A Brief Review of
A Village Life: Poems.
Hardback: FSG, 2009
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Reviewed by Brittany Sanders.
It is a rare poet who can combine visceral images of human society and natural beauty, without diminishing the mystery of either. Where most writers fail to capture a sense of balance between these two themes, Louise Glück creates a complete, harmonious whole.
In A Village Life, Glück’s poems focus on the expression of dynamic pairings—winter and summer, dusk and dawn, male and female, life and death, body and soul, and especially that symbiotic relationship between mankind and creation. Instead of emphasizing how one element overpowers the other, as many artists are tempted, Glück explores how they work in tandem, how they slide into and through and between each other, until they seem to need one another to even exist, like “death making room for life.”
Beyond the cycle of the seasons and of aging generations, there are even deeper rhythms at work. Living in the shadow of a mountain, the villagers are continuously connected to the world around them. One villager recalls her youth and the long calm of nights spent just watching the color of the sky change: “Whatever happened in that window, we were in harmony with it.”
Whether in first or third person, as an adolescent or an earthworm, each poem’s subject creates a crisp, emotive elegy to a particular memory. But what makes the collection so sobering is the reality that these poems chronicle an extinct lifestyle, this “village life” that no longer exists because so many have left, believing “if you don’t get out fast / you’ll die, as though this beauty were gagging you so you couldn’t breathe.”
Despite how many villagers leave the countryside, it feels like the countryside never leaves them; it’s in their blood, whether they embrace it or not. In “Sunrise,” they reflect on the permanence of the setting and the comfort that comes from knowing “the hills weren’t going anywhere.” No matter whatever (or whoever) else might change in one’s life, the countryside itself will still be there. By contrast, those who have left the village discover that what they had always taken for granted is snatched; the natural rhythms evaporate, replaced by the artificial. “The streetlight’s off: that’s dawn here. / It’s on: that’s twilight.”
Becoming a part of this “village life,” readers experience every morsel of the villagers’ joys and sufferings. Throughout the collection, change feels inevitable. “We stand in the sun and the sun heals us,” but eventually “the snow has to fall, sleep has to come.” The cycles wear on, repeating themselves as one flows into the next, just as Glück repeats the names of three poems in this short collection.
Teeming with gritty truths and the rich, elegant agony of the human experience, The Village Life deserves to be savored. Its pages are haunted by a sense of the collective unconscious, shared among a simple community whose identity is tied to its rustic surroundings. For casual readers and poetry aficionados alike, Glück’s poems will not disappoint.