Louise Glück is one of the few poets whose collections I read from beginning to end as if they were novels. This started in 1998, when I heard her read from Meadowlands; the poems in Meadowlands displayed Glück's delicious brashness while retracing the Odyssey from Penelope's point of view. During the reading Glück said, almost accusingly, that the poems needed to be read in order—or else what was the point?
So when I sat down to read her new collection, Averno, I read it from start to finish in an effort to truly appreciate how she would weave mythology, death and love, humanity and inhumanity—standard Glück subject matter—throughout. But the book feels hackneyed. The poems don't unwind or unroll into a larger format; instead they feel stuck together, a piling-up of ideas and anecdotes. While there are occasions of radiance—the second poem, "October," comes to mind—the many-sectioned "modernist" poems read like Anne Carson on Ovaltine and fail to coalesce with those that mediate the myth of Persephone. Overall, the poems do not, as the speaker says in "Blue Rotunda," reveal "a theory that explains everything," nor do they draw from one another or connect.
It's hard to dislike a collection by Glück, but while reading it I couldn't help but feel that the repetitions were somehow too repetitive, the metaphors exhausted, the themes tired. Many of the poems start off with a series of aphorisms that evolve by way of reasoning—this happened and then this happened: "Time passed, turning everything to ice./Under the ice, the future stirred./If you fell into it, you died." Glück does not write in form—ever—and this kind of parallel or syllogistic thinking feels halfhearted and ineffectual. The lesser poems—"Archaic Fragment," "Echoes," "The Evening Star" and "Fugue"—feel amateurish, falsely modernist and presumptuous. As the speaker says in "Fugue," "Somewhat later, I took it upon myself/to become an artist,/to give voice to these impressions." End-stopped lines put an end to the conversation. When the speaker does question, it is unfocused. [End Page 157] In the end, Glück seems less interested in searching than in listening to herself speak.
Glück's poems shine when she does not indulge in or limit herself to a small, privileged (read: poetry-only) audience. Poems like "Omens" and "Landscape" exhibit Glück's signature simplicity, clarity and directness: ". . . when the sun sets in winter it is/incomparably beautiful and the memory of it/lasts a long time. I think this means/there was no night./The night was in my head."
During moments like these, from the poem "Landscape," the speaker seems to address anyone and everyone. When Glück does settle down to question, and in the process lets us watch and learn, she is able to refocus our gaze in a way that few other poets can, as in the poem "Prism": "When you fall in love, my sister said,/it's like being struck by lightning." Glück saves a cliché at the very last moment: "She was speaking hopefully,/to draw the attention of the lightning."
Glück is a poet known for her wry, salty speakers, and at first it seems that this collection will follow suit. In "October," the speaker is sharp, accusatory. As she says in section two: "You hear this voice? This is my mind's voice." In section five she explains: "It is true 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."
But this is what the poems lack: candor.
It is terrible to ask poets to keep doing what we love best, but often I felt as if Glück herself was at a loss. This strikes me as a text in which the poems hit less than 50 percent of the time. Someone told me that Glück wrote this...