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Dispatches from the present


A Form of Respect


Louise. That was what her students called her. Not Professor Glück, and not even simply Professor.

She came to campus for two days each week, to teach her classes during the fall semesters. I have a sense, now, of what kind of stamina this requires, but at the time, the fact that she lived several hours away made her mysterious. She traveled with minimal luggage—a small overnight bag. One outfit, she once told me. It almost always included a bracelet of skull beads, carved and strung on a thread. I don’t reveal these details in the interest of fashion, but more to say how exacting she was about taste, how she held everything about herself to a predetermined standard, with a decisiveness that approached the oracular. I don’t think she ever missed a class. Tuesday would arrive and she’d appear, in her office at the top of the stairs.

I’ll never forget the feeling of sitting with her there, or later, in her kitchen in Cambridge, sliding a poem across the table and hiding the shaking in my hands. To be read by her was to be seen wholly, and with a strange impartiality, as if the self were secondary to the potential vitality of the poem’s presence. She would sway slightly as she read, especially if the music of the lines felt real to her, if it was strong enough to capture her ear. Then she would pause, and, with a quick diagonal slip of the pen, cancel out a line, a stanza, a section. Even more than for music, she read for intensity, a compression and durability of voice. As she talked, the marks she made sprawled between lines, bracketing and zigzagging in ballpoint as if the poem were a glass vessel and her pen could illuminate the fissures, places where, under pressure, it would crack. Her hopes for the poem were contagious. If you failed to improve it, she told you. She was allergic to deference, to romanticizing the creative self.

When I met her, I was nineteen. I took her poetry course in the first semester of my freshman year without having read a single line of her work. Then, over winter break, I went to the library and borrowed all of it, awed by her power, any lingering resistance to her comments fading away.

Hers was the first lyric voice I’d encountered that dared to cross into the nonhuman, as flowers—the bulb of the wild iris as a “consciousness / buried in the dark earth,” troubling, at will, the barrier between life and death. That year, my father was dying, and her voice reached me with the sheer scope of what it could summon, as in these lines from Averno (2006):

Who can say what the world is? The world
is in flux, therefore
unreadable, the winds shifting,
the great plates invisibly shifting and changing—

It impressed me that the same poet could be so tectonic and yet cajoling, wearing bravado as a kind of casualness. Safer to say, it stunned me. I wanted, badly, to learn how to keep speaking through the sudden silences of absence, as she kept on speaking.

Though she wrote as if she had nothing to lose, her daring wasn’t hubris—quite the opposite. She gave voice to the seasons of an indifferent, tender earth, her logic anchored in the relentless advancing of time, a kind of perpetual vanitas. Against the bedrock of these endings, life bloomed ferociously. She once told me that she wrote The Wild Iris (1992) after a winter of silence when all she could bring herself to read were garden catalogs.

I often teach her poem “Nostos,” about a tree that bloomed on her childhood birthdays, and how quickly memory can become suspect, already halfway to mythology. Few have crafted a voice that can approach these transformations with such fluency, such devastating wit. “I became a criminal when I fell in love,” she writes in Meadowlands (1996). “Before that I was a waitress.” 

Before college, I had been a runner. I had known what it was like to hold my body to each standard set for it, knowing that every time I went faster, or extracted greater distance, that would become the new benchmark I’d need to surpass. Louise expected something similar. If you wrote a good stanza, one that merited a terrific in the margin, she would hold you to that level—the whole poem failed if your best line withered among others that were merely competent. If a poem resisted revision, it became recalcitrant—a word that now makes me smile.

Although the process wasn’t gentle, I do think she was kind. Her honesty was a form of respect, a way of taking seriously our dedication to the work. She traveled to New Haven to see us, even when she didn’t have courses scheduled, just to check on our progress. The poems came to life under her gaze, at a table in the dreary lobby of the Omni Hotel, among businesspeople clutching Samsonites, and I felt impossibly lucky to sit with her there, as if in a parallel world of image and diction and logic, her hands animated and unselfconscious, gesturing as she carved away my excess lines. She taught me that writing, when it was good, could feel like flight.

In Boston, during my MFA, our conversations continued in the warmth of her Cambridge kitchen, or in her beloved garden, where she sat with her back to a hedge of Dicentra spectabilis ‘Alba’—the page-white variety of bleeding heart. She wouldn’t let us show any influence too obviously, even her own. Once, I turned in a poem that was spare, aphoristic, and she looked at me with a raised eyebrow. They’ll love you for this, she said, but it won’t make you a better poet.

After grad school, I walked away, for reasons I don’t fully understand. Maybe I needed time to absorb the intensity of her teaching, work that might take a lifetime. When I heard she was gone, we hadn’t spoken in years. But it feels impossible to have the last word. The day she died—Friday the 13th—I was staying in Brooklyn, near Prospect Park, and I walked to dinner across the whole of it, on the long slant of an autumn evening, from one diagonal shadow to the next. It was a scene I think she would have liked—dogs, couples, dried panicles of hydrangea in the flower beds, cormorants, voices rising from a wedding rehearsal, the “smell of the tall grass, new cut. / As one expects of a lyric poet.” I sat on a bench feeling how cleanly the news of her death had opened a portal to the beginnings of things, the fierceness she taught me, the inner critic that spoke for years with her voice, telling me what it really takes to do the work, to be a writer.

That critical voice has other valences now. But when I write she is there in my head, always—in all the complexities of learning and unlearning, as it is with the greatest of teachers.