Review of Ararat by Louise Glück
Ararat is one of Louise Glück’s earliest published collections of poetry, first released in 1990, but her voice and command of language and imagery are still compelling and well-developed. This collection predates her position as US Poet Laureate and even her reception of the Pulitzer Prize. While I have read poems of Glück’s on their own, my vision of her changed within this piece. Collections of poetry which I have read (most recently, Ballistics by Billy Colins and Atlantis by Mark Doty) contain thematic links between certain groups of poems and perhaps some overarching underlying tone or message the poets themselves assert. With Glück, my experience was altogether different.
The piece as a whole is a narrative, a story and a characterization of the truth of family and the relationships contained therein (for me, this was first noticeable in “A Novel” in which Glück’s speaker talks about how a novel couldn’t talk about her family). Each poem is an additional characterization, development of familial conflict and disagreement. From the contention between siblings evident in “Widows”, “Animals”, and “Yellow Dahlia” to the struggles of motherhood in “Lullaby”, “Brown Circle”, and “Cousins” and later the intimate pain in “A Fantasy”, “Labor Day”, and “Lost Love”, Glück portrays a family at its greatest and worst moments with raw, visceral feeling through subtle, nuanced images.
The titular piece, “Mount Ararat”, is of particular note not simply because of its obvious connection to the piece as a whole (something Glück may well have intended) but also because of its masterful inclusion of all the prominent themes and conflicts within the piece. In this poem, the speaker talks about her mother’s and aunt’s shared “suffering” as each “donates one girl child to the earth” and how they “don’t discuss this ever”. Glück incorporates the main character’s struggles with the distant-feeling death of a father when she expresses that “it’s always a relief to bury an adult, / someone remote, like my father”. But the most poignant aspect of the piece is Glücks religious invocation at the end, when the speaker describes with such acrid bitterness that “every stone here / is dedicated to the Jewish god / who doesn’t hesitate to take / a son from a mother”. This is heavy as it contains a twofold underpinning: her religious sentiments and her own state of motherhood. To me, this seems especially fitting as Mount Ararat (below) is twin-peaked and has religious significance among many sects of Christians, particularly those of the Western tradition.
The entirety of Ararat is rife with religious diction and even contains a piece, “Celestial Music”, which depicts death through a dialogue of images between the speaker and her friend “who still believes in heaven”. Glück uses vegetal imagery, frequently as an analog to the cycle of death and birth, throughout the entire collection, using metaphors of planting bulbs, grass scorched in the sunlight, red orchids discovered by her son, the death of poppies in the rain. She reflects this repetition in “Brown Circle” and “Ararat”, the shift from being a daughter to being a mother.
On the whole, Ararat was very approachable and relate-able. While Glück does not necessarily delve into sociopolitical issues, she addresses issues which are universal: the human experience of family, of troubled, bittersweet relationships. She is straightforward and genuine without being harsh or terse. Her abilities with language and imagery are immensely compelling as well, making Ararat an excellent work not only to read but to experience.
Some favorite lines:
But it’s her only hope,
the wish to move backward. And just a little,
not so far as the marriage, the first kiss. ~ “A Fantasy”
my sister’s body
was a magnet. I could feel it draw
my mother’s heart into the earth ~ “Lost Love”
It’s the same thing, really, preparing a person
for sleep, for death. The lullabies–they all say
don’t be afraid, that’s how they paraphrase
the heartbeat of a mother ~ “Lullaby”
The soul’s like all matter:
why would it stay intact, stay faithful to its one form,
when it could be free? ~ “Lullaby”
That’s what I did, at the door to the taxi.
Like him, waved to disguise my hand’s trembling. ~ “Terminal Resemblance”
once you can’t love another human being
you have no place in the world ~ “Mirror Image”
Don’t listen to me; my heart’s been broken. ~ “The Untrustworthy Speaker”