The Operating System

5th ANNUAL NAPOMO 30/30/30 :: Day 19 :: Rachel Abramowitz on Louise Glück

It’s hard to believe that this is our FIFTH annual 30/30/30 series, and that when this month is over we will have seeded and scattered ONE HUNDRED and FIFTY of these love-letters, these stories of gratitude and memory, into the world. Nearly 30 books, 3 magazines, countless events and online entries later, and this annual celebration shines like a beacon at the top of the heap of my very favorite things to have brought into being. [If you’re interested in going back through the earlier 120 entries, you can find them (in reverse chronological order) here.]

When I began this exercise on my own blog, in 2011, I began by speaking to National Poetry Month’s beginnings, in 1966, and wrote that my intentions “for my part, as a humble servant and practitioner of this lovely, loving art,” were to post a poem and/or brief history of a different poet…. as well as write and post a new poem a day. I do function well under stricture, but I soon realized this was an overwhelming errand.

Nonetheless the idea stuck — to have this month serve not only as one in which we flex our practical muscles but also one in which we reflect on inspiration, community, and tradition — and with The Operating System (then Exit Strata) available as a public platform to me, I invited others (and invited others to invite others) to join in the exercise. It is a series which perfectly models my intention to have the OS serve as an engine of open source education, of peer to peer value and knowledge circulation.

Sitting down at my computer so many years ago I would have never imagined that in the following five years I would be able to curate and gather 150 essays from so many gifted poets — ranging from students to award winning stars of the craft, from the US and abroad — to join in this effort. But I’m so so glad that this has come to be.

Enjoy! And share widely.

– Lynne DeSilva-Johnson, Managing Editor/Series Curator

RACHEL ABRAMOWITZ on LOUISE GLÜCK

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I can’t claim to have been a huge Glück fan. Since high school I have loved the bombastics, the weirdos, the fresh-out-of-MFA peacocks. They are clever and surreal—their poems shore up Diet Mountain Dew and country music, text messages and everything bagels. They are good and young and mostly male.

Glück, by comparison, writes with the quietness and measure of someone for whom the contortions of her own youthful illusions are weird enough. A woman’s life, from start to finish, is weird enough. 

The girl is smaller than the other kids in the class, who are, themselves, closer to childhood than to adulthood. She shifts in her seat every few minutes, as if somehow the dinner-plate of a desk is swallowing her up and she has to keep moving to stay afloat. Her hair is the color of wet sand, and when a lock of it falls across her forehead she doesn’t push it out of her eyes. I want to push it out of her eyes.

She hasn’t said all that much this past week, and we only have one week left of the Kenyon Review Young Writers Workshop. Ohio is heated and heavy, likely to rain and saturate the dense grass so that anything but flip-flops are a soggy choice. This is my first trip to Ohio, though my father was born in Columbus and still speaks of it nostalgically from the relative cosmopolis of San Francisco. I’ve somehow landed a Summer Fellow position, second in command to a veteran instructor whose work I admire. We talk about the students outside of class as if we’ve known them their whole lives.

The girl’s poems are sophisticated and brave. Sometimes they bite.

At the end of the week, the instructors hold a kind of poetry Fight Club. Our kids are sent to the library to find a poet or writer whose work is so devastating, whose lines (cherrypicked, of course, and taken out of context) will decimate his or her opponent-poet. Each class’s winner will go on to compete against the other classes. Our class’s tournament bracket fills with Pound, Heaney, Plath—even Bashō shows up. There are, this time, two Glücks: the girl, and a boy.

I can’t claim to have been a huge Glück fan. Since high school I have loved the bombastics, the weirdos, the fresh-out-of-MFA peacocks. They are clever and surreal—their poems shore up Diet Mountain Dew and country music, text messages and everything bagels. They are good and young and mostly male. Glück, by comparison, writes with the quietness and measure of someone for whom the contortions of her own youthful illusions are weird enough. A woman’s life, from start to finish, is weird enough.

The Myth Of Innocence

One summer she goes into the field as usual
stopping for a bit at the pool where she often
looks at herself, to see
if she detects any changes. She sees
the same person, the horrible mantle
of daughterliness still clinging to her.

The sun seems, in the water, very close.
That’s my uncle spying again, she thinks—
everything in nature is in some way her relative.
I am never alone, she thinks,
turning the thought into a prayer.
Then death appears, like the answer to a prayer.

No one understands anymore
how beautiful he was. But Persephone remembers.
Also that he embraced her, right there,
with her uncle watching. She remembers
sunlight flashing on his bare arms.

This is the last moment she remembers clearly.
Then the dark god bore her away.

She also remembers, less clearly,
the chilling insight that from this moment
she couldn’t live without him again.

The girl who disappears from the pool
will never return. A woman will return,
looking for the girl she was.

She stands by the pool saying, from time to time,
I was abducted, but it sounds
wrong to her, nothing like what she felt.
Then she says, I was not abducted.
Then she says, I offered myself, I wanted
to escape my body. Even, sometimes,
I willed this. But ignorance

cannot will knowledge. Ignorance
wills something imagined, which it believes exists.

All the different nouns—
she says them in rotation.
Death, husband, god, stranger.
Everything sounds so simple, so conventional.
I must have been, she thinks, a simple girl.

She can’t remember herself as that person
but she keeps thinking the pool will remember
and explain to her the meaning of her prayer
so she can understand
whether it was answered or not.

The tournament brackets narrow: Bashō vs. Glück (the boy) and Steinbeck vs. Glück (the girl). Glück the Girl wipes the floor with Steinbeck; all his frontier masculinity doesn’t stand a chance against:

How can you say
earth should give me joy? Each thing
born is my burden; I cannot succeed
with all of you.

Bashō is harder to beat:

Don’t imitate me;
it’s as boring
as the two halves of a melon.

The votes are collected; with Bashō defeated, the final round pits Glück against Glück. Glück the Boy looks into his opponent’s eyes, speaks loudly and assuredly:

I have a friend who still believes in heaven.
Not a stupid person, yet with all she knows, she literally talks to God.

A collective “Ooooohhhhh” whips around the room. These jaded teenagers are into it. The boy steps back, crosses his arms, and awaits the counterattack.

I’ve watched an adult woman’s words come out of a teenaged girl’s mouth for several rounds now. It’s uncanny. She can’t possibly know much about marriage, or death, or despair, or faith. How can one know about snow or midnight or October if one hasn’t lived to see all that many of them? Even in my thirties, I only understand that I could not be more unprepared to understand. Perhaps this is why I have gravitated toward the sparkle and shine of young poets who can also only stand outside of despair and midnight. But there’s something about this girl that stands inside the poem and stays.

The audience quiets. The girl looks up into the boy’s face with an expression I haven’t seen in the whole two weeks. She is solid, her small body takes up space. Although her voice is soft, everyone in the room will hear her.

[T]hat’s what you want, that’s the object: in the end,
the one who has nothing wins.

Rachel Abramowitz’s poems and reviews have appeared in Sprung FormalCrazyhorseOxonian ReviewPOOLjubilantTransomInter|ruptureColorado Review, and Painted Bride Quarterly. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the University of Oxford, and teaches at Barnard College in New York.

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