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Faithful and Virtuous Night by Louise Glück
reviewed by Linda Rogers

Faithful and Virtuous Night
Louise Glück
Farrar, Straus and Giroux


Mi mi mi, and who doesn’t love the impossible tuning of sopranos with the cutting edge of X-acto knives, invented by the father of Louise Glück? This poet was born to edit and her prosody has been so clean, so memorable as to be the parable of Seven Sisters, schools that produced the uniquely American feminist mid-century poetry.

That genre, the cri de coeur of women trapped between the lines of American literature, has made its point and its point has been taken or discarded as men and women shuffle their roles in a sharply divided society.

Glück is a coloratura, her high notes clean and incisive, her classical references impeccable, but, when mi collapses into me, the vocal gymnastics can be less compelling and more wounding, the lines bloody with commas separating subordinate clauses that sometimes blame and complain, and who listens these days to poets wearing twin sets and pearls?

Confessional poetry, once avant-garde, provenance of the first cutter, the first head in the oven-er, is as risky as trapeze art, especially when the net has lost some of its bounce, namely a social ethic that favoured men like the poet whose name rhymed with fume, the only option left when words failed.

Now, like sea glass, the sharp-edged poetry of female privilege, i.e. educated women, eroded by changing mores, is taking a more philosophical configuration as the poetry of change moves to the streets, where rap and urban music nourish a different revolution against the realpolitik of male economic power.

Where does that leave Louise Glück, whose new persona is a fictitious I, the transformed eye of a small boy, orphaned as she has been and morphing to fit new realities?

Characters came and went, costumes were changed,
my brush hand moved from side to side
far from the canvas,
side to side, like a windshield wiper.

Glück has famously stated that the life of the mind begins and ends in childhood, in the constructs of children, who create and assimilate mythology in order to comprehend the universe. The rest is spiritual and intellectual inertia, as we are carried backward and forward by our ethical systems, or lack thereof.

“Look up,” her persona insists like the mythical Friendly Giant, past ceilings glass and otherwise because children must learn to navigate stars and familiarize themselves with essential song-lines. In the dark, we are all orphans, our spirit guides materializing in the upper air.

…I lay in the small room we shared
staring at the ceiling – never
my favourite part of the room. It reminded me
of what I couldn’t see, the sky obviously, but more painfully
my parents sitting on the white clouds in their white travel suits.

Fairy tale and legend begin in the life of stars, their trajectories determining the gestalt of our own flickering paths to extinction.

I was like a bright light passing through a dark room.

These poems bring to mind artist Pat Martin Bates whose light-boxes recreate star maps Glück also tracks in memorable lines that lift her best poetry from the banality of loss. Their grief and awe at the inevitability of the firmament lifts both artists out of their time, post-feminist, post-formalist, to the pantheon of greatness. That is the legacy she exacts in this book.

Poems celebrating the train that leads to the end of the world as she knows it transcend everything she has known to embrace the unknown. In them, she reprises the child who regards the phenomenal world with the detachment of stars, and in one faultless line, she rescues all lesser observations from the prison of self-absorption.

And that was the whole point, the beholding.

In changing her girl to boy narrator’s Knight to night, Glück gives proper acknowledgement to the little suns that configure heroism, muscular verbs freeing Excalibur from the rock of mortality.

How alone I am, but in music
my desolation is my rejoicing.

Music has no gender and no shelf life. Her jacket notes speak of mutable parts and that is her strength as the voice transforms as it moves like music through the various shapes of being.

This must explain the puzzling music coming from the trees.

What she reveals is music as its own explanation, the why and because, transparent archetypes that inform children in the time of real learning before they are broken, groomed to conform.

The poet asks what we have left when the world is too much with us, when time weighs us down with Ozymandian melancholy, and her inner child replies, it is the faithful and virtuous night.

Linda Rogers is an award-winning poet, novelist, teacher and journalist. She is completing the Victoria trilogy she began with The Empress Letters and the recently released second volume Tempo Rubato.

This review first appeared in Pacific Rim Review of Books #20