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Reviews of Meadowlands

Elisabeth Frost (1996)

Like much of Louise Glück’s work, Meadowlands … is rooted in the contests of love and power that permeate Greek myth. Here The Odyssey supplies the story. Like Ararat and The Wild Iris, Meadowlands is a sequence; its poems are skillful digressions that parallel Odysseus’ wanderings. The "meadowlands" of the title suggest a nostalgic pastoral mode, as well as a contemporary setting: in a deflation of classical grandeur, Giants Stadium symbolizes the field of contest between the lovers. Odysseus, Penelope, Telemachus and Circe all tell their versions in these pages, interspersed with a series of "Parables." Along the way, Glück gives us neither the patient Penelope of Homer nor the resourceful Penelope of feminist revisions. Her heroine is both long-suffering and self-punishing; her partner taunts and torments her.

It’s little wonder, then, that this couple’s narrative marches steadily toward separation. In Glück’s rendition, it’s divorce, not reunion, that ends the story. Toward the close of the sequence, a rare moment of tenderness in "Reunion" ("And as he speaks, ah, / tenderly he touches her forearm") is followed by "The Dream" which opens: "I had the weirdest dream. I dreamed we were married again." …

… [E]xchanges between husband and wife, cast in accessible, colloquial language, show Glück at her best – questioning the unlikely prospect of sustained affection. …

But despite Glück’s unsentimental mapping of love’s decline, many of these poems lack an edge. Certainly, there are the sharp, epigrammatic insights that she always provides. And the poems spoken by Circe are among the most cutting and funny in the book: "I never turned anyone into a pig.’ Some people are pigs; I make them / look like pigs." But there are flaccid moments as well, especially at the opening of the sequence. "Penelope’s Song" strains to set up the plot that follows. …

As for her treatment of desire and absence, the bottom line in Meadowlands is that both partners are hopelessly self-absorbed. … [I]n this grim view of modern love, there’s little to learn beyond the limits of each speaker’s ego.

from Elisabeth Frost, "Disharmonies of Desire," The Women’s Review of Books 14:2 (November 1996), 24.

James Longenbach (1997)

To anyone who has spent time in New Jersey, the word meadowlands invokes not only pastoral landscapes but also football games and swampy pools of industrial waste. Louise Glück wants readers of Meadowlands, her seventh book of poems, to keep both of these connotations in mind. …

… Think of the Yeats of In the Seven Woods, turning not only against the highly wrought symbolism of The Wind Among the Reeds but against the long tradition of Western love poetry – the "old high way of love": he and the beloved have "grown / As weary-hearted as that hollow moon." Among recent achievements in poetry, Meadowlands offers a particularly dramatic example of this act of turning: its poems exteriorize as dialogue the conflicts that lyric poetry more often internalizes as ambiguity. ..

Meadowlands is her In the Seven Woods, a vigorous, miscellaneous book that did not always please readers who had grown to love a more exquisite Yeats. To me, Meadowlands seems like a brave book, one that shows its author reaching far beyond what she knows she can do. …

… [T]he dilemma of Meadowlands[:] Challenged by the acerbic voice of her husband (who is also Odysseus), the poet (who is also Penelope) wants to entertain the possibility of including more of the world in her poems. She’s tired of reading the world as an emblematic tapestry, yet she finds it difficult to be sustained by natural things alone. What’s more, she has trouble distinguishing the natural from the emblematic …

… Many of the Telemachus poems are spoken in an attractive middle voice: terse, ironic, but still lyrical and occasionally rising to eloquence. And inc ertain of the Penelope poems, the more colloquial language associated with the husband appears without his flipness, suggesting that Glück is reaching for a more ample and yet less brittle idiom. … Meadowlands is remarkable precisely because it is not Glück’s most exquisite effort: it is something more than that – her most ambitious and compelling book.

from James Longenbach, "Poetry in Review," The Yale Review 84:4 (September 1996), 158, 159, 161-162.

Emily Gordon (1996)

… For Louise Glück in her newest book, divorce is the start awake after the sleep-walking of a bad relationship. …

… The uneasy marital landscape of the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Wild Iris has been torn up in Meadowlands by frustration and violence. In "Parable of the Hostages," Glück writes of the Greek soldiers that "the world has begun / calling them, an opera beginning with the war’s / loud chords and ending with the floating aria of the sirens." Meadowlands follows much the same model, the earlier poems sketching apprehension and raw hostility, the final poems succumbing to acceptance. …

Meadowlands is haunted by voices. Glück speaks in the persona of Penelope, waiting for a husband who will, in this case, never come back. Glück’s husband, half of a communing dialogue, is a frequently cruel Odysseus. (After telling herr to wish on a butterfly, he announces smugly, "It doesn’t count.") Like Anne Sexton and others, Glück lets traditional villainesses speak for themselves, giving a sympathetic voice to a siren and to Circe, who in "Circe’s Power" has a refreshing defense: "I never turned anyone into a pig. / Some people are pigs. I make them / look like pigs." A frustrated, perceptive Telemachus has several dialogues as well.

… The book is full of sudden juxtapositions of elements from two familiar but disparate worlds, classical Greece and modern America. Why has Glück chosen the location of a football field to frame this tempest? Perhaps because stadiums, the setting of both glory and carnage, are our equivalent of the Homeric battlefield, which here is also the last stand of the heart. …

Separation can speak for itself. "From this point on," Glück says in "Quiet Evening," "the silence through which you move / is my voice pursuing you." She has arranged Meadowlands, full of ocean references, in wave patterns: poems describing hints of reconciliation alternate with accounts of the triggering of minefields both have been planting for a decade. The knock of waves against pilings is an answer to the perpetual question Do you love me? Yes and no and yes and no. And if silence can be speech, absence contrives to be presence as well…

If The Odyssey is the story of Odysseus’ homecoming, Meadowlands details its negative: the same ten years’ journey, but away from Ithaca, toward uncharted waters. As in Homer, Glück’s husband and wife suffer separately and without benefit of communication. But in this version, they have to visit treacherous islands together: Bicker, Nostalgia, Regret. Instead of Penelope’s nightly unweaving to deceive her suitors, here it is the marriage that is being undone; when all is said and done there is nothing but memory, a poor foundation to hold them up.

The husband – "a man training himself to avoid the heart" – is no hero here, and in "Penelope’s Song" the wife says to herself, "you have not been completely / perfect either; with your troublesome body / you have done things you shouldn’t / discuss in poems." Conspicuously, Glück avoids specifying what Penelope – she – has done in the absence of the wandering king. She also leaves out the details of the husband’s wanderings, though the blame seems principally assigned to him.

The starkness, the lack of filigree, in Glück’s lines is a window on her internal pandemonium. …

from Emily Gordon, "Above an Abyss" The Nation (April 29, 1996), 28-29.

Briggs Seekins

One thing I find satisfying about a Louise Gluck book is the way each separate poem seems to comment upon, inform, and expand the work as a whole. In an essay praising George Oppen, from her book Proofs & Theories, Gluck claims to "find oddly depressing that which seems to have left nothing out. Such poetry . . . lacks magnetism, the power to seem, simultaneously, whole and not final . . . the power to generate, not annul, energy." Such an ability to be both "whole and not final" characterizes Gluck's own poems, as well. The individual poems have an integrity of their own, but they also open outward, into a type of dialogue with each other. A wonderfully charged complexity is established that makes additional readings of each particular poem very worthwhile.

In this regard, Meadowlands is perhaps one of her strongest efforts to date. Two separate narratives connect the book-the break up of a modern marriage and a re-telling of The Odyssey. By presenting the mythic alongside the everyday and contemporary, Gluck is successful in reminding us that her themes, love, grief and loss, are ones which have been with us since before there was even a written literature. And the pain and difficulty which they present us with in our own lives is the same pain and difficulty which they have always presented. This heightened awareness gives the poems a point of view which I can only characterize as being more true than the point of view usually assumed in poems about domestic sorrow and heartbreak in general.

The two separate stories shadow each other throughout the book, and form a running commentary on each other. And in some poems, the two stories are brought together directly. In the particularly touching poem "Quiet Evening," the speaker breaks off in the middle of an intimate scene with her husband to compare the two of them to Penelope and Odysseus:

More than anything in the world
I love these evenings when we're together,
the quiet evenings in summer, the sky still light at this hour.

So Penelope took the hand of Odysseus,
not to hold him back but to impress
this peace on his memory:

The speaker lifts the moment shared with her husband into the realm of the mythic. The speaker and her husband become, like Penelope and Odysseus, a figure for all lovers, and for the precious moments of closeness which lovers are able to share, despite the larger complications and pain which seems to be an inevitable part of love.

The poem ends with a type of curse: "from this point on, the silence through which you move/is my voice pursuing you." This insight, that we are always destined to be haunted by our greatest moments of peace and happiness, is what makes the poem seem so smart. But what makes the poem wise is the overall empathy and humanity expressed in the voice-the further insight that such moments are to be valued because they are perhaps one of the few experiences which unite us with what is essentially human.The texture of Meadowlands is made even richer by the presence of the characters Circe and Telemachus. Circe comments with wry intelligence on the dramas which consume mortals, and which she has somehow allowed herself to be  drawn into: "Some people are pigs; I make them/look like pigs." Similarly, Telemachus provides a third analysis through which his parents, and by extension, all lovers, might be viewed. Here is the appropriately titled "Telemachus' Detachment":

When I was a child
looking at my parents' lives, you know
what I thought? I thought
heartbreaking. Now I think
heartbreaking, but also
insane. Also
very funny.

It is just this perspective, of seeing love and life as not only "heartbreaking," but also "insane" and, of course, "very funny," which makes Meadowlands such a deep and expansive book. Meadowlands is an important book because of this expansiveness. It is important that poets provide powerful insight into, and commentary on, the contemporary world, while still finding a way to make poetry as an art form and tradition freshly relevant and renewed. In Meadowlands, Louise Gluck has done an exemplary job of this.

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