Review of Louise Glϋck’s Faithful and Virtuous Night
Last fall, I was on a flight to State College, Pennsylvania, passing the time by reading the September/October issue of Poetry & Writing magazine. I am a graduate student and was on my way to present a creative paper at the Pennsylvania College English Association’s annual conference, and was procrastinating getting back to my schoolwork. On the cover of P&W was poet Loise Glϋck. I read the featured interview, conducted by William Giraldi. As a fiction writer, I was unfamiliar with Glϋck’s work (the fact that I did not know of such a prolific poet is something I’m now a bit ashamed to admit).
Four months later, I decided to dabble outside my preferred genre and take a poetry workshop. In the class, we were assigned to review a book of poetry and I arbitrarily chose Louise Glϋck’s newest collection Faithful and Virtuous Night, winner of the National Book Award. Not remembering the interview I had read months earlier, something still rang familiar on those winter days I sat curled in my comforter, reading Glϋck’s poetry. This was a tumultuous time in my own life, and the subject matter of Faithful and Virtuous Night eerily mirrored the darkness and isolation that had percolated into my own life; I soaked in Glϋck’s words.
I had lost a girl I had dated for many months, and yet she was not out of my life. We were existing in that purgatory part of a relationship where we were broken up but had not yet parted ways. Prone to depression, cold and sunless January days brought her down to the point that she became suicidal. Every breath I exhaled was forced and strenuous those weeks that followed, an anxiety was in every part of my life, as I worried about the girl I still loved. One thing that helped me get through was Faithful and Virtuous Night; these words spoke to that seemingly infinite angst that was always with me.
In “The Melancholy Assistant,” Glϋck writes “I had an assistant but he was melancholy,/so melancholy it interfered with his duties…/Your life is enviable, he said:/what must I think of when I cry?/And I told him of the emptiness of my days,/and of time, which was running out,/and of the meaningless of my achievement,” (45). This inability to on escape emptiness, whether from being stuck in bed during long winter nights, or of the fleeting disappearance of loved ones, is a theme that perpetuates this award winning book.
A mixture of myths and dreams grounded in an inescapable bombardment of loss, Glϋck’s latest work took me into depths of suffering, whether through dystopic dreams or by the boredom of existence. “I was, you will understand, entering the kingdom of death,/though why the landscape was so conventional/I could not say. Here, too, the days were very long/while the years were very short” (45).
The speaker is at the same time in her bed, confined by winter cold, and yet descends into the underworld, a world of death, which is ironically mundane.
So why did I happen choose this book from a list of potential topics in my poetry class? Perhaps mere luck. Or perhaps those people I scoff at, the ones who say “Everything that happens is meant to be,” are tapped into a source of knowledge I cannot bring myself to believe– but, for whatever reason, I did read this book at that specific time in my life and the lyrical words mirrored my own desolation in subzero temperatures.
Another form of isolation explored in Faithful and Virtuous Night is the loss and separation of family. Many of the poems are a mixture of reflection on the strange relationships between family members— those strange connections between mothers and daughters, sisters and brothers, those relationships that are the same time cemented in stone yet fleeting. Often, Glϋck comments on the connections with the people closest to us closest to us— family— who know us best, yet often are just out of our reach, torn apart by distance, work, or bad blood.
In the title poem, Gluck laments “At the time of which I’m speaking,/my brother was reading a book he called/the faithful and virtuous night./Was this the night in which he read, in which I lay awake?/No—it was a night long ago, a lake of darkness in which/a stone appeared, and on the stone/a sword growing.” (9). Longing is for lost mothers, nostalgia for aunts, and the like is also explored.
Half way through reading, I recalled the interview I had read in P&W, and was delighted to piece together the insights of craft and process that Glϋck went through in composing her collection. It is fitting that authors such as Kafka have influenced these stanzas as detached, disembodies, mysterious, sometime down right eerie ghosts haunt these words.
Glϋck states, in her Giraldi interview, that this collection began with a small beginning. “I wrote a little prose poem. It was, I thought, terrible, not even worth typing” (44). However, these prose poems became the beginning of Faithful and Virtuous Night, which is interesting because the interspersed prose poems are not the strongest poems, by far, in the collection. “The Horse and Rider,” meant to examine the interconnected parts of self, falls flat, and the prose poem “Forbidden Music” is forgettable. These misses are redeemed, however, by the prose poem “A Foreshortened Journey.” Examining the strenuous continuity of life and the realities of aging, “Journey” is a work that has stuck with me ever since I read it on a gray February afternoon.
There is also redundancy in the progression of Glϋck’s poetry collection; and, if a reader reads through from beginning to end, she will likely find some of the repetitiveness tedious. As early as page 17, when the speaker of the poem talks about being “content in her brooding./I spent my days with colored pencils/(I soon used up the darker colors)” (15) the reader is ready to move on to more substantial subjects.
In the end, these missteps do not detract from the overall punch this poetry packs. The darkness and loss cumulates to glimpses of light. One of the final poems, “A Summer Garden,” laments: “The sun moved lower in the sky, the shadows lengthened and darkened./The more dust I removed, the more these shadows grew” (64). The shadows grow, but only because of the emerging light described in the next consecutive lines: “Summer arrived. The children/leaned over the rose border, their shadows/merging with roses” (64). How appropriate that the darkness would merge with such a symbolic flower, a melancholic image merged into one of love and hope.
In the end, although exhausted, I survived my semester and things did get better. The girl I lost is slowly getting back on her feet, and has finished out the classes strong. The days are longer and even though there is still much cold, the warmth of the sun is stronger than it has been for many months, and even in the freezing rain are there hints of spring. Glϋck’s latest book epitomizes so much dark, but also gives way to light: “There was the light battering itself against the window/until I raised the blinds/at which point it was redistributed/as a flicker among the shade trees” (63). These lines are from her poem “The Story of a Day” but the sentiments hardly are limited to 24 hours. This poem, like the themes throughout, become stories to be drawn out over lifetimes.
Giraldi, William. "Internal Tapestries." Poetry & Writers. Sept/Oct 2014: 42-9. Print.
About the author:
Cameron Contois is a Fiction MFA candidate from Northern Michigan University. When he's not busy writing, he enjoys exploring haunted places and watching the endless ghost hunting reality TV shows. He is also a huge fan of Lana Del Rey.