Review by J. Scott Brownlee
A VILLAGE LIFE
by Louise Glück
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
18 West 18th Street
New York, NY 10011
2009, 72 pp., $23.00
After years of writing her own distinct poetry with little or no favorable recognition from critics, Louise Glück finally did, as she herself relates, “return from oblivion / to find a voice.” Her breakthrough poetry collection, The Wild Iris, provided her with almost instantaneous fame and a Pulitzer Prize in 1993. While she would go on to refine both her concept of the poetic line and the modulation of her characteristically dark, brooding tone, Glück’s work makes what is perhaps its most significant shift since The Wild Iris in A Village Life, a deeply imagined meditation on place told through the voices of both Glück herself and the townspeople and animals of a fictitious European village. The most notable component of this shift is her decision to move from the short, philosophically intense lines that made her famous to a new line—a longer, more narrative-conscious line—one that results in her newest poems reading, at times, like tightly compact short stories.
I still remember encountering one of these new poems, “At the River” in a January edition of The New Yorker for the first time and immediately falling in love with its straightforward, unabashed ability to come at remembrance—not through appeals to oblivion and death as in Glück’s previous work, but instead through careful storytelling. One of the reasons I first fell in love with Glück’s work in college was its firm insistence on spare, declarative language. At the time, I was a twenty-two-year-old “poem attempter” trying to get his “Glück on” at a hipster coffee shop in Austin, TX. Around me sat the other twenty-somethings trying to figure out who they were and what exactly they were doing with their lives as aspiring poets, artists and fiction writers. It was the type of coffee shop where you went to be “alone together” with your peers—to write and glance over your shoulder intermittently at attractive men and women coming to terms with themselves on their slick Macintosh screens through the written word. Glück, in contrast to our own uncertainty and trepidation as to how we might go about becoming the prize-winning writers of the future, simply cut to the chase—and I remember loving that about her work. I also remember picking up The Wild Iris and not putting it down until I finished it that night. I’ve wanted to be a poet ever since.
A Village Life, much like Glück’s previous work, cuts to the chase in terms of saying and doing exactly what it wants to say and do. In a sense, it’s like that cute, witty barista with a collage of tattoos who has come to terms with her own essential barista-ness and isn’t afraid to tell you that your Old Navy jeans simply don’t cut it in a place like this. This is a coffee shop for cool people. You have to exude coolness to even walk in here. Glück has an obvious artistic/poetic plan she prosecutes throughout the book. At this point in her career, she’s confident enough to not have to worry about how much she gets tipped. That being said, A Village Life departs from much of her previous writing. Glück has opened her register to include the voices of several imagined townspeople, filling up the town in her head with the dark singing of its tragic characters in the process, which also include animals like bats and earthworms. As someone currently writing about his own hometown (Llano, TX), I was particularly drawn to how Gluck chose to write many of the poems in this collection using voices other than her own. The last poem, “A Village Life,” for example, is told in the voice of a man headed to the town’s market to sell “his lettuces”:
The death and uncertainty that await me
as they await all men, the shadows evaluating me
because it can take time to destroy a human being,
the element of suspense
needs to be preserved.
Lines like these are classic Glück with their sharp, deliberate breaks and unexpected swerves into the dark, cobwebbed recesses of sex, death, and the speaker’s simultaneous welcoming and fear of erasure—even in a poem about a man doing something as inane as selling vegetables. I sense that Glück, in particular, takes a sort of sadistic pleasure in using language to surprise her reader—hence her use of a word like “lettuces,” which takes on more surreal weight in this book than I ever imagined a word like “lettuces” could. Indeed, of all of the words she could have chosen, I’m willing to bet Glück elected to make “lettuces” the final word of the collection on purpose. Say it to yourself with an emphasis on the “s-sound” at the tail-end of it, lettuces, and you begin to get the idea. It’s actually a pretty powerful (and frightening) word.
All agricultural and linguistic speculations aside, Glück is clearly at her best when exploring either death or the notion of “figurative death” she argues is implicit both in the humdrum, day-to-day activities of our lives, as well as our perhaps more sordid romantic encounters. In earlier books such as Vita Nova (1999) Glück would have us believe her contention that romance has the capacity, both in poetry and reality, to result in the death of the self. This motif is clearly evident in A Village Life and informs the most intense emotional and lyrical scenes in the suite. An excerpt from “In the Café” provides an example of the sort of terse, logic-based proof to which Glück reduces love, albeit effectively. Describing the romantic habits of one of her male friends over coffee, she diagnoses his romantic plight when it comes to loving (and leaving) women:
When they meet him now, he’s a cipher—
the person they knew doesn’t exist anymore.
He came into existence when they met,
he vanished when it ended, when he walked away.
After a few years, they get over him.
Granted, A Village Life deals with other issues besides love and love’s shaping of personal identity and the creepiness of “lettuces.” Glück is also intent on exploring her own childhood through frank, narrative prose in the aforementioned “At the River” as well as the personification of nature—something she has always done well. In the voice of, strangely enough, an earthworm, Glück provides the sort of rigorous philosophical/poetic argument that first made her famous. As always, she addresses her reader directly—and with forceful affect:
you will be free to explore. Perhaps
you will find in these travels
a wholeness that eluded you—as men and women
you were never free
to register in your body whatever left
a mark on your spirit.
With a title like “Earthworm,” the reader anticipates a poem about dirt and the subterranean. But Glück, as always, surprises—doing so consistently, convincingly, and subtly—both in this poem and throughout A Village Life. Although I ended up reading this book on my couch in North Carolina rather than in a more artistically appropriate venue like the Austin coffee shop where I first discovered her work, I still felt some of the same essential feelings, some of the same post-modern chills tingling up my spine during this read. It’s a wonderful book . . . one I recommend to any poet of any caliber—rather aspiring or practicing, hipster-kid or wannabe, caffeinated or otherwise.
J. Scott Brownlee is a library science graduate student at UNC-Chapel Hill and poetry student of Dorianne Laux and Joseph Millar. His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Rattle, Windhover, and Echo. He is originally from Llano, TX. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.