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Averno by Louise Gluck (Penguin Modern Classics)

Averno by Louise Gluck (Penguin Modern Classics)

This is in the end is genuinely a persuasive book, though it also struck me as avowing quite a feminist outlook. This may in part be due to the Persephone/Hades myth, that lingers as part of the poem’s inspiration, though hardly overwhelmingly so. In the tradition of say, Emily Dickinson originally, and moving through to the likes of Adrienne Rich, Denise Levertov or Barbara Guest, and it may be the latter whom I can think of as a kind of stylistic parallel. Gluck is relatively restrained, terse, not using too many words for what might require less; a very moderated tone rather than a loud one, often finessed.

The book consists of longer and shorter poems, the former generally subdivided into sections. There is quite a strong earth or ecology theme, and Gluck moves with changes to the weather or the environment.

I was struck early on by this piece of phrasing from the poem ‘October’;-

            ‘It is true there is not enough beauty in the world.

            It is also true that I am not competent to restore it.

            Neither is there candor, and here I may be of some use.’ (p13)

This is highly evocative, distinctive and original, reaching insights of bracing perception. The first line is a true but regrettable reflection on our present state of affairs. Beautiful world where are you recently said Sally Rooney. There are localised moments we can wonder at, evidence of intelligent design and aesthetic patterning, but few would be greatly optimistic about the current state of play, dealing with environmental degradation and pollution. Gluck knows very well that she herself can’t fix this; it is likely to take a long term coordinated effort. But she does suggest that she might be given to candor, of which she also feels there is not enough; call it openness, perhaps, or honesty or opening up about difficult topics truthfully.

Again another insightful passage occurs a little later,-

            ‘Who can say what the world is? The world

            is in flux, therefore

            unreadable, the winds shifting,

            the great plates invisibly shifting and changing –‘ (‘Prism’ I, p20)

Among other things we are finding Gluck attending to the state of the earth, rather than, say, male perspectives, and I’d say this kind of marks out the prerogative of the book as a whole; there is little in the way of critique of male prerogatives. This short passage, opening the poem ‘Prism’ is quite fascinating because it takes in both the shorter term and the long term views. The ‘great plates’ are noted, very slow organic and geological change. Meanwhile the world is perceived to be in flux, with those shifting winds. One might note also the lack of formalist design here, lines of quite unequal length not rhymed, but then it is highly readable. 

In part II we encounter a passage that further marks out Gluck’s view, from the poem ‘The Evening Star’,-

                                                ‘There were

            no other stars. Only the one

            whose name I knew

            as in my other life I did her

            injury: Venus, 

            star of the early evening,

            to you I dedicate

            my vision’ (p39)

This time working with a shorter line, again no rhyme, but there is certainly an intentness of focus. Gluck doesn’t quite dwell on this. There is no overriding mythos here, though she may be a watcher of the stars and the night sky. The flow of words is finely punctuated. 

Recounting a tale of a field burning, evidently by arson, Gluck ventures of the farmer,-

            ‘He remembers the day the field burned…

            Something deep within him said: I can live with this,

            I can fight it after awhile.’ (p68)

And some of this sense permeates the book. If there is not enough beauty or soundness in the world, one can strive to make things better. Struggle is an endemic, given part of the picture.

In terms of the book’s larger frame, the opening poem, ‘The Night Migrations’, does in so many ways set out the tone. An extraordinarily yet so subtly perceptive piece we are given to, that upon the soul’s reside in death, ‘maybe just not being is simply enough,/ hard as that is to imagine.’ (p1) This has fine insight, subtlety, and lack of pretence, and is philosophically quite searching. What we know of the place of the soul is that it will ‘just not be’, ‘hard to imagine’. The almost colloquial note of that last line takes off a lot of its weight, and yet it might feel a little strange encountering this at the very outset of the book. Gluck deals, indeed, with weighty subjects, but not in an anxious, deep or worried condition; whatever all this is one feels she has found a way to live with it and be finely expressive about it. It is also worth checking out her Collected Poems, recently published. 

Clark Allison 1st December 2021

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