believe you’ (p. 8). The poet continues to evade the present in the third poem, casting back in memory to the previous spring, to spring’s emergence at the edge of winter. ‘Winter was over. In the thawed dirt, / bits of green were showing’ (p. 9). What she remembers is her faith in the beauty of the world: beauty felt as an invitation, a promise of happiness, a lover’s call. ‘Come to me, said the world. / This is not to say / it spoke in exact sentences / but that I perceived beauty in this manner’ (p. 9). Here the repetitions convey wonder that one could ever have felt such things. ‘Beauty, the healer, the teacher’, the poet says, recalling the faith of spring now worn away by loss. ‘Beauty, / the healer, the teacher – // death cannot harm me / more than you have harmed me, / my beloved life’ (p. 10). The fourth poem returns to the autumnal present that is the sequence’s point of departure. ‘This is the present, an allegory of waste’, we read in the middle of the poem, a poem of October light. Here the repetitions mark a deepening (‘The light has changed’, ‘This is the light of autumn’, ‘you will not be spared’). The poet begins by dismissing the songs of morning and the songs of spring: The light has changed; middle C is tuned darker now. And the songs of morning sound over-rehearsed. This is the light of autumn, not the light of spring. The light of autumn: you will not be spared.           (p. 11) Now the world speaks in a different voice than it did in early spring: come to me has turned into you will not be spared. ‘So much has changed’, the speaker says: the season, the light, the music, the life that tells of these changes, the mind that a wind has come and taken apart. The songs, she says, ‘are still quite beautiful’, but they ‘have been concentrated in a smaller space, the space of the mind’, and ‘they are dark, now, with desolation and anguish’ (p. 11). And yet this poem of the changed light of autumn turns out to be the most deeply affirmative poem in the sequence. The poet acknowledges the pressure of reality and passionately presses back against it. ‘And still’, she says, ‘you are fortunate: / the ideal burns in you like a fever’ (p. 11). And though she hears the autumn light say, ‘you will not be spared, nor will what you love be spared’, she says to herself, ‘how privileged you are, to be still passionately / clinging to what you love’ (p. 12). ‘Surely it is a privilege’, she says in the last lines of the poem, ‘to approach the end / still believing in something’ (p. 12). The counter-movement of spirit here is powerful. The language, it is true, is a little abstract, leaving us to guess what loves and beliefs, what fortune and privilege, the poet is speaking of. What does the repeated word ‘privilege’ mean here? This word appears, too, in the last sentence of ‘On Impoverishment’, a commencement address given by Glück in 1993. In this address she speaks of periods of desolation that, if endured, can carry us to a reawakened openness to things, a deepened gratitude for all we have been given. ‘Realize, then’, she says, ‘that impoverishment is also a teacher, unique in its capacity to renew, and that its yield, when it ends, is a passionate openness which in turn re-invests the world with meaning.’ What is found on the other side of impoverishment, she says, ‘is not the primary gift of the world but the essential secondary gift of knowledge, a sense of the significance of the original gift, the scale of our privilege’.13 The privilege is to have been given both life and the capacity to see, to say, what life is all about. What if ‘October’ had concluded with this fourth poem? At this point the mind has contemplated winter, summer, spring, and autumn. It has circled through its fears, hopes, doubts, beliefs. It has remembered an old trust in the energy of nature and work, an old perception of the promise of the world, an old faith in the teaching and healing power of beauty. It has felt the unsparing movement of time. Despite all, it has held to what it loves, held to ideals to live by. It has seen the deepened light. It has composed a distinctive autumn song in a tradition of autumn songs. The fourth poem, for all its poise, is more passionate than either Keats’s ‘To Autumn’ or the last canto of Stevens’s ‘Sunday Morning’. Its clarity is steep. But the sequence doesn’t end here. It steps into the dark. The poet begins the fifth poem by recalling the old question of the relationship between beauty and truth, recast here as beauty and candour, or beauty and truthfulness. ‘It is true that there is not enough beauty in the world. / It is also true that I am not competent to restore it. / Neither is there candor, and here I may be of some use’ (p. 13). The rest of the poem recalls George Oppen, both in its spare, hinge-like movement and in its vocabulary and concerns. The poet speaks of misery, solitude, a resistance to false consolation, a saving faith in speech and companionship, a saving faith in the power of a poem in the dark. The bland misery of the world bounds us on either side, an alley lined with trees; we are companions here, not speaking, each with his own thoughts …           (p. 13) The word ‘hope’, the poet says, is ‘itself / false, a device to refute / perception’ (p. 13). Yet just here, as though this candid statement were too bleak to stay with, she descends into the past: I was young here. Riding the subway with my small book as though to defend myself against this same world: you are not alone, the poem said, in the dark tunnel.           (p. 14) At the end of the fourth poem, the poet says to herself, ‘the forfeit of hope has not destroyed you’ (p. 12). There the absence of hope means a heightened presence of mind. Here the absence of hope means an acknowledgement of the misery of things, the loneliness of everyone, and the poet responds to this by seeking a defence in the poem. In the sixth and last poem of the sequence, the dark tunnel of the fifth poem becomes the vault of the night sky. The gorgeous light of autumn encountered in the fourth poem becomes the reflected light of the moon. ‘The brightness of the day becomes / the brightness of the night; / the fire becomes the mirror’ (p. 15). The poet recalls the memories of the first poem, memories of agricultural growth, and in a Stevensian echo says farewell to them. All has been reduced to what the fourth poem calls ‘an allegory of waste’: My friend the earth is bitter; I think sunlight has failed her. Bitter or weary, it is hard to say. Between herself and the sun, something has ended. She wants, now, to be left alone; I think we must give up turning to her for affirmation.           (p. 15) The earth brought to life by the sun will no longer suffice: it has proven to be an illusion. The deepened light of autumn has gone. All has become cold: ‘the brilliance that made all life possible / becomes the cold stars’. The poet concludes with a severe letting go of everything but the night sky: Lie still and watch: they [the cold stars] give nothing but ask nothing. From within the earth’s bitter disgrace, coldness and barrenness my friend the moon rises; she is beautiful tonight, but when is she not beautiful?           (p. 15) The poet has two friends, the earth and the moon, but one is ruined – dark, barren, bitter, disgraced – while the other rises in reflective beauty. Perhaps the moon here is an image of the solitary mind searching in the aftermath. Is this all that is left to affirm in a poetry of candid disillusion? Is this the bare place the ascetic of truth comes to? The most difficult question raised by ‘October’, to my mind, is the relationship between the first four poems, on the one hand, and the last two poems, on the other. The first four poems trace a movement of the mind through four seasons, each of which evokes a different psychic state. These poems come to a provisional end with the fourth poem’s powerful affirmation of the poet’s ‘privilege’ amid the clearings of autumn. The fifth and sixth poems evoke the misery of the world and a failure of the earth. The last word of the sequence, it is true, is ‘beautiful’, and earlier in the sequence beauty is called ‘the healer, the teacher’, so perhaps we are to look for a healing, a teaching, in this late light touching a barren world. The moon is the muse of Glück’s ascetic art of seeing what remains once illusion has been stripped away. The power of this austere sequence lies not least in its power to test our own sense of what will suffice. The sequence, like nearly all of Glück’s poetry, tests our sense of what will suffice on a formal as well as an existential plane. The existential bareness it explores is echoed by its formal spareness. ‘Winter was over. In the thawed dirt, / bits of green were showing’. ‘The brightness of the day becomes / the brightness of the night; / the fire becomes the mirror’. How does Glück make this language of plain statement so resonant? In ‘October’ the resonance comes in part from the circling repetitions. It comes in part from a kind of Stevensian appositional unfolding and a sure authority. It comes in part from the subtle but distinct modulations of voice: a voice by turns anxious, bewildered, nostalgic, dry, passionate, questioning, lyrical, austere. The spare diction here, as in so many of Glück’s poems, is given depth and range by this confident and supple voice. Yet there remains the mystery of Glück’s capacity to lend the commonplace such reach or, in a phrase of Virginia Woolf’s, such power of suggestion. Glück, like Oppen, has a gift for simplicity of statement. Poets of this type, if at times they risk flatness, seem to touch a deep root in the lyric tradition, a root we could call compression, the art of leaving out, the art of saying so much by saying so little. ‘From the beginning’, Glück says in an essay from which I cited earlier, ‘I preferred the simplest vocabulary … . What I responded to, on the page, was the way a poem could liberate, by means of a word’s setting, through subtleties of timing, of pacing, that word’s full and surprising range of meaning. It seemed to me that simple language best suited this enterprise; such language, in being generic, is likely to contain the greatest and most dramatic variety of meaning within individual words.’14 Thus Glück’s account of the music of the commonplace. The plain becomes the spacious. Ariel’s poems, as Stevens puts it in ‘The Planet on the Table’, are meant to bear ‘Some lineament or character, // Some affluence, if only half perceived / In the poverty of their words, / Of the planet of which they were part’.15 * * * The moon as an image of the solitary soul returns in the last poem of A Village Life (p. 71).16 This book, like ‘October’, like Averno as a whole, is shaped by Glück’s art of seeing through illusion. But here, as in Ararat or Meadowlands, the disillusion is found, not in a Stevensian autumn, but in a peopled world. It’s the sort of disillusion studied in novels and short stories: the disillusion that so many ageing souls come to in the ordinary world of work and relationship. The village of the book, though not given a precise location, appears to be Mediterranean, perhaps Greek, perhaps Italian, perhaps not far from Averno. The village has a market, a plaza with a fountain, a river where the young gather in the evening; beyond it lie mountains and fields of olive trees; in the distance there’s a city that the young dream of going to, a city where some of the villagers have moved and grown unhappy. The village seems old-fashioned. Perhaps it’s an Old World of the mind, a quasi-archetypal village, the site of the book’s brooding anthropology. ‘All you need to know of a place’, the voice of one poem says, ‘is, do people live there. / If they do, you know everything’ (p. 58). The book as a whole has a novelistic texture as well as a novelistic field of concern. The poems are more expansive than many of Glück’s poems: their long, unfurling lines, enjambed but unhurried, lend the book a cadence of melancholy and recollection. The story the book tells is the story of innocence and experience. It tells this story, not in the romantic terms of childhood and adulthood, but in the contemporary terms of adolescence and adulthood, or the promise of youth and the burden of middle and old age. The promise of youth is discovered in the experience of eros, night, touch, possibility. The burden of age is found in the reality of work, fatigue, marital estrangement, lost love, lost hope, lost time, lost promise. To grow old in this village is first of all to be worn down. ‘He comes home, he’s tired’, a wife says of her husband in one poem. ‘Everything is hard – making money is hard, watching your body change / is hard. You can take these problems when you’re young – / something’s difficult for a while, but you’re confident’ (p. 48). The book as a whole is orchestrated and occasionally voiced by its older author, but distinct characters speak in many of the poems, and the voices are variously bitter, resigned, nostalgic, reflective. Even the young, for all their curiosity, sound not adventurous so much as wary. Interspersed with these poems of the peopled world are two series of poems that could be called speculative parables. One is a series of poems spoken by creatures: two of them, titled ‘Earthworm’, are spoken by an earthworm that tells of a wholeness that only death or a return to the earth could bring to the divided human creature; two, titled ‘Bats’, are spoken by bats that tell of finding one’s way in the dark. The other series is a series of ‘burning leaves’ poems. These are brief meditations occasioned by the sight of a farmer burning a pile of leaves: they are preoccupied with the fire in things, the fire that is life and death at once, the fire whereby everything arises and perishes. These poems present a natural analogue of the existential arc of youth and age that is the book’s central concern. In an early poem in the book, ‘Noon’, a boy and a girl on summer vacation, a boy and girl for whom ‘freedom hasn’t gotten boring’, walk to a meadow, have a picnic, and walk home in the dusk together, ‘not holding hands but still telling each other everything’ (p. 9). They haven’t yet reached the age of touch that will stir them and, they guess, make them ‘strangers’ to each other. Another poem, ‘At the Dance’, evokes the longing to touch and be touched that, the speaker tells us, is part of what adolescent dances are about. In ‘At the River’ a woman recalls an experience she had as a young girl. Her mother, with the aid of a book, haplessly tried to explain to her the realities of sex. Then, slipping away on a summer evening, she was at the river with her friends, joking with them about her mother’s lesson. ‘More and more that summer’, she says, ‘we understood / that something was going to happen / that would change us’ (p. 22). The girl went home later that night to find that her mother had gone to bed while her father had stayed up reading. ‘Your mother and I’, he said to her, ‘used to drink a glass of wine together / after dinner’ (p. 23). This is the condition of marriage in the book. ‘Nothing remains of love, / only estrangement and hatred’, as it is put in a poem titled ‘Fatigue’. All the married couples in the book have come to feel exhausted, estranged, hopeless. A mother puts her child to bed early because ‘she’s sick to death of her life / and needs silence’ (p. 19). A wife whose cooking fails to please her husband is as worn down by the domestic world as he is by work (pp. 47–9). Apparently there are no fulfilling marriages anywhere in the village. The adults are all defeated, at most nostalgic for a past in which they felt love and promise. The roads of the village are called ‘Avenue of Broken Faith, Avenue of Disappointment, / Avenue of the Acacia Trees / … / Avenue of Lost Time, Avenue of Liberty that ends in stone’ (p. 7). What is left for the poet to affirm in this world of pervasive disappointment? Here, as everywhere in Glück, contemplation provides a partial consolation. The first and last poems, with their quiet grace, frame the grim picture of village life as a whole. But there is another dimension of grace here that is perhaps surprising to find in a book otherwise so bleak. It has to do with the poet’s concern with the body. There is a nostalgia for the body on the threshold of adulthood. There is a tenderness towards the body just learning of the wonder of eros. There is a tenderness towards the life of touch that is so easily exhausted and calloused in the world. The wife whose husband complains about her cooking remembers the nights when they were first married and still in love. ‘When we were young’, she says, ‘it was different. / My husband and I – / we were in love. All we ever wanted / was to touch each other’ (p. 48). In another poem an older woman walks through the streets of the village on a summer night, aware that ‘the young men don’t approach her now’ (p. 27), and remembers how ‘the young people used to gather’ by the river, and momentarily feels again the pulse of her young body alive to the world. ‘Everything still smells of summer. / And her body begins to seem again the body she had as a young woman, / glistening under the light summer clothing’ (p. 28). In what may be the most poignant poem in the book, clearly an autobiographical poem, an older woman apologises to her body for the way her fearful, violent soul has treated it: My body, now that we will not be traveling together much longer I begin to feel a new tenderness toward you, very raw and  unfamiliar, like what I remember of love when I was young – love that was so often foolish in its objectives but never in its choices, its intensities. Too much demanded in advance, too much that could not be  promised – My soul has been so fearful, so violent: forgive its brutality. As though it were that soul, my hand moves over you cautiously, not wishing to give offense but eager, finally, to achieve expression as substance: it is not the earth I will miss, it is you I will miss.           (p. 62) She will miss both, for sure, as the first poem of Averno makes clear, as the whole of The Wild Iris makes clear. For this beautiful apology to the body, this tenderness for the body, is part of a tenderness for the earth. It’s as though the poet were releasing herself a little from the spell of her long ascetic search for spiritual independence and the insight of disillusion. And this tenderness has such depth of feeling that it becomes nearly a figure for another sort of release that can be seen only in outline, as it were, against all that has come to burden the adults of the village described in this book. What has come to burden them is fatigue, isolation, disillusion, bitterness. Often the letting go the middle-aged need is a letting go of the grievances that have come to shape their souls. The difference between disillusion and tenderness in A Village Life is like the difference between defensiveness and openness. * * * The path to an openness beyond disillusion is yet another version of ascesis in Glück’s poetry. The Wild Iris is its most beautiful expression. The book, a meditation in a garden, is a sequence of dramatic monologues spoken by three types of beings: flowers (or occasionally grass, clover, a vine, a tree), the poet (who now and then cites her husband and son), and some sort of divine presence (whom we might call God). Linda Gregerson, in a fine account of the sequence, has clarified that the poems that the flowers speak are usually addressed to the poet, the poems that the poet speaks are usually addressed to the divine, and the poems that the divine speaks are usually addressed to the poet.17 The floral poems are titled for the flowers that speak them, the human poems are titled ‘Matins’ in the first half of the sequence and ‘Vespers’ in the second half, and the divine poems are titled for times of day, times of year, or qualities of wind and light. The book is at once apostrophic, dialogical, and multi-perspectival. Tracing a movement from dawn to dusk as well as from spring to autumn, recalling biblical images and themes, it’s resonantly mythopoetic. And while the individual poems are lean, the sequence as a whole is capacious. It wrestles with fundamental questions of our lives: beauty, love, longing, loss, death, grief, memory. Its deep rhythm is the psalmic rhythm of lament and praise. Above all, I think, it’s a meditation on what it means to inhabit a transient paradise. ‘Look at you, blindly clinging to earth / as though it were the vineyards of heaven / while the fields go up in flames around you’, the divine voice says in ‘Harvest’, adopting a tone of tacitly sympathetic impatience. For as this voice acknowledges at the end of the poem, the earth is indeed our paradise, given only to be taken away, again and again: If what you fear in death is punishment beyond this, you need not fear death: how many times must I destroy my own creation to teach you this is your punishment: with one gesture I established you in time and in paradise.           (p. 46).18 The Wild Iris is a Rilkean book. It may sound surprising to say this, given that Glück has been critical of Rilke on those occasions when she has written of him (though, as Paul Breslin and William Logan have noted, these criticisms sound ambivalent).19 A forceful criticism she makes of Rilke is that there is a measure of bad faith in his teaching of the art of letting go. Probably most of us need this teaching, since most of us desperately resist loss, but Rilke, Glück says, finds letting go too easy, preferring an idealisation of the dead in inwardness to an actual engagement with people in life. What he really needs to learn, she says, is how to hold on.20 She has a point. It’s a perceptive criticism. Could an analogous criticism be made of Glück’s poetry at times? Does she at times too readily adopt the defence of an ascetic stance? She has herself raised this question. ‘I had two desires’, she says in Vita Nova, a book in part about her recovery from the ruins of divorce, ‘a desire / to be safe and a desire to feel’.21 This is a clear statement of a common enough human predicament. Elsewhere in the same book she says: ‘I was afraid of love, afraid of being taken away. / Everyone afraid of love is afraid of death’.22 What will we do with this fear? The Wild Iris is Glück’s greatest book because its author, surpassing her fear, holds on and lets go at the same time. Here, more than elsewhere, she ‘includes the evocation of plenitude along with mourning for its inevitable loss’.23 This is after all a Rilkean lyrical bearing. The Duino Elegies and the Sonnets to Orpheus recast in humanist terms a longing essential to the history of religion: the longing for a meaningful response to loss. If a traditional Christian response to loss is to affirm a transcendent source and destiny, Rilke’s concern is to affirm the transient without any reliance on an older myth of transcendence. Rilke has two ways of engaging this challenge. One is to turn the space of transcendence into the space of inwardness. At the end of the Ninth Elegy he asks: ‘Earth, isn’t this what you want: to arise within us, / invisible? Isn’t it your dream / to be wholly invisible someday?’24 An elegy for the transient becomes a hymn to inwardness. Rilke’s other way of engaging the mystery of transience, though, is in tension with this first way. It’s to turn the space of transcendence into the space of openness. This openness is related to, though not identical to, the open that in the Eighth Elegy animals are said to move in.25 The openness that human beings can enter is evoked less in the Elegies, I think, than in the Sonnets. It’s as though the ultimate circumference of things were no longer a transcendent source but the spaciousness of everything in time. This is the region we see in the last of the Sonnets. ‘In this immeasurable darkness’, the speaker says at the end of the poem, ‘be the power / that rounds your senses in their magic ring, / the sense of their mysterious encounter. // And if the earthly no longer knows your name, / whisper to the silent earth: I’m flowing. / To the flashing water say: I am’.26 All emerges and vanishes in this open of mysterious encounter. In much of her work, no doubt, Glück is a poet of inwardness, a poet of the soul, though in our time Rilke’s abyssal inwardness is no longer a possibility. The transcendent and the inward alike have been scaled down, as it were, and Glück’s inwardness is a sparer thing: a clear room rather than a baroque cathedral. Yet, as in Rilke, this is not her only bearing. Now and then she is also a poet of the astonishing open of things that the soul enters when it goes free. There are moments like this in ‘October’. There are moments like this in The Seven Ages. This is the region of life brought to words in the sweep of The Wild Iris. Glück, it is true, doesn’t partake of a larger transvaluation of values in the way Rilke does: the translation of the transcendent into spiritual depth or the open of things, an immense cultural drama in Rilke’s time, has become a more familiar frame in our time. And Glück hasn’t the sensuous metaphorical gift that makes reading Rilke feel like walking beside a high river that goes on and on. Yet The Wild Iris is sensuous in a way absent from Rilke’s work: it expresses erotic longing and loss. Its subtle humour, further, allows its deeper voices of wonder and lament to be heard all the more clearly. It’s a spirited and erotic Rilkean song for our time. The first poem of the sequence, the title poem, is a poem of rebirth, return to life after dormancy, recovery of voice after silence: ‘At the end of my suffering / there was a door’, the poet says in the first lines. ‘Hear me out: that which you call death / I remember’ (p. 1). This oracular confidence, characteristic of Glück, is heard again at the end of the poem: ‘You who do not remember / passage from the other world / I tell you I could speak again: whatever / returns from oblivion returns / to find a voice’ (p. 1). Early in the sequence there is another beautiful poem of reawakening, ‘Snowdrops’, a poem expressing a renewal of erotic feeling after a winter of despair and retreat (p. 6). Yet more prominent in the book than the experience of renewal is the experience of grief. In the third poem the poet speaks of our ‘exile’ from another world, and our encounter with ‘beauty’ in this world, beauty ‘designed to teach a lesson’, though we are unable to understand what it is. In the fourth poem, ‘Trillium’, the flower discovers grief as it discovers the word for grief: ‘only a moment ago, I didn’t know my voice / if one were given me / would be so full of grief, my sentences / like cries strung together. / I didn’t even know I felt grief / until that word came, until I felt / rain streaming from me’ (p. 4). A little later the divine voice reminds the poet that human lives are not circular in the way natural life may appear to be (p. 15), an appearance that is in any case an anthropocentric illusion, as a dying lily makes clear in the penultimate poem of the sequence (p. 62). The same divine voice, speaking to the reader over the head of the poet and her husband, sees an ‘image of departure’ the poet’s hand makes as it touches and leaves her husband’s face, ‘even here, even at the beginning of love’ (p. 16). The departure of beauty, the departure of love, marks everything (pp. 10–11). The grief is everywhere, the divine voice clarifies, ‘distributed / between you, among all your kind’, a signature for us to be known by, ‘as deep blue / marks the wild scilla, white / the wood violet’ (p. 20). A Jacob’s ladder says to the poet that it too knows the ‘desire for paradise’ as well as grief. ‘Never / to leave the world’, it says to the poet. ‘Is this not what your tears mean?’ (p. 24). The reason any being speaks at all, the red poppy suggests, is that it is ‘shattered’ (p. 29). ‘What is my heart to you’, the poet cries to the divine, ‘that you must break it over and over / likes a plantsman testing / his new species?’ (p. 26). An important part of the lesson the poet comes to learn is the ultimate void behind everything (pp. 41, 47): the grief at the heart of life. In ‘Harvest’, a poem I cited earlier, the divine spells out the lesson: ‘how many times must I destroy my own creation / to teach you / this is your punishment: // with one gesture I established you / in time and in paradise’ (p. 46). This is our gift and our grief: that we live in a paradise where all vanishes. Our vocation is the Rilkean vocation of praise and lament in time. Along the way are epiphanies, ecstasies, or moments of being, as Virginia Woolf calls them. ‘In every life’, the poet says in ‘Presque Isle’, ‘there’s a moment or two. / In every life, a room somewhere, by the sea or in the mountains’, the rest of the poem unfolding as the recollection of a day beside a lake when there was love between the poet and her husband. In another poem, one of the many evening songs in the book, the poet at twilight watches her husband in the garden. She sees that he is at one with his work and at one with the world he is gardening in. ‘This is how he gardens’, she says, ‘fifteen minutes of intense effort, / fifteen minutes of ecstatic contemplation’ (p. 42). But these are only moments. Even here, she says, she cannot hold the peace she feels: ‘all this time’, the twilight during which she watches him, ‘peace never leaves him. But it rushes through me, / not as sustenance the flower holds / but like bright light through the bare tree’ (p. 42). In the latter part of the sequence there are several poems that sketch a fable of the history of religion, as though the poet wished to recall the historical process of coming to see that religions express not a divine reality but our own fears, passions, griefs, longings. In ‘Retreating Light’ the divine tells the poet that he gave his creatures writing, gave them their own lives and tragedies, and told them to tell their story. ‘You will never know how deeply / it pleases me to see you sitting there / like independent beings, / to see you dreaming by the open window, / holding the pencils I gave you / until the summer morning disappears into writing’ (pp. 50–1). If we have said farewell to the divine, if we have come to see in God an echo of our laments and prayers, then perhaps we can hear a divine tenderness in the evening breeze: ‘My tenderness’, the divine says, ‘should be apparent to you / in the breeze of the summer evening / and in the words that become / your own response’ (p. 57). In other poems the poet recognises that for a long time God was a name with which we troped ‘nothing’ as an invisible power that would retrieve what we had lost, make sense of our suffering: it is everywhere, when I close my eyes, birdsong, scent of lilac in early spring, scent of summer roses: you mean to take it away, each flower, each connection with earth – why would you wound me, why would you want me desolate in the end, unless you wanted me so starved for hope I would refuse to see that finally nothing was left to me, and would believe instead in the end you were left to me.           (p. 52; cf. p. 58) But in the end, as ‘Vespers: Parousia’ makes clear, the nothing is only our desperate intuition of the dimension of absence and significance that haunts everything. Everything, fading or shattering, draws our heart and thought in its wake: ‘What a nothing you were’, the poets says, ‘to be changed so quickly / into an image, an odor – / you are everywhere, source / of wisdom and anguish’ (pp. 53–4). We are left to take upon ourselves the making sense of grief. The divine, in its last words in the sequence, characterises humankind as a draft, an exercise with which he is finished, ‘vision / of deepest mourning’ (p. 61). The last poem in the sequence, ‘The White Lilies’, appears to be spoken by two lilies, one in the first stanza, another in response in the second stanza. But as the voice of the first poem is both the voice of a flower and the voice of the poet, as ultimately all the voices in the sequence are the poet’s voices set in different perspectives, so here the two voices could be two flowers, or a flower and the poet, or, on another level, the poet and her husband. The voices at once prepare for loss and affirm the wonder of love: As a man and woman make a garden between them like a bed of stars, here they linger in the summer evening and the evening turns cold with their terror: it could all end, it is capable of devastation. All, all can be lost, through scented air the narrow columns uselessly rising, and beyond, a churning sea of poppies – Hush, beloved. It doesn’t matter to me how many summers I live to return: this one summer we have entered eternity. I felt your two hands bury me to release its splendor.           (p. 27) ‘In every life, there’s a moment or two’, the poet says in an earlier poem. In every life, she says here, there’s a season or two, a summer that takes us into the depth of things in the midst of the emptiness of things. The lily is an image of natural resurrection: the burial and release of the bulb recalls the wild iris’s return from burial in the first poem of the sequence. But as other poems in the sequence make clear, cyclical time is an illusion, not a reality for any being in time. Eternity is to be found in the open of transience, in a day or a season, in two hands that in a gesture bury and release. The place of deepest mourning is the place of deepest praise. * * * I’ve spoken of three versions of ascesis, three ascetic bearings, in Glück’s work. They are like stages of a journey. The first of these is an ascetic resistance to others, and to the given in general, for the sake of spiritual and artistic independence. A fierce independence runs through all her writing. To be sure, she is too clear-eyed not to see that the self is deeply shaped by the manifold relationships through which it comes to be, but her work is nevertheless marked by a longing to protect the soul from the relationships that form and wound it. A second version of ascesis in Glück, I have said, is an art of seeing through illusion. The way she places her own longing for independence in perspective, revealing it to be a defence against vulnerability, is an example of this art. She scrutinises even the stories to which she is most attached. She goes far into the bleak in her search for a clarifying account of where we are and how we live. This art of disillusion leads to a third version of ascesis in her work. She has a keen sense of the place of greed and fear in our lives. She sees that the highest or deepest form of ascesis would be a letting go of these impulses in order to become awake to what is there. There is a version of ascesis in her work, in other words, that is akin to the paradoxical ascesis taught by the most spirited sages of the Axial Age traditions. What is the place of an ascetic art like Glück’s in the contemporary world? What does ascesis in general mean for us today? What we usually have in mind when we think of an ascetic practice is the sort of ascesis widespread in the Axial Age, the period running from the middle to the end of the first millennium bce, during which a range of religions or philosophies emerged that, for all their differences, shared important features.27 Among these religions and philosophies were Buddhism, Platonism, and Christianity. Asceticism in these traditions is a practice of renunciation meant to shape a spiritual self freed from the outward roles of ordinary social life, freed even from the outward pressures of being and time, and deeply transformed by the vision of a ‘transcendent’ or at least ‘other’ plane of reality (nirvana is not exactly transcendent). To become wise and virtuous, in these traditions, is to let go of what Plato calls the shadows of the cave, in particular wealth and power and prestige, and at a certain point to let go even of the ordinary self. Modern culture has tended to qualify or repudiate the ascetic bent of these traditions, affirming this-worldly activity, political freedom rather than spiritual freedom, ordinary life and economic production, and a release from old taboos and repressions.28 In our time we are likely to ask: What do the ascetics of old have to do with our world? Over a century ago, though, Max Weber influentially showed that an older form of Christian asceticism (what he called inner-worldly asceticism as distinct from other-worldly asceticism) was at once retained and redirected in the modern capitalist order: it became what we call the Protestant work ethic, that is, an ethic of industrious work seen as a spiritual calling.29 One needn’t accept Weber’s whole story of the relationship between capitalism and Calvinism to recognise that a this-worldly asceticism of work has indeed had a large place in the modern capitalist economy. One renounced the shadows of the cave for the sake of producing more shadows of the cave. The discipline of productivity came to replace the discipline of virtue and faith. But does this ethic not belong to an older form of capitalism? Is it not an ethic we have abandoned in the age of high-tech consumer capitalism? In fact it remains a shaping force in our world. It animates, first of all, the affluent professional classes, whose children are taught to jump through a thousand hoops, academic and extra-curricular and professional, in order to ensure that they succeed in a world of relentless competition. The habit becomes a psychic reality lasting a whole lifetime. The less privileged classes, on the other hand, have to adopt this sort of work ethic by force of necessity, since an ability to jump through a thousand hoops is demanded, in a different way, by the economy of precarious employment and temporary gigs. The disciplinary demands of the neoliberal economy are no less severe, in the end, than those of the older Fordist economy. Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz have aptly spoken of the ‘disciplinary hedonism’ of contemporary society: the demand that we work harder and harder in order to consume extravagantly, if we are rich, or to consume a little, if we are not rich.30 A work ethic still drives us in one way or another. The contemporary world economy, however, as every serious environmental historian has told us, is not sustainable. The economy of endless growth and endless consumption is likely to destroy the biosphere and, as it does so, to ruin any humane form of social life. In the midst of our high-tech society of exhausting work and frantic consumption, we are perhaps ready to hear again an older voice of ascesis, limitation, or meaningful restraint. In Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age, an account of the dangers that genetic engineering poses for our deepest intuitions of what it is to be human, Bill McKibben urges us to consider with great care just how far we wish to go in the realm of genetic engineering. We are surely part of nature, he says, and nature playing with nature, nature altering nature, is in a sense the most ordinary thing there is, even if our technological power has grown so vast as to leave us bewildered. But this, McKibben says, is only part of the story, for ‘what makes us unique is that we can restrain ourselves. We can decide not to do something that we are able to do. We can set limits on our desires.’31 The capacity for restraint, for limitation and self-limitation, is essential not only to ethical life, to a coherent relationship with others, but also to meaningful life, to any sense of living in relation to a larger horizon of care, of living for something other than simple survival.32 What McKibben says in this book, in other words, goes beyond the particular question of genetic engineering. He is presenting a broader ecological vision for our time. Essential to this vision is what I would call a naturalist recasting of an older version of ascesis: an ascetic bearing that would be put in the service, not of production and consumption, but of meaning and care. This is not the moment when I’m going to claim that Glück’s ascetic poetry is after all an ecopoetry. My concern is to trace connections, implications, resonances. One more detour here may be helpful. Glück has expressed deep admiration for George Oppen’s poetry, writing about it in a short essay, ‘On George Oppen’, and again in a longer essay, ‘Disruption, Hesitation, Silence’. Glück’s response to Oppen may initially seem surprising, for she and he are decidedly different poets, poets who come out of very different traditions. And yet the more you think about this connection, the more sense it makes. It’s clear that Glück feels an affinity for the formal spareness of Oppen’s work. She likes his aversion to cant. She is moved by his patient carefulness of statement, his scrupulous weighing of images and perspectives, his thoughtful integrity, his awareness. ‘This is a poetry of mind’, she says of his work, ‘of mind processing information – not a mind incapable of response but a mind wary of premature response; a mind, that is, not hungering after sensation. I find, in Oppen, a sanity so profound as to be mysterious: this is a sound that has, for the most part, disappeared from poetry, perhaps from thought.’33 It is the attention, the quality of attention, that above all distinguishes Oppen’s poetry. Attention in his work is an ascesis, a spiritual practice, where patience is passion, where restraint is openness, openness to what is there and openness to others. Perhaps his poetry of meditative attention will find a wider audience as it becomes clear that the restraint of which McKibben speaks is at once a social necessity and an existential bearing that might renew our sense of what matters. Glück’s love of Oppen’s poetry may tell us something important about her own poetry. I would go so far as to suggest that the open regions disclosed by Oppen’s meditative art are regions that Glück sees her own ascetic art as moving towards. In an essay that provides an account of her poem ‘Night Song’, Glück says that the poem grew out of an image that she had long retained from the story of Eros and Psyche, the moment when Psyche, in love with Eros, bends over him to find out who he is. Psyche, the soul, is at once abandoned to passion and in search of understanding. Glück sees her as free. In what does such freedom consist? ‘If “Night Song” connects the idea of freedom to rejection of the future’, Glück says, ‘what is diminished, emotionally, is greed. Not avidity, but compulsive acquisition, need projected into time, the self straining to predict and provide for all foreseeable deficiency. I think the word free has no meaning if it does not suggest freedom from greed.’34 Glück here speaks of ‘an openness to all experience’ that deep love on occasion awakens in an individual.35 Such spirited openness, she says, sets a standard. It reminds us of what freedom might be. Beyond the ascesis of independence, beyond the ascesis of disillusion, is the ascesis of letting go of fear and greed and the ten thousand defences they construct. Glück no more lives on this plane than most of us do. But her ascetic art, while illuminating all the ways we fend off the world to shape our souls, never forgets this plane of being, never forgets this possibility in human life. Perhaps, her art suggests, as Oppen’s art suggests in a different way, the last letting go would be a passion of attention, a genuine presence of mind. Footnotes 1 Ararat (New York 1990). ©1990 by Louise Glück. Quotations from this source are reprinted by permission of Harper Collins Publishers and Carcanet Press Ltd <www.carcanet.co.uk/cgi-bin/>. 2 Proofs & Theories: Essays on Poetry (New York 1994) p. 101. 3 Averno (New York 2006). 4 A Village Life (New York 2009). 5 Faithful and Virtuous Night (New York 2014). 6 Excerpts from “Averno” and “October” from AVERNO by Louise Glück and excerpts from “Twilight” “Tributaries” “First Snow” “At the River” “Fatigue” “Walking at Night” “Figs” “Sunrise” “Crossroads” “Noon” from A VILLAGE LIFE by Louise Glück from POEMS 1962–2012 by Louise Glück. Copyright © 2012 by Louise Glück. Excerpt from “Parable” from FAITHFUL AND VIRTUOUS NIGHT by Louise Glück. Copyright © 2014 by Louise Glück. Reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux; and Carcanet Press Ltd <www.carcanet.co.uk/cgi-bin/> CAUTION: Users are warned that this work is protected under copyright laws and downloading is strictly prohibited. The right to reproduce or transfer the work via any medium must be secured with Farrar, Straus and Giroux and/or Carcanet Press Ltd. 7 Proofs & Theories, p. 10. 8 Lynn Keller, ‘“Free of Blossom and Subterfuge”: Louise Glück and the Language of Renunciation’, in Leonard M. Trawick (ed.), World, Self, Poem: Essays on Contemporary Poetry from the ‘Jubilation of Poets’ (Kent, Ohio 1990) pp. 121–3. Paul Breslin addresses similar issues in ‘Thanatos Turannos: The Poetry of Louise Glück’, in Joanne Feit Diehl (ed.), On Louise Glück: Change What You Can See (Ann Arbor 2005) pp. 99–103. 9 The First Four Books of Poems (New York 1995) p. 133. 10 Proofs & Theories, p. 4. 11 In this part of the essay, references to Averno are given in parentheses in the text. 12 Wallace Stevens, The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination (New York 1951) p. 36. 13 Proofs & Theories, p. 134. 14 Ibid., p. 4. 15 Wallace Stevens, The Palm at the End of the Mind, ed. Holly Stevens (New York 1971) p. 386. 16 In this part of the essay, references to A Village Life are given in parentheses in the text. 17 Linda Gregerson, ‘The Sower against Gardens’, in Diehl (ed.), On Louise Glück, pp. 28–47. 18 The Wild Iris (New York 1992). ©1990 by Louise Glück. Reprinted by permission of Harper Collins Publishers and Carcanet Press Ltd <www.carcanet.co.uk/cgi-bin/>. In this part of the essay, references to this book are given in parentheses in the text. 19 Breslin, ‘Thanatos Turannos’; William Logan, ‘Nothing Remains of Love’, review of A Village Life, The New York Times (27 Aug. 2009). 20 ‘American Narcissism’, The Threepenny Review, 72 (Winter 1998) pp. 5–6. 21 Vita Nova (New York 1999) p. 3. ©1990 by Louise Glück. Reprinted by permission of Harper Collins Publishers and Carcanet Press Ltd <www.carcanet.co.uk/cgi-bin/>. 22 Ibid., p. 15. 23 Breslin, ‘Thanatos Turannos’, p. 127. 24 Rainer Maria Rilke, Ahead of All Parting: The Selected Poetry and Prose, ed. and trans. Stephen Mitchell (New York 1995) p. 387. 25 Ibid., p. 377. 26 Ibid., p. 519. 27 Karl Jaspers, The Origin and Goal of History, trans. Michael Bullock (New Haven 1953) pp. 51–60. 28 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge 2007). 29 Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Talcott Parsons with an introduction by Anthony Giddens (London 1992). 30 Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, L’Événement anthropocène: La Terre, l’histoire et nous (Paris 2013) pp. 183–5. See also Wolfgang Streeck, How Will Capitalism End? (London 2016) pp. 40–45. 31 Bill McKibben, Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age (New York 2003) p. 205. 32 Ibid., pp. 206–14. 33 Proofs & Theories, p. 81. 34 Ibid., p. 105. 35 Ibid., p. 103. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Cambridge Quarterly. All rights reserved. For permissions, please email: journals.permissions@oup.com This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)

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Published: Jun 1, 2018

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