Louise Glück – Faithful and Virtuous Night

Full Disclosure: Have read a little of Glück’s work, know a few folks who are big fans. This copy kindly donated by the Forward Prize folks.

Review: In an interview with the Poetry Foundation, Glück talks about the difficulty of approaching your 13th collection, about the heavy expectations on a career spanning half a century, and how even (or especially) now writer’s block and creative exhaustion are real and present threats to the artist’s emotional state. It’s a revealing interview, and I’ll come back to it later.

Faithful and Virtuous Night draws partly from the poet’s memories of childhood and partly from an imminent fear of mortality, and relates these stories through a very loose kind of free verse, including several prose pieces. They suffer from serious poemyness; the characters say poem things and explicate at length its metaphorical import. Some of the book’s epiphanies have to be read to be believed, poems routinely ramble to a halt, and subtext contentedly sits where the text should be.

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The collection is about beginnings and endings, and doesn’t let the reader forget it: ‘It had occurred to me that all human beings are divided / into those who wish to move forward / and those who wish to go back’, ‘It has come to seem / There is no perfect ending. / Indeed, there are infinite endings. / Or perhaps, once one begins, / there are only endings.’ (both from the title poem). In ‘Cornwall’:

‘It was all, of course, a great mistake.
I was, I believed, facing the end:
like a fissure in a dirt road,
the end appeared before me –
as though the tree that confronted my parents
had become an abyss shaped like a tree, a black hole
expanding in the dirt […]’

Nothing gives me night terrors like the thought that one day just all of this will be over. I do sympathise. But the book’s poems about death are lazy, overseasoned and undercooked. I read some of the more portentous lines to Rachel, who suggested reading them in the voice of the narrator from Welcome to Night Vale. The book’s stories are mannerly, civilised and tedious, concerning a rarefied world safely detached from recognisable emotion, and by god they talk about it at length. The opening poem, ‘Parable’, talks about a group readying for a great quest, who instead spend years planning it and arguing about it instead. Eventually:

‘one said, ah, behold how we have aged, traveling
from day to night only, neither forward nor sideward, and this seemed
in a strange way miraculous. And those who believed we should have a purpose
believed this was the purpose, and those who felt we must remain free
in order to encounter truth felt it had been revealed.’

‘Ah’. The last lines are hand-wavy philosophising of the worst order, and a conclusion few who haven’t made a living from writing could come to; note the easy consensus the entire party arrives at, the open and closed debate. I’m deeply suspicious of any ‘parable’ that answers its own question. The book’s full of this sort of self-congratulation and intellectual flea-dressing. ‘The Sword in the Stone’ has the narrator with her analyst: ‘it seemed to bring out in me / a sly vivaciousness I was / inclined to repress. My analyst’s / indifference to my performances / was now immensely soothing’. If the poem has something to say regarding mental health and its stigmas, it is hidden behind flat versifying and an insistence on dour respectability: ‘Then the hour was over. // I descended as I had ascended; / the doorman opened the door’. Later in the same poem, she meets a friend for dinner and a ‘small argument […] ostensibly / concerning aesthetics’: ‘He was a writer. His many novels, at the time, / were much praised. One was much like another.’ Jesus. I think the tone is supposed to be tongue-in-cheek, a sort of knowing raffishness, but largely thanks to the poem’s bottomless fascination with itself it comes over as tiresome humblebragging.

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In ‘The White Series’ the poet moves in with her brother, ‘when my funds were gone’. In ‘a small house on my brother’s land / in the state of Montana’, the narrator ‘gave drawing lessons to my brother’s wife’, who ‘would stand mesmerized […] I see, she would say, the face of a child. // She meant, I think, that feelings emanated from the surface, / feelings of helplessness or desolation’. The presumptuousness is a little disturbing, not least when put into the poem’s real-world context. There is a poem called ‘The Melancholy Assistant’, in which the eponymous helpmeet, on telling the ‘Master (which was his name for me)’ of his inability to carry out his duties:

‘pointed to his eyes,
which were full of tears. I can weep, he said.
Then you must weep for me, I told him,
as Christ wept for mankind.’

Christ indeed wept. You get the picture. It’s been a long time since I’ve been this numbed by a collection, which could stand as a case study of how to mistrust your first creative impulses, or how a poem that feels like it has effortlessly attained deep significance might just have used the words ‘night’ ‘darkness’ ‘Not changeable, she said, like human beings’ and ‘Infinite, infinite – that / was her perception of time’. To go back to that interview, here’s Glück on the book’s early reception:

‘As for this book, any time your work changes, the potential for public humiliation intensifies. […] When I was first reading Meadowlands after The Wild Iris, audiences were not pleased; a certain dismay emanated from them. They wanted more flowers, more lyric extravagance. But I had done what I could, for the moment, with lyric extravagance; I wanted a more panoramic, worldly book. The first time I read Faithful and Virtuous Night at Yale, I had the sense the audience was completely aghast. Not spellbound. Horrified.’

Though there is of course a valuable tension in being wary of pleasing your audience, there is little to be gained from blaming then projecting ill-will onto them. Earlier in the same interview she frames the book’s publication as being ‘kidnapped by the world’. Faithful and Virtuous Night gives barely a second thought for the reader’s experience, and there is little to recommend it.

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Tl;dr: Nope. Suspect this book’s inclusion on the shortlist is a canny decision to attract American readers, as Jorie Graham and D.Nurkse have in previous years. Readers new to Glück should go back to her earlier work to see what she’s previously been capable of.

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Hugo Williams – I Knew the Bride

Full Disclosure: Haven’t read any of Williams before. Faber poets don’t tend to do well on this blog.

Review: [A pre-review aside: Williams is currently searching for a kidney donor. Going by the campaign’s Facebook page, potential donors have been found. I sincerely wish him and his family all the best of luck.]

I Knew the Bride is an extended examination of loss and mortality, told with Williams’ characteristic whimsical airiness and plain speech. Its occasional lyrics are spread between two long sequences, ‘Now That I’ve Forgotten Brighton’, about the breakup of a relationship and ‘From the Dialysis Ward’, as mentioned above. The book kicks off fairly well, with ‘New Year Poem’, a wryly sad and slightly resigned piece about the increasing difficulty of getting out of bed: ‘The day is difficult to start. / I leave it at the top of a hill / the night before.’ This, as is tradition, is the best written and most deeply felt individual poem in the collection.

By contrast, ‘Now that I’ve Forgotten Brighton’ is a distinctly thin, often adolescent account of a breakup that kind of plays on the logical joke in the title, but is more consistently a fairly mopey response to amorous failure: ‘It should have been okay / but it turned out not to be’, ‘I suppose you’re right and breaking up / would be quite a good thing, / but staying together would be an equally good thing’, ‘I can only look on, while my hand / dials a number it knows by heart […] I will her hand not to pick up’. I imagine the simplistic register is a deliberate decision, but the poems lack sincere or difficult self-questioning, dampening their emotional power. The poem after this sequence, ‘Actaeon’ (the hunter killed by his own hounds in punishment for seeing the goddess Diana bathing), does a fine job of brushing off any remaining sympathy by kicking off with ‘I thought of all my girlfriends / gathered together on a stage’, ‘‘I didn’t know you girls all / knew one another’, I said, / seeing only a tumble of looks and limbs.’ Again, there’s probably some self-parody going on (you’d hope), but it’s clumsy and facile and presents more than it challenges. A similar scene in performs this exact function far more perceptively. Hot on ‘Actaeon’’s heels is ‘Twenty Yards Behind’, a villanelle with such insights as ‘All those things men find so intense / women take as the most tender nonsense’. One of the rhyme-words is ‘detumescence’.

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The title poem, an elegy for the poet’s sister, quite clearly opens some raw and painful wounds, but in execution the piece feels a touch too allusive, a little too fixed in personal anecdote to gain traction as a public gesture; it introduces a number of reminiscences without slowing down to properly engage with them, and the poem peters out. The proceeding individual lyrics are little stories about railway porters, life at public school in the fifties, and an ill-advised fantasy about acquiring organs called ‘The Chinese Stock Exchange’ in which a ‘teenage con-girl in martial arts gear’ and a ‘man in pyjamas’ say ‘You pay me now I come back later’ and ‘Tonight very busy night’ respectively. There’s no excuse for deploying ethnic stereotypes for comic effect, and these pieces are united in their failure to fully explore their lyric conceits. One bright spot is a terrific translation of Cavafy’s ‘Garments’, short enough to quote in full:

In an old trunk or in an ebony chest
I put away the yellow clothes of my childhood,
my favourite yellow clothes.

I put away the blue clothes I wore as a boy,
the blue clothes that boys always wear,
followed by the red clothes of my youth,

the exciting red clothes of a young man.
I put away the red clothes, then I put away
the blue clothes again, more faded this time.

I wear black clothes. I live in a black house.
Sometimes at night I open the ebony chest
and gaze with longing at my beautiful clothes.

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The closing section, ‘From the Dialysis Ward’ feels like nothing so much as a missed opportunity. Again, there’s little sense of difficult questions being asked by the poems; many are straightforward reportage, including disdain for a male nurse in ‘A Healthy Interest’, (‘He looks disappointed with me. / My indifference in fear, he says. / I need to take an interest in my case’) and objectification of a female nurse in ‘The Angel of the Needles’: ‘The beauty of the Indian nurse / puts the fear of God in me […] Did she have to take a needling test / like other mortals? / Or did they let her in / for being one of the angels? // I want her to like me’. She’s a medical professional. This is not complicated. ‘Prayer Before Sleeping’ is the most effective poem in the sequence, aiming as it does for a sense of hopelessness, desperation and fear, ‘Slip me some sort of clue / that knows what to do with me / and I promise I’ll be good.’ It’s a moment that stands out for its clear-sightedness.

[Post-review aside: there’s a quote in the back cover of I Knew the Bride from Edna Longley, aka my hero, describing Williams as ‘Possibly the most original poet of his generation.’ Longley’s quote in fact refers to the 1985 collection Writing Home, and reads, ‘Possibly the most original poet of his generation in England.’ Omitting the quote’s full context is petty misinformation, and that sort of thing bugs the life out of me.]

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Tl;dr: I Knew the Bride doesn’t deserve its spot on the shortlist by the quality of writing alone. The poems feel rushed and unpolished, and some of the writing’s underlying messages are unexamined and harmful. There are a few moments of real accomplishment, but these are few and far between the book’s formally and thematically scattershot entries.

Michael Symmons Roberts – Drysalter

Statement of Prejudice: I’m largely indifferent to Roberts. I remember thinking his interview on the SPL podcast was pretty self-congratulatory, and what I’ve read of his work doesn’t do a lot for me. That this seems to be a concept album – 150 poems meeting the 150 Psalms, each 15 lines long – doesn’t fill me with confidence, nor does the fact that it was named the Poetry Book Society’s summer choice in February, two months prior to its release. I suspect there’s a totally logical but ultimately saddening reason for that being totally above board.

Reality: Reading a long series of MSR’s poetry is like a boring friend tell you about a fashionable party they went to. He talks (at length) with a cosy satisfaction that comes with the assurance that no matter what one’s audience thinks, one knows how cool one is. Several of these poems I wanted to pour cold water over. And not even because any are outrageously bad

(whatever bad means: if, as I usually do, you take bad to mean something that leaves little/no emotional/mnemonic impact then most poems are bad. What makes these poems worse is that their internal meaning-mechanisms seem to have passed through the checkpoints of the poet’s internal border control without once presenting their documents. MEANING that when a poem titled “Elegy for John Milton” (e.g.) goes, stanza by stanza: i) a brief contextualising of Milton’s relationship to his contemporary national politics; ii) a suggestion that Milton could hear, on his deathbed ‘dog duets, car-alarms, twenty-four-hour news / evacuations, bomb scares, marching troops’ (note how MSR turns seamlessly from things that one can physically hear to things one cannot (and back) without pausing to alter the syntax. Doubtless to someone this is proof of his wizardry but it feels lazy and contemptuous in a poem which is itself lazy and contemptuous of anyone trying to follow its logic (however dreamy and big idea-d it might be) the way human beings tend to. I’m all in favour of dislocating your narrative and challenging the reader, but even dream-logic demands consistent dream-logic. Lorca didn’t bloviate on local politics midway through Gypsy Ballads. For a poem to have any impact it has to respect the mind of its reader/listener, and there’s a huge difference between something that takes easy-to-follow-but-unexpected turns and the poetry version of Calvinball. I realise I say this so deep in parentheses I have little hope of escape.); iii) an image of an untended Eden so stock Kodak ought to copyright it; iv) ‘buddleia, cotoneaster, ragwort, / bindweed, russian vine, dead nettle, ivy, / on the edge of evolving into song.’ Not only is this closure largely nicked and largely unaltered from Michael Longley’s “The Ice-Cream Man” (read it), it means almost nothing. This is what Paterson describes as pumping profundity into a poem at the last minute in a grasp for significance, in an attempt to surreptitiously slip the reader the surface in place of the substance, try to cover up their lack of finish. Which I’ve said before, but it’s one of poetry’s diseases-in-trade, and demands the ability to tell between the forged note and the true mint.)

but that they try to present extremes of emotion in a dull and uninterested timbre, one that is unwavering and creepingly oppressive over the course of the book. The voice is instructive, intimately command-giving, and wholly lacking in empathy, either for you or the subject matter. Imagine telling someone a really clever and witty joke and them saying, flatly, ‘that’s hilarious’.

that's hilarious
that’s hilarious

What’s left is a book much like several others by similarly self-involved, middle-aged, middle-class straight white men with Ted Hughes fixations and an uncomfortable penchant for airing their sexual fantasies in public (“To An Immortal II” has the Gaimanesque nerve to paint a scenario in which a deathless woman wants to give the writer a shifty), and MSR just doesn’t do enough to set himself apart from the pack. What the book particularly lacks is a sense of humour about itself, that canny self-awareness the best writers deploy at opportune moments to vent the pressure of their presented egos. As a counterpoint, this opener from “What the Body Cannot Hold”: ‘I regard myself as – let’s say – Tokyo’. Few single lines of verse have so viscerally made my skin crawl. I expect it’s intended for urbane chuckles but it made me want to hurl the book out a closed window. This is not to mention that the very fact of these poems works against the likelihood of their success. Not only does the form warp many poems out of their natural shape but their sheer number virtually ensures there’s a lot of horse in the beef mince. With the best will in the world only a very few individuals have written 150 good poems in their lifetime, and for all MSR’s fine ear for the singing line and active imagination, this would have been a strong, even powerful book had it been half as long.

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To speculate to a hopefully constructive end, I suspect writing this many poems requires a certain amount of automatic function, giving (ideally) the subconscious room to breathe but also (realistically) allowing some of the more received ideas of one’s cultural immersion a free pass, as well as dropping the old quality control a few clicks. There are small moments of snobbery dotted throughout the book, the casual and unexamined reproofs to stock modern villains (financiers pop up on a few occasions) which set up a very clear an Us and Them scenario, seemingly designed (if not purely then largely) to leave the speaking voice very safely on the respectable side.

What MSR does exceedingly well is the construction of individual rhythmical units: though the lack of cumulative punch may ultimately let the book down, the poet’s ear for meter is near flawless, and the vast majority of pieces in Drysalter read elegantly and smoothly. Of course, as mentioned before, this also has a dampening effect on the poems’ content, and the few game attempts MSR makes at either rhyme or ballad meter (“Automatic Soothsayer Booth” being a particularly sketchy example) lack the confidence and significance necessary to pull off their set missions.

The book isn’t a total wash: the fact that so many poems sounding like a poem-a-day exercise manual means there’s certainly a range of engaging tidbits to pick over and think about how they could be improved – a deeper engagement with and curiosity about the individual subjects at hand would be an excellent start, see review of Michael Pedersen for a longer para on specificity – and while there are a few genuinely accomplished and moving pieces (“Excise Me”, a poem about a metamorphosed heart is excellent, as is the powerfully suggestive nightmare “What the Night Told Me”, while “Abyss of Birds” is a beautiful encapsulation of what it means to be a flock of thrushes), it’s difficult to leave the book with more than when you arrived. The poems don’t build on one another’s foundations, barely talk to one another in terms of theme and focus, and only a very few are alert to the possibility that the book’s presiding voice is outstaying its welcome.

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Tl;dr: Drysalter suffers from exactly the problems you’d anticipate of such a long book with such strict rules – too many unpolished pieces, noise that dulls out signal, irony fatigue, a growing impatience for the writer to get to the point. The biggest problem, of course, is that this book will almost certainly win; it’s written by a long-established and well-connected writer (five collections) with an extensive CV (much of it on BBC Radio) and a truckload of previous awards. He even wrote a book with one of the judges, Paul Farley. Who of course will be objective but it doesn’t hurt that he wrote a pull quote for the bloody thing. I’d love to be optimistic and say Sinead Morrissey’s Parallax (which I have high hopes for) has a chance or even Jacob Polley’s commendable The Havocs, but Forward have crowned some stinkers lately (’12: Jorie bloody Graham, ’11: John bloody Burnside, ’10: Seamus Heaney’s most pedestrian book) and are unlikely to rock the boat this time. We’ll see. For now, don’t waste your time on Drysalter.