Conversational Tones

A Village Life, Louise Gluck (72 pp, 9.95, Carcanet)

Modern American poetry often seems to have an assured, inconsequential sense of drift unavailable to English writers. The American poet is no less aware of formal patterning, sudden illuminations, the casual, ironic undercutting phrase than the English writer, but there's a sense of looseness, a suppleness to be found in some American poetry that seems very elusive elsewhere. Maybe they just play free verse tennis more expertly than we do ?

This new collection of Gluck's work finds this Pulitzer Prize-winning poet  writing with grace and assurance about human time, dreams, adolescence (especially) and the quotidian rituals of everyday life. At times, there is a conversational, authentic sense to the writing not a million miles from Robert Frost: 'Burning Leaves' (one of three poems titled thus)  covers very similar subject-matter and stops short of overt symbolism at the end: 'it is obvious they are not defeated, / merely dormant or resting, though no one knows / whether they represent life or death.' There is a casual shrug here highly reminiscent of Frost's 'Gathering Leaves' or 'A Leaf-Treader' and it's seen also in 'Sunset' and longer pieces like 'March' ['It's a little early for all this'] with very fine attention to tonal variation.

Read through, the poems work incrementally, though I'm unconvinced by the blurb-writer's hints that the whole collection is carefully-patterned. The poems about adolescence, mostly written as past tense narrative memories, veer close to confessional without ever fully embracing the mode: 'Midsummer', one of the most affecting, recalls swimming in an old quarry in the evening, eating peaches, waiting for the heat to break in the Summer. It sounds worryingly like the plot of an early Bruce Springsteen song, but there is no bombast, nor forced rhetoric here: the voice of the poet quietly goes on talking, recalling 'we could see a baby was going to come out of all that kissing', discussing the daring surrenders, the pairing-off, and eventually, the sense of loss recovered in adulthood when thinking back at those times. 'At the Dance' takes this story a stage or two further, exploring the puzzled sense of loss that time passing often brings: 'how were these things decided?'
The narrative sense thickens when you notice the constant use of the third person, so that when Glck switches to what sounds like a personal anecdote - 'When I'm in moods like that...' ('Via Delle Ombre') there is a slight frisson. Mostly, however, there is a sense of  personal displacement at work here which helps avoid the dramatic plunge into confessional. This avoidance of rhetorical technical gestures lends a strangely understated timbre to many of these poems, and although there are Mediterranean references, much of the setting here feels like some backwater of the American Midwest, although this may be a function of the backward glances in many of them. This is a collection which grows in power on re-reading and the quiet insistence of the voice in these poems becomes very compelling.

     Martin Caseley 2010