Louise Glück: Meadowlands

by Amanda Fiore


            The heart of a woman is a mysterious and sometimes dark, and hurtful thing.  Louise Gluck’s Meadowlands is a poetic unveiling, without apology or artifice, of the darkest secrets of a woman’s heart in the throes of loving.  She shows both the domestic tenderness of marriage as well as the hurtful, narcissistic bickering of both taking, and being taken, fore-granted.  She writes, in direct, thoughtful prose, of what most women spend their lives trying to deny: the fury unlocked by intense emotion.  The poems accomplish an in depth telling of this tale in a variety of voices, though each echoes the other, bringing to life the love affairs of men, gods and goddesses, parents, children, and birds.  In the end, we are reassured that these muddied waters of marriage and heartache are, in fact, part of the package.  Though they are dark, and at times hateful, they are not to be feared or avoided, but embraced, for without the embracing, one will never love at all. 

            Scattered throughout the book are poems that seem to be talking both within and between them.  She begins with a poem for Penelope, who is waiting for Odysseus to return “like a sentry or lookout.  He will be home soon; it/behooves you to be/generous.  You have not been completely/perfect either.”  A few pages later a woman sitting comfortably with a man compares their love to the Greek couple, saying, “So Penelope took the hand of Odysseus, /not to hold him back but to impress/this peace on his memory. /from this point on the silence through which you move/is my voice pursing you.”  And a few poems later, we hear the troubled and desperate plea of a woman who calls out in the last lines of Departure.  “How can I know you love me/unless I see you grieve over me?”  And so the theme of love is set.  The complicated love of woman: at once full of sweetness and tenderness, missing her husband, waiting for him to return, wanting to please him, to remind him of how peaceful their love can be, and at the same time, desiring to cause him pain, so that she may feel comfort. 

            In the first of the series of poems for which the book is named, Meadowlands I, a woman says to her husband: “I wish we went on walks/like Steven and Kathy; then/we’d be happy.  You can even see it in the dog. /We don’t have a dog. /we have a hostile cat.”  At once there is the intimacy of married life, and the deep ravines of doubt, carried into every detail of life, even the animals.  But of course marriage is more complex than just that; there is also the fear spawned from insecurity that leads to the kind of breakdowns that leave us crying, alone, as we take out the garbage, a symbol of domestic ritual.  In Midnight we meet a woman who is doing just this.  She says,


“Speak to me, aching heart: what

ridiculous errand are you inventing for yourself

weeping in the dark garage

with your sack of garbage: it is not your job

to take out the garbage, it is your job

to empty the dishwasher.


            And a few lines later,


is this the way you communicate

with your husband, not answering

when he calls, or is this the way the heart

behaves when it grieves: it wants to be

alone with the garbage?  If I were you,

I’d think ahead.  After fifteen years,

his voice could be getting tired; some night

if you don’t answer, someone else will answer.” 


            Here is a woman who feels the distance between herself and her lover, but rather than speak it out, sits alone as he calls her, does not answer the phone, and cries.  She is a woman trying to make a point, lost in the angry domesticity of garbage duty and dish washing, and at the same time, scared to death of losing the same man who now she both ignores, and chides.  A woman’s heart is a complex thing, at once chained down by and desperate for, in spite of ourselves, the ones we love; the myriad of things we do to both gain their attention, and push them away.

            Quickly the themes of domestic quarreling as one aspect of this complicated tapestry emerge.  In Ceremony, Gluck says: “One thing I’ve always hated/about you: I hate that you refuse/to have people at the/house.  Flaubert/had more friends and Flaubert/was a recluse.”  Some pages later, in Void, she continues the conversation, exclaiming to her lover who is having company, in a voice dripping with sarcasm: “Actual people!  Actual human beings/sitting on our chairs in our living room!”  And later, on the same subject, one says to the other: “You hate parties.  You hate/any group bigger than four,” and the other retorts, “If I hate it/I’ll go upstairs.”  We are being shown the mundane bickering and resentment that permeates in domestic partnerships, and the way that one’s intimate knowledge of the other can be used to hurt.

            Gluck continues quite skillfully to develop the theme of domestic bickering; of both intense pain and comfort existed simultaneously.  In Anniversary we hear a man talking to his wife as if he were allowing her, as a gift, the right to snuggle, and simultaneously chiding her for doing it wrong.  He says to her, “I said you could snuggle.  That does mean/your cold feet all over my dick. . . But I didn’t want your hand there./I wanted you here.”  And so even love-making, even the intimate and beautiful space of the bedroom is turned into a harsh and uncomfortable place of domestic ritual gone sour.  Love is not perfect, and intimacy can be a dangerously hurtful thing.  The things that we trust our lovers with are at once beautiful secrets, and the makings of ammunition, to be hurled carelessly back into our faces.

            The theme of women who want to hold and control their men; women whose love is so deep and so strained and desperate that it needs or aims to hurt their men, or to put them down in order to be comfortable; in order to be able, perhaps, to trust them, is artfully and unabashedly shown.  We hear in The Rock a woman talking to the devil about sending her husband to hell for just this very reason.  She says:


what is required in hell,

for I would send

my beloved there. . . .

I may want him

back sometime, not

permanently harmed but

severely chastened,

as he has not been, here


And a few lines further down,


What shall I give him for protection, what

shield that will not

wholly screen him?  You must be

his guide and master: help him

shed his skin

as you do, though in this case

we want him

older underneath, maybe

a little mousy.


            She wants her husband to be hurt, so that he will appreciate her more, and become more obedient; easier to trust and control.  To add depth and layer to this we then hear, in part of her series with the name Telemachus, that “I believe/women like to see a man/still whole, still standing, but/about to go to pieces: such/disintegration reminds them/of passion.”  Now a full image of a woman’s love has been spun; a love that is at once beautiful and spiteful, controlling and full of rage, while at the same time sweet and desperate, both with and for, love.

            Towards the end of the book the poetic voice calms and we begin to intuit an acceptance of the tumultuous nature of that thing that binds all humans together, and also rips us apart.  In The Parable of the Swans we see echoes of human love, and get, perhaps, our first calm and reflective insight that seems to accept all of what has been presented as nothing more or less than life.  Perhaps the bickering presented above is merely part and parcel of what we must understand to be love, and the drama of it; the pain of it is, in fact, part of what love is.  She says of the swans:


Sooner or later in a long

life together, every couple encounters

some emergency like this, some

drama which results

in harm.  This

occurs for a reason: to test

love and to demand

fresh articulation of its complex terms.


And a few lines further down,



the male believed that love

was what one felt in ones heart

the female believed

love was what one did.


            And then,


On the muddy water

they bickered awhile, in the fading light,

until the bickering grew

slowly abstract, becoming

part of their song

after a little longer.


            A few pages later we hear in The Parable of Faith, (in italics), “Do you know/what forgiveness means?  It means/the world has sinned, the world/must be pardoned--”  And so we are told that the world is made of wrong-doings and things we wish we could take back; these things are not special, they are what is.  If we are to exist in the world, we must also learn to forgive.  Perhaps there is hope, yet, for our married couple?  We are then brought back into the relationship of Penelope and Odysseus just as Odysseus returns from his voyage.  We hear of it, “He tells her/nothing of those years, choosing to speak instead/exclusively of small things, as would be/the habit of a man and a woman long together:/once she sees who he is, she will know what he’s done./And as he speaks, ah,/tenderly he touches her forearm.”  Many things have they both done to be ashamed of, but their sweet love for each other, and the tenderness they both feel, will outlast what they have done.  Like the swans, they accept the hurt, or the bickering, as part and parcel of the love.

            Meadowlands is an amazing collection of love poems that do not pretend that love is anything but what it is.  Gluck’s use of unabashed, unapologetic language that at once unveils, unleashes, and celebrates human emotion is fully glorious, frightful, and important.