Louise Glück Faithful and Virtuous Night (Carcanet Press) £9.95
Joshua Mehigan Accepting the Disaster (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux) $23.00
Louise Glück has an astonishing record in the US having been awarded almost every poetry prize there is. Her last book, Poems 1962-2012, was garlanded with praise in every review it received. In the UK, this new book, Faithful and Virtuous Night, has been shortlisted for the T.S.Eliot award. Her writing is noted for its sparse lyricism and the way it takes a scalpel to familial relationships of every kind: between children and parents, between spouses, and between siblings. Above all, poetry which might seem confessional is driven by Glück’s intelligence and sheer intellectual reach, so the poems are very far from theatrical.
In comparison, Joshua Mehigan is a relative newcomer to the American poetry scene, whose Accepting the Disaster is his second full collection. This book, too, has received high praise. From its title, with its clear genuflection to Elizabeth Bishop, we might assume that Mehigan’s poetic temperament was a kind of opposite to Glück’s. And that is, mostly, true. Mehigan is a master of the small, closely formed lyric, although this book contains two longer narratives, ‘The Orange Bottle’ and the title poem. Mehigan is also a skilled formalist, but not, perhaps, the costive post-Hechtian classicism of the recent New-Formalism of Timothy Steele and Dana Gioia. Mehigan’s formalism is more a genuflection towards the calmer forms of Robert Frost. And, while we’re trading influences, British influences of such as Simon Armitage and James Fenton have been spotted here.
The best of these poems offer a quiet, Frost-like openness. Here is ‘The Library’ complete:
We have all been there once. Some, more than that.
They forced us all to visit one September.
But that was such a long, long time ago.
There wasn’t anything to marvel at.
The door was heavy. That I still remember.
Inside were many things I’ll never know.
Here, Mehigan plays the personal pronouns off, one against another. At the same time, Mehigan pulls the viewpoint in the poem centripetally into the library as a personal space. Counter to that centripetal pull is the placing of the event in a vague past, and the emptying of the place of detail. The library is ‘such a long, long time ago’; there is nothing ‘to marvel at’, and finally the narrator’s knowledge is made incomplete.
The definite article in the title suggests that this library may stand, metonymically, for larger perspectives. And this is a tactic Mehigan often uses, in such poems as, ‘The Crossroads’, ‘The Hill’, ‘The Fair’ and ‘The News’. And sometimes, his use of very closing endings can seal up the experiences he outlines. Elsewhere, however, Mehigan can both pour meaning into such places and derive meaning from them in ways which are empathetic to the small-town communities he describes; both reverential and celebratory.
Faithful and Virtuous Night also manages the difficult trick of being both centripetal and centrifugal. Glück, herself, puts it like this, ‘I write about you all the time, I said aloud./Every time I say ‘I’ it refers to you.’ That saying of the ‘I’ aloud, elides the writing of the ‘I’ in the poems; so, in some ways we are not nearer working out the distance between the I in the poems and the authorising consciousnesss that writes them. And, since so many of these poems are sited in a dream world; And since, in turn, that dream world itself is haunted by the reappearance of her parents, and a dead sister, we are made to see the title of the book as ultimately ironic.
In the poem, ‘Midnight’, the I is surrounded by a night on which she (one so wishes to say Glück!) seems to float. At such a moment she is ‘lifted above the world/ so that action was at last impossible’ but where thought is ‘not only possible but limitless’. At this point, ‘It had no end. I did not, I felt,/ need to do anything. Everything/ would be done for me, or done to me,/and if it was not done, it was not/essential.’ That sense of both consciousness and poem as a Russian doll might simply be too self-referential and irritating. But what controls the poems is Glück’s exacting and particularising lyricism. Later in ‘Midnight’, the floating takes place on a Stygian river, with her aunt passing coins to the captain of the body that ferries her, her aunt and her brother. And on the river banks ‘everything glittered – the stars, the bridge lights, the important/ illumined buildings that seem to stop at the river/ then resume again, man’s work/ interrupted by nature.’ Glück has always had an ability to interleave the internal and the external and make those two parts of existence resonate and glisten one with another. This book only adds to the sum of the beautiful poems she has written with such poise over that glittering career.