Came across this week’s poem reading through James Longenbach’s solid book, The Art of the Poetic Line (Graywolf Press). Longenbach does a great read of the poem, noting how the poem is grounded in straightforward syntax in the first line, and returns to this foundation in the poem’s last lines. In between, the poem plays out the ramble and run of memory.
When I read the poem the first time, it was cut and interspersed throughout Longenbach’s prose. Yet, when I read the final lines, I was blown away by them as if I had read it straight through. While Longenbach’s insights added to the piece, of course, it was the power of Glück’s lyricism – it’s ability to remain charged even through essayic insight – that ultimately had me catching my breath.
The last two lines of the poem stopped me with their clarity. What’s said there is said as clearly as the first line of the poem; the clarity here, however, rings out in such a way that I was compelled to read and reread the poem a few times. Like flipping a coin and watching the light change, then go back inside the coin when it falls flat, this poem delivers its lyric insight in an urgent way.
Nostos – Louise Glück
There was an apple tree in the yard —
this would have been
forty years ago — behind,
only meadows. Drifts
off crocus in the damp grass.
I stood at that window:
late April. Spring
flowers in the neighbor’s yard.
How many times, really, did the tree
flower on my birthday,
the exact day, not
before, not after? Substitution
of the immutable
for the shifting, the evolving.
Substitution of the image
for relentless earth. What
do I know of this place,
the role of the tree for decades
taken by a bonsai, voices
rising from tennis courts —
Fields. Smell of the tall grass, new cut.
As one expects of a lyric poet.
We look at the world once, in childhood.
The rest is memory.
Last week’s online reading/interview had me going over the “constellation of poets” that influenced my life and writing in another life. Like the stars keep changing position, so poets move around in my head. I was driven, however, to dig up this week’s poem and reread it, surprised that I hadn’t posted it at some point.
The poem below’s meditation on language uses questions of maybe and what if to blow up and expand the possibilities of words. It creates a space that I am happy to return to ten years after first reading it.
In another poem, Gilbert says: We must unlearn the constellations to see the stars. I count this poem as one that has helped in my unlearning.
The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart – Jack Gilbert
How astonishing it is that language can almost mean,
and frightening that it does not quite. Love, we say,
God, we say, Rome and Michiko, we write, and the words
get it wrong. We say bread and it means according
to which nation. French has no word for home,
and we have no word for strict pleasure. A people
in northern India is dying out because their ancient
tongue has no words for endearment. I dream of lost
vocabularies that might express some of what
we no longer can. Maybe the Etruscan texts would
finally explain why the couples on their tombs
are smiling. And maybe not. When the thousands
of mysterious Sumerian tablets were translated,
they seemed to be business records. But what if they
are poems or psalms? My joy is the same as twelve
Ethiopian goats standing silent in the morning light.
O Lord, thou art slabs of salt and ingots of copper,
as grand as ripe barley lithe under the wind’s labor.
Her breasts are six white oxen loaded with bolts
of long-fibered Egyptian cotton. My love is a hundred
pitchers of honey. Shiploads of thuya are what
my body wants to say to your body. Giraffes are this
desire in the dark. Perhaps the spiral Minoan script
is not a language but a map. What we feel most has
no name but amber, archers, cinnamon, horses and birds.