Sep 13, 2011

"Messengers" by Louise Glück : Trouble in Paradise

Messengers by Louise Glück : The Poetry Foundation

Sometimes I’ve found Louise Gluck's poems to be prosy and didactic, belaboring the obvious.  However, when I looked for a poem about deer (so I could post my latest photo "captures"),  the trustworthy Poetry Foundation offered Gluck's "Messengers." I don't recall ever seeing the poem, and I like it a lot. It might begin in, or near, the mindset of a typical pastoral idyll. Beautiful Nature’s gorgeous messengers will find us; we “have only to wait.”  Everything is serenely sublime and sublimely serene.
Unless the little clause, “they will find you,” has ominous possibilities as well as comfort. Maybe we need to think harder about who “they” might be. And what about that “black water”?  Black isn’t necessarily inaccurate or impossible as a choice of color for water, but in an idyll, why choose black if the “messengers” are happy critters bearing only good news and sanguine feelings? 

In the second stanza, the deer are noteworthy for their (predictable) beauty, including the “drift” of their nimble, graceful bodies in “bronze panels” of sunlight. Might that bronzing imply statues and immortality?  Of course, that also means death. We only have immortality because we have mortality. Also, what creates “panels” of sunlight if not boundaries of darkness and limitation? If you're picturing ideal worlds, why bring up—if only glancingly—the less happy note of other bodies that do impede the animal that wears them? Are we thinking of the human animal? 

    So by the time we get to the third stanza, where “. . . their cages rust,/the shrubs shiver in the wind,/squat and leafless,”  we’ve been prepared, perhaps unconsciously, for a portrait of nature that is not simple-mindedly, childishly, one-dimensionally wonderful.  Things rust and shiver; things are squat and leafless. Time and mortality are here after all; they were here all along, from the first stanza, even though the deer were pretty.

    This tension between perfect beauty and realistic earthly limits intensifies in the fourth and fifth stanzas, until the lovely messengers are bearing a message entirely different from what we wanted to and tried to expect at the beginning. The lovely geese, deer, and other creatures come before us in the end “like dead things, saddled with flesh.” And we humans are positioned “above them, wounded and dominant.”  Why?  How?

    I’m not confident about this, but I think stanza four’s mysterious cry, which is, or which says, “release” means that we are releasing ourselves from delusions of immortality or perfection on earth and in time.  Our attempt to find earthly creatures and scenes more beautiful and more graceful than ourselves is futile. In some kind of epiphany, we are released into that awareness, or even acceptance, of time and transience. We are released from seeking impossible permanence.

    Of course, such a backward-feeling release would feel like a great gut “wrenching.”  The moon—our romantic sphere of light and a symbol of love (as well as lunacy)—is ripped from the earth we know and rises in a circle of arrows. Literally, the “circle of arrows” is, for me, an impenetrable image.  But figuratively, it's probably an allusion to the virginal Diana with her quiver of arrows, Roman goddess of the hunt, the woodlands, and the moon.

    So the animals we hunt (as well as romanticize) are in the end merely creatures “saddled with flesh.”  In “saddled” there is the suggestion that they are ridden. They are beasts of burden, and we, the hunters, stand “above them, wounded and dominant.”  We are “wounded” by our knowledge of mortality and imperfection, which we cannot escape or avoid even if we try; our illusory moon of delusions is “wrenched” from us. (Clearly, I like that word, “wrenched”).  We are left once again, where we always were, on and of the earth.

    Louise Gluck has written a poem that is very impressive in playing an idealized world against the reality we all know, at some level, we must return to. We are buffeted by the conflict between what we wish were true and what we know to be true. In our knowledge, we are dominant, but our knowledge and dominance have wounded us with sadness.



Rune Eide said...

Some look upon humans as as a kind of top on the evolutionary tree (if one even accepts evolution). We now know that we are just a kind of "beast of burden" like everyone else, saddled with the knowledge to wipe out our own species. We are special due to our so-called intelligence, but not above anyone else.

Banjo52 said...

RuneE, I wonder if we could say "so-called" and "our form of" intelligence are similar. A science-type friend once told me that the slowing-down a bird does with his wings in order to hover or land at a feeder is actually a pretty complex operation in the brain.

And consider what we're learning about dogs!

Anonymous said...

Oh, this poem is so sad.

Hannah Stephenson said...

I think every poet dreams of getting the kind of sensitive, intense readership like you've just demonstrated here. Rah rah! (and a thoughtful analysis of this interesting poem....)

Banjo52 said...

AH, it is, isn't it. In a a sense, no winners.

Hannah, thank you! Something in the poem wouldn't let me quit on it, and I liked almost every new thing I discovered. The single exception, maybe, is the "circle of arrows." Even if my hunch about Diana is sound, a CIRCLE of arrows still feels iffy and awkward, at best.

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