One thing I find satisfying about a Louise Gluck book is the way each separate poem seems to comment upon, inform, and expand the work as a whole. In an essay praising George Oppen, from her book Proofs & Theories, Gluck claims to "find oddly depressing that which seems to have left nothing out. Such poetry . . . lacks magnetism, the power to seem, simultaneously, whole and not final . . . the power to generate, not annul, energy." Such an ability to be both "whole and not final" characterizes Gluck's own poems, as well. The individual poems have an integrity of their own, but they also open outward, into a type of dialogue with each other. A wonderfully charged complexity is established that makes additional readings of each particular poem very worthwhile.
In this regard, Meadowlands is perhaps one of her strongest efforts to date. Two separate narratives connect the book-the break up of a modern marriage and a re-telling of The Odyssey. By presenting the mythic alongside the everyday and contemporary, Gluck is successful in reminding us that her themes, love, grief and loss, are ones which have been with us since before there was even a written literature. And the pain and difficulty which they present us with in our own lives is the same pain and difficulty which they have always presented. This heightened awareness gives the poems a point of view which I can only characterize as being more true than the point of view usually assumed in poems about domestic sorrow and heartbreak in general.
The two separate stories shadow each other throughout the book, and form a running commentary on each other. And in some poems, the two stories are brought together directly. In the particularly touching poem "Quiet Evening," the speaker breaks off in the middle of an intimate scene with her husband to compare the two of them to Penelope and Odysseus:
More than anything in the world I love these evenings when we're together, the quiet evenings in summer, the sky still light at this hour.
So Penelope took the hand of Odysseus, not to hold him back but to impress this peace on his memory:
The speaker lifts the moment shared with her husband into the realm of the mythic. The speaker and her husband become, like Penelope and Odysseus, a figure for all lovers, and for the precious moments of closeness which lovers are able to share, despite the larger complications and pain which seems to be an inevitable part of love.
The poem ends with a type of curse: "from this point on, the silence through which you move/is my voice pursuing you." This insight, that we are always destined to be haunted by our greatest moments of peace and happiness, is what makes the poem seem so smart. But what makes the poem wise is the overall empathy and humanity expressed in the voice-the further insight that such moments are to be valued because they are perhaps one of the few experiences which unite us with what is essentially human.The texture of Meadowlands is made even richer by the presence of the characters Circe and Telemachus. Circe comments with wry intelligence on the dramas which consume mortals, and which she has somehow allowed herself to be drawn into: "Some people are pigs; I make them/look like pigs." Similarly, Telemachus provides a third analysis through which his parents, and by extension, all lovers, might be viewed. Here is the appropriately titled "Telemachus' Detachment":
When I was a child looking at my parents' lives, you know what I thought? I thought heartbreaking. Now I think heartbreaking, but also insane. Also very funny.
It is just this perspective, of seeing love and life as not only "heartbreaking," but also "insane" and, of course, "very funny," which makes Meadowlands such a deep and expansive book. Meadowlands is an important book because of this expansiveness. It is important that poets provide powerful insight into, and commentary on, the contemporary world, while still finding a way to make poetry as an art form and tradition freshly relevant and renewed. In Meadowlands, Louise Gluck has done an exemplary job of this.