The House On Marshland
Ecco Press, 1975
One bleak and bitter summer in Baguio, made colder by youthful encounters with self-inflicted sorrows (that is another story, of course), I plucked out a book from the shelves of one of our better-known poets, Maria Luisa Igloria. The book was The House on Marshland. The writer, Louise Gluck, is, according to the dedication (it was a gift for her daughter, Jenny), one of her favorite poets.
A couple of poems later, I managed to convince myself that no one would mind if I bring the book home with me (in other words, steal it) to warm Quezon City. But the next day, strangely, it disappeared.
Saved in a bizarre way from imminent theft, I have since made frequent visits to the poetic landscapes of Louise Gluck. But the one I keep coming back to is the one that literally escaped me, A House on Marshland.
While her succeeding volumes of poetry have been mainly more thematic--preoccupied with the defamiliarization and resurrection of myths--the earlier works of Gluck housed a collage of themes. First published in 1975, The House on Marshland is her second book, an important collection that iterated her distinct voice and style, perhaps paving the way for the Pulitzer Prize nearly two decades later and the Poet Laureate conferring last year.
The myriad subjects the poet tackled in this second collection were to become the building blocks of a poetics that championed fracture over wholeness, silence over exhaustive detail, and, in the words of the poet, a reluctance to conclude.
Many of the poets of the last 20 years have followed diverse roads into the lyric form. Jorie Graham, Mary Oliver, and Billy Collins are names poetry connoisseurs would easily associate with the contrasting schools of thought. Graham prefers an organic intertwining of the philosophical, historical, and personal in her subjects. Collins is preoccupied with the god of the small and mundane things. Gluck, for her part, champions the ethics of the short lyric, praising ellipses and dashes, the resonance of utterance, the authority of a pause.
There is a distinct and sonorous New Critical leaning in her concept of form that possible detractors could rarely fault her for.
What she has accomplished is to weave voice and tone with startling imagery, ultimately coming up with poetry that owe their power to utterance and some dark, ominous spirit-- what Lorca calls the duende--hovering above the page.
Gluck has lent her voice to myth, to the unspeaking, the inanimate. Reading her is to read about unearthed things. Her poetry acts as a medium speaking of the grief of plants in Wild Iris (her Pulitzer Prize-winning collection in 1992) or Penelope and Circe in Meadowlands( 1996).
The House on Marshland is read by many as a prequel of sorts to the more popular collections of Louise Gluck, but it has the same vivid imagery, and assertive voice, and well-rendered environs. Stanley Kunitz once said of her poetry: They are rooted in landscape and weather and, increasingly, in the intimacies of the heart. Though not confined by nature images, Gluck is a master at rendering nature-in-twilight imagery to express feeling in this collection. The opening poem, All Hallows, is at once ripe with scenery:
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 inpayment,
and the seeds
distinct, gold, calling
Come here, little one
And the soul creeps out of the tree.
The same darkened backdrop is kept throughout the collection, staining the greenish white blossoms of the plum tree in Flowering Plum; bravely declaring the poison of the green landscape in The Shad-blow Tree; or allowing the growth of a marsh around the house, with schools of spores/(that) circulate/behind the shades, drift through/
gauze flutterings of vegetation. (For My Mother)
The shades and late afternoon silhouettes both carry and downplay the intensity of the Gluck lyric, often speaking in place of withheld lines that would have made the poems too obvious. Gretel in Darkness, a poem that resurrects the story of the famed storybook siblings, takes flight on a psychological level--questioning happy endings, remaining trapped in the black forest evening. Gretel mutters to herself, alone and longing, driven by blood-stained thoughts, her voice mimicking fire: Nights I turn to you to hold me/but you are not there./Am I alone? Spies/hiss in the stillness, Hansel,/we are there still and it is real, real,/that black forest and the fire in earnest.
In her Proofs and Theories: Essays on Poetry (1994), Gluck describes her writing as reliant on the deflection of emotion, the power of suggestion and deliberate silence, the power of the fractured. To Autumn hints auspiciously at the success of the poet, at the same time reverberating a somewhat misplaced optimism. She writes: …I am no longer young. What/of it? Summer approaches, and the long/decaying days of autumn when I shall begin/the great poems of my middle period.
The House on Marshland is a speaking landscape, the words whispering behind the bushes, fusing with early evening half-light, drifting in the marshes, lurking beneath murky ponds.
Disappearing from shelves, I should add.
And haunting the memory.