Louise Glück’s Faithful and Virtuous Night

virtuous night

Louise Glück. Faithful and Virtuous Night. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014. $23.00. Call (504) 524-2940 or visit us to purchase a copy!

Louise Glück’s most recent collection of poetry, A Faithful and Virtuous Night, received the 2014 National Book Award for Poetry, and what a well-deserved win it was. Glück’s most famous work comes from early collections; The Garden, one of her most anthologized poems, crystallizes much of what she is known for: her abject portrayal of nature, death, myth, and ornament. This collection is a true departure from her previous collections, continuing the evolution begun in 2009’s A Village Life, and Glück does not disappoint in her metamorphosis. Glück is an essential poet in that she never dwells on what has been successful in the past. She is always pushing her work to new places, always changing in new and stunning ways.

A Faithful and Virtuous Night is set in England, many of the poems rendered (we learn about halfway through the book) in the voice of a male painter. Many of these poems are meditations on the past: the eponymous poem, for example, outlines a birthday in the speaker’s childhood. On this day the speaker reads a book, My First Reader, about a child and a dog, and an ordinary moment becomes suffused with awe:

            I turned the pages.

            When I was finished

            I resumed turning, so the story took on a circular shape,

            like the zodiac. It made me dizzy. The yellow ball

 

            seemed promiscuous, equally

            at home in the child’s hand and the dog’s mouth—

Time in these poems is at times an illusion, at times the only constant in a shifting world. In the collection’s first poem, Parable, a group of people spends their lives arguing about how to take a journey. At the end of the poem, despite never having made physical progress, a member of the group observes

       …ah, behold how we have aged, traveling

       from day to night only, neither forward nor sideward, and this seemed

       in a strange way miraculous.

The passing of day into night appears again and again throughout the collection, reminding the reader both of the insistence of time and of its illusory nature. Still though we may be, we move always through time.

The tone of this collection is distant, clear, even wise. This is the work of an experienced poet, a reflection on the meaning of aging as an artist. Silence is a recurring motif. In the prose poem Forbidden Music, for example, a flautist has a dream of silence:

there came a passage that was called the forbidden music because it        could not, the composer specified, be played. And still it must exist and be passed over, an interval at the discretion of the conductor. But tonight, the conductor decides, it must be played—he has a hunger to make his name. The flautist wakes with a start.

Here the greedy conductor misunderstands what this poet knows: that silence, too, is a part of art; that the purity of silence can never wholly be replaced by poetry, no matter how transcendent. These are quiet poems, and they leave ample space for reflection in the spaces between.

Though much of Glück’s previous work was concerned with endings—death, divorce—this book feels circular. As soon as I finished it, I felt I could begin reading anew from the first page. Appropriately, the title poem ends on these lines:

I think here I will leave you. It has come to seem

            there is no perfect ending.

            Indeed, there are infinite endings.

            Or perhaps, once one begins,

            there are only endings.

This is a book of questions, of contemplation. Reading these poems, time seems to slow. Ending and beginning, day and night, blur into the unified whole that is poetry. Reality becomes dream, the ordinary becomes miraculous. In both resisting and cherishing the silence that plagues always the poet, Glück perseveres in her creation, embarking on a journey that is richly rewarding for any reader.

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