Faithful and Virtuous Night by Louise Glück
This book of connected poems is a real tour de force. The title comes from a book that the speaker’s brother is reading when they are young. Perhaps the title refers to “knight” but the speaker takes it to be “night” and remembers the title of the book. It is apt, for indeed the many nights of the speaker’s life turn out to be at least somewhat faithful and somewhat virtuous in that rich dreams populate the night, which faithfully arrives.
The cycle of poems tells a story but it is not always chronological nor is it always evident in which ways each poem might fit into the overarching chronicle—that of a painter (or his he/she a poet?) coming to terms with death—not only one’s own death, but the many deaths that end up strewn across the landscapes of our lives.
The first poem in the collection, “Parable,” begins with the question of purpose:
“First divesting ourselves of worldly good, as St. Francis teaches,
in order that our souls not be distracted
by gain and loss, and in order also
that our bodies be free to move
easily at the mountain passes…..”
is a call to travel along with the speaker/poet as
“we had changed although
we never moved, and one said, ah, behold how we have aged, traveling
from day to night only, neither forward nor sideward, and this seemed
in a strange way miraculous. And those who believed we should have a purpose
believed this was the purpose, and those we felt we must remain free
in order to encounter truth felt it had been revealed.”
After this opening parable, the language becomes much more specific as we learn in “An Adventure” and in “The Past” that the speaker may be dying but also that the past is vivid with memories of the speaker’s dead mother, whose voice can make no sound as it passes through “nothing”. As a child, the speaker apparently has lost his parents and his sister in a car accident. The speaker is evidently a painter as an adult and his consciousness is pervaded with memories of his dead dear ones.
He thinks, as he lies in bed:
“It had 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.”
And I think it is true that as we grow into mourning and then our own old age we are torn between the past and the future. At one point the telephone rings in the middle of the night and “I lay in bed, trying to analyze / the ring. It had / my mother’s persistence and my father’s /
pained embarrassment.” The line is dead. Or, as he asks himself, “was the phone working and the caller dead?”
The book continues to reflect upon life, death, where we are and where we are going.
“I think here I will leave you. It has come to seem
there is no perfect ending.
Indeed, there are infinite endings.
Or perhaps, once one begins,
there are only endings.”
There are many characters who appear—the fortune teller, the old woman in the park, the house in Cornwall, the analyst, the first flautist, the elderly writer, the “melancholy assistant,” Harry, the gentle boy.
Here is one of the several brief prose poems that are a part of the story, scattered through the volume:
“Long, long ago, before I was a tormented artist, afflicted with longing yet incapable of forming durable attachments, long before this, I was a glorious ruler uniting all of a divided country—so I was told by the fortune-teller who examined my palm. Great things, she said, are ahead of you, or perhaps behind you; it is difficult to be sure. And yet, she added, what is the difference? Right now you are a child holding hands with a fortune-teller. All the rest is hypothesis and dream.”
These stories within the larger story of the poem provide more parables in which the central themes—love, loss, death, and what happens in between—are examined.
“A word drops into the mist
like a child’s ball into high grass
where it remains seductively
flashing and glinting until
the gold bursts are revealed to be
simply field buttercups.
Word/mist, word/mist: thus it was with me.”
I found the volume fascinating. I have read it three times already and it will stand much more reading. Some readers may not like a certain indeterminacy and a certain melancholy. But this is Glück for us—she is never simple or easy and almost always deep and fascinating.
This collection reminds me a little bit of a Proust volume reduced to 60 pages: memory, thought, desire are mixed and mingled into an at times chillingly vivid meditation on the ordinary losses that we face as we march through life. People come and go.
I recommend this volume especially to older readers and to readers who resist sentimentality. If you know that poetry does not come with a specific map and indices and if you can comprehend loss, your reading will be richly rewarded.
Typically I love the little horse and pony shows of rhyme, alliteration, and exciting metre, but Glück can get by on simply savvy brilliance and insight.
“The Couple in the Park”
A man walks alone in the park and beside him a woman walks, also alone.
How does one know? It is as though a line exists between them, like a line on
a playing field. And yet, in a photograph they might appear a married cou-
ple, weary of each other and of the many winters they have endured togeth-
- At another time, they might be strangers about to meet by accident. She
drops her book; stooping to pick it up, she touches, by accident, his hand and
her heart springs open like a child’s music box. And out of the box comes
a little ballerina made of wood. I have created this, the man thinks; though
she can only whirl in place, still she is a dancer of some kind, not simply a
block of wood. This must explain the puzzling music coming from the trees.”
This final prose poem hearkens back to the divisions, or lines, between the graves of the speaker’s parents. I think this is Glück’s offering to us: a dancer made of wood whirling in place in the puzzling music coming from the trees.
Note: Poetry Reading Challenge, http://savvyverseandwit.com
Shareatea Challenge: I drank a lot of Saint Isaac’s Blend when I read this book and wrote the review.