a faithful and virtuous night

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A faithful and virtuous night
Louise Glück

How old he seemed, older than this morning.
He set his books beside the umbrella stand
and went to wash his face.
The cuffs of his school uniform
dangled below his knees.

You have no idea how shocking it is
to a small child when
something continuous stops.

The sounds, in this case, of the sewing room,
like a drill, but very far away—
Vanished. Silence was everywhere.
And then, in the silence, footsteps.
And then we were all together, my aunt and my brother.

Then tea was set out.
At my place, a slice of ginger cake
and at the center of the slice,
one candle, to be lit later.
How quiet you are, my aunt said.

It was true—
sounds weren’t coming out of my mouth. And yet
they were in my head, expressed, possibly,
as something less exact, thought perhaps,
though at the time they still seemed like sounds to me.

Something was there where there had been nothing.
Or should I say, nothing was there
but it had been defiled by questions—

Questions circled my head; they had a quality
of being organized in some way, like planets—

Outside, night was falling. Was this
that lost night, star-covered, moonlight-spattered,
like some chemical preserving
everything immersed in it?

My aunt had lit the candle.

Darkness overswept the land
and on the sea the night floated
strapped to a slab of wood—

If I could speak, what would I have said?
I think I would have said
goodbye, because in some sense
it was goodbye—

Well, what could I do? I wasn’t
a baby anymore.

I found the darkness comforting.
I could see, dimly, the blue and yellow
sailboats on the pillowcase.

I was alone with my brother;
we lay in the dark, breathing together,
the deepest intimacy.

It had occurred to me that all human beings are divided
into those who wish to move forward
and those who wish to go back.
Or you could say, those who wish to keep moving
and those who want to be stopped in their tracks
as by the blazing sword.

My brother took my hand.
Soon it too would be floating away
though perhaps, in my brother’s mind,
it would survive by becoming imaginary—

Having finally begun, how does one stop?
I suppose I can simply wait to be interrupted
as in my parents’ case by a large tree—
the barge, so to speak, will have passed
for the last time between the mountains.
Something, they say, like falling asleep,
which I proceeded to do.

The next day, I could speak again.
My aunt was overjoyed—
it seemed my happiness had been
passed on to her, but then
she needed it more, she had two children to raise.

I was content with my brooding.
I spent my days with the colored pencils
(I soon used up the darker colors)
though what I saw, as I told my aunt,
was less a factual account of the world
than a vision of its transformation
subsequent to passage through the void of myself.

Something, I said, like the world in spring.

When not preoccupied with the world
I drew pictures of my mother
for which my aunt posed,
holding, at my request,
a twig from a sycamore.

As to the mystery of my silence:
I remained puzzled
less by my soul’s retreat than
by its return, since it returned empty-handed—

How deep it goes, this soul,
like a child in a department store,
seeking its mother—

Perhaps it is like a diver
with only enough air in his tank
to explore the depths for a few minutes or so—
then the lungs send him back.

But something, I was sure, opposed the lungs,
possibly a death wish—
(I use the word soul as a compromise).

Of course, in a certain sense I was not empty-handed:
I had my colored pencils.
In another sense, that is my point:
I had accepted substitutes.

It was challenging to use the bright colors,
the ones left, though my aunt preferred them of course—
she thought all children should be lighthearted.

And so time passed: I became
a boy like my brother, later
a man.

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.

 

Photo by Arno Senoner on Unsplash

a slip of paper

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A Slip of Paper
Louise Glück

Today I went to the doctor—
the doctor said I was dying,
not in those words, but when I said it
she didn’t deny it—

What have you done to your body, her silence says.
We gave it to you and look what you did to it,
how you abused it.
I’m not talking only of cigarettes, she says,
but also of poor diet, of drink.

She’s a young woman; the stiff white coat disguises her body.
Her hair’s pulled back, the little female wisps
suppressed by a dark band. She’s not at ease here,

behind her desk, with her diploma over her head,
reading a list of numbers in columns,
some flagged for her attention.
Her spine’s straight also, showing no feeling.

No one taught me how to care for my body.
You grow up watched by your mother or grandmother.
Once you’re free of them, your wife takes over, but she’s nervous,
she doesn’t go too far. So this body I have,
that the doctor blames me for—it’s always been supervised by women,
and let me tell you, they left a lot out.

The doctor looks at me—
between us, a stack of books and folders.
Except for us, the clinic’s empty.

There’s a trap-door here, and through that door,
the country of the dead. And the living push you through,
they want you there first, ahead of them.

The doctor knows this. She has her books,
I have my cigarettes. Finally
she writes something on a slip of paper.
This will help your blood pressure, she says.

And I pocket it, a sign to go.
And once I’m outside, I tear it up, like a ticket to the other world.

She was crazy to come here,
a place where she knows no one.
She’s alone; she has no wedding ring.
She goes home alone, to her place outside the village.
And she has her one glass of wine a day,
her dinner that isn’t a dinner.

And she takes off that white coat:
between that coat and her body,
there’s just a thin layer of cotton.
And at some point, that comes off too.

To get born, your body makes a pact with death,
and from that moment, all it tries to do is cheat—

You get into bed alone. Maybe you sleep, maybe you never wake up.
But for a long time you hear every sound.
It’s a night like any summer night; the dark never comes.

 

Photo by Brandi Redd on Unsplash

cottonmouth country

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Cottonmouth Country
Louise Glück

Fish bones walked the waves off Hatteras. And there were other signs That Death wooed us, by water, wooed us By land: among the pines An uncurled cottonmouth that rolled on moss Reared in the polluted air. Birth, not death, is the hard loss. I know. I also left a skin there.

Photo by Meg Jerrard on Unsplash

hedgingly

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“The waste’s my breakfast…” – Merry Christmas. Such happy wishes, right?

The Edge
Louise Glück
Time and again, time and again I tie
My heart to that headboard
While my quilted cries
Harden against his hand. He’s bored —
I see it. Don’t I lick his bribes, set his bouquets
In water? Over Mother’s lace I watch him drive into the gored
Roasts, deal slivers in his mercy… I can feel his thighs
Against me for the children’s sakes. Reward?
Mornings, crippled with this house,
I see him toast his toast and test
His coffee, hedgingly. The waste’s my breakfast.

Photo by Manki Kim on Unsplash

leave me

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The Fire
Louise Glück
Had you died when we were together
I would have wanted nothing of you.
Now I think of you as dead, it is better.

Often, in the cool early evenings of the spring
when, with the first leaves,
all that is deadly enters the world,
I build a fire for us of pine and apple wood;
repeatedly,
the flames flare and diminish
as the night comes on in which
we see one another so clearly—

And in the days we are contented
as formerly
in the long grass,
in the woods’ green doors and shadows.

And you never say
Leave me
since the dead do not like being alone.

don’t

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Hesitate to Call
Louise Glück
Lived to see you throwing
Me aside. That fought
Like netted fish inside me. Saw you throbbing
In my syrups. Saw you sleep. And lived to see
That all. That all flushed down
The refuse. Done?
It lives in me.
You live in me. Malignant.
Love, you ever want me, don’t.

 

edge of madness

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The Edge
Louise Glück

Time and again, time and again I tie
My heart to that headboard
While my quilted cries
Harden against his hand. He’s bored —
I see it. Don’t I lick his bribes, set his bouquets
In water? Over Mother’s lace I watch him drive into the gored
Roasts, deal slivers in his mercy… I can feel his thighs
Against me for the children’s sakes. Reward?
Mornings, crippled with this house,
I see him toast his toast and test
His coffee, hedgingly. The waste’s my breakfast.

“thighs cemented shut”

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Aphrodite
-Louise Glück
A woman exposed as rock
has this advantage:
she controls the harbor.
Ultimately, men appear,
weary of the open.
So terminates, they feel,
a story. In the beginning,
longing. At the end, joy.
In the middle, tedium.

In time, the young wife
naturally hardens. Drifting
from her side, in imagination,
the man returns not to a drudge
but to the goddess he projects.

On a hill, the armless figure
welcomes the delinquent boat,
her thighs cemented shut, barring
the fault in the rock.

Misinterpretation – Falling for it

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Liberation
Louise Glück

My mind is clouded,
I cannot hunt anymore.
I lay my gun over the tracks of the rabbit.

It was as though I became that creature
who could not decide
whether to flee or be still
and so was trapped in the pursuer’s eyes-

And for the first time I knew
those eyes have to be blank
because it is impossible
to kill and question at the same time.

Then the shutter snapped,
the rabbit went free. He flew
through the empty forest

that part of me
that was the victim.
Only victims have a destiny.

And the hunter, who believed
whatever struggles
begs to be torn apart:

that part is paralyzed.”

It’s rare that I misinterpret another’s feelings, reactions and actions. Even when a person says one thing – s/he acts in ways that not only contradict the words but also make the real intent and underlying feeling perfectly clear. S/he may make excuses, offer explanations, justify and even (try to) believe something else. But actions almost always do speak louder than words. And what speaks louder – screams, even – than inaction?

I may not always correctly interpret the source or reason for inaction, but the existence of inaction means that the underlying motivation or impetus must be, in some way, missing. And isn’t that all that matters?

On rare occasions, though, I have been surprised by my misinterpretations. Once, someone asked me to listen carefully as a strangely disconnected, out-of-nowhere story unfolded, and didn’t contextualize why. It felt a bit, as I listened, like a pre-emptive accusation, but it was actually an invitation to understand something – him, in fact – more deeply. It was him cracking the door open, him starting to let me in. I had been suspicious, and I was wrong.

It is in large part because of this slight possibility of misinterpretation that I am still here, asking all the questions and feeling all the feelings. Every action or inaction is not about me – in fact most of them are not. I return to the source and find patience, compassion and love without analyzing anything through the prism of my own self-involvement. (And find the delicate balance that enables self-preservation.)

In a completely different situation, one fraught with years of on/off frustration, there should be no mistaking intent when someone issues you a direct invitation. He literally says, “Come here this week. I will be at the airport waiting.” And yet, everything about it feels false: on one hand, pushing and eager, “Here’s a link to the airline – direct flights daily – just come – now”; on the other hand, how many times have I fallen for that? Black-and-white failures to follow through, leaving me stranded and making excuses later – I should not hold these failures against someone else, but it’s a case of fearing fire once burned. It leads me back to questioning inaction and desire… succumbing to doubt or naively falling for what I want to believe.

And around and around we go.

Photo by Sebastian Davenport-Handley