The award-winning poetry of Louise Glück (former poet laureate of the United States) is like the fiction of Henry James: the more you reread it the more it entrances, yet the more elusive it proves. There are 17 poems in this slim volume; a handful of them are multipart. Thematically and in many other ways they are linked. Incidents from one poem, for example, reappear in another.
In “Landscape” we read: “In late autumn a young girl set fire to a field/ of wheat.” Later, in “Averno,” the title poem of the book, the speaker appears at this field under its cover of snow. Her children have been urging her to write a will. Staring at the field, she thinks, “The whole thing is written out there./ Nothing: I have nothing to give them.” Then she adds, perhaps in repugnance to revisiting the past: “I don’t want to be burned.” As for the farmer who owned the field, “his life expressed itself in that field.” He too stares out and thinks: “The earth has overpowered me.” This is a phrase Glück used earlier in German, as if a quotation.
Averno, of course, takes its name from the place of descent to the underworld in classical literature. (It was situated to the north of Naples.) The portal of mortality through which Virgil’s Aeneas descended to see the sybil is, we are told, a place we can be shocked into at any time. “There are places like this everywhere,/ places you enter as a young girl,/ from which you never return.”
The book is heavy with intimations of earlier-life trauma and in consequence conveys something of a death wish. There are flashes of happy childhood with her sister, upon which the speaker looks back with a sentiment of loss. There is a mother to whom she feels a daughter’s strong “maidenly” attachment, but icy detachment comes to dominate. There is the moment of lying calmly after sex in a lover’s arms, and then awakening to discover “the stranger.” The opening poem, “October,” puts this ever-present tension in its broadest terms: “Come to me,” said the world, in its springtime promise; but that, we are soon told, was “long ago”; now “my friend the earth is bitter” (sections 3 and 6).
These are postmodern poems that grasp for meaning and even existence, and cannot quite hold it. “The world is in flux, therefore unreadable,” we read in “Prism.” What threads the units together and knits the poet’s argument is the recurrent figure of Persephone, daughter of the goddess Demeter. According to Greek mythology, she is snatched up in a field by Hades and carried off to the underworld. “Persephone the Wanderer” analyzes her bewilderment. “Is earth/ ‘home’ to Persephone? Is she at home, conceivably,/ in the bed of the god? Is she/ at home nowhere?” The poem’s title nudges us to the answer.
These poems reflect an intense longing. The poet as a child kept going out at night along a lake to gaze entranced at the stars. “Fabulous things, stars,” she says in “Prism.” The adult too, gazing through a telescope, undergoes this momentary transport, “living, it seems, somewhere else, in the silence of the night sky” (“Telescope”).
The poet speaks wistfully of “soul” and of “spirit,” of “thought” and “self” and “mind,” but the conscious life is always shadowed. Persephone, who was carried off by the lord of darkness into the underworld, “was used to death.” She could never come back earthward to stay.
The final poem of this tantalizing book is a rewritten version of “Persephone the Wanderer.” In it, Demeter, the earth-mother, is grief-stricken at the loss of her beautiful child, Persephone. “The mother wanders the earth,” scheming that this branch of her body, this daughter, be reattached to her. She presses Zeus, the young woman’s father, to allow Persephone a brief yearly springtime return. Persephone has found this painful to endure. Zeus promises that “in a short time you will be here again.” As for the present wintry in-between time, he has these enigmatic words for her: “Those fields of ice will be/ the meadows of Elysium.”
This pithy conclusion is also the exit of the author, Louise Glück, from Averno.