We have a new U.S. Poet Laureate, Louise Glück. Ms. Glück was also recently became the latest Nobel Laureate in literature. (That’s a lot of bay leaves). I couldn’t remember whether I had ever read any of Ms. Glück’s poetry, so I started skimming through her poems on a couple web sites — not a proper way to read poetry, I admit — and for reasons I haven’t begun to explicate to myself, none really spoke to me until I found this one, “All Halllows,” which, possibly because it’s a Hallowe’en poem, made me slow down to read it properly:
BY LOUISE GLÜCK
Even now this landscape is assembling.
The hills darken. The oxen
sleep in their blue yoke,
the fields having been
picked clean, the sheaves
bound evenly and piled at the roadside
among cinquefoil, as the toothed moon rises:
This is the barrenness
of harvest or pestilence.
And the wife leaning out the window
with her hand extended, as in payment,
and the seeds
distinct, gold, calling
Come here, little one
And the soul creeps out of the tree.¹
I like the imagery, the juxtaposition of conflicting interpretations of the fields as indicative equally of foison and famine. The opening sets us up for the dissonance: Glück offers us the promise of a landscape being assembled, and she gives us that: building blocks of darkling hills, sleepy oxen, fields, sheaves as the evidence of the harvest’s bounty. But the landscape is also one of disintegration. The gathering darkness will cause the visual dissolution of the scene, the oxen are now purposeless, the fields are stripped, and the sheaves are set to the side. I find it interesting that the sheaves are placed “among cinquefoil,” as if they need healing. And the moon is “toothed” — crescent? Or gibbous, with the rough edges showing? — as if menacing the scene or ready to devour the stored harvest.
And then we get the wife, the image of interiority and domesticity, set, presumably, in contrast to the world of manly harvest, though it is noteworthy that no males are mentioned, so she may have brought in the crop herself. She is, after all, the one holding the golden seeds (shades of Zeus and Danae?). The poem suggests the seeds are a payment, but her call is coaxing and the seeds seem to be a bribe or incentive to persuade the spirit of the tree to emerge. If the seeds are a payment, then the soul in the tree — an allusion to Ariel in The Tempest? — may be the spirit that has ensured the harvest. But it seems a timid and possibly wounded sprite: it is little and must be cajoled, and it “creeps” out of the tree.
Then there’s the question of why it is in the tree at all. Is it a kind of dryad? Was it imprisoned like Ariel? Has the wife tamed it? Is it the ghost of a child whose grave is marked by the tree? Since it is All Hallows, it seems most likely that it is an apparition of someone who has died. Did the wife trap the little one’s soul to keep it close, to fend off mourning?
In some ways, “All Hallows” reminds me of Auden’s “Musee des Beaux Arts”:
Musée des Beaux Arts
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.²
The first stanza is a rather good explanation of how Glück’s poem works: the juxtaposition of the work-a-day world with loss and tragedy. In the second, we get the same kind of rural scene with harvesting and then the loss of a child (if that is, indeed, what “All Hallows” depicts) as a part of that landscape. But, in the end, Auden’s poem is more removed from the sorrow. It is a paean to the insight of the Old Masters, to Art’s ability to negotiate emotion for us. It does not offer direct experience, and we hear nothing of Daedalus and his tearing grief at watching his son drown while being able to do nothing to prevent Icarus’ fall nor to save him.
But more, “All Hallows” reminds me of Anne Sexton’s “Her Kind,” a poem to which I return often. Both poems offer us housewives, though the two women are markedly different. One seems to be a career witch, the other more of a hobbyist.
BY ANNE SEXTON
I have gone out, a possessed witch,
haunting the black air, braver at night;
dreaming evil, I have done my hitch
over the plain houses, light by light:
lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind.
A woman like that is not a woman, quite.
I have been her kind.
I have found the warm caves in the woods,
filled them with skillets, carvings, shelves,
closets, silks, innumerable goods;
fixed the suppers for the worms and the elves:
whining, rearranging the disaligned.
A woman like that is misunderstood.
I have been her kind.
I have ridden in your cart, driver,
waved my nude arms at villages going by,
learning the last bright routes, survivor
where your flames still bite my thigh
and my ribs crack where your wheels wind.
A woman like that is not ashamed to die.
I have been her kind.³
The physical landscape of “Her Kind” is wider and in some ways less detailed than what we get in “All Hallows.” We see this witch both traversing the outside world and at home among her generalized possessions: “skillets, carvings, shelves,/ closets, silks, innumerable goods.” Her interior landscape is, however, excruciating delineated. The witch here, despite her healing work “rearranging the disaligned,” sees herself as wicked — though apparently she merely fantasizes about it: “dreaming evil” — and inhuman (“not a woman, quite”), mad, misunderstood, willing to die, perhaps even deserving to die. She ends defiantly, “waving [her] nude arms at villages going by,” but is wracked and tortured by the flames that bite her thigh and the wheels the crack her ribs. But both poems, “All Hallows” and “Her Kind,” make a point of contrasting the outside with the inside, of setting them in opposition to each other rather than seeing the two states on a continuum of experience.
But there are also salient differences between the poems. The wife of Glück’s poem is alone, solitary, and seems to be safe and, to some extent, in control of herself and her environment. On the other hand, the woman of Sexton’s poem ventures forth to where normal people live and she makes friends with worms and elves. She actively attempts to set right what is out of place and distorted, and she recognizes her relationship to other women: they are of a kind, a natural grouping, one that is, I think, both chosen by themselves and imposed on them by the rest of society. And she/they/we pay a steep price for inclusion in that club.
- “All Hallows” from The First Four Books of Poems by Louise Gluck. Copyright © 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974, 1975, 1976, 1977, 1978, 1979, 1980, 1985, 1995 by Louise Glück. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.
https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/49605/all-hallows; 18 October, 2020.
- https://poems.com/poem/musee-des-beaux-arts/; 18 October, 2020.
- Anne Sexton, “Her Kind” from The Complete Poems of Anne Sexton (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981). Copyright © 1981 by Linda Gray Sexton and Loring Conant, Jr. Reprinted with the permission of Sterling Lord Literistic, Inc.
https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/42560/her-kind; 18 October, 2020.