Hearing the Words: ‘The Nightfishing’ by W.S. Graham

Louise Glück, in her essay Invitation and Exclusion[1], argues for poetry that requires a listener or a reader rather than that which is merely overheard, contrasting Eliot, whose ‘cri du coeur craves a listener who becomes, by virtue of his absorption, [the poet’s] collaborator’ with Wallace Stevens: ‘Stevens’ meditative poems are not addressed outward; they are allowed to be overheard’.  Some readers regard the work of W.S. Graham, with its enduring preoccupation with language, as metapoetry, exclusive because it is concerned with the writing of poetry, rather than with the world.  This is very far from the truth as can be demonstrated from an analysis of The Nightfishing, pivotal in the poet’s career. Graham’s poem is about the sea, about the real sea, ‘a grey green sea, not a chocolate box sea’, a poem which he hoped would make ‘somebody seasick ( a good unliterary measurement)’;[2] it is a very Romantic poem with its outsider hero off on a quest:

            Now within the dead 

            Of night and the dead 

            Of all my life I go.

                                                (p.105)[3]

Moreover, as the ‘seasick’ comment suggests, it is a thoroughly physical poem, written to be heard, whose hypnotic rhythms drew me in many years ago, before I even tried to understand it.

The opening of the poem, like that of Dante’s Inferno, places us somewhere that is immediately recognisable yet obviously allegoric, suggesting that the narrator has reached a crucial point in his life and is about to embark on a journey, we imagine, a journey of discovery:

                        Very gently struck

                        The quay night bell.

                        Now within the dead 

Of night and the dead 

Of my life I hear

My name called from far out.

                                                                        (p.105)

This summoning bell tolls or knells faintly throughout the poem, offering both a sense of mortality, especially since it is introduced here alongside the repetition of ‘dead’, and a feeling of security or stability as it anchors us to the land, to the quay from and to whose ‘open arms’ the voyager travels and returns. However, this is balanced or contradicted by the poet’s preoccupation with flux, often suggested to derive from Heraclitus. Be that as it may, Graham sees the instant as the only living reality, while all the moments of the past are a heritage of dead selves:

                        Within all the dead of

                        All my life I hear

                        My name spoken out

                        On the break of the surf.

                        I, in Time’s grace,

                        The grace of change, am

                        Cast into memory.

                        What a restless grace 

                        To trace stillness on.

                                                            (p.105)

The poem is a psychic drama and a poetic meditation dressed up in a very physical, tactile language of reality. Indeed, one of Graham’s themes or purposes is the relation of language to reality. In all his letters about the poem, Graham insists on the reality of the sea while also establishing it as a metaphor, something which becomes possible in this poem because the sea is envisioned as the ground[4] of being.  The Nightfishing is often recognised to be in a tradition of literary works about the sea; I have seen references to Moby Dick and The Wreck of the Deutschland. I am strongly reminded of The Ancient Mariner, particularly because of the dead selves Graham carries with him on his voyage.  Whatever its literary antecedents, the poem is strikingly effective in its evocation of the Atlantic waters fished by Scottish fishermen. When I first read the poem, I assumed that it was set off the coast of Cornwall, but the few geographical references are apparently to Scotland: ‘the Mor light’ ‘the Black Rosses’, ‘Skeer’, although these names are generically Gaelic rather than specific:

‘The place names in this section have a Scottish flavour, suggesting that Graham was thinking of a voyage beginning in the Firth of Clyde, and moving out past the islands.’[5]

                                               

          Graham did go out with fishing crews several times, so the poem reflects experience: ‘The undertow, come hard round,/ Now leans the tiller strongly jammed over/ On my hip-bone.’ (p.109) Or, hauling in the nets: ‘The headrope a sore pull and feeding its brine/Into our hacked hands.’ (p.113) The boat , with its ‘twin screws’ that ’spun sweetly’, the gear of nets, corks and bladders:

   Our mended newtanned nets, all ropes

            Loose and unkinked, tethers and springropes fast,

The tethers generous with floats to ride high,

            And the big white bladder floats at hand to heave.

                                                                                                (p.109)

all convey the reality of a working fishing trip.  The sea too as it changes through the course of the night is presented with painterly clarity, whether it is in the still moment of dawn after the nets have been set:

            Now round the boat, drifting its drowning curtains

            A grey of light begins. These words take place.

            The petrel dips at the water-fats. And quietly

            The stillness makes its way to its ultimate home.

            The bilges slap. Gulls wail and settle.

            It is us still.

                                                                                    (p.111)

or the heavy seas encountered on the return journey:

                                                The long rollers,

            Quick on the crests and shirred with fine foam,

            Surge down then sledge their green tons weighing dead

            Down on the shuddered deck-boards.

                                                                                    (p.114)

Knowledge of the sea and fishing lore feeds into the narrative:

            Yes, we’re right set, see, see them go down, the best

            Fishmarks, the gannets. They wheel high for a moment

            Then heel, slip off the bearing air to plummet

            Into the schooling sea.

                                                            (p.110)

The protagonist of the poem is the writer in the present moment of his life, but despite the abstract nature of this concept, he is presented in heroic, almost cinematic images:

                                                I turned out

                        Into the salt dark

                        And turned my collar up.

                                                                        (p.106)

There are echoes of old black and white naval movies as the hero ventures out with the crew on the mission and returns successfully with nets full of herring. Gerard Carruthers advances a loftier model for Graham’s fisherman, suggesting that the narrator is based on ‘the fisherman-apostle Peter’.  He argues that Graham’s poem is ‘underwritten by the account in Luke’s gospel where Peter has had a fruitless night of fishing on the sea of Galilee and is ordered back out by Christ. Peter proves his faith by following the command and being rewarded with a prodigious, miraculous catch’.[6]  Some of Graham’s language and rhetoric has a religious provenance; like Samuel, the narrator hears his name called: ‘I hear/ my name called from far out’ and he refers several times to ‘grace’, ‘Time’s grace, the grace of change’, the grace of the ‘instant,/ bound by its own grace’.  Nevertheless, the poem is wholly secular.To me, the narrator-protagonist is the hero of his own metaphysical romance, writing the story of himself in his head in a rhetoric which is often raised to match the heroic nature of the quest.

No matter how convincing and physical the detail of the fishing voyage, the poem is always metaphysical.  In his letter to Charles Causley, Graham writes:

…although I wanted to write about the sea it was not the sea only as an objective adventure ( if there is such a thing) but as experience surrounding a deeper problem which everybody is concerned with.

I mean the essential isolation of man and the difficulty of communication.[7]

This may be the central theme of the poem, though as Graham acknowledges in the same letter, others may read more or less into it. Certainly, he returns repeatedly to the difficulty of language in the context of time and change. He declares that only in the present instant is he alive and himself, so that it seems impossible for language and communication to be accurate and authentic: ‘Each word speaks its own speaker to his death.’(p.115) As if to reinforce the aliveness of the moment, much of the narration is in present tense, giving the impression that the ‘adventure’ is unfolding before us, moment by moment. 

            The air bunches to a wind and roused sea-cries.

            The weather moves and stoops high over us and 

            There the forked tern, where my look’s whetted on distance,

            Quarters its hunting sea.

                                                            (p. 112)

However, the poet’s view is neither as bleak nor as solipsistic as this argument might suggest. The next few lines in this stanza indicate the importance of memory, in a simile which extends the hauling in of nets to the metaphysical level: ‘I haul slowly/ Inboard the drowning flood as into memory,/ Braced at the breathside in my net of nerves.’ (p.112) A few stanzas later, there is a lapse into the past tense: ‘And then was the first/ Hand at last lifted getting us swung against/ Into the homing quarter’. (p.113) This is an implicit admission of continuity, as is the combination, in the next stanza, of the description of the voyage with the process of the poem:

            Into the running blackbacks soaring us loud

            High up in the open arms of the towering sea.

            The steep bow heaves, hung on these words, towards

            What words your lonely breath blows out to meet it.

                                                                                                (p.113)

Communication is possible, though difficult: ‘I cried headlong from my dead’. The poet’s language is built from the continuity of dead selves which have preceded the present moment and thus he is able to articulate his ‘ghostly constant’.(p.111)  It is the possibility of memory, continuity and communication that permit the inclusion of the ballad-style section 2, with its reference to his birth:

            When I fell from the hot to the cold

            My father drew his whole day’s pay,

            My mother lay in a set-in bed,

            The midwife threw my bundle away.

                                                                        (p.107)

and also, what seems to be a love poem, section 4, using, Graham claims, the rhythm ‘I took from an early poem I came across in the MSS of early Scots poetry, from the Ballantyne MS.’[8] Although the section reiterates the idea of change and death from one moment into the next, he sets this against the possibility of love and a home whose identity is not put into words:

            O my love, keep the day

            Leaned at rest, leaned at rest.

            What one place remains

            Home as darkness quickens?

                                                            (p.117)

So, despite, the difficulty of communication we realise that Graham is not speaking simply to himself; rather, he is speaking as himself and as a representative human being to others, with the hope though not necessarily the expectation of being heard. As he puts it in a later poem:

            What does it matter if the words

            I choose, in the order I choose them in,

            Go out into a silence I know

            Nothing about, there to be let

            In and entertained and charmed

            Out of their master’s orders?  And yet

            I would like to see where they go

            And how without me they behave.[9]

W.S. Graham is said to have been a man at once gregarious and shy, who sometimes found social interactions awkward but who enjoyed a number of intense and valued friendships. ‘The Nightfishing ’ overcomes isolation, not only in its address to the other in section 4, but in its recognition of companionship throughout the voyage. The ‘we’ he uses so often is not simply the collection of dead selves, but other members of the crew, those who set out and hauled in the nets alongside him. As they come back into harbour:

Moored here, we cut the motor quiet. He that

I’m not lies down. Men shout. Words break. I am

My fruitful share.

                                    (p.116)

 His poetry is difficult and his meanings often elusive but his focus on language arises out of his recognition of its centrality to our humanity, as that which articulates our ‘ghostly constant’ allowing us, despite our instant to instant, and final, mortality, the possibility of memory and communication:

            So I spoke and died.

            So within the dead

            Of night and the dead

            Of all my life those

            Words died and awoke.

                                                (p.120)

In addition to books cited above, I have found the following helpful:

Give Me your Painting Hand, W. S. Graham and Cornwall, by David Whittaker, Wavestone Press, 2015.

SINGER, LAVINIA. “Significant Shapes: W. S. Graham’s Painting Poems.” Chicago Review, vol. 62, no. 1/2/3, 2018, pp. 60–66. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/26725259. Accessed 31 Mar. 2021.

WILKINSON, JOHN. “The Weight of Words: W. S. Graham’s Lyric Poetry.” Chicago Review, vol. 62, no. 1/2/3, 2018, pp. 40–57. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/26725257. Accessed 31 Mar. 2021.

Natalie Pollard, ‘The pages are bugged’: The Politics of Listening in the Poetry of W. S. Graham, The Cambridge Quarterly, Volume 39, Issue 1, March 2010, Pages 1–22, https://doi.org/10.1093/camqtly/bfq001


[1] Proofs and Theories, Carcanet, 1999

[2] Letter to Alan Clodd, 1955

[3] All quotations from ‘The Nightfishing’ taken from New Collected Poems, ed. Matthew Francis, Faber and Faber, paperback 2005.

[4] I recognise that this word seems inappropriate, but it is perhaps the flux and instability of the sea which makes it Graham’s founding metaphor.

[5] Note by Matthew Francis, editor of New Collected Poems,Faber and Faber, 2004.

[6] Gerard Carruthers Born in a diamond, screeched from a mountain pap, The Hugh MacDiarmid Lecture, 2018,Studies in Scottish Literature, p.18

[7] Letter 84 in The Nightfisherman, Selected Letters of W.S.Graham, edited by Michael and Margaret Snow, Carcanet, 1999

[8] Letter to Norman McLeod, number 95 in The Nightfisherman

[9] ‘Approaches to how they behave’, from Malcolm Mooney’s Land, New Collected Poems, p.178

Waiting to be interrupted: an exploration of some of the work of Louise Glück

A Nobel prize winning poet, writing in English, that I had barely heard of. Shamed by my ignorance of the work o, I started to read her in bulk. I started with A Village Life, 2009, which is comparatively recent, and which I will return to. I followed up with The First Five Books (Carcanet, 1997) which includes all her work up to Ararat(1990). The prevailing impression from this collection was gloomy. In fact, when I read ‘The Undertaking’ , the opening poem in ‘The Apple Trees’ which is the second section of The House on Marshland (1975), I was surprised by how upbeat it was. 

            The dark lifts, imagine, in your lifetime.

            …

                                    the sun is shining,

            everywhere you turn is luck.

At the same time, I asked myself how long this sudden cheerfulness would last. 

Five pages later the poem ’12.6.71’ opened and closed thus:

            You having turned from me

            …

                                    the snow

            which has not ceased since

            began

Gluck repeatedly rejects the idea that she is a confessional poet, yet many of her poems are clearly based on the material and suffering in her personal life.  However, when we read her work, we are forced to agree that she is far from confessional in the manner, say, of Sylvia Plath or Robert Lowell. Somehow, even when poems include details which seem most intimate and personal, they seem strangely impersonal, detached or even cold. Some of the poems carry a tremendous punch, but although they shock, they don’t quite move. For example, poems on the death of a father:

            For once, your body doesn’t frighten me.

            From time to time, I run my hand over your face

            lightly, like a dustcloth.

            What can shock me now? I feel

            no coldness that can’t be explained.

            Against your cheek, my hand is warm

            and full of tenderness.

                                    ‘For my father’ in Metamorphosis in The Triumph of Achilles (1985)

Grief is undermined by self regard. The speaker is looking at herself, the one who is still living, the survivor, with a truthfulness that shocks and disturbs. The pieties surrounding grief, death and burial are further subverted in ‘A Fantasy’, where the widow is imagined after the funeral:

            In her heart, she wants them to go away.

            She wants to be back in the cemetery,

            back in the sickroom, the hospital. She knows

            it isn’t possible. But it’s her only hope,

            the wish to move backward.  And just a little,

            not so far as the marriage, the first kiss.

What seems at first to be grief, resolves into fear of the future, the wish to have things the way they were, rather than any kind of celebration of love or the marriage.

We know that one of the most significant factors in Glück’s life occurred before she was born, the death of her sister as an infant.  She writes about this in her short essay ‘Death and Absence’(1984, reprinted in Proofs and Theories, Carcanet,1999):

I have always been, in one way or another, obsessed with sisters, the dead and the living both.   The dead sister died before I was born. Her death was not my experience, but her absence was. Her death let me be born.  I saw myself as her substitute, which produced in me a profound obligation towards my mother, and a frantic desire to remedy her every distress.

She says that she wrote about her sister’s death only after the birth of her own son. Although the lost sister appears in several poems, perhaps the most powerful is ‘Lost Love’ from Ararat (1990):

            Something did change: when my sister died,

            my mother’s heart became

            very cold, very rigid,

            like a tiny pendant of iron.

            Then it seemed to me my sister’s body

            was a magnet. I could feel it draw

            my mother’s heart into the earth,

            so it would grow.

What strikes me again in this poem is how clipped and reserved it is, how controlled. The language is simple with a metaphor that extends through two stanzas but becomes part of the massive understatement about the poet’s mother and the complex mother-daughter relationship. Perhaps the adherence to rhyme in her first book, Firstborn, which more or less disappears from the second book onwards, was an early manifestation of this need for control. There is also a frequent sense of holding back and distrust.  This is particularly evident in ‘Mock Orange’ and ‘Night Song’ both of which appear in The Triumph of Achilles (1985). I find ‘Mock Orange’ viscerally shocking:

            I hate them.

            I hate them as I hate sex,

            the man’s mouth

            sealing my mouth, the man’s

            paralyzing body – 

            and the cry that always escapes,

            the low, humiliating 

            premise of union – 

These stanzas have a truthfulness which is hard to acknowledge since they present a fear of losing control and a distrust of the body that may remind us of ‘the syndrome of anorexia that for years shaped [her] life’. [1]  The Triumph of Achilles contains many poems about love, but its poems are not exactly love poems as they wrestle with the conflict between individual autonomy and union with another; in this sense, ‘Mock Orange’, the opening poem, has an admonitory function. The sequence ‘Marathon’, in particular, reveals this ambivalence about love:

                                    And in each of us began

            a deep isolation, though we never spoke of this,

            of the absence of regret.

            We were artists again, my husband.

            We could resume the journey.

                                                                        ‘Summer’

Ararat, the fifth book, is constructed on a family very similar to Glück’s own family, three generations: parents, daughters and the daughters’ children. Structures, emotions and relationships are dissected and analysed in a manner that would be raw if, again, it were less controlled.

            They always said

            I was like my father, the way he showed

            contempt for emotion. 

            They’re the emotional ones,

            my sister and my mother.

The justification for this laundering of family pain seems to be the poet’s conviction that her experience is general, that her familial structures are archetypal, a belief which becomes true through the enaction of the poems. However, not all of her poetry is as apparently transparent as Ararat and I will consider three later books where family or personal tropes persist but within the artifice of an overarching book-length concept. These are The Wild Iris, 1992, A Village Life, 2009 and Faithful and Virtuous Night, 2014.

The Wild Iris is an exploration of religion or at least of theology by a poet who has previously seemed profoundly agnostic. ‘Celestial Music’, the penultimate poem in Ararat, puts a clear space between her and a friend who is a believer.

I have a friend who still believes in heaven.

Not a stupid person, yet with all she knows, she literally talks to god,

she thinks someone listens in heaven.

The clear implication is that belief in God is stupid, yet in The Wild Iris God is a key player. The collection, set in the garden, a locus immediately resonant with religious and mythical archetypes, is shared between the voices of plants, the poet and God. However, the plants, God and the figure of the poet come across as dramatized arguments rather than as real, even when the detail is accurate and convincing. The collection reads like a series of thought experiments and indeed there is a heady excitement in taking on the voices of God, who is presented through a variety of different human perceptions.  In ‘Clear Morning’ God is transcendent, ‘thinking matter could not absorb [human] gaze forever’ but ‘prepared now to force / clarity upon you.’ In ‘Midsummer’ there is a stronger sense of incarnation, ‘You were/ my embodiment, all diversity’. Most of the time, God is the disappointed Creator familiar from Genesis:

            ‘I couldn’t do it again,

            I can hardly bear to look at it – 

                                                            ‘The Garden’

We have to remember that God is in dialogue with the Poet who is also the Gardener, an ambiguous figure, halfway between creator and curator. Moreover, the Poet is ventriloquising the voice of God just as she ventriloquises and anthropomorphises the plants to make up the tapestry of her debate. The plants follow the natural seasons from early spring through to late Autumn, rehearsing a cycle of death and resurrection the poet acknowledges as Romantic: ‘let them/ bury me with the Romantics’. (‘Matins’ p.13) Two pages later, in ‘Retreating Wind’ a disappearing God points out the fallacy of an over simple identification of the human with the seasonal:

            Whatever you hoped,

            you will not find yourselves in the garden,

            among the growing plants.

            Your lives are not circular like theirs:

            your lives are the bird’s flight 

            which begins and ends in stillness –   

Nevertheless, it is in the plants that Gluck finds images for living or for expressing human yearnings or dilemmas. ‘Trillium’ discovers grief, ‘Snowdrops’ faces the pain of re-engaging with the world, Scilla celebrates community over individualism, whilst Lamium seems close to a self-portrait:

                                    Some of us

            make our own light: a silver leaf

            like a path no one can use, a shallow

            lake of silver in the darkness under the great maples.

            But you know this already.

            You and the others who think

            you live for truth and, by extension, love

            all that is cold.

The disingenuousness here is the failure to acknowledge the passion and emotion which is found throughout this collection although suppressed by the austerity of the diction and the control of the lines. The book shows the poet making ‘[her] own light’ and the two long lines ending the second and third stanzas attest to the quality of this light; it is derived from the sun but it pings ‘like someone hitting the side of a glass with a metal spoon’ and it is ‘silver’ not golden.  The poet aspires to the coldness of intellectual rigour which is metallic and inorganic but recognises implicitly that this is far from enough, that her ‘lake of silver’ is ‘shallow’, an idea emphasised by the placement of the word at the end of the line.

Despite the rejection of the parallel between humans and plants, the dialogue between plants and their human gardeners mirrors that between the human and God and the plants seem to move from birth through adolescence to eventual old age. Whereas the snowdrops at the beginning of the sequence dare to ‘risk joy’, the white rose near the end faces bleakly the uncertainties of death in unanswered cries to the human,’ you are not the light I called to/ but the blackness behind it.’  This is not the last word, however. The final two plant poems move through the despair of the crucifixion – ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me’:

                                    are you

            close enough to hear

            your child’s terror? Or

            are you not my father

            you who raised me.

                                                ‘The Golden Lily’

to the hope of resurrection:

            Hush beloved.  It doesn’t matter to me

            how many summers I live to return:

            this one summer we have entered eternity.

            I felt your two hands

            bury me to release its splendour.

                                                                        ‘The White Lilies’

We may note in this final image of the poem and the book that plant and gardener are at one. The relationship between the human and the god she has created is more problematic. In ‘Retreating Light’ God is leaving, job done, because the humans have finally learnt how to live ‘like independent beings’ and how to create, how to be their own god.

            Creation has brought you

            great excitement, as I knew it would,

            as it does in the beginning.

            And I am free to do as I please now,

            to attend to other things, in confidence

            you have no need of me anymore.

Yet the sequence does not end there. In ‘Lullaby’ the god who withdrawing from the world is also withdrawing the world as creation is reduced to flickering appearances:

            You must be taught to love me.  Humans must be taught to love

            silence and darkness. 

In ‘September Twilight’, the last God poem, the god has become a grumpy poet unhappy with his flawed creation, ‘a draft to be thrown away,/ an exercise// because I’ve finished you, vision/ of deepest mourning.’  The last two lines evade explanation but, at the very least, convey a sense of terminal dissatisfaction. The voices of God and human go past each other, each wanting more than the other can give.

The ‘human’ poems are usually titled either ‘Matins’ or ‘Vespers’, placing them within the tradition of Christian prayer and meditation. Some have likened the collection to the medieval books of hours. Certainly, the voice of the human echoes the spiritual travails of figures such as Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross as it struggles with a God which is at first  the ‘unreachable father’, unknowable and impersonal: ‘I am/ at fault, at fault, I asked you/to be human’. Then about halfway through, there is a change in perception as the view of god does again become human. 

                        I am ashamed

            at what I thought you were

            distant from us, regarding us

            as an experiment: it is

            a bitter thing to be

            the disposal animal,

            a bitter thing. Dear friend,

            dear trembling partner, what 

            surprises you most in what you feel,

            earth’s radiance or your own delight?

            For me, always

            the delight is the surprise.

                                                            ‘Matins’ p.31

In this poem, the poet is on the same level as her God who she is constructing in her own image. It contrasts strangely with God’s final poem, ‘September Twilight’ quoted above. We move from Matins to Vespers, morning to evening where the poetic voice torments itself with its relationship to God. On page 43 she describes how God appears to her:

                        I climbed

            the small hill above the wild blueberries, metaphysically

            descending, as on all my walks: did I go deep enough

            for you to pity me, as you have sometime pitied

            others who suffer, favoring those

            with theological gifts?

Here, the poet appears to be inviting a ‘dark night of the soul’ in order to achieve the ecstatic vision:

                                    your fiery self, a whole

            pasture of fire, and beyond, the red sun neither falling nor rising – 

However, the ending of the poem reverts to rationalism:

            I was not a child; I could take advantage of illusions.

Glück allows herself to construct a faith to set against her nihilistic idealism, where the natural world and the garden she loves are always on the point of disappearing to leave noting but darkness behind them.  Towards the end of the book, in ‘Parousia’, she remembers childhood belief which she is trying to recover:

            I try to win you back,

            that is the point 

            of the writing.

But she adds, a few lines later: ‘What a nothing you were’ and then concludes ‘you are everywhere, source/ of wisdom and anguish.’ In the next poem, winter is approaching as is death and the poet’s sense of having been admitted to the divine presence has been cancelled: ‘you have drawn/ a line through my name.’ The poem ends with an ambivalent restatement of the relationship between God and human.

            When you go, you go absolutely,

            deducting visible life from all things

            but not all life,

            lest we turn from you.

                                                ‘Vespers’, p.55

I suggest that Gluck is an idealist because in this book, plants, garden, the world of nature, even the bit players, John and Noah, her husband and son, are all constructs, fictions dramatizing the struggle of a mind or soul to know or redeem itself through the possibility of a relationship with a god which is itself fictional. It is a metaphysical exploration of ideas which is the very opposite of materialism.

A Village Life is even more clearly a fictional setting where the writer can work through her ideas. The blurb suggests this village is Mediterranean, but it is not any place that ever actually existed. It made me think of my grandchildren’s favourite computer game, Minecraft, where it is possible to construct your own house, estate, town, world. The poet works out emotions and ideas through her avatars who are given a gapped narrative that the reader feels must exist but struggles to follow. The first poem gives some sense of the abstract quality of the entire collection. It begins in the third person, describing the meditations of, apparently, a mill worker as he looks out through his window to see ‘not the world but a squared-off landscape’. The poet is indicating already that this is a selective and constructed picture, and our perspective is further skewed when she moves to first person in what seems to be some kind of renunciation which may anticipate old age or death

                        I open my fingers – 

                        I let everything go.

                        I let it go, then I light the candle.

Is this the old man at his window coming into his own voice or the poet consciously substituting the light of her art for that of the real world?

There are a number of different characters, some still living in the village, some who have moved away, some old, some young, or possibly the same individuals presented at different times in their lives. The pervading perspective is of jaded, rather sour, rather plastic wisdom. The setting is stylised: the village has a central fountain to which all roads lead at the same time as they lead away towards the mountain:

            The roads don’t gather here anymore;

            the fountain sends them away, back into the hills they came from.

            Avenue of Broken Faith, Avenue of Disappointment,

            Avenue of the Acacia Tree, of Olive Trees,

            The wind filling with silver leaves,

            Avenue of Lost Time, Avenue of Liberty that ends in stone,

            not at the field’s edge but at the foot of the mountain.

                                                                                    ‘Tributaries’

The poems reflect the seasons and the weather which are made to echo the ages and stages of the characters in a conscious use of pathetic fallacy which the writer had exploded elsewhere. There are recurring events, two poems from the earthworm, two from bats, and four about burning leaves which seem to signal the cycles of life and death, destruction and phoenix-like resurrection. The image is so persistent that I wondered if it might originate from the poet’s experience of losing her own house to fire.

            So it’s finished for another year,

            death making room for life,

            as much as possible,

            but burning the house would be too much room.

                                                                                    ‘Burning Leaves’ p.26

Reflecting the sense of decline in the book, the balance of the burning leaves tips towards death in the later poems

                                    it is obvious they [sparks] are not defeated,

            merely dormant or resting, though no one knows

            whether they represent life or death.

                                                                        p.35

            Maybe this is how you’ll know when the earth is dead – 

            it will ignite.

                                                                        p.61

For me, the imaginary world of this book is mostly grey or sepia coloured, but there are momentary glimpses of real toads, as in the rather curious poems about adolescence which depict boys and girls on the cusp of sexual awareness.

            They know people who’ve done it, as a kind of game or trial – 

            Then you say, no, wrong time, I think I’ll just keep on being a child.

            But your body doesn’t listen. It knows everything now,

            it says you’re not a child, you haven’t been a child for a long time.

            Their thinking is, stay away from change. It’s an avalanche – 

            All the rocks sliding down the mountain, and the child standing underneath 

            just gets killed.

In this poem, where the Edenic companionship of boy and girl is under threat from their growing consciousness of their sexuality and there is a powerful sense of loss, one of the oddest things is the fluidity of the pronouns. The first stanza is all ‘they’ before moving to direct address in the second ‘you can spend the whole day’. Later, even the body gets a voice ‘it says you’re not a child’, and towards the end of the poem the unity of the two children separates into ‘he’ and ‘she’.

            Today she’s folding the blanket alone, to be safe.

            And he looks away – he pretends to be too lost in thought to help out.

                                                                                                            ‘Noon’

This confusion of voices, where the writer seems to intrude upon her creation, once again undermines the autonomy of the imaginary world. In a companion piece, ‘At The River’, a young girl describes, or mocks, how her mother has told her about sex:

            she went on holding my hand as she made her speech

            which was more like a speech about mechanical engineering

            than a conversation about pleasure.

She and her friends gather by the river where they laugh about this and the book, Ideal Marriage, which her mother has given her. They are preoccupied with sex which they discuss endlessly without, most of them, having any actual experience. Running in parallel with this, is the story of her parents’ marriage, the father who pours himself two glasses of wine every night, one, suggests his daughter, for the Holy Ghost who never shows up. At the end of the poem, she asks him:

                                                Did your friend go away?

            And he looked at me intently for a while,

            then he said, Your mother and I used to drink a glass of wine together

            after dinner.

The particularity of this detail and the sadness it reveals contrasts with the preceding stanza where the protagonist, returning from the river, comments on the reflections of the stars in the water:

            But the ones in the river – 

            they were like having some idea that explodes suddenly into a thousand ideas,

            not real, maybe, but somehow more lifelike.

The ‘like’ in the second line is unexpected and ambiguous; it could reflect the idiom of an American teenager (not a Mediterranean one) or it could signal the introduction of an elaborate simile. Either way, the reality of both the actual world and the imaginary world are undermined by the primacy of ideas.

The final poem is also the title poem and it features an older man, perhaps the same one as in the first poem and probably the same one as in ‘A Warm Day’. He may even be looking out the same window as in the opening poem. However, in this poem he speaks in first person as he ruminates over his daily routines, the different stages of life and approaching death. It is hard not to see him as a stand-in for the aging poet.  His instruments are locked up but he still hears ‘music coming from them sometimes’. He thinks back to the tension of the pre-adolescent. ‘Soon it will be decided for certain what you are, / one thing, a boy or a girl.’ Although written before trans issues became so prominent, this foreshadows, perhaps accidentally, the angst of binary sexuality. The light in the poem fades and reduces to firelight, then moonlight and the moon becomes a symbol of the soul:

            It’s dead, it’s always been dead,

            but it pretends to be something else,

            burning like a star, and convincingly, so that you feel sometimes

            it could actually make something grow on earth.

            If there’s an image of the soul, I think that’s what it is.

This concluding notion seems both religious and Platonic, although earlier in the poem he has decried his neighbour’s religious faith: ‘She believes in the Virgin the way I believe in the mountain, / though in one case the fog never lifts.’ The soul is seen as a deception, ‘pretend[ing] to be something else’, but nevertheless deriving its truth or being from a remoter power. 

The village of A Village Life, with its stylised setting and characters, is a device which allows the poet to clothe and develop her ideas. Faithful and Virtuous Night exploits a different convention partly through a deconstructed quest narrative where there appear to be at least two protagonists: one is an aging male artist who remembers his life going back to his childhood as an orphan, living with his aunt and his brother. There are accounts of episodes in boyhood, living in Cornwall and undergoing psychoanalysis. However, another voice belongs, apparently, to the poet herself, notably in ‘Visitors from Abroad’ and ‘Aboriginal Landscape’ in which the recurrent themes of her relationship with her mother and the sister who died in infancy reappear. It is quite difficult to work out what is going on and whether we should see the male figure as detached from, complementary to, or an alter ego for, the poet. The quest imagery and indeed the title of the book derive from the old man’s childhood memories of his brother reading Arthurian romance: ’my brother was reading a book he called/ the faithful and virtuous night’. This misunderstanding is the foundation for the image of night as death or at least the harbinger of death: “I became/a glorious knight riding into the setting sun, and my heart/became the steed underneath me.’ In this book, Glück is much possessed by death, but not particularly gloomily; in fact, this poem even includes a pun:

            Neigh, neigh, said my heart,

            or perhaps nay, nay – it was hard to know.

                                                                                    ‘An Adventure’[2]

If the old man’s adventures all seem to be episodes on the journey towards death which becomes itself the object of the quest as suggested in the opening poem ‘Parable’, the utterances which come from the poet appear in one way or another to be a reaction to the death of her parents, or particularly, of her mother.

            We read your books when they reach heaven.

            Hardly a mention of us anymore, hardly a mention of your sister.

            And they pointed to my dead sister, a complete stranger,

            tightly wrapped in my mother’s arms.

            But for us, she said, you wouldn’t exist.

            And your sister – you have your sister’s soul.

            After which they vanished, like Mormon missionaries.

                                                                                    ‘Visitors from Abroad’

Along with the characteristic austerity and control, manifest here in the clipped, end-stopped lines often backed up by full stops which are used for emphasis rather than to demarcate sentences, Glück exhibits again an almost gleeful, if macabre, dark humour.

However, most of the book is devoted to the novelistic development of the central character, who is reminiscent of other hyper-refined male sensibilities, a sort of cross between Henry James and Philip Roth.  He is embarked on the quest for, or journey towards, death which is neither a real quest nor a real journey, as to paraphrase Beckett, he would have died in any case. This is the message of ‘The Parable’:

                                                            we had changed although

            we never moved, and one said, ah, behold how we have aged, traveling

            from day to night only, neither forward nor sideward, and this seemed

            in a strange way miraculous.  And those who believed we should have a purpose

            believed this was the purpose, and those who felt we must remain free

            in order to encounter truth felt it had been revealed.

I don’t know quite how to regard this, admittedly very readable, narrative thread. I have to see the old man as a pretext rather than an autonomous character, partly because at times he seems to merge with the other speaker, partly because, like her, he is preoccupied with the relationship between art and life. In ‘The Past’ and ‘A Summer Garden’ there is reference to a mother who has died, apparently recently, although the old man’s mother was killed when he was a small child. This might suggest that the poems are in the voice of the poet except that their preoccupations seem to echo that of the male character. In fact, ‘A Summer Garden’ is primarily an elegy for the poet’s mother, Beatrice Glück, who died in 2011, aged 101: ‘Mother died last night, / Mother who never dies.’ The poem goes from the day of her death when the bereaved daughter reflects on her loss, echoed in the songs of, presumably, an au pair:

            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.

These songs may remind us of the Jacques Brel song which haunts the old man:[3]

            The little cat is dead, meaning, I suppose,

            one’s last hope.

            The cat is dead, Harry sings,

            he will be pointless without his body.

            In Harry’s voice it is deeply soothing.

            Sometimes his voice shakes, as with great emotion,

            and then for a while the hills are alive overwhelms

            the cat is dead.[4]

The tug between life and death carries on throughout the collection and comes back to a celebration of a moment of life earlier in the life of the poet’s mother, when she took her grandchildren to the park:

            The children held hands, leaning

            To smell the roses.

            They were five and seven.

            Infinite, infinite – that 

            was her perception of time.

            She sat on a bench, somewhat hidden by oak trees.

            Far away, fear approached and departed;

            from the train station came the sound it made.

            The sky was pink and orange, older because the day was over.

            There was no wind. The summer day

            cast oak-shaped shadows on the green grass.

This not the last poem in the book. The final piece is a short prose text which picks up some of the threads in the whole collection, including, I believe, an underlying interest in the delimitations of gender. This brings together, or perhaps it doesn’t, a man and woman, who might perhaps or perhaps not be the two voices in the poem. Figures from a photograph, they are imagined meeting:

She drops her book; stooping to pick it up, she touches, by accident, his hand and her heart springs open like a child’s music box. And out of the box comes a little ballerina made of wood.  I have created this, the man thinks; though she can only whirl in place, still she is a dancer of some kind, not simply a block of wood. This must explain the puzzling music coming from the trees.

                                                ‘The Couple in the Park’

The ‘puzzling music’ refers to an earlier poem, where the male artist meets a woman who tells him about walking in a garden where she would hear final notes of The Marriage of Figaro. She tells the artist that all her walks are circular, and she always ends up where she started, at her own front door. The artist attempts to interpret this experience but concludes

                                                that whatever message there might have been

            was not contained in speech – so, I realized, my mother used to speak to me

            her sharply worded silences cautioning me and chastising me – 

                                                                        ‘A Sharply Worded Silence’

The ‘sharply worded silence’ which is something we may all recognise becomes even more resonant when we remember that the artist’s mother is dead. The overlap between the man and the woman reappears as we question our first assumption that it is the male who is speaking.

It may be the limitations of a prosaic mind which drives the reader of poetry to seek for logical interpretations and explanations. There is an instinctive quest for meaning which may be one of the pursuits this book is challenging, but only if you plump for the most negative reading.  The poem travels beyond logical prose in expression and, if we trust the poet, we may see that what she is saying now in verse we may be able later, in our enlarged experience, to translate into prose. Death is on the horizon, and the horizon may always be coming closer, but it is the process of the quest which matters.  Louise Glück beguiles us with the language of childhood, with stories and images, which are cut loose to drift across each other in a way that is productive in challenging assumptions, but which does not offer any definitive alternatives.


[1] ‘Death and Absence’ in Proofs and Theories

[2] Perhaps this is an allusion to the words of Peter Pan: ‘To die would be an awfully big adventure.’

[3] You can hear Jacques Brel singing this song, Les Vieux, on You Tube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OMxvAY54_Vg

[4] Presumably from The Sound of Music.