April 2, 2021
Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.
As a reader, and a human, I am always drawn towards love’s many dimensions. Unlike Janus who faces in two directions only (forward and backward), love is indescribably complex. For that reason, it absolutely fascinates me. Although Louise Glück’s book Ararat from 1990 includes many moments of pain and loss, it also offers an amazing lament for the idea of love. The book describes a journey of burials. The narrator’s mother buries a daughter, a husband, a niece and more. She even buries pieces of herself in the process. Somehow, through some kind of transformation, these kinds of loss are also to be called growth. This melancholic view of family makes me wonder how (or if) Glück’s book depicts love? In fact, I think it depicts a kind of love that is perhaps only accessible through metaphor.
I believe that there are different kinds of love, but English restricts me to a single word. So, I can add adjectives, decorate the noun with motherly or sisterly or intimate. I can use the word affection, but that is not what Glück’s book describes. These poems are very far from embrace and touch. To me, the love presented by Ararat is a kind of knowing. In “Birthday,” for example, the narrator shares the fact that an “old admirer” sends flowers to her mother, even after the admirer’s death, something the father never did. And yet, the mother sits beside the father’s grave, despite his silence (or maybe even because of his silence). She sits beside his grave despite the fact that the narrator never noticed outward signs of love and affection. Either shared experience or unspoken commitments or something invisible and elusive kept the mother and father together, so much so that she now sits beside his grave in quiet communion. The narrator is troubled by her mother’s acquiescence. She writes, “After ten years, the roses stopped./ But all that time I thought/ the dead could minister to the living;/ I didn’t realize/ this was the anomaly; that for the most part/ the dead were like my father,” which seems a very damning statement to make about one’s own father, and about the dead.
Part of Glück’s brilliance is the way that she takes something revered and seemingly positive and subverts it, adds opacity, makes us question the goodness of a potential good. In “Cottonmouth Country” from Firstborn (published in 1968), she writes, “Birth, not death, is the hard loss.” She makes one wonder: what is birth? It is a coming to be, an awakening, and the in-between process can be brutally painful. This is a consistent refrain throughout her early works.
Ararat questions the idea of Ararat itself. Ararat is often referred to as the place where Noah’s boat finally rested after the long, hard years during the flood. It typically represents hope and joy, freedom, and life. It is the place of Noah’s altar and vineyard. Yet, Glück treats Ararat as both myth, worthy of investigation but also dubious of its origins and validity; and history, as in the shared history of a family and a people. The poem “Mount Ararat” begins, however, with the lines: “Nothing’s sadder than my sister’s grave/ unless it’s the grave of my cousin, next to her.” She takes a holy place, and adds dimension in reference to the dead. This book longs for joy, but must deal with life’s ever-present harshness and duality – its duende.
In the poem “A Novel,” she says that the hero of the story, a male, is dead and there is nothing left to write about if the hero of the story is dead. Yet women fill the pages of Ararat. She writes about daughters, sisters, mothers, aunts, and grandmothers. In other words, in focusing on women, she once again subverts the notion that women cannot be heroes. Furthermore, she continues to discuss her father (the potential hero alluded to in “A Novel”), which indicates that a subject still lives in some form other than a mere physical presence. In fact, his presence can be felt throughout these pages, most significantly near the book’s end with the poems “Snow” and “Terminal Resemblance.” Moreover, his presence only increases as the book journeys towards this end. And finally, the pain and frustration present in all of these poems questions minimalistic notions of heroes. Yes, women can be heroes. Yes, troubled souls can be heroes. Yes, the flawed are noteworthy.
Ararat is a book that questions form as much as anything else. The poem “Celestial Music” ends with the line: “The love of form is a love of endings,” this being the second to last poem of the book. It is important to note the repetition of the word love in this single line. Does love have form and shape? If so, how does one know it? Glück’s powerful poetic investigation of an imperfect family demonstrates the form of love. Furthermore, it leads the narrator to a sort of resolution, an ending. The final poem of the book, “First Memory,” is ironically, the memory she has chosen to share last. Throughout Ararat, the reader questions what love is, how it is displayed, and who shows love. In this final poem, the reader realizes, the narrator has not been writing about others. Rather, throughout the book, the narrator has been investigating herself. Not until this final poem does the narrator allow herself to express any love of self. This poem contains a generosity of spirit, a forgiveness of self that gives the best possible indication of what love is.
“First Memory” is a short poem, only nine lines long. Yet it completes the book in an astounding, surprising way. Ararat is full of pain and longing, anger and frustration, coldness and stillness. The narrator says, “I thought/ that pain meant/ I was not loved.” But the narrator turns this idea on its head, and after many years, many questions, and all of these collected experiences, she comes to realize that pain is not about the other. Rather, the poem concludes, “It [pain] meant I loved.” In other words, love can be displayed in any number of ways, which include pain and anguish, longing and fear, and she finds that these emotions prove her own ability to love.
This explains how, in “Lost Love,” upon burying a baby, the mother’s heart is drawn “into the earth,/ so it would grow.” The image of burying a child haunts us, but the poet turns this death into a nutrient, a food source upon which love does grow. This awful experience inhabits the narrator and her family. They know love because they have experienced such loss. This is not to say that love is only demonstrated in this way, but throughout Ararat, the narrator comes to terms with the type of love evidenced by loss. Death often catches us off-guard, unprepared for the emotional swirl that surrounds the unexpected. In “A Precedent” the narrator states, “Because death hadn’t touched my mother’s life,/ she was thinking of something else,/ dreaming, the way you do when a child’s coming.” It is this astounding juxtaposition that makes Glück’s poetry so powerful. Through darkness, there is light, and through experience, we find deeper emotional meanings.
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