Poetry: Averno

The following is a quasi-review of Louise Glück’s Averno. This is not meant to be a full analysis or synopsis of the collection, but rather a glimpse into its character, voice, and my impressions and/or questions upon reading it.

Today is the first day of autumn, and along with the crunch of withered leaves beneath my feet, I can hear the crunch of Louise Glück’s poems in Averno between quivering breaths.

These poems cycle through themes of death, rebirth, age¹, and the Persephone myth². In some ways, it resembles Mother Love by Rita Dove, only Glück’s poems deal with a starker, more immediate and immense image of the threads between life and death. There are many good reviews of the entire collection online, so I won’t go into the generalities. Instead, I’d like to take a look at one poem in particular: “October.” 

This six-part poem opens with a voice seeking for answers, although that voice begins with a resigned tone, as if it knows that the questions are unanswerable, or that the questions themselves are already answers. There is residue left from disbelief and denial, which mirrors an inner voice as it grasps for the reality of existence:

didn’t the scar form, invisible

above the injury

The second section tackles the phrases, “It does me no good; violence has changed me” and “balm after violence.” If autumn straddles the boundaries of life and death, in simplified terms, then perhaps the speaker of the poem is also in a transitional state. Something has happened, something has hardened in a way that a part of the voice is living and the other is dead.

Tell me this is the future,

I won’t believe you.

Tell me I’m living,

I won’t believe you.

The third part is what introduces the tip of the climax. With a borderline placid coat of imagery, the speaker finds comfort in nature, though “there was no voice there.” This threatening silence of an outer voice (for the speaker is speaking through an inner voice, the written one), builds up to the last three lines:

death cannot harm me

more than you have harmed me,

my beloved life.

And that is the punch, right there. The speaker has already died a death through change. For each time we undergo a transformation or a jolt in our lives, we build up on ourselves, yes, but we also eliminate some part that had previously existed.

In the fourth section, there is acceptance. The speaker says, “So much has changed. And still, you are fortunate: / the ideal burns in you like a fever. / Or not like a fever, like a second heart.” While there is no rebirth, there is gratitude along with a certain kind of reconciliation.

There is the light of autumn; it has turned on us.

Surely it is a privilege to approach the end

still believing in something.

Parts five and six form the denouement, and they lilt back into the realm of winter, where change is frozen and unable to strike until the snow thaws. The speaker, in an assertive voice, says, “I am / at work, though I am silent.” Again, dealing with silence, the voice nudges at the comfort that even within the absence of noise, there is sound:

you are not alone,

the poem said,

in the dark tunnel.

And as the earth “wants, now, to be left alone,” as the speaker realizes that beauty is gone—no, not gone, just in a different form—the “cold stars” of winter finally come into view:

Lie still and watch:

they give nothing but ask nothing.

What to make of the poem as a whole? To be honest, I’m not entirely sure. It is a journey from injury to death to life, not quite. It is a never-ending cycle. Or perhaps it’s a sign that life depends on death and death depends on life, and however painful one might be, neither is worse than the other.

¹ In Part II of the collection, the first section of “Averno” is gut-wrenching and hauntingly simple. Those last lines: “Think of it: sixty years sitting in chairs. And now the mortal spirit / seeking so openly, so fearlessly — / To raise the veil. / To see what you’re saying goodbye to.” To me, that is the ultimate shattering of the soul: to see everything only when you are ready to lose everything. It also reminded me of Sirius falling through the Veil in the Department of Mysteries. Harry watching, helpless, and Sirius with the ghost of a smile on his face, both facing what they are saying goodbye to.

² Read “Persephone the Wanderer” (from Part I) and “A Myth of Devotion” back-to-back. The juxtaposition is astounding.


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