I have a weakness for big, complicated, fully embodied – some might say overblown – works of art. Wagner’s Ring cycle. Joyce’s Ulysses. The Odyssey itself, Dante’s Divine Comedy, and OK, the Bible. Lately I find myself being tugged into the world of Ezra Pound’s Cantos. So I was delighted and surprised by a recent discovery, Louise Glück’s book of poems, The Wild Iris. In just 51 short and unassuming poems she builds a beautiful and resonant sacred world. No cathedral or set of symphonies or massive literary tome could contain more hidden treasures. In this post I just want to sketch out some of the structural things that are there present – so much to be explored in the nuance and detail of the individual works within!
Glück builds her world out of poems from four types of voices, that intermingle, and indirectly dialogue, and form the arc of the work.
There are poems that give voice to plants (this resonates with shamanic experiences I’ve had, and that drew me to the work in the first place), beginning with the wild iris of the title, and continuing with 17 other species (including Witchgrass, which I wrote about a couple of weeks ago – but also snowdrops, red poppy, clover, daisies…). Each one speaks directly to us humans, distinctly and with a unique voice; frequently they are musing about our foibles and what it is like for them to live with us.
Interspersed among these plant-poems are a set of poem-prayers, seven titled “Matins” and nine titled “Vespers”, that are addressed to a nameless divine by a sometimes wry and sometimes rueful human voice.
Mingled with these two sets is another group, in which that divine presence speaks back to humans, with titles like “Clear Morning”, “Midsummer”, and “Retreating Light”.
Finally there is another set of six poems sprinkled throughout. These are pauses in the ongoing dialogue through the rest of the work: a human voice reflecting, pondering, but not directly in relationship – like Shakespearean soliliquys.
The poems subtly follow the curve of the seasons and of the day: the Matins (morning prayer) poems come first, and then the Vespers (evening prayer) poems. “Snowdrops” and “Violets” come before “Clover” and “Daisies”, and “Clear Morning” and “End of Winter” precede “Early Darkness” and “Harvest”.
Read together the poems create a wonderful texture of interaction and movement. Another sacred world to ponder: how delicious!
As I investigate works that create sacred worlds (some big and complex, and some – many more I hope to discover – subtle and delicate but full of depth), I am at the same time investigating the structures of my own mind and heart. By looking at Glück’s mandala, I gain insight into the shame and character of my own. I can wrap my seasons, my plants, the cries of my heart to the sacred and the cries of the sacred to me, into some structure that will offer stability: stability for myself as I gaze on the sometimes fearful asymmetry of my life; and I hope these ventures also inspire stability for others too, as they open themselves to the structures in their own hearts and allow themselves to be transformed.
I’ll just quote from one poem here, a section of “Retreating Light”, in which the divine figure speaks:
You were like very young children,
always waiting for a story.
And I’d been through it all too many times,
I was tired of telling stories.
So I gave you the pencil and paper.
I gave you pens made of reeds
I had gathered myself, afternoons in the dense meadows.
I told you, write your own story.
And that’s the work: we are writing our own stories. We are listening, and imagining, and having faith, and finding the courage to construct meanings for ourselves that bring us into the kind of harmony that our souls long for. For each one of us the story is different, for each one it is profound, as we gather together the materials life gives us and fashion them into the shape that only we can create.