Review: The Wild Iris by Louise Glück

This 1992 collection by the recent Nobel Laureate begins with the titular poem, and the words “At the end of my suffering/there was a door”. Someone in a forest, under “branches of the pine shifting”, who has been “buried in the dark earth”. Then they come back to life, “I could speak again”, “a great fountain, deep blue/shadows on azure seawater”. The words are beautiful but tough, as hard and round as pebbles on a beach. They remind me of all the women in Ovid’s Metamorphoses who became the springs and fountains scattered across the classical world.

Next follow two Matins, the first of half a dozen poems of the same title. These are followed by another half dozen Vespers in the second half of the collection, the morning and evening prayers of the Christian faith. In the first, the poet looks at a birch tree by the mailbox, the “dark /leaves of the wild violet” underneath. Someone called Noah says, “depressives hate the spring, imbalance/between the inner and the outer world”. The poet replies, “depressed, yes, but in a sense passionately/attached to the living tree”. There are more flowers, then a poem entitled Clear Morning. “I’ve watched you long enough/I can speak to you any way I like” they begin haughtily. “I am prepared now to force/clarity upon you”, they conclude with a spine-tingling threat. The cold truth of the universe: could anything be more violent?

All of these poems are told in first person, but the “I” of them shifts. At first I was stumped, mystified and a bit annoyed, even though I was pleased by the words themselves. Then it all snapped into place, and a sublime narrative comes into view. I go back and read those first poems again, now imagining the iris dying back, their “consciousness/buried in the dark earth”, the “what I took to be/birds darting in low shrubs”, like the shadows flickering on the wall of Plato’s cave. The poems are a conversation, between plants, the poet and god, and every poem falls neatly into this schema. A little biographical detail fills in the rest: the collection takes place over a summer at Glück’s garden in Maine, when she was married to John Drannow, who she divorced in 1996. Her adult son Noah appears in a couple of poems too. There’s a Biblical narrative. In The Garden god watches “the young couple planting/a row of peas, as though/no one has ever done this before”, vowing “I couldn’t do it again/I can hardly bare to look at it – “. But layered over, or under, these Christian themes is a defiantly Classical paganism, which comes through mainly in the voice of the plants, as irascible as wood sprites.

They are a chatty bunch. So what do they talk about? Mostly, the nature of suffering. The poet, the human voice, rails against it, our inability to accept it perhaps our defining feature. Glück’s poetry is known for its melancholy, in the same vein as Sylvia Plath. But it is not just her personal suffering that she is interested in, although there is some of that, but the profound, existential kind. God justifies it: having rejected their gift of eternal transcendence, we are condemned to circumscribed lives. To live is to die. Comparing us to plants, god in Retreating Wind says, “Your lives are not circular like theirs://your lives are the bird’s flight/which begins and ends in stillness – / which begins and ends“. But only in our narrow conception of life. The plants add a more-than-human perspective, that of beings that live in different ways and timescales. In Scilla, the bright bulbs mock human’s sense of individuality:

Not I, you idiot, but we, we – waves

of sky blue like

a critique of heaven: why

do you treasure your voice

when to be one thing

is to be next to nothing?

As intellectually stimulating as all this talk is, it is also a lot of fun. Who doesn’t want to know what plants think of us? That the exquisite trembling flowers that so delight us are largely exasperated cynics is amusing, but also makes perfect sense. Glück captures like noone else I have ever read something of what it must be like to be a plant. “Things/that can’t move/learn to see,” says The Hawthorn Tree, “Human beings leave/signs of feeling/everywhere”. They are sun-worshippers to a fault, like the Trillium emerging from the forest floor:

And as I watched, all the lights of heaven

faded to make a single thing, a fire

burning through the cool firs.

Then it wasn’t possible any longer

to stare at heaven and not be destroyed.

Even the shade-loving Lamium, their pale leaves a “lake of silver in the darkness under the great maples” can’t resist their god, “glinting through the leaves, erratic,/like someone hitting the side of a glass with a metal spoon”. The Witchgrass, a weed, knows they will outlast everyone: “I’ll be here when only the sun and moon/are left, and the sea, and the wide field.//I will constitute the field”.

God too is pretty much done with their creation. “How can I help you when you all want/different things,” they cry in End of Summer. The pathos of this three-way conversation is that it is really only one way: god can hear us, but they are only apparent to us in “signs/you cannot cannot read with any accuracy” (Sunset). What meaning we take emerges in between the voices.

I could go on and on finding such lines that pull the rug out from under you. I can take or leave the musings on a literal Christian god, but there is so much more to this collection. By the end, at day’s end, with winter coming and the late flowers killed by early frosts, god was right, I felt clarity forced upon me, a new appreciation for the cruelty and wonder of being alive.

Gay rating: not gay.

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