“No Forms but Twisted Forms”
Curtis Fox: This is Poetry Off The Shelf from The Poetry Foundation, December 17th, 2014. I’m Curtis Fox. This week, the lyric gift of Louise Glück. Robert Haas once called Louise Glück one of the purest and most accomplished lyric poets now writing. She’s in her 70s now, and Louise Glück is still writing pure and accomplished poems, though maybe a little less pure than before. Her latest collection Faithful and Virtuous Night recently won the National Book Award for Poetry. On the podcast today, we’re going to take a mini tour of Louise Glück’s poetry over the years with Sina Queyras. Sina Queryas is a Canadian poet and editor, and the founder of the online literary journal Lemon Hound. She joins me from a studio in Montreal. Sina, your poetry is quite different from Louise Glück’s, yours is more on the experimental side of things. What draws you to Louise Glück’s poems, which seem to come out of a very different tradition?
Sina Queyras: Yeah, very different. I spent maybe 15 years avoiding Louise Glück’s work. I first came across it in Banff, in 1997. People were in love with her and they talked about her in hushed tones. There was this whole atmosphere of preciousness around the work, which immediately kind of put me off. But then I did succumb, I try to read across the field and outside my own taste. I did succumb and read The Wild Iris,. It further alienated me. Flowers that talk, it just seemed silly. I kept putting it off. And then when the collected came out I’d been thinking, how many contemporary women poets will have this massive collected poets that some of the great male poets have had. Who would that be? Then this Louise Glick arrived and I got it, I spent several weeks reading it. I was profoundly moved and really, really compelled. I think one of the things I was really pleased about was to see somebody’s mind really developing on such a narrow track, insistent on it’s content from an earlier point. And then watching her develop ways to be able to both grow as a poet but also maintain her interests, and not veer off of something she obviously decided early on that she was going to dedicate herself to.
Curtis Fox: Let’s start with a very short poem from the 1960s early in her career called “Elms”. This was written at a time when Dutch Elm disease hadn’t yet killed almost every elm tree in the country. For those of you who have never seen an elm tree, and I think there’s a lot of people, they tend to be magnificently twisted and sinewy, huge wonderfully twisted trees. They have a very distinctive profile. Is there anything else you think we should know before we read this short poem?
Sina Queyras: No, I think that’s a good description of the tree.
Curtis Fox: Okay, go ahead.
All day I tried to distinguish
need from desire. Now, in the dark,
I feel only bitter sadness for us,
the builders, the planers of wood,
because I have been looking
steadily at these elms
and seen the process that creates
the writhing, stationary tree
is torment, and have understood
it will make no forms but twisted forms.
Curtis Fox: This poem does something really funny. It begins about a romantic or a sexual difficulty. “All day I’ve tried to distinguish need from desire”. And then it goes into elms. It’s not about sex apparently on the surface at all, it’s about something else. It’s hard not to read it as a metaphor for the poetic process. And understand “it will make no forms bu twisted forms”. Do you read it that way, as a metaphor for the poetic process?
Sina Queyras: I do. Absolutely, it’s a metaphor for the poetics of looking, a metaphor for the poetics of not looking away, of allowing oneself to be still in pain, allowing oneself to kind of writhe with that process which is organic and comes from inside, and will probably grow into something gorgeous, but for a long time is just pain and writhing. I read it that way. I also read it as, coming back to your point about the need and desire — a line from Susan Sontag popped to mind here. “Can I love someone and still think?” The poems in this whole series really resonate for me as somebody who's trying to figure out how to be a woman, how to love, and how to still have this intellectual world, and how to protect that from love which can command a really high price. In another poem, she notes that she spent 20 years marking time in her family, in the trauma of her family waiting to get out. Acknowledging early on that in fact, she’s not going to get out. She’s going to go right back in and keep looking.
Curtis Fox: Not going to get out of the family life?
Sina Queyras: Not going to get out of the dynamic of that early family life. It’s going to inform her.
Curtis Fox: Yeah, as we’ll see in the poems coming up she’s very interested in family life. Especially in her mother. Let’s go to the second poem here. This one was published in book form in 1990, pretty much mid-career. It’s called “A Fable”. Is there anything you want to say about this poem before you read it?
Sina Queyras: I guess she starts to add more fable as readers of her poetry will know, but she’s always interested in extending it or flipping that on it’s head. The question is how does she make this very common fable new again?
Curtis Fox: Go ahead and read it. This is “A Fable” by Louis Glück.
Two women with
the same claim
came to the feet of
the wise king. Two women,
but only one baby.
The king knew
someone was lying.
What he said was
Let the child be
cut in half; that way
no one will go
drew his sword.
Then, of the two
renounced her share:
the sign, the lesson.
you saw your mother
torn between two daughters:
what could you do
to save her but be
willing to destroy
yourself—she would know
who was the rightful child,
the one who couldn’t bear
to divide the mother.
Curtis Fox: So Sina, where does the original fable come from?
Sina Queyras: I believe this is the Judgement of Solomon from Kings. The original is the first half of the poem, but then she flips that on it’s head, turning it not to the child and to the king but to the two women and making it about the mother.
Curtis Fox: Yeah, a mother that is divided between two daughters. Is that a false choice? Do mothers ever have to choose between two daughters.
Sina Queyras:(LAUGHING) Being a daughter, and being a daughter and a sister, and also being a daughter and a sister in a family where one of the siblings was taken very early on, I understand this. It resonates so well with me because there’s the one who will always be trying to soothe the mother, and the one who will always be angry with the mother. Not always perhaps, but often there are these dynamics. This really resonated for me, this sense that there could be a right and a wrong daughter. There isn’t of course —
Curtis Fox: But it can feel that way, right?
Sina Queyras: It can feel that way. This whole series is looking back at the death of the father, the death of the relationship of the parents and again the sister is buried early on.
Curtis Fox: So Louise lost a sister early on in her life, and that haunts the poem obviously. If you don’t know that, it seems a little odder. But knowing that, it casts a pall over the entire poem.
Sina Queyras: I read it that way. Even if you don’t know that, it’s still a really interesting turn on the cut the child in half. Here we’re going to potentially cut the mother in half. There’s just so much guilt and shame of selfishness, the beauty of selflessness daughters can get into vying for their mother’s love.
Curtis Fox: Some poets would approach this subject from a confessional point of view or write a more confessional poem. Certainly poets of her generation did this. But she’s casting it as a fable. Is that a usual approach in her poetry? Is that how she usually deals with domestic tension?
Sina Queyras: It has, she seems to have done it for 11 books. It’s remarkable, she never resolves. That’s a downside as well as the great gift. Again, coming back to these early poems and seeing her kind of embrace this and say yeah, I’m not going to get out, I’m not going to understand this. I’m going to have a poetics of a kind of constant interrogation being able to touch down on these landmines as some reviewers call them, emotional landmines that inform. It’s brilliant because she just keeps laying them over different structures.
Curtis Fox: Does her mature life enter into the poems as well?
Sina Queyras: It does. That’s a really interesting thing she does with time. Again, I didn’t read her all these years, so for me it was really disorienting because she goes back and forth in time. And you’re like oh, is that the 9 year old Glück talking? Is that the other Glück? Because she seems to have different versions of herself talking in the poem. Everything is up in the air and able to touch on at any moment, even beyond death.
Curtis Fox: Yeah, we’re going to hear that in the next poem you read. This one is called “Nocturne”. It was published in Poetry Magazine last year in December of 2013. What can you tell us about this poem?
Sina Queyras: It’s a poem that is slipping in and out of time. It exists in a place … we’ll talk about after where I might think that place is.
Curtis Fox: Okay, let’s hear it. “Nocturne” by Louis Glück.
Mother died last night,
Mother who never dies.
Winter was in the air,
many months away
but in the air nevertheless.
It was the tenth of May.
Hyacinth and apple blossom
bloomed in the back garden.
We could hear
Maria singing songs from Czechoslovakia —
How alone I am —
songs of that kind.
How alone I am,
no mother, no father —
my brain seems so empty without them.
Aromas drifted out of the earth;
the dishes were in the sink,
rinsed but not stacked.
Under the full moon
Maria was folding the washing;
the stiff sheets became
dry white rectangles of moonlight.
How alone I am, but in music
my desolation is my rejoicing.
It was the tenth of May
as it had been the ninth, the eighth.
Mother slept in her bed,
her arms outstretched, her head
balanced between them.
Curtis Fox: That was “Nocturne” by Louise Glück. The poem is set in the 10th of May, but the poet says winter was in the air. What do you make of that? May is the heart of spring.
Sina Queyras: May is the heart of spring, but it’s taking place at night and it’s taking place in this kind of … William Logan and I finally agree on something, that these poems are kind of almost posthumous.
Curtis Fox: What do you mean by that?
Sina Queyras: “Mother has finally died” here in this poem, “Mother who never dies”. I feel like she’s died in a way for Glück. These poems are so urgent and emotionally much more vibrant and vulnerable than any of the other proms I’ve encountered in hers. Everything is perhaps the last time, so it’s all urgent. This may be the last time I get to remember this moment on the 10th of May when the hyacinth and apple blossom bloomed, this may be the last moment I get to have this vision of Maria with the stiff sheets, how alone I am. It’s all going. Soon, I am too.
Curtis Fox: The Maria in the poem seems to be a stand in for poetry or the poet. She sings “How alone I am, but in music / my desolation is my rejoicing.” She’s quite a poet herself, Maria.
Sina Queyras:(LAUGHING) She is, I don’t know who the Maria is, I don’t know where Czechoslovakia comes from. I love that in the middle of the poem, after “How alone I am, / no mother, no father “ there’s this “aromas drifted out of the earth”. I keep coming back to that because I think of Averno, this crater in the centre of her body of work that threatens to pull everything to the underworld. It may be stretching too much, but maybe not too much to say that there is an awareness of this coming back in the middle of the poem.
Curtis Fox: “Aromas drifted out of the earth; / the dishes were in the sink, / rinsed but not stacked.” That’s wonderfully precise.
Sina Queyras: It is, but I don’t think she used the words “out of the earth” lightly.
Curtis Fox: Yeah, because of the aromas and memories drifted out of the earth, that’s the implication there.
Sina Queyras: Yeah, absolutely.
Curtis Fox: Sina thank you so much.
Sina Queyras: Thank you for having me, it was a real pleasure.
Curtis Fox: You can find poems by Sina. Queyras and Louise Glück and hundreds of other poets at our website poetryfoundation.org. Let us know what you think of this program, email us at email@example.com. The theme music for this program comes from the Claudia Quintet. For Poetry Off The Shelf, I’m Curtis Fox. Thanks for listening.