Friday, July 18, 2008



Averno by Louise Glück
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2006)

[First published in Alehouse: Poetry on Tap, Number 2, 2008, Editor Jay Rubin]

In Averno, former U.S. poet laureate and Pulitzer Prize-winner Louise Glück resurrects the Persephone myth. However, rather than affirming the cycle of life and renewal of nature, the ancient tale in Glück’s hand undercuts such natural reassurances. Glück examines death but offers little consolation. Typical of her tough-mindedness, these Averno poems are acutely nihilistic—beautiful and intellectually diamond-hard, but fatalistic just the same.

Her tone is set in the first poem, “Night Migrations,” a short lyric confronting death’s finality. It begins with “the red berries of the mountain ash / and in the dark sky / the birds’ night migrations.” The poem then grieves, knowing that the dead are denied such visual pleasures. Even so, the poem concludes—granting a crumb of consolation—perhaps the dead don’t require such pleasure: “maybe just not being is simply enough, / hard as that is to imagine.” Glück does not soften, does not elevate what she regards as bottom-line truth. Death is the end. Once that final curtain falls, there are no pretty gardens, no angels, no chances to try again. There is only the acceptance of “not being.”

In “October,” a six-part poem originally published as a chapbook, Glück explores the connections between one’s fading life and a fading year. The dimming seasons become an image for life’s final pains and agonies. Together, the four seasons do not bode renewal or rebirth. That may be true of spring. But autumn, and especially October, says something much harsher: “You will not be spared, nor will what you love be spared.” [Italics hers.] For Glück, everything disappears into death; nothing’s exempt, nothing’s spared, except perhaps the cold stars. Beyond their brilliance, they “give nothing but ask nothing.”

Picking up the familiar Persephone myth, Glück gives it a twist. Traditionally, the abduction of Persephone depicts the cycle of the seasons, with summer turning to winter, then winter renewing as summer. Life springs anew from death. But not in Averno. As these poems recast the myth, its flawed and fatal characters act out their tragedy, but to no larger significance. They cast no larger metaphorical shadow. Their actions, their mistakes, are simply their own. Persephone, for instance, though usually seen as a victim, as an innocent girl who’s kidnapped and raped, is, in Glück’s version, attracted to death. In “A Myth of Innocence,” Persephone admits that she wanted to be taken. “I was not abducted,” she reveals, “I willed this.” Her behavior is not so much innocent as ignorant: “I must have been, she thinks, a simple girl.”

This through-the-looking-glass view of the myth continues in two long poems, both titled “Persephone the Wanderer.” In the first, Glück’s Persephone wanders into a field and into another world, suggesting that her explorations caused her disappearance. She wonders whether she cooperated with her rape and describes the actual attack in blunt terms: “Persephone is having sex in hell.” There is neither sympathy for the victim, nor any sense of a larger, deeper nor more transcendent significance. The girl is “just meat.”

The other poem of that same title also retells the tale. Once again, Demeter’s grief in losing her daughter causes the onset of winter. And again, Demeter attempts to ransom her daughter with a promise of spring. But Glück’s spring comes with “small pestering breezes” and “idiot yellow flowers.” Don’t look to spring, the poem continues, for hope regarding human transcendence. Those yellow flowers may return, but not the dead. Such hope is “a dream / based on a falsehood.” The dead do not come back to us. Thinking they do, believing in anything after death, even if embodied in lovely myths, is a fiction.

The repudiation of traditional cycle-of-nature beliefs extends to other poems as well. Averno, the alluded lake outside Naples that the Romans thought led to the underworld, bathes the entire book in a passage to death. In the title poem, an elderly individual, probably male, considers his approaching death while watching two young girls on a train. They remind him of a local disaster, when a girl lit a match and set a field on fire—an echo of the wasteland in the Persephone tale. This memory leads the narrator to his final realization, that he will die and that his death will change nothing outside himself. The earth will not mourn. It simply goes on existing.


Francie Noyes is a poet and writer living in Phoenix, Arizona. Formerly a political reporter, gubernatorial press secretary and movie critic, she now focuses on poetry and film writing. Her work has appeared in Panamowa, Key West: a collection and The Anthology of New England Writers 2002.

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