by NONA BLYTH CLOUD
I’m sure you’ve been longing to know how I choose my subjects each week. It’s different every time, but this week will give you an idea.
At the beginning of April, I printed out a list of poets born this month and stuck it on my bulletin board as one source of inspiration.
I’ve been reading for pleasure an alternate timeline series in which the author uses blue butterflies as talismans for the beauty and cruelty of love. Butterflies, you see, are attracted not just to flower nectar – they are also attracted to carrion.
Butterflies are exquisite, essential to life, and thirsty for last blood.
So when I looked over my list of April poets for this post, Louise Glück (1943 – ) clicked. A zing of electricity, arcing between her poems of betrayal and loss so often mating classical mythology with personal revelation, and the dual nature of butterflies.
Look, a butterfly. Did you make a wish?
You don’t wish on butterflies.
You do so. Did you make one?
It doesn’t count.
You saved me, you should remember me.
The spring of the year; young men buying tickets for the ferryboats.
Laughter, because the air is full of apple blossoms.
When I woke up, I realized I was capable of the same feeling.
I remember sounds like that from my childhood,
laughter for no cause, simply because the world is beautiful,
something like that.
Lugano. Tables under the apple trees.
Deckhands raising and lowering the colored flags.
And by the lake’s edge, a young man throws his hat into the water;
perhaps his sweetheart has accepted him.
sounds or gestures like
a track laid down before the larger themes
and then unused, buried.
Islands in the distance. My mother
holding out a plate of little cakes—
as far as I remember, changed
in no detail, the moment
vivid, intact, having never been
exposed to light, so that I woke elated, at my age
hungry for life, utterly confident—
By the tables, patches of new grass, the pale green
pieced into the dark existing ground.
Surely spring has been returned to me, this time
not as a lover but a messenger of death, yet
it is still spring, it is still meant tenderly.
War has always divided lovers, not just by death, but by making them into strangers when they come face to face again, the person who stayed behind and the person who left changed beyond recall.
Parable of the Hostages
The Greeks are sitting on the beach
wondering what to do when the war ends. No one
wants to go home, back
to that bony island; everyone wants a little more
of what there is in Troy, more
life on the edge, that sense of every day as being
packed with surprises. But how to explain this
to the ones at home to whom
fighting a war is a plausible
excuse for absence, whereas
exploring one’s capacity for diversion
is not. Well, this can be faced
are men of action, ready to leave
insight to the women and children.
Thinking things over in the hot sun, pleased
by a new strength in their forearms, which seem
more golden than they did at home, some
begin to miss their families a little,
to miss their wives, to want to see
if the war has aged them. And a few grow
slightly uneasy: what if war
is just a male version of dressing up,
a game devised to avoid
profound spiritual questions? Ah,
but it wasn’t only the war. The world had begun
calling them, an opera beginning with the war’s
loud chords and ending with the floating aria of the sirens.
There on the beach, discussing the various
timetables for getting home, no one believed
it could take ten years to get back to Ithaca;
no one foresaw that decade of insoluble dilemmas—oh unanswerable
affliction of the human heart: how to divide
the world’s beauty into acceptable
and unacceptable loves! On the shores of Troy,
how could the Greeks know
they were hostages already: who once
delays the journey is
already enthralled; how could they know
that of their small number
some would be held forever by the dreams of pleasure,
some by sleep, some by music?
In the often-delayed voyage home to Ithaca, Odysseus encounters the enchantress Circe. The demigod daughter of Helios, the Sun of the Titans, and Perse, a sea nymph, she is caught between the time before the gods and the current celestial regime. Circe weaves her spells on the lonely (and mythical) island of Aeaea. Several scholars place it off the coast of Colchys, kingdom of the Golden Fleece, guarded in some versions by Circe’s brother, and homeland of the princess-priestess Medea. She gives up all for love of Jason, but when he abandons her for more advantageous marriage to a young princess, Medea destroys him. Greek myths intertwine, like a basket of snakes sacred to the Goddess.
I regret bitterly
The years of loving you in both
Your presence and absence, regret
The law, the vocation
That forbid me to keep you, the sea
A sheet of glass, the sun-bleached
Beauty of the Greek ships: how
Could I have power if
I had no wish
To transform you: as
You loved my body,
As you found there
Passion we held above
All other gifts, in that single moment
Over honor and hope, over
Loyalty, in the name of that bond
I refuse you
Such feeling for your wife
As will let you
Rest with her, I refuse you
If I cannot have you.
Sometimes the marriage bed becomes a battleground. Sometimes there’s a peace treaty. Sometimes it’s only an armed truce.
I said you could snuggle. That doesn’t mean
your cold feet all over my dick.
Someone should teach you how to act in bed.
What I think is you should
keep your extremities to yourself.
Look what you did—
you made the cat move.
But I didn’t want your hand there.
I wanted your hand here.
You should pay attention to my feet.
You should picture them
the next time you see a hot fifteen year old.
Because there’s a lot more where those feet come from.
Early December in Croton-on-Hudson
Spiked sun. The Hudson’s
Whittled down by ice.
I hear the bone dice
Of blown gravel clicking. Bone-
pale, the recent snow
Fastens like fur to the river.
Standstill. We were leaving to deliver
Christmas presents when the tire blew
Last year. Above the dead valves pines pared
Down by a storm stood, limbs bared . . .
I want you.
Divorce is a kind of death in the family. And after the chrysalis of mourning, a singular person emerges.
Conventions of the time
held them together.
It was a period
(very long) in which
the heart once given freely
was required, a formal gesture,
to forfeit liberty: a consecration
at once moving and hopelessly doomed.
As to ourselves:
fortunately we diverged
from these requirements,
as I reminded myself
when my life shattered.
So that what we had for so long
was, more or less,
And only long afterward
did I begin to think otherwise.
We are all human —
we protect ourselves
as well as we can
even to the point of denying
clarity, the point
of self-deception. As in
the consecration to which I alluded.
And yet, within this deception,
true happiness occurred.
So that I believe I would
repeat these errors exactly.
Nor does it seem to me
crucial to know
whether or not such happiness
is built on illusion:
it has its own reality.
And, in either case, it will end.
Fish bones walked the waves off Hatteras.
And there were other signs
That Death wooed us, by water, wooed us
By land: among the pines
An uncurled cottonmouth that rolled on moss
Reared in the polluted air.
Birth, not death, is the hard loss.
I know. I also left a skin there.
My soul dried up.
Like a soul cast into a fire, but not completely,
not to annihilation. Parched,
it continued. Brittle,
not from solitude but from mistrust,
the aftermath of violence.
Spirit, invited to leave the body,
to stand exposed a moment, —
trembling, as before
your presentation to the divine —
spirit lured out of solitude
by the promise of grace,
how will you ever again believe
the love of another being?
My soul withered and shrank.
The body became for it too large a garment.
And when hope was returned to me
it was another hope entirely.
Louise Glück (pronounced Glick) was born in New York City, but grew up on Long Island. Her father, Daniel, was a Hungarian Jewish immigrant, who helped invent and market the X-Acto Knife.
She attended Sarah Lawrence College and then Columbia University without graduating from either school. In her mid-twenties, she published her poetry collection Firstborn, to mixed reviews, because the angry and alienated first-person voices of the various personae she employed put off some critics, while her effective wielding of language and metre won over others.
Since then, Glück has published numerous collections, and has been heaped with honors: a Guggeneheim Fellowship (1975); National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry (1985); Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry (1992); Pulitzer Prize for Poetry (1993); Lannan Literary Award for Poetry (1999); Yale’s Bollingen Prize (2001); PEN/Winship Award for Poetry (2006); Wallace Stevens Award (2008); two Ambassador Book Awards for Poetry (2000 and 2007); and the National Book Award for Poetry (2014)
Glück also served as the 12th Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress for 2003-2004.
Butterflies have short lives. Of the roughly 15,000 known species, the smaller ones may last less than a week, while some of the larger ones might live between 9 months and a year.
Louise Glück has endured far longer, keeping her anger well-honed, merciless in self-examination, but tempering her poetry with great skill. It is her poetry that resembles the double-nature of the butterfly: exquisite, essential to life, and thirsty for last blood.
Special Thanks to author Kim Harrison and her fabulous series about ‘The Hollows’ for the butterfly inspiration
Sources and Further Reading
- LA Review of Books: https://lareviewofbooks.org/review/the-constant-gardener-on-louise-gluck
- Poetry Foundation: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/louise-gluck
- Academy of American Poets: https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poet/louise-gl%C3%BCck
- Modern American Poetry: http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/g_l/gluck/about.htm
- Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louise_Gl%C3%BCck
SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY – POETRY
- Faithful and Virtuous Night (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014)
- Poems: 1962-2012 (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2013)
- A Village Life (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2009)
- Averno (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2006)
- The Seven Ages (Ecco Press, 2001)
- Vita Nova (Ecco Press, 1999)
- Meadowlands (Ecco Press, 1996)
- The First Four Books of Poems (Ecco Press, 1995)
- The Wild Iris (Ecco Press, 1992)
- Ararat (Ecco Press, 1990)
- The Triumph of Achilles (Ecco Press, 1985)
- Descending Figure (Ecco Press, 1980)
- The Garden (Antaeus, 1976)
- The House on Marshland (Ecco Press, 1975)
- Firstborn (New American Library, 1968)
- Butterfly – painted by Maria Sibylla Merian
- Apple blossoms, photo by Darren Galerkin
- Ancient Greek helmet
- Greek ship on ancient Greek vase
- Cold feet
- Twilight after ice storm
- Wedding ring
- Shed snakeskin
- Blue butterfly, photo by Keith Warmington
Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud