First impressions



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:

     Winter was over. In the thawed dirt,
     bits of green were showing.

     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. Beauty

     the healer, the teacher--

     death cannot harm me
     more than you have harmed me,
     my beloved life.

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'.[1] 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 version, Persephone
     is taken from her mother
     and the goddess of the earth
     punishes the earththis is
     consistent with what we know of human behaviour,

     that human beings take profound satisfaction
     in doing harm, particularly
     unconscious harm.

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'.

     the daughter's body
     doesn't exist, except
     as a branch of the mother's body
     that needs to be reattached
     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:

     "You girls", my mother said, "should marry
     someone like your father."

     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 couch'.

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.[2] 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):

     Well, we are here to do something about that.

     (In a German accent.)

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'[3] 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'. 

     Everything the same, including sunlight,
     because it 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
     you're 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

     Guilt? Terror? The fear of love?
     These things he couldn't imagine;
     no lover ever imagines them.

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 ageing:

     You die when your spirit dies.
     Otherwise you live.
     You may not do a good job of it, but you go on-
     something you have no choice about.

     When I tell this to my children
     they pay no attention.
     The old people, they think--
     this is what they always do:
     talk about things no one can see
     to cover up all the brain cells they're losing.
     They wink at each other
     ...

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

     death cannot harm me
     more than you have harmed me,
     my beloved life.

            Jane Routh 2006


1. For a copy of this, as well as Louise Gluck's book of essays, my thanks to Bill Gilson.
2. 'Education of the Poet' in Proofs and Theories (Carcanet 1999)
3. 'The Forbidden', ibid