Oh, to live in the mind of Louise Glück. It’s a mind that is brisk and precise, spare and icy. Mine, by contrast, runs hot. It’s bursting with grocery lists and unanswered email and worries about the news and regrets over how I raised my children and grievances about my co-workers and celebrity gossip and concerning aches and pains. Mine is a middle-class mind, a middle-aged mind, slogging about in the middle of our hemispheric winter, sure, but also in the middle of an epidemic winter, a planetary winter, a psychological winter, a spiritual winter.
Even in the midst of all that clutter and the teeter of despair, something happened when I first read Winter Recipes from the Collective. Though I only turned seriously to the book in that week out of time between Christmas and New Year’s, it first arrived in the mail late last summer as a flimsy, uncorrected proof, and I trotted it right out to the back garden, where the tomatoes were hitting their peak, but everything else was tinged in yellow after a series of heatwaves that had baked the Pacific Northwest. From the very first poem, the book hit me high in the chest. And despite the relentlessness of the late afternoon, it swept out a cold, light space. It revealed a world at the far end of a tunnel, a world that is the color of unglazed porcelain.
First, the facts: Winter Recipes is forty-five pages long and is made up of fifteen poems. Even in such a short book, there are fields of white space and not an ounce of fat on it. Two long poems—“The Denial of Death” and “Winter Recipes from the Collective’’—anchor the book both narratively and metaphorically. They are like twin parables told and retold and finally adapted into a black-and-white Wes Anderson film, replete with unnamed strangers walking in and out of the frame. The title poem is full of moss and mustard green sandwiches and mysterious bonsai farmers. And these lines that are enough to last a lifetime: “the book contains / only recipes for winter, when life is hard. In spring, / anyone can make a fine meal.”
But in the end, it is “The Denial of Death” that really does the work of holding down the collection. It tells the story of a traveler who loses her (yes, presumably, her) passport and is left behind by her traveling companion at some unknown inn in some unknown country. The speaker-storyteller sets up camp outside the inn with a single borrowed blanket, sleeping in an orange grove and befriending a series of busboys and a concierge who seems to be part guardian angel, part Charon. Eventually, even once the passport is returned, the speaker-storyteller throws it into the lake and—by default almost—decides to stay on. The concierge responds:
I see, he said, that you no longer
wish to resume your former life,
to move, that is, in a straight line as time
suggests we do, but rather (here he gestured toward the lake)
in a circle which aspires to
that stillness at the heart of things
That is the crux of the book, really: moving toward stillness. This book spirals both toward and around that stillness, questioning the utility of language and poems and songs and all the other sounds to which Glück has devoted her life. The poem—and by extension the book—has the contours of a precisely made metaphor, but it smudges a bit in the mind of the reader because it is untethered from the outside world and even from metaphor itself. The first poem, called simply “Poem,” declares:
Downward and downward and downward and downward
is where the wind is taking us;
I try to comfort you
But words are not the answer.
Winter Recipes is a book for a reader of a certain age, and as I can just see the outer horizon of middle age, these are poems that I want to read or perhaps need to read. They feel like a clock losing time, moving slowly and more slowly, until finally it stops. It’s not that nothing happens in the book, exactly; it’s more that the book hovers on the precipice of that stoppage.
During that week at the end of the year, I read the book three times in a row, cover-to-cover, and I swear my heartbeat must have slowed by half. But then I got up and rifled through our bookshelves until I found Glück’s 1992 book, The Wild Iris, for which she won a Pulitzer Prize. Often, when I have the impulse to return to a book, that desire is thwarted by a lengthy and unsuccessful search of every bookshelf in the house. This one, however, was relatively quickly rewarded—a half-dozen of Glück’s books right where they should be in our garage-turned-library, between Jack Gilbert and Jorie Graham.
Feeling victorious, I pulled all of Glück’s books off the shelf, but it was The Wild Iris I was really looking for. At one time, I knew the poems of that book inside and out, and they were about the sparest poems I could imagine as a young and distinctly baroque poet. They seem so preoccupied with death, I remember thinking when I first read them. But now I read them differently. Now, the poems of The Wild Iris seem brimming with an erotic promise that I did not fully recognize as a much younger reader.
The first poem in The Wild Iris, “The Doorway,” opens with a Glückian longing for stillness: “I wanted to stay as I was / still as the world is never still, / not in midsummer but the moment before.” As she predicts, the stillness does not last, and over and over in The Wild Iris, life bursts forth. Here, in “Snowdrops”:
I did not expect to survive,[. . . ]
earth suppressing me. I didn’t expect
to waken again, to feel
in damp earth my body
able to respond again . . .
afraid, yes, but among you again
crying yes risk joy
The title poem makes a similar, resurrectory move:
You who do not remember
passage from the other world
I tell you I could speak again: whatever
returns from oblivion returns
to find a voice:
from the center of my life came
a great fountain, deep blue
shadows on azure seawater.
And the final poem, “White Lily,” begins “as a man and woman make / a garden between them / like a bed of stars.” While the poem frets that all could be lost, it ends here:
Hush, beloved. It doesn’t matter to me
how many summers I live to return:
this one summer we have entered eternity.
I felt your two hands
bury me to release its splendor.
That is the gulf between Winter Recipes and The Wild Iris: Winter Recipes does not have that desperate thrust of life in it. It is not edging toward a release of splendor. The poems in Winter Recipes desire nothing except to shed desire, to strip down to some crystalline still point. The poems don’t hold even a final flicker of eroticism, and they abandon the safety valve that desire provides. They don’t long for seasonal resurrection or down-to-the-wire salvation or even the sputtering consolation of sex. Nothing buds; nothing pulses. Rather, the poems—even the lines—turn inward and then further inward.
Again, in “The Denial of Death,” the traveler and the concierge discuss how the traveler has changed. “But you have stopped making things,” the concierge laments to the traveler. Then he goes on to say:
. . . Remember when you kept what you called
your travel journal? You used to read it to me,
I remember it was filled with stories of every kind,
mostly love stories and stories about loss, punctuated
with fantastic details such as wouldn’t occur to most of us,
and yet hearing them I had a sense I as listening
to my own experience but more beautifully related
than I could have ever done. . .
Glück says a similar thing in a different way in the final poem, “Song,” in which she writes about Leo Cruz, who “makes the most beautiful white bowls.” She studies with Leo, she learns “the names of the desert grasses,” and when the storyteller and Leo make plans “to walk the trails together,”
When, I ask him,
when? Never again:
that is what we do not say.
He is teaching me
to live in imagination
Living in the imagination is one thing, but “you have stopped making things” is the rebuke that rattles around my bones, that makes me shield my eyes from the future.
Glück was born the day before my mother—April 22, 1943—in the middle of World War II. At this stage in my life, almost-seventy-nine years old does not feel very old, though it does seem old enough, and it seems a fair ways from the forty-nine-year-old who wrote The Wild Iris. As I look up at the jumble of coffee cups and newspapers and cookbooks and unopened mail on my sunny kitchen table, my eyes land on both collections, and I realize I am still reaching for The Wild Iris, though perhaps just barely. I think about death every single day and almost fetishize the idea of silence and stillness, but life still stirs when sunlight spreads across the cold winter ground. I yearn for the quickening of another spring, for one more poem, one more painting, one more apple cake, one more great fountain, deep blue. I am not ready to chuck my passport into the lake. I am not ready to stop making things.
I know that longing won’t last forever. The passage ahead will be that newly empty and well-swept place in my chest. I feel as if Louise Glück, in Winter Recipes from the Collective, opened the door and gave me a glimpse into the great “what’s next,” and as the speaker-storyteller says in “The Denial of Death”:
something had been spoken
and though I would have preferred to have spoken it myself
I was glad at least to have heard it.