Against Remembrance: On Louise Glück


In Memoriam


Before I can think how to begin, she rebukes me: “Concerning death, one might observe / that those with authority to speak remain silent …” (“Bats,” A Village Life). 

Flip the pages, to “Lament,” in Araratand once more, a reproof:

Suddenly, after you die, those friends
who never agreed about anything
agree about your character.
They’re like a houseful of singers rehearsing
the same score:
you were just, you were kind, you lived a fortunate life.
No harmony. No counterpoint. Except
they’re not performers;
real tears are shed.

 Luckily, you’re dead; otherwise
you’d be overcome with revulsion.

Those two lines—a joke that hinges on being dead—make me smile. A reflex, as I am also crying. And I think, as I often have, that Louise Glück wasn’t given enough credit for being a funny poet. She is more commonly characterized as an investigator of death. Some find her poetry too skewed toward the grave; I wonder if we are too afraid of the fact that breath is the only thing keeping us out of it. To speak of her as if her death is the culmination of the work, though, is to ignore her attention to death’s vast and fecund opposite, rife with pleasure, with suffering, dominated by silence though it produces much speech in defiance: living, in the present continuous. To live is the verb it’s easy to forget you always embody. I stand. I walk around my bedroom. I worry the cuff of my gray wool sweater. I touch the petal of an Easter lily that opened just this morning. I remember that Louise prized completeness and detail when it came to natural things, so I walk back to my desk. On my laptop, I search the Latin name, Lilium longiflorum. I smile again: my futile attempt to draw closer to her becomes a joke that hinges on death. 

Back to the book. My past self has drawn a line in blue ink beside this stanza: “Death cannot harm me / more than you have harmed me, / my beloved life” (“October,” Averno). Is there anything else to say? 


My first conversation with Louise was a total failure. We both thought so. 

You have to understand that I was in some essential way a feral creature, with that skittish hideaway instinct that comes from practicing survival. Though technically “homeschooled,” I was basically an autodidact: I’d spent years reading my way through the library. Since early childhood, my father had terrified and beaten me. When, a little older, I started to resist his control, he also deprived me of language, keeping me in my room for days without books. He read my journals and punished me for my thoughts. At nine, I’d started thinning myself compulsively. Then not just eating but talking became so difficult that I often could not answer direct questions. By twelve, I rarely spoke. My adolescence was silence, secret-keeping, desperate longing for a different future without the ability to imagine any future but death, which I expected would come to me young. You can see why I loved Louise’s poetry. 

When she called me, I was eighteen, and had just been admitted to Yale, where she taught from 2004 until her death. I was at a gas station in Lancaster, Ohio, as far from poetry as anywhere could be. An unknown number, Cambridge area code. The admissions office, she said, had sent her the poems I’d submitted with my application and asked her to talk to me. Neither of us, fortunately, ever remembered exactly what was said, but my terror of talking, and talking to her, specifically, made me even less articulate than usual, and she, awkward in the face of awkwardness, faltered. “I thought you hated me,” she told me later. When I applied to her workshop at the beginning of my first semester of freshman year, I hoped she wouldn’t remember me. She did. I became her student.

She fascinated me. Her ability to extemporize in whole paragraphs. Her delphic certainty, a stated preference for the definite article, alongside an almost religious commitment to doubt, her sentences chained together by small temperings: “a kind of,” “as if,” “it may be that,” “I think,” “I believe.” And then—bang—a proclamation I’ll remember till I, too, no longer have memory. During office hours, I peeked at the labels of her clothes, which fell in luxurious folds of silk and wool and cotton and leather, black or gray or a dark green, and memorized the names of designers I looked up later. And I studied her mobile face while she read a poem: in those shifting expressions, a theater of perception and judgment before the lifted hand brought down the pen. 

Sometimes, when she looked at me with a cool speculation or, other times, with a softness I named to myself as pity but did not resent because it seemed the gentle hand one experienced sufferer offers another, I felt as if I were watching her describe something to herself, the something being me, and sometimes she did describe me to myself, her clarity having some of the heartlessness of a real oracle: “You love your mother and hate your father, and you hate that your mother still loves your father.” The intensity of my desire to be seen matched the intensity of her seeing. She recognized my docility as a facade (obedience, never a quality she respected), and stoked the fire that burned it up. At least on the page, speech, choked by my father and then by myself, surged forth at her invitation—no, her urging—to speak. 

“You have the makings of a real poet,” she told me that semester. Excited, as if she had made a rare discovery. I couldn’t meet her gaze; the idea overwhelmed me. But it took root in my mind and, shyly, slowly flowered into a dream and then a pursuit. She often thought in oppositions: “real” pointed to its negative, “false,” which was a betrayal of the art. (In the same way, she often described a poem or a line as “alive,” and though I do not remember her ever saying something was “dead,” I heard the unspoken problem.) “‘Poet,’” she wrote in an essay about her own education, “must be used cautiously; it names an aspiration, not an occupation. In other words: not a noun for a passport.” In her encouragement there was a warning, and a goad: You must do the making, Elisa, and the making goes on till you end. 

She rejected many of my lines (“inert,” “hopelessly conventional”) but she never rejected my thoughts, no matter how cruel or deviant or strange. Often she anticipated the logic or the emotion, as if it were natural, at least comprehensible. In front of her, to her, for the first time in my life I could say anything.


The first time I read Louise’s poetry, I was twelve and sitting on a concrete berm at a gas station in northern Ohio. Nearby, my mother was making clouds of steam by pouring cup after plastic cup of water into the van’s radiator. My brothers and sisters played tag in a triangle of scrawny grass. Although my family didn’t often buy books (expensive), for some reason we’d recently visited a bookstore, where I chose The First Four Books of Poems (four-for-one appealed to my sense of value). I’d read poetry before, but it was this particular encounter with poetry, at dusk in high summer surrounded by the smell of gasoline, that remade me. Louise thought it funny—it is funny—that both of my introductions to her happened at Midwestern gas stations. 

Her books, now piled beside me, encompass something like six decades of moods and situations. As a poet, she is both fixed and fluid. Change, I believe, was one of her deepest interests and drives. “As soon as I can place myself and describe myself—I want immediately to do the opposite thing,” she told an interviewer. Each book responds to some aspect of the previous. The distinctiveness of her lines—the powerful clarity of her thoughts—obscures, I think, that she is a master of personae, and it’s possible, at least from Ararat onward, to understand the books as both lyric and dramatic. The poems are made so subtly it’s easy to miss that subtlety, like grandeur, is one of her modes. The lines people often quote, such as the closing couplet of “Nostos”—“We look at the world once, in childhood. / The rest is memory.”—resound because of their daring assurance. But that conclusion requires the preemptive undermining of the previous lines: “Fields. Smell of the tall grass, new cut. / As one expects of a lyric poet.” (Again, she never gets enough credit for being funny.) 

An abiding preoccupation, which compels the changes from poem to poem, voice to voice, book to book, is an anxiety about creation. Sometimes it emerges as an anxiety regarding form: finding a sufficient one, dealing with the consequences of fixing anything in words, which necessarily holds it still. Sometimes it is the fear, lurking or stated, that there will never be another poem.  (“I’m talking too much,” she said to me recently. “But you’re our great poet of silence,” I teased her.) The greatest anxiety, however, concerns whether the thing created—the poem—will do justice to creation itself. 

When I learned she had died, I was sitting on my bed, a red notebook in my lap. In that dazed rebellion that’s grief’s first incarnation, I wrote, You wrote my life, and then I corrected, You wrote all over my life, and then I corrected that correction: You wrote all through my life, and now I correct with a line I know I’ll correct again till I’m dead, too: You wrote me into my life

“Sentimental,” I can hear her saying, with a grimace.


In the years since I met Louise as a person, not only as a poet, I’ve felt as if we were bound by an affinity that did not always emerge from the best parts of either of our souls. That we both casually use the word soul is one piece of that affinity. But there was also a sharpness, a darkness, an ironic eye turned on the self and the world—these tied us together as much as the appreciation of absurdity, the frustration with language, the fear of silence, the devotion to art, the passion for sensory experience and for passion itself, in its manifold forms. Manifold, a word that I associate with her, because its most perfect use may be in the first poem by her that I read, “The Drowned Children”—who are forever lifted in the pond’s “manifold dark arms.” 

Louise had so many friends, so many students, and I suspect that many feel an analogous sense of affinity. Her perceptiveness made her, I think, unusually capable of forming intense connections. It could also (here, Louise, I offer a counterpoint, a harmony) make her unkindness especially devastating. 

When I look back, I trace what feels like her love for me. She read. She listened. She critiqued. She encouraged. She nagged. Her faith in me exceeded my faith in myself. She supported me during a psychiatric hospitalization, and after my brother’s death. In turn I tried to love her, to understand her, to live, and to write.  

After I heard she was sick, and before I heard she died, I copied down a passage from Camera Lucida, in which Roland Barthes rebels against the application of any category to his specific grief over the absence of his specific maman: “what I have lost is not a Figure (the Mother), but a being; and not a being, but a quality (a soul): not the indispensable, but the irreplaceable.” My first, flailing, childish thought when she told me that she was ill: I can’t do this without you. I still am not sure what I meant by this (poetry? life?) but I know what I meant by you. You, Louise, who would hate this whole thing. 

I last saw her—how can “last” really mean “last”?—at the end of August, when I spent a few days visiting her in Vermont. For much of that time we talked as I drove her through a landscape of a solid green fortified by the wild rains that had flooded Montpelier, and spoiled her garden. In a labyrinthine antique store, we sat for a couple hours in a matched pair of damasked armchairs, discussing the history of our relationships with beauty (in people, in objects, in the world). In Plainfield, I inched the car forward slowly enough for her to point out every place of past significance, and outside the house where she wrote The Wild Iris, we talked about our terror of how love works on the lover, how pathetic it makes you. When I began the long drive back to New York, we were in the middle of many conversations, which we said we’d pick up soon, next time we saw each other, and the next time, when we would finish our conversations, then I would buy her dinner, for a change, a really excellent dinner, appropriate to her gourmand taste. As I write this, the intervening time disappears. We are sitting across from each other at a dining table. Sunset behind her, which means night is already behind me. The silence that follows a bout of laughter has settled on us. The wine she chose is almost gone. She asks, “Do you think anyone would expect us to laugh as much as we do?” And because I am again answering, I know that she was right, in “Lament,” to conclude that “this, this, is the meaning of / ‘a fortunate life’: it means / to exist in the present.”


Elisa Gonzalez is a poet, fiction writer, and essayist. Her debut collection of poetry is Grand Tour