The Wild Iris

Review of Louise Gluck’s poetry reading, in which I hallucinated colors, encountered the poet, & learned the the weight of sadness a poet brings to a reading cannot defeat the strength of the poem; but the weight of sadness within a poem can certainly crush a poet.

The very first paper I wrote for a college class was a three-page essay, deconstructing the details in a poem of my choice, for which I picked Louise Gluck’s “The Red Poppy.” My thesis was that this poem was “awesome beyond compare” & i  tried to cover every possible meaning it could be applied to. This initial interest led me much of Gluck’s other beautiful verse. Her books of poetry were remarkably operatic in form, lyrically driven with an underlying narrative tying them all together like roots of the same forest. However, it was my familiarity with this first poem, the way it stirred me early on in my academic years, that drove me to see her when the opportunity arose. I imagined that the lady behind that poem & many great others, would have a strong presence; That she would be ridiculously witty & probably always have a fierce look in her eye. However, this wasn’t the case. The person I listened to, the poet I met, had the poise of the most fragile of flowers – a wild iris – & caused me to wonder if the poet owns the poems as much as the poems own the poet.

When she took the stage, Louise Gluck talked briefly about “voice” & how the way she read the poems aloud had changed over the years. What poems she once read with confident aggression, she now half-whispered, while poems that would once provoke tears from her were now sung like defiant mantras. She wanted to show us the spectrum of her voice while spanning her wide arc of work, starting from her newest book of poems & moving back, a couple easy pieces at a time.  

Her words were as articulate as grains of sand, flowing down the funnel of an hour glass; where below, each poem collected as a pyramid of meaning, a tiny mountain of time. Her poems aren’t particularly enigmatic, she just has powerful ways of saying things & the feeling she puts behind those words was unmistakably clear. Her voice was a light crying wind breaking on the window-panes of my soul and, sometimes, blew right thru me. “But the light will give us no peace” – goosebumps! She seemed to howl her poems, lacing words together so as to sound like a singing glass-rim, hypnotic but held by infinite sadness. She said the way she read each poem would be different (didn’t she?), but while I listened with rapt attention, I could not discern the difference in her tone one way or the other. The way she read thru all of them was consistently down-right melancholic.

Even while reading the poem ‘The Red Poppy’ which I’d always believed to sound fierce & defiant, she made sound impossibly frail; that’s when I had the thought that this very poem might capture the character of Louise Gluck fairly accurately.The words were sung, not just spoken, & it told of her maturing – but instead of opening further in her age, the window had passed, & as the poem insisted, she was closing. She spoke “because (she) was shattered.” Voice aside, in listening to the words themselves, I had vivid hallucinations of her use of color. At one point, she spoke of the shadows of one blue stretching thru another shade of blue & I saw it so perfectly before my own eyes I gasped.

I was excited to approach her & as I got to the table I had to crouch down on my heels to be on eye level with her ’cause I towered over her. I think she liked that, ’cause she only smiled once & it was as I bent down. She seemed existentially bored with where she was. I thanked her for coming & slipped her a little index card with a few kind words. She asked me my name, which she misspelled even tho i did spell it out for her. I got a sense that she was somewhat vacant. She seemed so fragile, folded up at that little table, even tho she was surrounded by an arsenal of her own books. Where was her humor? Where hid that shining wit?

I can understand that, as a professional poet, one might become exhausted always feeling so emotionally exposed after a reading. People probably come up to you and imagine they know how you are. But these were excuses that didn’t quite explain her situation. Gluck had ventured thru some heavily emotional territory in the reading & this separation from the present was her best defense mechanism. She was naturally protecting herself as a person, closing to the admiring individual what the poet had just opened to her readers.

It occurred to me that there is a time when the poet does own their own words, but after a while, all the poems end up dominating the whole of the poet. I wondered if it wouldn’t be better to be driven stark raving mad by one’s own words rather than broken (or appear to be) by them.

I felt moved by Louise’s words & grateful for the lesson her presence taught me: the power of words mostly projects the strength of a poet – that is, the written word can have the voice of a tiger, even if the poet has the soul of a hare, but when the poet speaks, this illusion is revealed – but this don’t change the sheer jungle ferocity inherent in them words.

The Red Poppy, by Louise Gluck

The great thing 

is not having

a mind. Feelings:

oh, I have those; they

govern me. I have

a lord in heaven

called the sun, and open

for him, showing him

the fire of my own heart, fire

like his presence.

What could such glory be

if not a heart? Oh my brothers and sisters,

were you like me once, long ago,

before you were human? Did you

permit yourselves

to open once, who would never

open again? Because in truth

I am speaking now

the way you do. I speak

because I am shattered.

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