Averno, Louise Gluck
[76pp, £9.95, Carcanet]
Sometimes I think I should write first impressions not reviews: after any
amount of reading and thinking, I still circle back to the poem or the phrase
that first drew my eye. So. I took Averno from its envelope, flicked pages, read
this at the bottom of page 9:
over. In the thawed dirt,
bits of green
Come to me, said the world. I was standing
in my wool
coat at a kind of bright portal--
I can finally say
long ago. It gives me considerable pleasure.
more than you
have harmed me,
What an extraordinary voice it seemed, vivid and risky and direct, touching
on recovery and ageing in the simplest words, 'I can finally say / long
ago.' I was taken with
that sentence especially. Then of course I read the book, and the blurb,
comments on the book. It's been well and widely reviewed already. In The
New York Times,
Nicholas Christopher wrote 'Averno may be her masterpiece.' Charles Simic in The New York
Review of Books: '
What impresses me about her work is the moral passion, her stubborn
conviction that poetry can lead to truth... As for her poetry, it continues to
surprise and be beautiful'.
None of which I realise now increased the pleasure I took in the text. Read
the book first, I'd say.
Lake Averno was the Romans' entrance to the underworld. The book Averno addresses the myth of Persephone - a
few poems directly, most tangentially. (For a straight re-telling, there's
Ted Hughes's 'The Rape of Proserpina' in Tales from Ovid.) All but a couple are first person
poems - so who is it who speaks that half page I was drawn to, 'standing in
my wool coat at a kind of bright portal'? Page 9 is rather less startling if
you read it as one of Persephone's winters that's over, as I did on second
reading. But we needn't be so simplistic with this book as to ask exactly who
speaks at what point.
The myth is examined,
rather than re-told. Explicitly examined in the two poems titled 'Persephone
the Wanderer' - one in each of the book's sections. The earlier one opens:
In the first
is taken from
goddess of the earth
with what we know of human behaviour,
beings take profound satisfaction
The poem acknowledges 'scholars who dispute / the sensations of the virgin'.
(Ted Hughes has her ravished, with Arethusa testifying 'She was not happy'.)
But how's this for a great line by way of contrast from Louise Gluck:
'Persephone is having sex in hell'. What this Persephone is aware of is the power of
her mother: 'the earth / is run by mothers, this much is certain.' Her life
will be one of 'terrible reunions' in the 'argument between the mother and
the lover', an argument in which she is 'just meat'.
The second wanderer poem treats Persephone's life in the underworld as death,
so that 'problems of sexuality need not / trouble us here'.
as a branch
of the mother's body
that needs to
at any cost
This is a mother who 'hauls' her daughter back to the earth for her own ends.
If the two 'Persephone the Wanderer' poems define the nature of human
relationships which are enshrined in the myth - notice how the language has
generalised from Ceres to 'the mother' and from Hades to 'the lover' - then
many of the other poems offer particularities of relationship which may be
perceived differently in the light of reading the myth this way. Or which
themselves illuminate the myth in turn.
Take the poem 'Prism'. Its 20 short sections split a life (presented as if
the poet's own) into separately coloured moments through which to view the
myth - or the mother-daughter and mother-lover relations Gluck has drawn
attention to in the myth. This is section 6, entire:
my mother said, "should marry
That was one
remark. Another was
"There is no
one like your father."
The 22-part 'Fugue' works, I think, in a similar way, referring to a
childhood that is as 'closed' and unreachable as Persephone's original
innocence became. Both the musical and the psychiatric senses of 'fugue' are invoked: the
poem takes up its themes in voices of dreamwork and analysis, 'lying on the
Fugue, in its musical
sense of a developed theme, revisits for instance the mother: 'I had a dream.
My mother fell out of a tree/.../ My mother was unharmed.' The dream's unharmed
mother has all the strength and capabilities Louise Gluck has elsewhere
described in her own mother.
Fugue in its psychiatric
sense of loss of identity, often with a wandering away from home, can be read
as referring to Persephone's involuntary 'wandering' between earth and the
underworld, as well as to the speaker's own life, and personal loss of
identity. There's the briefest of unobtrusive indications of analysis in
section 8 (entire):
are here to do something about that.
(In a German
References to the myth, and references to the speaker's life are laid
alongside each other. And left to rest. I think the reader is assigned the
work of interweaving - there's no sentence which actually likens the
speaker's own mother to Ceres, although even in the few quotations above you
can sense such a drift across the poems.
It is interesting how she is managing myth here - given that she has written
elsewhere that the 'most depressing of strategies [is] the obligatory
elevation of the quotidian via mythic analogy' What I think is happening
in this book is that the quotidian is being used to humanise the myth. So while
there is some degree of 'elevation of the
quotidian' taking place through laying out a life and a myth alongside each
other, it's not a simple exchange. Moments from the speaker's life illumine
the myth; the myth comes to life with a generalisation about the human
condition, of which the life partakes.
Hades has one of the few poems not in the first person. I rather take to him;
Louise Gluck gives him a better press than does Ted Hughes, to whom he was a
sudden ravisher. The Hades of 'A Myth of Devotion' is thoughtful (up to a
point), building a duplicate world for Persephone, the same meadow, 'but with
a bed added'.
the same, including sunlight,
would be hard on young girl
to go so
quickly from bright light to utter darkness.
He's straight. He loves her, wants to tell her that nothing can hurt her
but he thinks
this is a
lie, so he says in the end
dead, nothing can hurt you
which seems to him
a more promising
beginning, more true.
I said he was thoughtful 'up to a point'. Look at this stanza from the middle
of the poem which names that point, as well as showing Louise Gluck's ability
to reach outward from the myth to a generalisation
Terror? The fear of love?
he couldn't imagine;
no lover ever
Death - and it's side kick of ageing - holds one end of the rope in this
mythic tug of war. So it's one of the book's preoccupations too. The title
poem proposes 'you have to prepare'. Such awareness makes for a particular loneliness in
You die when
your spirit dies.
You may not
do a good job of it, but you go on-
have no choice about.
When I tell
this to my children
they pay no
people, they think--
this is what
they always do:
things no one can see
to cover up
all the brain cells they're losing.
They wink at
In this as in several poems, Louise Gluck writes of the death of spirit; I'm
not sure how she distinguishes the terms when, in 'Echoes', she writes of the
death of the soul. However, in the elegant and lovely poem 'The Night
Migrations' which stands at the beginning of the book, the soul continues after
death as the speaker asks, 'What will the soul do for solace then?' I don't
understand what she is doing with these ideas, though since Persephone
continues an existence within death, continuation of the soul is implied in
parallel. The speaker's meditations on death may be beautiful, but they don't
have the force or the seeming-veracity of those on (say) the mother which are
informed by experience. The meditations on death convince me far less,
informed as they are by the voice of a persona, of supposition. But then how
could they be otherwise? 'Death', I read the first time I opened the book
more than you
have harmed me,
© Jane Routh 2006
For a copy of this, as well as Louise Gluck's book of essays, my thanks to
2. 'Education of the Poet' in Proofs and Theories (Carcanet
3. 'The Forbidden', ibid