Thursday, November 19, 2009

Louise Glück’s “In The Plaza”




“It is so obviously the most miraculous thing to do” responds Louise Glück to the question of writing poetry in the short documentary film series The Poet’s View put together by the Academy of American Poets ( a great gift, by the way, for that "hard-to-buy-for-poet" in your family). I picked up her new book A Village Life published by FSG the other week and a few days later another copy of it arrived in the mail. It seems my good friend and fellow poet Paul Vermeersch had bought it too and finding it a “warm, open and generous collection”, he sent me a copy of it in the mail at his own expense. Good guy, that Paul.

In an earlier essay called "Staying News: A Defense of the Lyric" in Poets Teaching Poets: Self And The World, Joan Aleshire repudiates those who tagged Glück earlier in her career as “a confessional and idiosyncratic subjective poet” by explaining Glück “is interested in ‘gospel,’ not in ‘gossip,’ the experience itself, not the literal details.”

Aleshire goes on to talk about one of Glück’s more well known poems Mock Orange, calling it “an argument between two parts of the self: the one that needs to believe—in love, in union with another; and the one that knows such belief is self-deception, but will go on being deceived.”

This started me thinking about a new poem called “In The Plaza” from Glück’s new collection A Village Life. Here is the poem in its entirety:

In The Plaza

For two weeks he’s been watching the same girl,
someone he sees in the plaza. In her twenties maybe,
drinking coffee in the afternoon, the little dark head
bent over a magazine.
He watches from across the square, pretending
to be buying something, cigarettes, maybe a bouquet of flowers.

Because she doesn’t know it exists,
her power is very great now, fused to the needs of his imagination.
He is her prisoner. She says the words he gives her
in a voice he imagines, low-pitched and soft,
a voice from the south as the dark hair must be from the south.

Soon she will recognize him, then begin to expect him.
And perhaps then every day her hair will be freshly washed,
she will gaze outward across the plaza before looking down.
And after that they will become lovers.

But he hopes this will not happen immediately
since whatever power she exerts now over his body, over his emotions,
she will have no power once she commits herself—

she will withdraw into that private world of feeling
women enter when they love. And living there, she will become
like a person who casts no shadow, who is not present in the world;
in that sense, so little use to him
it hardly matters whether she lives or dies.

That same tension found in Mock Orange between sex and its resulting unfulfillment, the longing for union and the awareness that such union is never truly possible, situates itself again in this poem, but here Glück, in the role of omniscient narrator, conceives of a young couple in a plaza within her fictional village to play out this struggle between human desire and human folly.

In the poem’s beginning, the man is gazing at the young woman who is completely unaware of his interest in her which is the main source of her sexual allure and power over him:

Because she doesn’t know it exists,
her power is very great now, fused to the needs of his imagination.
He is her prisoner. She says the words he gives her
in a voice he imagines, low-pitched and soft,
a voice from the south as the dark hair must be from the south.

Glück lets readers know through her spare, almost clinical regard that the young woman will eventually “recognize him, then begin to expect him” and later “after that, they will become lovers”. This is when the young woman will lose her uniqueness, her great power over the man, for such a union, the consummation of desire, comes with a price—a lessening of one’s self:

she will have no power once she commits herself—

she will withdraw into that private world of feeling
women enter when they love. And living there, she will become
like a person who casts no shadow, who is not present in the world;

It is her separateness from the young man that he actually covets; her unconscious mind wholly unaware of his conscious assessment of her. It is the young woman’s essential mystery that he yearns to possess, that holds him prisoner, but once this is gone, shortly after he has possessed her, she becomes “so little use to him / it hardly matters whether she lives or dies.”

In Louise Glück’s poetry, sex and love are viewed as abandonment, the surrender of the self, but tempered by the knowledge that such surrender is always momentary, never lasting. In her essay, Joan Aleshire makes an interesting statement about the earlier poem Mock Orange but she could just as easily have been talking about this new poem: “The longing for union combined with the knowledge that union can’t be truly achieved makes the poem’s argument acutely complex and dramatic.”

If you liked this poem, treat yourself to Louise Glück’s new collection A Village Life.

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