Louise Glück “Faithful and Virtuous Night”- book review

I don’t often read poetry – but I was really curious about this volume as I really liked the title. I kept thinking it was a quote from somewhere, but I could not quite place it. It was only later that I found the hidden pun.

It’s a very small collection of Glück’s relatively recent poems (2014). My favourite is probably the first poem of the collection ,“Parable”. 

But I also really enjoyed certain turns of phrase – little couplings that stay with one – especially from the titular poem, “Faithful and virtuous Night” which tells the story of a child and its sibling who are suddenly orphaned, who remains the narrator through the rest of the anthology.  It’s a melancholy collection: full of reminiscences and nostalgic reflection. There is a lot of self-reflection about the writing process – the narrator is a painter, but one cannot help but think that Glück uses him to talk about the craft of writing too.

“My story begins very simply: I could speak and I was happy.
Or: I could speak, thus I was happy.
Or: I was happy I was speaking
I was like a bright light passing through a dark room.”

Glücks poetry is full of rephrasings and puns – the virtuous night of the title comes into being because the narrator misunderstands the title of the book his brother was reading (“the faithful and virtuous knight”). There is also an allusion here to the Anglo-Saxon image of the bird passing through a well-lit hall.

“The present life of man upon earth, O King, seems to me in comparison with that time which is unknown to us like the swift flight of a sparrow through the mead-hall where you sit at supper in winter, with your Ealdormen and thanes, while the fire blazes in the midst and the hall is warmed, but the wintry storms of rain or snow are raging abroad. The sparrow, flying in at one door and immediately out at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry tempest, but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, passing from winter to winter again. So this life of man appears for a little while, but of what is to follow or what went before we know nothing at all.”

Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People

 Rather than the bird encountering a sudden burst of light and sound, which rapidly passes away, it is the speaker/ child who embodies the light and is isolated in the surrounding darkness. 

Glück’s poetry is close to spoken language: 

“You have no idea how shocking it is
To a small child when
Something continuous stops.”

Note that despite the apparent prose of the fragment, once can spot the very telling enjambment in the second line, mimicking the “stop” and the emotional shock encountered by the child. Glück’s poetry does not shy away from generalisations about the human condition. 

In many ways, the most similar poet I can think of is another Nobel prize winner, Wisława Szymborska. 

However,  Glück’s  use of a persona when writing her poetry is radically different from uninhibited Szymborska’s first person narration. 

“It has occurred to me that all human beings are divided
Into those who wish to move forward
And those who wish to go back.
Or you could say, those who wish to keep moving
And those who want to be stopped in their tracks
As by the blazing sword”. 

The blazing sword echoes the “knight/night” of the poem’s title. We are not sure if the reflection about the division of humankind. Does it belong only to the speaker of the poem? Or is it a reflection shared by Glück herself? Her poems are a blend of personal and impersonal, avoiding lyrical confessions in favour of a game of cat and mouse between the reader trying to grasp “what the author means to say” and the speaker of her poems. 

I enjoyed reading this volume, and would quite like to read more of Glück’s poetry. 

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