A Village Life
by Louise Glück
Farrar, Straus & Giroux 2009
Reviewed by James Cihlar
“And the adults, they’re all dead now.”
How do you follow a book like Averno? Distilled, evocative and crystalline, Louise Glück’s previous title seemed to be the consummate modern re-imagining of the myth of Persephone. At first glance, the expansive lines and colloquial tone of A Village Life may appear very different from the austerely beautiful verse of Averno. As her new book proceeds, however, we see that these deceptively loose poems revolve around a talismanic set of images. Even the multiple personas who impart their various narratives use a shared lexicon: mountain, window, fountain, plaza, night, earth, sun, leaves, fire. What emerges is an incantation, a rosary, a mandala. Not unlike Averno, this meditation on aging and mortality uses narrative to speak archetypal truths.
A host of narrators populate this Village, and plot lines recur with circadian rhythm. Children swim in a quarry, leaves burn in a pile, and husbands resort to the bottle, among others. The opening poem, “Twilight,” deftly establishes tone and method, framing through the home window of a mill-worker “not the world but a squared-off landscape / representing the world.” If aging is a progression, then this speaker advances by embracing the subconscious: “I open my fingers— / I let everything go.” Seemingly everyone takes a turn at the microphone, including worms and bats, who happen to offer some of the most elevated metaphysical observations in the book. Locating her speakers in an unnamed village, with a fountain in a plaza at the center and a mountain on the edge, where figs and olives grow in the summer and snow flies in the winter, Glück establishes a hierarchy of story, with rank based on the speaker’s position in beginning, middle, or end. In “Tributaries,” personal trajectory is reflected in proximity to a fountain: children and mothers near the water, old couples at the tables at a safe distance away:
They’re alone at the fountain, in a dark well.
They’ve been exiled by the world of hope,
which is the world of action,
but the world of thought hasn’t as yet opened to them.
When it does, everything will change.
These poems phrase dynamic tension through approximate contrasts: work perverts the human character, leaves conceal the winter, the mountain cleaves from the village, the city overwrites nature, anticipation ends virginity, estrangement undermines marriage, lies pollute truth, and, if we are lucky, the spirit learns to manifest itself in the body. If an aggregate narrative emerges from the multiple perspectives, it is that of the prodigal daughter restored to her hometown, having made the journey through virginity and marriage and career, disillusioned and dispossessed, and able to glimpse, through a comparison of the human life span with the seasonal aspect of nature, what comes after mortality.
You will leave the village where you were born
and in another country you’ll become very rich, very powerful,
but always you will mourn something you left behind, even though you
can’t say what it was,
and eventually you will return to seek it.
Through the observation of rituals at the passing of seasons, the villagers aspire to a higher understanding of temporality. Put simply, time as a concept feels much different to the young than to the old. When we are young, we wait out life, and expect to forget mistakes.
It seems a strange position, being very young.
They have this thing everyone wants and they don’t want—
but they want to keep it anyway; it’s all they can trade on.
The girls who accompany the boys to the quarry’s swimming hole treasure the sexless democracy of adolescence, uneager to leave behind the broad suspension of inexperience. Limitless in potential, youthful imagination is better than reality, the way that the ephemeral reflections of the stars in the river are better than their real correspondents: “they were like having some idea that explodes suddenly into a thousand ideas, / not real, maybe, but somehow more lifelike” (“At the River”).
But even this static expanse of time must end, and we find that our omissions or indiscretions survive to haunt us, “because whatever you did then you do forever” (“At the Dance”). In youth, the broad expanse of the present is interrupted by premonition; in age, by memory. Glück seems to say, a life’s expenditure of moments is simply incremental, not cumulative, leaving us no better off. To avoid decay, one would have to be like the shape-shifter, the incubus of “In the Café,” the serial boyfriend who takes on the likes and skills of his current paramour, then discards her. Instead, the enlightened seek erasure. In the second of two poems titled “Earthworm,” Glück subverts expectation by uniting earthiness with holiness, putting wisdom in the voice of the reincarnated:
It is not painful to return
without language or vision: if, like the Buddhists,
one declines to leave
inventories of the self, one emerges in a space
the mind cannot conceive, being wholly physical, not
The unity of the spirit and the body takes a form beyond human ken, describable only as “wholly physical,” and visible only in a reverential study of the world.
Eroding the distinction between novel and verse, A Village Life bucks recent trends by embracing narrative, even if fragmented. Glück avoids the triteness of small town catalogues like Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology. Classically disciplined, her imagery arises directly out of the setting, evoking an austere, timeless, and archetypal community. Sometimes Glück astounds with loving descriptions of nature: “The sky above the fields has turned a sort of grayish pink / as the sun sinks. The clouds are silk yarn, magenta and crimson” (“March.”) Her infrequent similes provide insight while staying close to home: a pile of burning leaves is “a small thing, controlled, like a family run by a dictator” (“Sunset”); the sun hangs steady “like an actor pleased with his welcome” (“A Warm Day”). Despite maintaining a measured, contemplative tone throughout, she is also able to capture personal inflection: the bartender runs the television with the sound off, and “we spend hours watching this junk” (“Via Delle Ombre”). I caught only one instance of melodrama, at the end of “Hunters”—“the cries of love drown out the screams of the corpses”—although this is in persona for the poem. A Village Life is a wise statement about the body’s relation to the earth, and rewards with beautiful if, of necessity, fleeting glimpses of eternity, as in “Sunrise”:
Between them, the hills and sky took up all the room.
Whatever was left, that was ours for a while.
But sooner or later the hills will take it back, give it to the animals.
And maybe the moon will send the seas there
and where we once lived will be a stream or river coiling around the base of the hills,
paying the sky the compliment of reflection—
Blue in summer. White when the snow falls.