March: and before we get to the good bits, a word about our cover art this month, from Sam Rowley, an aberration in that it is a photograph discovered not through the usual back channels of friends and artists, surfing Aperture and Lens Culture, etc., but via social media, specifically Instagram. It’s a picture I love. For me, “Station Squabble’ is of a piece with the uneasy heh-heh of dark comedy, Simic-like in its appreciation for the inexplicable horror of the everyday. The photograph’s characters, of course, are mice – not rats – and, so, cartoonish rather than authentically menacing and bearing no historical/psychological/sociological baggage; and their battle tiny, as tiny and insubstantial as what they fight over – a crumb, perhaps. Yet, they strike their gladiatorial pose convincingly. Harm, even death, seems imminent. Death, too, in the sickly sheen of the polished floor, the fluorescent light, the Bosch-ian tunnel’s gaping mouth. Not to mention our stand-in: the blurred seated figure – our indifference. At once whimsical and wincingly brutal. – right up my alley.
But, enough: take a look for yourself.
And now on to more substantial matters.
This issue’s “secret poem” is “Ithaca” by, Louise Glück, wonderfully introduced, per usual, by the estimable Joseph Campana.
On Louise Glück, “Ithaca”
I grew up with myth. Sure, every family cherishes its own renditions of the real. To depart from them can be to depart from the family entirely, or so I have learned. But what I mean to say is that when I graduated from those books explicitly designated for children, I began to read mythology, which, in my hometown library, was located in the young adult sections, along with the literary classics. I can’t say if this was a habit of that library or a quirk of the Dewey decimal system, but somehow it makes sense I would be unable to distinguish literature from mythology and that both would serve as heralds of the real and adult world into which I was desperate to escape from limitations I assumed I could outgrow. I was probably a depressingly bookish child, preferring the interior of the library to most sunny days.
I still remember the first book of Greek myths I read there, D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths, which I well may have destroyed through frequent use. It was a brutal, attractive world rendered in bright colors and a Greek visual idiom I couldn’t have verified but that felt real. I didn’t imagine myself in those myths. It wasn’t a source for play-acting—“no, this time I’ll play the part of Zeus nearly devoured by his father.” Rather it seemed like the world behind the world would be revealed if I read the stories. So, I read them over and over as if completing a ritual of unknown address and outcome. I don’t remember when I first read The Odyssey or Ovid’s Metamorphoses or when I learned so many other poets too couldn’t get these stories out of their heads. In college I remember a professor quipped that you couldn’t open The New Yorker in the 1980s without running into Persephone. He said it again only it was the 1990s. Had I kept taking classes, more decades might have featured. Another friend complained about having to read too many “I feel like Persephone today” poems, as she called them. I can understand disenchantment with the faddishness of poetry publishing but never, I confess, with mythological poems. And the best rejoinder I can think of to the ennui of Persephone would be Louise Glück’s Averno.
What I admire about Glück’s approach to myth is the patient delving, over the course of a career, through the layers of obfuscation that attend how we understand ourselves in the world. It is not myth that needs to be demystified but rather the self. And this process often involves actual myths—most often Greek or Roman. Take, “Ithaca.” Or, I should say, I decided to take “Ithaca” as my poem this month because I asked a friend to suggest a poem. With apologies to Sarah, who recommended “Odysseus’ Decision,” also from Meadowlands, a book that juxtaposes the decline of a marriage with the Odysseus’ long and weary attempt to return home. As a place Ithaca is code for home, the place of arrival for the journey home, the nostos, from which we get the word nostalgia. And yet this poem trains its considerable lyric intelligence not on some of home but on the mutually generating nature of myth and love. Without one do you ever have the other?
What was Penelope doing, all those years, as she put off the greedy suitors who would have devoured her and her home? She was, in this poem, weaving a work of myth. One version of myth seems to be the patient work of the imagination. The lover calls to her mind the absent one: “The beloved doesn’t / need to live. The beloved / lives in the head.” It’s a powerful assertion, full of confidence in acts of mind. But is it comforting? Is this to say the lover does not need the beloved? If in acts of love we build a simulacrum in our minds, do we no longer need the real? Glück distinguishes between these two lovers: “the easy / magnetism of a living man” and “the unfolding dream or image.” Which is more appealing in the end? On that subject, the poem remains agnostic. But it cherishes no fondness for the “literal-minded men” who haunt Penelope. There’s something about her they don’t understand, and what I admire about the poem is the way it trains our attention on the simple device: the loom “strung up / like a harp with white shroud-thread.” Here’s the real world: a woman weaves a garment of mourning, unweaving it every night to prevent herself from being married off to boors. Later, “the shroud becomes a wedding dress” because imagination trumps
I wonder about my younger self, sitting in that library on so many sunny days. And what I wonder is not if I was some erstwhile Penelope: I decidedly was not. I was however captivated by what I could not see perhaps to the exclusion of the world before me. But if the world feels driven by limitations, being elsewhere may not be so bad. We hope poems—myths, too—will help us be what and where we’re not.
The beloved doesn’t
need to live. The beloved
lives in the head. The loom
is for the suitors, strung up
like a harp with white shroud-thread.
He was two people.
He was the body and the voice, the easy
magnetism of a living man, and then
the unfolding dream or image
shaped by the woman working the loom,
sitting there in a hall filled
with literal-minded men.
As you pity
the deceived sea that tried
to take him away forever
and took only the first,
the actual husband, you must
pity these men: they don’t know
what they’re looking at;
they don’t know that when one loves this way
the shroud becomes a wedding dress.
For biographical material on Louise Louise Glück, check this link from the Poetry Foundation.
Joseph Campana is a poet, arts critic, and scholar of Renaissance literature. He is the author of three collections of poetry, The Book of Faces (Graywolf, 2005), Natural Selections (Iowa, 2012), which received the Iowa Poetry Prize, and most recently the The Book of Life (Tupelo, 2019). His poetry appears in Slate, Kenyon Review, Poetry, Conjunctions, Guernica, Michigan Quarterly Review, and Colorado Review, while individual poems have won prizes from Prairie Schooner and the Southwest Review. He has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Houston Arts Alliance, and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. He has reviewed the arts, books, media and culture widely and is the author of dozens of scholarly essays on Renaissance literature and culture as well as a study of poetics The Pain of Reformation: Spenser, Vulnerability, and the Ethics of Masculinity (Fordham, 2012). He teaches at Rice University where he is Alan Dugald McKillop Professor of English.
Once more: If you enjoyed Joseph Campana’s piece in this newsletter, and last month’s — and how could you not? — all of the Plume newsletters are now archived under, well, Archives, on our homepage.
It’s here! Plume’s Associate Editor Criticism and Essays Chard deNiord’s new book, In My Unknowing, is available for purchase – sure to be magnificent.
Last month, I explained my upcoming reluctant/not-so reluctant absence from AWP. I’ll miss all those I’d no doubt run across there, and who would have read for Plume’s launch of the print anthology Plume Poetry 8. But for those attending – enjoy! I imagine we’ll return in 20121 in Kansas City.
If You Are in the Neighborhood Department: As noted previously, Plume and our contributors will host a number of readings around the country in the coming months. We’ll kick things off with a reading at The Writer’s Center, 4508 Walsh Street, Bethesda, MD 20815 (301.654.6664), March 19, 7:00 – 8:30. The roster includes Leeya Mehta, Nancy Mitchell, Stewart Moss, Amanda Newell, John Nieves, and, well, me. Many thanks to Stewart and to Zach Powers!
(Almost) penultimately, again a request. As you will note, I try to highlight recent of soon to be published books by Plume contributors at the conclusion of this newsletter. My method for gathering these materials is haphazard, to say the least. Now, I want to rectify that to whatever degree that is possible. So – if you have a new book — or have won some award or grant or other, perhaps send me a quick email – I want to highlight your many wonderful achievements here. And a little PR never hurts, right?
Our cover art this month, “Station Squabble”, comes from Sam Rowley. You can find more on the artist here.
And finally, per usual, a few new releases from Plume contributors: