This 11th book of verse by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Louise Glück offers beautiful language with a sense of loss and disappointment. Louise Glück’s A Village Life is the literary equivalent of a dance partner who is strikingly beautiful and moves with uncommon skill and grace. Yet as the dance proceeds, you suddenly realize that your partner is staring over your head, eyes fixed on a point you can’t quite see.
The dance begins slowly in Glück’s new book – the 11th by this Pulitzer Prize-winning poet – which is set in an unnamed Mediterranean village where life seems timeless yet driven by pastoral cycles. The villagers, likewise, deal with issues and emotions that are both archetypal and surprisingly modern. Even the landscape that shapes inhabitants’ lives – a meadow, a mountain, and a fountain in the village – seems permanent, unmovable, yet marred by mortality.
These elements produce a constant underlying tension, as if Glück is trying to mourn the world while saving it at the same time.
That tension isn’t distracting right away. Instead, the reader notices Glück’s deftness and perfect sense of balance. The poems in “A Village Life” combine the intensity of her early work and the longer lines and insight of more recent books. The writing is often hauntingly beautiful, as in this excerpt from the second of three poems titled “Burning Leaves”:
The fire burns up into the clear sky,
eager and furious, like an animal trying to get free,
to run wild as nature intended –
When it burns like this,
leaves aren’t enough – it’s
refusing to be contained, to accept limits –
The book, like the village, is defined by cycles and the poet’s distinctive, almost omniscient perspective. These allow Glück to give voice to many different people and struggles, while always maintaining a consistent – if sometimes harsh – tone. In the first few pages, for example, Glück tells a millworker’s story, speaks for several generations, and then shifts easily into the mind-set of girls and boys who have grown up together and know they are approaching adulthood and sexuality and “at that point/ you become strangers. It seems unbearably lonely.”
Transitions and a sense of loss color most of the book, which isn’t unusual in poetry or with this writer. Yet as the collection progresses, the losses, both small and large, begin to mount. Summer ends, followed by the end of autumn, and the burning of leaves that don’t want to perish. Trust dies because of an alcoholic parent or an emotionally distant spouse; beauty, promise, and prestige die as people grow old. Some young people leave the village, hoping to find success and adventure in the city, only to return disillusioned. As the speaker in the poem “Pastoral” explains, “To my mind, you’re better off if you stay;/ That way, dreams don’t damage you.”
There are, of course, stanzas where Glück makes her landscape seem so radiant or exquisite that you don’t to turn the page. A few lines after the quote above, Glück offers this description of what the villagers see outside their windows:
… The sun rises; the mist
dissipates to reveal
the immense mountain. You can see the peak,
how white it is, even in summer. And the sky’s so blue,
punctuated with small pines
like spears –
These moments, especially toward the end of the book, make Glück’s world seem bearable and give her writing some of its almost gravitational pull. For many readers, that will be enough, especially if they feel that loss and disappointment are the overriding realities of this world.
The book doesn’t satisfy this reviewer, though, because there is so much darkness that I question the poet’s perspective. Yes, the world fails us and life can be painful, but too much darkness in poetry is as inaccurate as saccharin sweetness. Yet Glück often seems to magnify sadness and get stuck during transitions. The result is poetry that feels like a dance partner who isn’t quite in step because she is so focused on something behind you.
Elizabeth Lund regularly reviews poetry for the Monitor.