The morning intimacy of this poem deepens into a melancholy, minor key:
I felt its hunger
as your hand inside me,
so common, unmusical—
Ours were not
different. They rose
from the unexhausted
need of the body
fixing a wish to return:
the ashen dawn, our clothes
not sorted for departure.
Like the seabird’s cry, out of place in the city, the human cry expresses an ambivalent “wish to return.” The first sound of the day, it is also the reminder of staleness (they’ve heard it before), separation (“departure” seems to be imminent, now that the day’s begun), and “unexhausted need.” The beginning, in this poem, is a new day in an ongoing series, rather than a radical break.
Glück’s poems can “wake up” metaphorically as well as literally, plunging readers into a striking image or scene without much explanation. “Illuminations,” a poem about a child learning language by looking outside at the snow-covered world, starts with the line
My son squats in the snow in his blue snowsuit.
Another poem, “Happiness,” begins
A man and woman lie on a white bed.
These two images are remarkable not for their strangeness or novelty, but rather for their ordinariness and familiarity, and for their emergence from a kind of psychological family album. These single lines feel impossible to edit or to make more precise: Each has a figure (child, couple), an orientation (squatting, lying down), a place (snow, bed), and a single color (white bed, blue snowsuit). The simplicity of these images suggest exquisite craft and revision.
“Illuminations” and “Happiness” are poems that “start up close,” as the writer Nick Laird puts it. At a certain point, perhaps with her collection The Wild Iris (1992), Glück begins not with the up-close immediacy of an image or a sound, but with the opening of a story instead. Some of Glück’s preferred stories are myths: Odysseus and Penelope, for instance, in Meadowlands (1996), or Persephone in Averno (2006). Her most recent volume, Faithful and Virtuous Night, makes this embrace of narrative obvious with storylike titles such as “Parable,” “A Work of Fiction,” and “The Story of a Day.” Other tales are biblical in nature; in particular, the recurrent setting of the garden becomes one way for Glück to mount her human-scaled dramas of new beginnings.
Take “The Garden,” from The Wild Iris, which initially resists telling a story at all:
I couldn’t do it again,
I can hardly bear to look at it—
It’s surprising, then, to discover that the unbearable image is a very ordinary one:
in the garden, in light rain
the young couple planting
a row of peas, as though
no one has ever done this before,
the great difficulties have never as yet
been faced and solved—
The two figures are presented with stark, economical detail. No word goes wasted: Each line adds one element to the scene, building it slowly. Time unfolds at a processional pace that feels adjacent to the movements of bending and planting. The action of planting the garden, the falling of the light rain of spring, and the innocent obliviousness of the young couple tell a set of interwoven old stories: the beginning of a garden, a year, and a relationship.
They cannot see themselves,
in fresh dirt, starting up
the hills behind them pale green, clouded with flowers—
The only moment of dramatic conflict in the garden is a minor one. It’s getting late or rainy, and so the question is whether to continue the planting or finish the work another day:
She wants to stop;
he wants to get to the end,
to stay with the thing—
But instead of entering into the psychology of the couple, or putting them in dialogue, the poem takes a moment to zoom in:
Look at her, touching his cheek
to make a truce, her fingers
cool with spring rain;
in thin grass, bursts of purple crocus—
even here, even at the beginning of love,
her hand leaving his face makes
an image of departure
and they think
they are free to overlook
The final lines of this poem remain startling even after multiple rereadings; the short story it tells culminates in an “image of departure,” a simple movement of a hand away from a face. But what does the image mean? In one sense, Glück returns to John Milton’s Paradise Lost, and to the garden from which Adam and Eve, “hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow, / through Eden took their solitary way.” Glück uses the garden to suggest that there is no originating state of innocence, but that all beginnings contain intimations of departure.