Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 2009, 72 pages, $23.00.
Like several of the most affecting poems in Louise Glück’s new collection, A Village Life, “In the Café” adopts a persona that does not confess itself but discusses others. “It’s natural to be tired of earth,” the poem begins, articulating the highly-mannered weariness of much of the book. “When you’ve been dead this long, you’ll probably be tired of heaven.” The poem describes a man, the speaker’s friend, who “falls in love a little too easily”; a chameleon, he avoids fatigue by becoming “not what [his lovers] are but what they could be / if they weren’t trapped in their characters.” In this book, Glück uses a similar techinque: she reports through the eyes of an unnamed village’s inhabitants, discussing gossip and daily routines as naturally as death or lettuces, but the voice remains hers, “trapped” in the character she’s shown, in previous books, through autobiography and myth.
Like Cavafy’s persona pieces, the real subject of these poems is often a particular mood, not the transmission of details that distinguish, say, a child’s voice from a farmer’s. I think of Cavafy, too, in the poems’ favoring of measured exposition over image. Their recurring use of muted, conventional sights (sunsets, burning leaves, windows) can seem terrifying through its understatement, like a commonplace centerpiece that emphasizes a table’s severity. The poems also share Cavafy’s ambivalence about whether art and love can allow people to be “what they could be,” except through deviant imaginings. “In the Plaza,” for example, discusses a man who has been watching a girl “from across the square, pretending / to be buying something, cigarettes, maybe a bouquet of flowers.” Because she is ignorant of his attention, the affair still has potential. Soon, they will merely be lovers, and she will become one “who is not present in the world.” Devastatingly, the man favors this pretense over fulfillment and its absences; the poem concludes, “it hardly matters whether she lives or dies.”
In such poems, the complexity of perspective—a communal voice watches a man watching a woman—engages with Glück’s steadiness of disposition and diction. At times, this steadiness feels artful but not completely true, as when Raymond Carver’s stories express an entire world but not the entire world; they suggest that adulthood is “only estrangement and hatred” (“Fatigue”), its main pleasures from how it echoes mythic loss. At its best, though, this steadiness leads to poems that are not just sad but heartbreaking. In “Olive Trees,” a man leans against a warm brick wall and, with an unflinching voice, charts the distances within a long marriage. “Your despair just turns into silence,” the poem announces, its offhand “just” turning homespun verity into cosmological proposition.
Frequently in these poems, high tension hinges on such subtle diction: “No one really understands / the savagery of this place / the way it kills people for no reason, just to keep in practice” (“Pastoral”); “If there’s wind, one tree will do it—you don’t need the whole orchard” (“Via Delle Ombre”); “And then, for an hour of so, it’s really animated, / blazing away like something alive” (“Burning Leaves”). The casual diminishment in these Frostian sentence sounds (“just to keep,” “you don’t need,” “like something”) makes potentially maudlin sentiments feel natural, carrying the claustrophobic inevitability Glück sees in the cycles of nature and human life. “It’s telling me whoever lives here is doomed,” she writes in “Via Delle Ombre,” summing up the state of things. And later: “do people live there. / If they do, you know everything” (“Sunrise”).
In A Village Life, escape, for the most part, was abandoned long ago. The hope, now, is of “seeing beyond things, which / results from deprivation” (“Bats”). By placing this seeing in communal eyes, Glück continues to complicate how the confessional works in her poetry; it’s tempting to say the poem titled “Confession” addresses this complication. It tells this story: a boy who steals fruit (“Not steals exactly—he pretends he’s an animal; he eats off the ground”) confesses to the local priest but says he doesn’t think it is a sin to “take what would just lie there and rot, / this year like every year.” Intrigued, the priest gives only a slight penance, “so as to not kill off imagination,” but loses sympathy as the boy persists in his pragmatic, clever questioning. In the end, the boy recognizes the priest’s smallness, his hypocrisy, and surrenders in a way that has both social grace and equal hypocrisy.
It is a compelling, intricate scene, implying that human truth can be at odds with the needs of human interaction, with communication; that confession is also concession, for the sake of community. Glück lets us hear the silence that follows in the confessional. In my favorite poems in A Village Life, she also shows us what one who has heard that silence can now say.