- “It Meant I Loved”: Louise Gluck’s Ararat
Thanatos undercuts, overrides Eros, his sweet, belated sibling—so says Freud.1 And in Revolution in Poetic Language, her closely argued brief against paranoid Unity and culture as theology, Julia Kristeva more than agrees. Like the Accusing Angel that she calls “the text,” Kristeva puts the writing subject, in her now famous phrase, en proces—in process and on trial—charged with denying the very spark that drives him: the “jouissance of destruction (or, if you will, of the ‘death drive’)” (150). This drive lies below language, she argues; it underwrites or even is desire (49, 131). Even oral pleasure, that link between infantile suckling and the poet’s honeyed words which at one moment in her account “restrains the aggressivity of rejection,” thus holding the death drive in check, amounts in the end to “a devouring fusion,” “borne” and “determined” by the very rejection one hoped it would restrain (153, 154). Avant-garde social and textual “practice,” along with the critic’s own, must on account of this be strict, undeceived, and unsentimental. There’s no entry for “love” in the index to Revolution. No Eros peeks out from Psyche’s cupola, offering readers shelter from the storm.
At moments Louise Gluck’s Ararat calls to mind such passionate strictness. “The soul’s like all matter,” the poet observes. “Why would it stay intact, stay faithful to its one form,” when it could fly apart into “particles” and “atoms,” disintegrate, “be free?” (“Lullaby” 28–29). The Kristeva I’ve cited so far would take this as a rhetorical question; and indeed, on first reading, so it seems. But these lines, like the rest of the volume, are spoken by a self-professed “Untrustworthy Speaker” (34). Suppose we read deeper, then, and hazard an answer? Recall another myth of rejection, the sentence passed on another subject on trial: Job, who refused to curse God and die (the biblical version of Kristevan “practice”). He survives to see an erotic restitution, his second crop of daughters, Dove, Cinnamon, and Eye-shadow, married with children and grandchildren of their own (Mitchell xxx, 91). A taste of fairy-tale closure, this end equally hints at that love “fierce as death” we read of in the Song of Songs (8:6), the book which follows Job in the Hebrew Bible as its countersong, a promise and a kiss.
The effort to unlock a love like that, a fierce erotic drive to hold life together, propels Gluck’s sequence from scene to stark, lyric scene. And the etiology of the affections we find in Kristeva’s more recent volumes can illuminate both the particulars and quiet formal imperative of the poet’s mourning work and self-analysis. “Beyond the often fierce but artificial and incredible tyranny of the Law and the Superego,” she writes in Tales of Love, postmodern love has been undermined by an “erosion of the loving father”: the one that Freud called the imaginary Father in Individual Prehistory, whose love for us ushers us out of melancholy longing for a lost maternal presence and into speaking subjectivity (378). Two musings from this book might serve as epigraphs to Ararat, highlighting the questions the poet sets herself as she attempts to reconstitute a vision of such paternity. “Love as unacknowledged lament?” Kristeva asks. “Lament as unsuspected love?” Tales 88).
It’s easy to read Ararat as a book about death, a fatalistic “family tragedy” (Cramer 102). The passing of the speaker’s father precipitates portraits of earlier losses, of a distance and coolness in the family’s past, and of the uneasy relations that remain. “Long ago, I was wounded,” the first poem begins (15); the last poem echoes the phrase, suggesting that no cure has been effected in between. “I thought / that pain meant / I was not loved,” the volume all-but ends, and no sunburst of metaphor, rhythm, or rhetoric amplifies the retraction of the line that follows to close out the book: “It meant I loved” (68). And yet, for all Gluck’s restraint—she’s no Mahler, massing brass fanfares to signal the shift—this quick modulation from minor to...