Louise Glück, Averno
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
2007, 76 pages, paperback, $12
louise glück’s averno is a book of poetry that allows the reader to wade in what it means to die metaphorically, physically, spiritually. The book’s title refers to a crater lake in Italy, once believed to be the doorway to the underworld. The poems in Averno range from longer sequences that deal with the aching reality of change, aging, and death, to shorter poems, including those that are confessional retellings of the myth of Persephone and Hades. The two sequences are woven together masterfully. The Persephone and Hades poems are among my favorites. The book, in fact, is among my favorites of Glück’s.
For those who know Glück’s work, I need not say how lulling and musical her writing voice is, even when read amidst the noise of a diesel engine and loud chatter (to which I can attest). But despite its musical qualities, Averno is not entertainment for optimists or casual readers because Glück’s work asks the kinds of questions that aren’t always reaffirming or even pleasant to contemplate. She has in previous books asked us to face the hatred that can develop, too naturally, between a husband and wife, to qüstion our turning away from nature, to reflect on our notions of God, and now, in Averno, to think about what it means to change in such a way that one feels dead to the world.
“October,” the book’s key sequence poem, which was also published separately as a chapbook, is told through a speaker who expresses an ephemeral fear of not existing, who deals with the changes that come inevitably in time, such as sickness, loss, and death. The lines are heavy with urgent rhythms and questions, such as, “wasn’t my body / rescüd, wasn’t it safe // didn’t the scar form, invisible above the injury.” Death exists here as an eminent danger, a danger that comes cyclically, as seasons do. She reminds us that, in winter, plants die, water freezes over, and people’s bones break on ice.
In the poems of “October,” we come to learn that silence is a kind of death, too. The speaker has suffered an unnamed violence and cannot speak. She has changed forever, so that who she was is no longer alive. She takes refuge in her silence, but channels her thoughts into a written voice: “You hear this voice? This is my mind’s voice; / you can’t touch my body now. / It has changed once, it has hardened, / don’t ask it to respond again.” Furthermore, she chooses silence because there is more control in silence than in description: “when was I silenced, when did it first seem / pointless to describe that sound // what it sounds like can’t change what it is-.” Averno explores the mutable qualities of death through the speaker in “October,” for whom death is not only a state of mind, but also perennial, and as such, inevitable. Glück writes, “[V]iolence has changed me. / My body has grown cold like the stripped fields; / now there is only my mind, cautious and wary, / with the sense it is being tested.” This speaker, who uses death to illustrate the scary, uneasy feeling of change, is like a modern Persephone character. Glück’s weaving of poems about Persephone and Hades with the rest of the Averno poems, then, is brilliant because in retelling the myth, Glück deals with the same metaphors “October” implies-that life changes are metaphorical deaths.
Glück, in “A Myth of Innocence,” uses the story of Persephone, who is abducted from a world of spring and taken away from her mother to be the bride of Death. Her mother, in outrage, ends the perpetual spring that was earth and introduces winter. In the poem, it is said of Persephone: “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.” Her abduction by Hades and her death is, of course, a metaphor for puberty, a passage from role of daughter to role of wife. After all, Glück writes, “The girl who disappears from the pool / will never return. A woman will return, / looking for the girl she was.” More important than saying that Persephone has become an adult and can never recapture her girlhood, in “Persephone the Wanderer,” Glück gives us the gritty reality of the story, if reality is possible in a myth: “It is snowing on earth; the cold wind says // Persephone is having sex in hell. / Unlike the rest of us, she doesn’t know / what winter is, only that she causes it.” Glück introduces the idea that as a girl abducted, Persephone has neither been her own person, nor become aware of her own power, so that “in the tale of Persephone / which should be read / as an argument between the mother and the lover- / the daughter is just the meat.”
One of my favorite poems in the book, “A Myth of Devotion,” is a companion to the Persephone poems. In this poem, I find yet another layer of the multi-layered definition of death in Averno. In the poem, Hades has decided to love Persephone. He takes her in his arms: “He wants to say I love you, nothing can hurt you // but he thinks / this is a lie, so he says in the end / you’re dead, nothing can hurt you / which seems to him / a more promising beginning, more true.” The same might be said of Glück. In deciding to dedicate a book of poetry to the theme of death, she didn’t choose morbidity; she chose to write a truthful look into life and the hurting that comes from living.