Louise Glück, the U.S. poet laureate for 2003-4, who grew up in New York City, has just produced this sequence of poems about growing up in the country. Her title, A Village Life, creates a certain mythical aura because people nowadays refer to “towns” rather than to “villages.” Yet, without ever naming or locating a particular place, she makes the village quite real.
This village is not an idyllic environment. Glück says of it, “No one really understands/ the savagery of this place,/ the way it kills people for no reason/ just to keep in practice.” Yet in midsummer “the fields go on forever,/ peaceful, beautiful” (“Pastoral”). A river runs close to town, where the young gather to talk about how dimwitted their parents are and about sex.
The sun is a presiding figure in these pages. The speaker of “A Warm Day” and her neighbor “stand in the sun and the sun heals us./ It doesn’t rush away. It hangs above us, unmoving.” The sun, in “Olive Trees,” makes the leaves shimmer and warms the brick wall of a workplace so that, in autumn, you can go outside and warm your back against it. As an adult, the speaker of most of these poems has moved away but is drawn to go back for a look. “I had to see if the fields were still shining,/ the sun telling the same lies about how beautiful the world is” (“Sunrise”). What lies? A workman who is the narrator of “Olive Trees” gives us some clue: “The sun disappears behind the western hills—/ when it comes back, there’s no reference at all to your suffering.”
Mortality—aging and death—is intimated time and again in A Village Life. It looms like the snow peak, to which the Avenue of Liberty fans out from the village and where it “ends in stone” (“Tributaries”). Glück’s many references to the body bring home our fragility. “Today I went to the doctor—/.../ What have you done to your body, her silence says./ We gave it to you and look what you did to it” (“A Slip of Paper”). In the title poem, “A Village Life,” which concludes the book, the speaker walks her neighbor’s dog each Sunday to enable the neighbor to go to church. She does so with pleasure. “I keep in mind images from each walk/.../ so for a while it seems possible/ not to think of the hold of the body weakening, the ratio/ of the body to the void shifting.”
Sex and marriage, husbands and wives play out their small dramas in these pages, with bliss just out of reach. Of adolescents, “changed by the music” at a dance, the poet writes: “A spell was on us, but it was a sickness too/ the men and women choosing each other almost by accident, randomly,/ and the lights glittering, misleading,/ because whatever you did then you did forever” (“At the Dance”).
The round of seasons and continuum of creaturely life is reflected in phenomena and titles that keep appearing in these pages, especially the autumn ritual revisited in three versions of “Burning Leaves.” The first poem shows “death making room for life,” but in the final version, ominously, the leaves in the bonfire “change from something to nothing.” We get two intriguing “Earthworm” poems as well, and two about “Bats.”
Louise Glück writes in long, relaxed lines, at a storytelling pace and with poetic tension created by the pause at the line endings and by the poet’s sharpness of phrasing. Is there a theme, or mood, that holds A Village Life together and makes the reading experience more broad and unified? By all means. It is most explicit here in “Midsummer”: “You will leave the village where you were born” and flourish somewhere else, but mourn something left behind, “even though you can’t say what it was,/ and eventually you will return to seek it.” Well put, Ms. Glück.