Sunday, 19 July 2015

Louise Glück's Faithful and Virtuous Night: Choose Your Own Adventure

No Direction by Mark Dries. Used under Creative Commons license

One of the most intriguing new collections of poetry that I have read in quite some time is American poet Louise Glück's Faithful and Virtuous Night.

I have been a fan of Louise Glück ever since I read her Pulitzer Prize-winning collection The Wild Iris, perhaps fifteen years ago. Despite having added to the genre myself recently, I'd say that the garden poem is one of the most overdone tropes in literature (or at least English-language literature), and if you are going to do it, you had better do it well. The Wild Iris, a series of garden poems, reaches great philosophical and sensual heights and it contains lines of poetry that I can never forget ("from the center of my life came a fountain, deep blue shadows on azure sea water"). It also performs the feat of multiple/shifting perspectives with especial effectiveness.

This latter technique - that of multiple and/or shifting perspectives - is key to Faithful and Virtuous Night. I might as well confess that it reminded me of the old Choose Your Own Adventure books. My brother and I loved these when we were children - if you were a child of the 70s and/or 80s you may well remember these. The Cave of Time, By Balloon to the Sahara, Survival at Sea and many others... These books had something in common with the text-adventure computer games of the 80s, and they allowed you to step into the world of different characters and situations and to choose the path of your story. We read them over and over again, because some storylines seemed particularly difficult to choose, and we wanted to find and experience them all.

Faithful and Virtuous Night has the curious effect of seeming to tell a story - that of an artist who has been orphaned - or perhaps several stories, but at the same time, the poems don't really seem to be chronological. While I think they should be read together or in each other's light, they could be read in different sequences. It makes me think of the expression "the fall of the cards", which seemingly could refer either to luck (or lack of luck) in a card game, or the cards used in fortune-telling. But is there a main character, and is it Glück or someone else? Is the child in some of the poems a vision (or metaphor) representing aspects of her life, or is it another character, or...? It sometimes seems as though in each poem, the same core persona enters and leaves by a different set of doors, wearing different masks. In 'The Melancholy Assistant', watching snow fall, the speaker says:

The street was white, the various trees were white -
Changes of the surface, but is that not really
all we ever see?

I think this has to be one of the most intriguing and unique poetry collections I have ever read. It is quite beautiful and quite haunting, and you should read it if you want something contemporary but different.

Here are links to a couple of poems from Faithful and Virtuous Night:


AFTERWORD (Louise Glück)

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