Killing Myself Laughing in the Elegiac Long Poem
by Cornelia Hoogland (originally published in ST@NZA 14.3)
Louise Glück was funny in Meadowlands, but she’s funnier still in her latest book of poetry, Faithful and Victorious Night. In a poem titled Approach of the Horizon, the male narrator (an elderly visual artist, a painter) is in bed with a sore arm. After sending the doctor away he hires a secretary, who sits on the edge of his bed, “with his head down, possibly to avoid being described (49).” Her smooth transition from the narrator’s interior musings to his imagined motives of the secretary are a simple expansion of the narrator’s POV, but following his self-referential list of concerns, the expansion is surprising and fresh as a window thrown open; it made me laugh aloud. “A sense / of gaiety in the air, as though birds were singing. / Through the open window come gusts of sweet scented air. (49)” Glück’s easy movement among conversations, contingencies and continuities, and her controlling sensibility––an overarching and shaping aesthetic––make her poetic forms apprehensible to readers and invites them to witness her vast and compelling imagination. While her literary moves aren’t always funny, they are often surprising and delightful, sometimes outrageous.
The reader encountered the image of an averted head earlier when, from the POV of the painter as an orphaned child, Glück wrote “my brother on his side of the bed, / …his bright head bent over his hands, his face obscured––(9).” Underlying this book is the theme of the loss of parents. “Are you waiting for day to end…For night to return, faithful, virtuous, / repairing, briefly, the schism between / you and your parents? (10)” The schism is not just the break in the parent/child continuity, but also another favourite theme of Glück’s, namely, the writer-child disappointing the mother, as seen through her (male) narrator in Visitors from Abroad, (22, 23) discussed below, and near the end of the book when the narrator discovers a photograph of his overbearing mother “sitting in the sun, her face flushed as with achievement or triumph (64).”
Recurring images and the back and forth, or undulation of a mind-at-work, are some of the characteristics of the long poem. In a previous discussion of the long poem (Malahat Review), I said that the isomorphism between the mind and the long poem allows for a faithful rendering of the way a mind works (described in terms such as revisiting, association, revision and erasure). In this short essay, I explore a few ways these processes are similar to grieving, and furthermore, and look at the ways humour and its rhythms can shape embodied thought informed by grief. I’m looking mainly at Louise Glück’s theme of loss and grief in Faithful and Victorious Night, but at the end touch briefly on my recent publication, Trailer Park Elegy, a book-length long poem.
Glück spirals round her subjects, of which being orphaned is one. It seems that the greater the subject’s emotional weight (the theme of “mother,” for instance), the more concentrated her approach. In the example above, Gluck’s narrator observes an obscured face at different ages and in different settings. Such “perpetual recurrences” become her structure, her poetic mode. Glück even tells the reader what she’s doing, explaining that her narrator “travelled up the river and then back again…through time and then / a reversal of time.” Glück punctuates her writing with many images and metaphors repeated in fresh ways, such as snow falling, open windows, birthdays, balls. I’m particularly delighted by a peripheral, never-explained white car waiting to take them home (11, 24, 41).
Since Firstborn, Glück has leaned heavily on the metaphor of the “mother” and in Faithful and Victorious Night, “mother” occurs in fifteen separate scenes. It’s impossible to say what part, if any, of this book is an account of Glück’s personal grief at the loss of her mother (who died recently at the age of a hundred and one. What can be said is that Glück gives an account of her imaginative adventures whose themes and images are those of grief and loss of a maternal figure. In the end, the book is offered to its readers for response and interpretation, as are all works of fiction.
The mother is introduced early by way of Glück’s narrator growing “still” to hear what the mother (and father) have to say, which I believe replicates the posture of an attentive writer open to being changed by the act of writing. The narrator hears the mother’s voice in the trees, and melodramatically rehearses the memory of his parents embarking on their last journey, “my mother fondly kissing the new baby (12).” Since narrators don’t describe themselves in third person, this phrase suggests another swerve of POV––it’s as if the narration has suddenly been appropriated by the writer (as it were). Over the next pages the mother’s absence is highlighted, as the narrator experienced it in his childhood. The child drawing pictures of the absent mother is likened to a child lost in a department store, seeking his mother. These scenes convey a tone of seemingly sincere, realistic correlations between loss and grief, which Glück then gleefully “sends up” in a startling contrast:
My mother and father stood in the cold
on the front steps. My mother stared at me,
a daughter, a fellow female.
You never think of us, she said.
We read your books when they reach heaven.
Hardly a mention of us anymore, hardly a mention of your sister.
And they pointed to my dead sister, a complete stranger,
tightly wrapped in my mother’s arms.
After which they vanished like Mormon missionaries (22, 23).
The laughs don’t stop there. On the next page Glück continues with deadpan humour, the mother accusing the narrator of “stepping on your father.” The narrator doubts he’s stepping on anything more than mown grass, no headstone in sight. Yet lines later he accedes to the distinction “cemetery” and tosses the idea over in his mind. “What seemed a cemetery, though it could have been a cemetery in my mind only… (24)” It has been long acknowledged that in her poetry Glück creates:
imagined worlds broad and porous enough for real people, strangers and intimates alike, to wander around inside them. The effect is like a lucid dream, or like an open-world video game where a player’s real decisions are worked out in a virtual and alterable realm (Dan Chaisson).
This realm is spatial; a train appears as well as a conductor who speaks as if from beyond the grave, he converses with the narrator. What is the reader to make of these shifts in tone, these internal musings and nervous-making encounters? The image of the dead parents knocking at the front door in the cold is hilarious, as is the dialogue with the mother, but by the time readers meet the conductor with his suggestive symbolism, they’re aware of Glück’s manipulation of the scenes for more than comedic effect.
Glück picks up the “mother” theme again twenty-five pages later, in phrases such as “the unborn child / wallows in his mother’s womb (53),” and “So my mother sang (or, more likely, so my aunt reported) (57).” Here the abstract and reported “mothers” convey the sense of the narrator alone in the world. Near the end of the book Glück returns to earlier, stark and blackly humourous language, “Mother died last night, / Mother who never dies (67).” After the narrator confirms his mother’s death in personal terms (“How alone I am…my desolation… (68)”) Glück ends the poem with the posture of the dead mother’s “arms outstretched, her head / balanced between them (68).” Glück’s description of the mother not as dead, but sleeping, “Mother slept in her bed (68),” lends an air of unreality and in a weirdly flatfooted way confirms that indeed, the mother never dies.
Studying her work, I realize Glück isn’t so much a comedic writer, as one who moves (as she says of her own work) “unexpectedly from the luminous to the comic or ironic to the ecstatic…making each…. turn completely convincing, completely full (Feit Diehl, 184).” She employs narrators and plots, introduces secondary characters such as the train conductor (whom the reader shouldn’t expect, but may, meet again), and revisits earlier scenes from fresh POVs. These dramatic scenes shift locations, introduce unexpected characters as well as an array of tones of voice and pace as effortlessly as do dream journeys in dream landscapes. Yet the poems are grounded in emotion; Glück’s declarative language includes self-deprecation that rings with emotion, as does her ability to cry. To understand her lyric “cry,” I look to the cemetery scene mentioned above, in which the reader is invited into the narrator’s rambling thoughts: “…and indeed I was standing exactly in the center / if a bed of grass, mown so neatly it could have been / my father’s grave, although there was no stone saying so (24).” A few stanzas later, we read “…to what now seemed…a cemetery in my mind only; perhaps it was a park, or if not a park, a garden or bower, perfumed, I now realized, with the scent of roses––(24).” It’s in such passages that the reader experiences Glück’s thought processes; thought as the shape of the mind inventing. Elsewhere, she explains this feature to her readers, “I was, I felt, mysteriously lifted above the world/so that action was at last impossible/which made thought not only possible but limitless. /It had no end (34).” The thought experiment is, I believe, Glück’s most consistent trope.
What I note, however, is the effect of contrasting the above talky sections with abrupt, often poignant lines such as “Do not forget me, I cried, running now / over many plots, many mothers and fathers–– / Do not forget me, I cried… (25).” This sharp delineation between the voice of the mature, self-aware adult who recognizes the vulnerable, crying child she carries within herself, and the hilarity of leaping over the dead as a way of subsuming individual mommies and daddies into a grand parental collective, is, well, funny. Glück takes her readers into her imaginative world, her thought processes, and creates registers of feeling and experience that include neediness and infant voices. There’s also a sense of ending, of terminus, a sense of her narrator searching––for what? home, belonging, righted relationships, closure?––all of which Glück relies on to create her effects.
I choose the long poem form in my own work for its expansiveness, a feature found in the Divine Comedy, Dante’s poem that ascends from hell to heaven, and involves the entire cosmos. Contemporary terms would speak to the expanding and collapsing universe, but the point is that, like the Divine Comedy, the impulse of the long poem is to go big, wide, deep and high. In Faithful and Virtuous Night Glück pushes her expansive imagination into “broad and porous” worlds, all the while staying emotionally connected to her particular Beatrice.
In writing my own, newly-published Trailer Park Elegy, (Harbour), I was aware that grief, like thought, flits up and down and around much like the pileated woodpecker outside my window traverses the Douglas-fir, looking for nourishment and a place to perch. But unlike the noisy woodpecker, thought and grief are a mostly silent, internal meditation. The tumble of images that grief conjures creates an internal call-and-response; one image calls forth another; in this way long poems are written.
My original title for Trailer Park Elegy was Guide to the Underworld. The focus was, and still is, death’s facility in transforming the world of the living. My original narrator, Passenger, was a survivor in the underworld––that never-before visited place she landed when her brother died. It required new imagery. I enjoy the broad canvas of the long poem; its techniques slow down writing, and push imagination into weird, dark corners, while the more prosy sections encourage writers to speak plainly, lightly, and playfully. My own experience with loss is that while grief encompasses everything into its net, everything is touched by grief, my work as a writer is the discrete image, the instance, the other. There’s a generosity about the long poem, that like keeping balls in the air, says over and over: this is true, and this, and this.
In closing let me tell you about my friend Angie Abdou, who tells a wonderful story about the Scottish word, tartle, for the moment you forget the name of the person you are introducing. Forgive my tartle, Scots say, which signals the person (whose name you’ve forgotten,) to laugh with you, and supply it. It’s what this generosity of spirit says about Scottish people that Angie admires. And what is laughter but the explosion of tensions or emotions built-up over time, even a compressed moment of time as in a tartle? By moving adeptly among registers of language and thought Glück’s swerves create small explosions of laughter, and by keeping the terminal in view (the end? death?) she carries her readers with her emotionally as well as imaginatively. Readers can experience her creation of meaning even as they witness her writing her way toward it.
Chaisson, Dan. (2014). “View from the mountain: new poems by Louise Glück.” The New Yorker.
Feit Diehl, Joanne. (2005). “An interview with Louise Glück” in “On Louise Glück: Change what you see.” Ann Arbour: Michigan. The University of Michigan Press.
Glück, L. (2014). “Faithful and Virtuous Night.” NY:NY. Farrar Straus and Giroux.
Hoogland, C. (2017). “Trailer Park Elegy.” Maderia Park, B.C.: Harbour
Hoogland, C. (2016) “Red Dresses Hang from the Trees and Towers: Red and Rapunzel are
Missing” in Performing Women (Penn Kemp, ed.), chapbook for Playwrights Guild of Canada and The Feminist Caucus Archive Series of the League of Canadian Poets.
Hoogland, C. (2015). “Writing The Long Poem,” panel for the League of Canadian Poets and the Writers Union combined AGM in May, 2015, in Winnipeg, Manitoba. The other panelists were Kate Braid, Sharon Thesen.
Hoogland, C. (2015). “The Long Poem and the Shape of the Working Mind” in “The Long Poem Symposium,” Malahat Review
Cornelia Hoogland’s seventh book, “Trailer Park Elegy,” (Harbour, 2017) is her third book-length long poem. She writes articles on the long poem, sits on panels and gives workshops. “Woods Wolf Girl” (Wolsak and Wynn), was a finalist for the Relit 2011 National Poetry Award. “Sea Level” was short-listed for the CBC Awards. Cornelia was the founder and artistic director of Poetry London, and most recently, of Poetry Hornby Island, the B.C. Gulf island where she lives. www.corneliahoogland.com