The American poet Louise Glück (born 1943) doesn’t waste words, but neither does she economise to the extent that we suspect that words might be missing. As a poet she passes on the all-to-common option of ‘adjectival pebble-dashing’ and instead cuts to the chase with precision-tooled imagery that draws you in. Straight from the off, in ‘Parable’, she’s inviting us to divest ourselves of worldly goods ‘in order that our souls not be distracted’ and there’s the shock tactic in the cover poem where the drilling of her aunt’s sowing machine ‘vanished’ –
You have no idea how shocking it is
to a small child when
something continuous stops
In ‘Utopia’ a child needs to board a train. But is it the right train? Yes, ‘because it is the right time,’ is the answer. The time comes to disembark, and the strange sound of a foreign language prevails, ‘something more like a moan or a cry’.
But most affecting of all, another poem that seems to allude to Glück’s Jewish roots (and the baggage that any Jew in his/her mid-seventies will carry) is ‘A Foreshortened Journey,’ where, at a train station, a little girl spots, on the staircase, what she assumes is a dead man. Her grandmother is reassuring. ‘We must let him sleep,’ she says, ‘we must walk quietly by.’ We’re told that he’s at that stage in life where although deciding to stop makes him an obstacle to others, he – and we – must not give up hope. The child wonders whether they will see him when they return. Then she kneels by his side and says the Jewish prayer for the dead. She will not be there to sing it at the right time, to soothe him in his terrors, but – and in this is the really heart-breaking gist of the poem –
When you hear this again, she said, perhaps the words will be less intimidat-
ing, if you remember how you first heard them, in the voice of a little girl
Of course my paraphrase does little justice to the complete poem, a mini-masterpiece and extremely moving. As is the entire book.
Faithful and Virtuous Night (2014), 71 pp
Carcanet ISBN 978 1 84777 479 8 £9.95