A Squared-Off Landscape Representing the World

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A Village Life is the work of a mature poet looking out at the world from a window, but now concerned with the larger cycles in which she participates, instead of the singular life in a petri dish.

“It is not sad not to be human,” Louise Glück reminds us. As she did so strikingly in The Wild Iris, Glück presents the voices of other creatures to balance the human speakers in her new book of poems, A Village Life. If we are condemned to our limited human perspective, if we must see everything in nature as specifically relating to us, she is determined to present her poems from multiple physical stances, by which we might better understand our position. The speaker of the poem above is an earthworm, a meditative fellow offering a gentle reminder and sly comic jab at our self-centered species. This earth-dweller rebuts our sense of superiority and luck in our position on top of the ground. “Once you enter the earth, you will not fear the earth;/ . . . /death will come to seem a web of channels or tunnels like/ a sponge’s or honeycomb’s,” it points out (“Earthworm”).

And while this book clearly draws upon Glück’s earlier work in terms of voice and perspective shifts, it also marks a departure. Don’t expect a book about coping with a death or divorce, or making it through another long northern winter. Glück is far less concerned with the personal interior life here, except as it stands as a symbol for universal feeling and the cyclical nature of time. She is not concerned with humans, but with humanity, set in its larger context.

The parable for humanity—for the life cycle—is the village. And as such, the village of this book is unspecified: a mediterranean landscape of indeterminate time and location. There are lemon and acacia trees blooming, employees working on farms and in factories, adolescents pairing off on summer evenings. There are meadows and a river, and a central mountain to which most everyone focuses their gaze and yearnings. Glück mentions one street name in Italian, then counters it with some very American-sounding descriptions of parents teaching their children about sex (one mother, uncomfortably talking about the term “pleasure,” gives her daughter a book called Ideal Marriage). The village is familiar in the way that fables are familiar, yet too modern to fit our myths, and too untouched by media and technology to mirror our contemporary lives. In this way it remains apart, mythic, while also feeling oddly intimate.

But what is striking about this landscape is not so much its indeterminacy, but that it is so fully peopled. One thinks of Glück as a poet of the singular—in past books her focus has been on the individual voice, and individual’s sense of being. Her voices have always been detached, threatened by family, lovers, and the larger, teeming world, preferring to be left alone to their private pain and reflection. In A Village Life, she hasn’t changed her central philosophy: her characters are still isolated in their own skins, and feel both trapped and safe in the solitude of that prison—and yet, there are so many of them. Glück writes about, and in the voices of, men, women, and children (not to mention earthworms and bats). She gives all inhabitants of the village the wisdom of their own experiences and allows each its time to speak. This is a book which, while still devoted to the epiphanies of solitude, welcomes in the bustle of the larger place.

One always has the sense, in reading Glück, that each word is heavy with meaning: there is a deep iceberg under the visible tip. Yet her long lines in A Village Life strive to lighten each word, to unburden them of some of their weight. In this collection, speakers may meditate more expansively on their conditions, even the mundane. In “A Slip of Paper,” for example, after a visit to the doctor, a man considers:

No one taught me how to care for my body.
You grow up watched by your mother or grandmother.
Once you’re free of them, your wife takes over, but she’s nervous,
she doesn’t go too far. So this body I have,
that the doctor blames me for—it’s always been supervised by women,
and let me tell you, they left a lot out.

Her use of the second person point of view here and in other poems allows her speakers to contextualize their situations as universal. These speakers, unlike Glück’s usual personae, expect to be understood. They can be empathized with because, in many ways, they are—and this is not a slight—simply tropes.

Glück’s poems have a theatrical quality imparted by the spare, verb-driven sentences and weight of what is said. (“A Slip of Paper” ends with the superlative statement “It’s a night like any summer night; the dark never comes.”) In earlier books, the theater was mostly played out on a small stage, where the dramas were about the self and the interpersonal (or impossibility of such). The mind, from the safety of its private room, meditated on divorce, the bleakness of winter, a bird making a paltry nest in the yard.

The boldness of A Village Life, in contrast, is its willingness to look beyond the self into the town. There are many selves offering their private dramas for our view, but none holds the reader’s attention longer than the single poem in which he or she speaks: in the end, all individual striving is small in the face of nature. And yet, Glück would not have it be dismissed. The human perspective is the one we are given and the one by which we are limited, and so Glück, with an attentiveness indicating respect, enumerates its range of experience within the manageable stage set of the village.

A farm worker burns leaves in a field by himself. A woman, old enough not to be pursued by men, walks the streets at night. A girl looks at her body under covers, vowing to protect it from age and fat. Every person is a symbol of a person; one of each of these types lives in every town. And feelings, thereby, are also universal, as essential and physical as the changing colors of the leaves, their eventual fall, and the coming snow.

The book makes several passes through the seasons, making the poems eventually feel like a collection of allegories. A Village Life is the work of a mature poet looking out at the world from a window, but now concerned with the larger cycles in which she participates, instead of the singular life in a petri dish. Glück acknowledges she is looking at “not the world but a squared-off landscape/ representing the world” (“Twilight”). The bats and earthworms, blind, living above and below human habitations, argue, for their part, that they don’t miss sight, don’t reject what they cannot control. As the counterpoints to the community’s striving, they remind us of Glück’s own position—that, in the end, every one of us is still alone.

But, in being alone, we share a common purpose, and this should be of comfort. A human speaker in the poem “Solitude,” near the end of the collection, laments the dark rainy day: he cannot see the mountain in the distance, and fears “the earth has vanished.” He concludes,

Now we return to what we were,
animals living in darkness
without language or vision—

Nothing proves I’m alive.
There is only the rain, the rain is endless.

And the voice of the earthworm, which doesn’t need sight to understand its purpose on earth, counters:

It is not painful to return
without language or vision: if, like the Buddhists,
one declines to leave
inventories of the self, one emerges in a space
the mind cannot conceive, being wholly physical, not
metaphoric. What is your word? Infinity, meaning
that which cannot be measured.

Rachel Richardson's poems have appeared in the New England Review, Southern Review, Ninth Letter, Memorious, Shenandoah, and elsewhere. A recent Stegner Fellow, she has led poetry workshops in prisons, elementary schools, and universities, and currently teaches at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. More from this author →