A Village Life
Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 72 pp., $23
When I tell you that Louise Gluck's "A Village Life" is a book of poems set in a quietly dying agricultural community, probably in Italy, probably some time between the 1950s and today, and that its plots -- for it works very much like a collection of linked short stories -- revolve around sexual awakening, farm work and old men gossiping in cafes, you will no doubt think: wistful, polite, conservative, the poetic equivalent of a landscape done in watercolor. But that would be dead wrong, as a poem titled "Pastoral" makes clear. Though it opens with an image, gentle enough, of the sun coming up over a mountain on a misty morning, "Pastoral" swiftly turns severe: "The sun burns its way through, / like the mind defeating stupidity." Then, as the meadow we expect from the title is revealed, the speaker of the poem declares, "No one really understands / the savagery of this place, / the way it kills people for no reason, / just to keep in practice."
Not many poets can be electrifying while keeping the stakes this hypothermically low. Gluck is a master, finely calibrating the shocks and their intervals. This collection, her 11th, is frightening the way a living statue would be frightening if it were to smile at you.
Gluck camouflages herself in language so plain it's almost banal; then she shows her teeth. In "Before the Storm," she writes of an escaped sheep, "and not just any sheep -- the ram, the whole future. / If we see him again, we'll see his bones." The village youth are leaving too. "Midsummer," a long-lined poem about teenagers night-swimming in a quarry -- "marble for graveyards, / for buildings that we never saw" -- explores the excruciating ambiguity of adolescence, the thrill of incipient maturity and the relief of being able to retreat to childhood. The poem's message, communicated in its final strophe, is that some things are inescapable:
And for those who understood such things, the stars were sending messages:
You will leave the village where you were born
and in another country you'll become very rich, very powerful,
but always you will mourn something you left behind, even though you
can't say what it was,
and eventually you will return to seek it.
Ordinariness is part of the risk of these poems; in them, Gluck hazards, and dodges, sentimentality. The near miss makes us shiver.
It is typical of Gluck -- whose exquisite 1992 book "The Wild Iris" was composed mostly of dramatic monologues delivered by the flowers and weeds in a Northeastern garden -- that she has created a coherent world here, with loosely connected characters operating in a discrete physical environment.
The primary mise-en-scene of "A Village Life" takes place around a fountain, described in the poem "Tributaries" as the orienting point where "[a]ll the roads in the village unite." The fountain is a potent symbol for creativity, renewal and even, as Gluck's choice of verb suggests, the center of the universe. It is a setting brimming with received meaning. Her deflating, laconic wit sets to work on this almost at once. "The fountain rises at the center of the plaza," she writes; "on sunny days, rainbows in the piss of the cherub."
The movement of the poem, centripetal at first, turns centrifugal. Closest to the water are couples, staring at their reflections; then mothers with young children. ("The children cry, they sometimes fight over toys. / But the water's there, to remind the mothers that they love these children; / that for them to drown would be terrible.") Beyond them, at metal tables, drinking cognac or coffee, smoking cigarettes, sit the old men. By the time "Tributaries" ends, the fountain has transformed from an image of life-sustaining power to one of denial. "The first leaves of autumn litter the fountain," Gluck observes. "The roads don't gather here anymore; / the fountain sends them away, back into the hills they came from."
It is time, I suppose, to talk about death. The energies of these poems are of dissipation and withdrawal. In Gluck's world, sleep is a rehearsal for death and the couplings of teenagers in the woods merely foreshadow the body's later, lonelier, nude encounter with the dirt. Shadows themselves become newly ominous. The speaker of the title poem brokenly invokes
The death and uncertainty that await me
as they await all men, the shadows evaluating me
because it can take time to destroy a human being,
the element of suspense
needs to be preserved --
Into this realm, Gluck introduces a persona as imperious as any of Milton's angels, an earthworm who addresses humanity (preposterously, deliberately) as "Mortal," while lecturing that "not all pity / descends from higher to lesser, some / arises out of the earth itself."
According to the earthworm, humans -- afraid of death, of entering the earth -- are "mutilated at the core, your mind / detached from your feelings," whereas "repression does not deceive / organisms like ourselves." Succumb, the worm says, and fear will subside. The menace is so quiet, so very matter-of-fact: "death will come to seem a web of channels or tunnels like / a sponge's or honeycomb's, which, as part of us, / you will be free to explore." As part of us: If this worm had teeth, they would be glinting.