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Essay

O wrong, wrong—it was my nature. I was
hard-hearted, remote. I was
selfish, rigid to the point of tyranny.
_____________
—Louise Glück

 

I WOULD LIKE FOR LOUISE GLÜCK to be my friend. This is a recent problem. I’ve never met Louise Glück, but I’ve read all her books (well, I’m still working on American Originality, her recent second book of essays, but only because I know I won’t have any more Louise Glück books to read once I’ve finished it—not, that is, until she publishes a new one, which I suspect will probably happen soonish, because I’ve been seeing new poems from her in journals lately, plus we share an editor and he tells me she’s writing). Every so often, I convince myself that because I love her poems and essays, she would like me personally. But in my soberer moments I know that doesn’t make any sense.

But doesn’t it? Doesn’t it make any sense? Well, no. But it makes sense for me to want to be friends with her—to be in direct communication with her—because I have been communicating with her indirectly for years. Although maybe it would be more accurate to say that I have received communications from her for years, or better still that I have overheard communications from her for years. One can’t go on overhearing forever, although that’s exactly what readers are asked to do.

Louise Glück knows what I’m talking about when I say it makes sense for me to want to be friends with her. In “Education of a Poet,” the first essay in Proofs & Theories—which was the first book of essays by a poet that lit me up inside—she writes, “From the time, at four or five or six, I first started reading poems, [I] thought of the poets I read as my companions.” Although read in its context, that sentence is primarily making a point about Louise Glück’s vocabulary preferences, and not her relationships with the poets she read when she was younger, nonetheless the latter point is included. And although Louise Glück wasn’t the first poet to articulate the idea that a poet reads the poets of the past as intimate contemporaries, I first encountered that idea in “Education of a Poet.” So maybe she wouldn’t think it’s weird that I want to be her friend?

The copy of Proofs & Theories from which I quoted above is a little beat up. I bought it used at a bookstore in Iowa City half a decade ago. Although I had originally purchased Proofs & Theories back when it was first published, the poverty that followed me throughout my early adulthood required me to sell it—and then buy it again, and then sell it again, etc. Poverty requires one to be as unsentimental as possible about one’s possessions—although it also encourages extreme sentimentality about a certain few of them—but I’m still sad about the hundreds of books I’ve had to sell over the years.

Anyway, the copy of Proofs & Theories from which I quoted above is a little beat up. I bought it used at a bookstore in Iowa City half a decade ago, and ordinarily I wouldn’t have purchased such a ragged copy, but a sticker in the upper-right corner of the first page caught my attention. It’s white and rectangular, with rounded edges—the kind one buys in blank sheets of thirty. The sticker read: from the library of Greta Wrolstad 1981–2005.

Reader, the name Greta Wrolstad might not mean anything to you, but at the time it had begun to mean something to me. Wrolstad was a poet who died in a car accident while still a graduate student at the University of Montana in 2005. Her first book of poems, Night Is Simply a Shadow, was published in 2013. I’m not sure how I became aware of the book, but I was hooked by the few lines of hers I could find online, lines like these from “Notes on Sea & Shore,” its magnificent opening poem:

_____ …at dawn I leave this earth-cave
_____ and walk alone under the oak tree.
_____ There I must sit all the long summer days,
_____ there I must weep for my misery,
_____ my many difficulties. I will always
_____ be troubled in heart, never finding rest nor respite
_____ from the many longings in my life.

_____ Now my lord remains
_____ under a rocky slope ice-glazed by storms;
_____ my love is weary, despairing. Water flows
_____ on his dreary hall. My lord suffers
_____ much heartache, he remembers too often
_____ his comforting home. Woe to those who are full of longing,
_____ forced to await their beloved, and live on ever alone.

What a voice! It’s an impossible voice, really. Who would write like that in the twenty-first century? (And yes—there is something a little Louise Glück-ish about the plainness of the language in those lines.) I had to hear more of that voice, and so I ordered the book.

And it’s an imperfect book. Of course it is—it’s a first book by a very young poet. But it’s filled with beautiful lines, and it took hold of my imagination for a few weeks. In those weeks, while browsing through used books, I stumbled across the aforementioned copy of Proofs & Theories, and although I thought it was a little strange to find it in a bookstore in Iowa City, and bearing an ex libris sticker that indicated the year of its previous owner’s death, eventually, after some deliberation because I didn’t have much money to spend on books, I decided I had to buy it. I wanted some further insight, I now understand, into that voice.

I found that insight as I flipped through the book, looking for underlined passages. I didn’t find many—and I can’t be sure who did the underlining—but this sentence, marked in thick blue ink, seemed, all by itself, to be what I was looking for: “When you read anything worth remembering, you liberate a human voice; you release into the world again a companion spirit.” The voice in “Notes on Sea & Shore” rereads a world of poems that came centuries before it, and releases thereby a world of companion spirits. The poem’s manner might seem archaic, but the poem works to make the archaic contemporary, and its work is saving work.

As you can imagine, reader, I was excited by my discovery, and in my excitement, I did a cruel thing I now very much regret. I sent the following email to the wonderful poet Rob Schlegel, whom I had known for years, and who I knew had attended the University of Montana at the same time as Wrolstad:

Hey Rob! How you doin’? I got a maybe weird question, and I sent you [a] text about [it] but who knows if the number I have is still good. Did you know Greta Wrolstad? And: Do you know if any books she owned might have ended up at Murphy-Brookfield? I found a book there with a sticker inside the cover that said “From the Library of Greta Wrolstad 1981–2005.” Is this a real thing or a made-up thing?

I wish I could excuse my tone; I wish I could offer some reason why it didn’t occur to me that Rob might have known Wrolstad, might indeed have been close friends with her, as I later found out he was. All I can do is be embarrassed. Rob never responded.

I met Rob during my first semester as a transfer student at Linfield College. Although I was a few years older than he was, as a consequence of teenage shenanigans I was a junior, whereas he was a senior. He was also one of the most beautiful men I had ever seen in real life. I met him in a creative writing workshop, and although I admit the memory may have been both distorted and gilded by the intervening years, I recall him walking into the first class in slow motion, late, wearing a white button-up shirt—the top three or four buttons of which were scandalously, as it seemed to me then, unbuttoned—and I recall him immediately being struck by a hungry beam of sunlight that leapt to welcome him as the rest of the room retreated into a bright haze. Check the security footage and I’m sure you’ll see much the same thing. Once I discovered he was a talented poet, and not just also the pitcher on the baseball team, my jealousy was complete. Over the course of the semester, Rob and I became friends, and the weird—I don’t know what to call it, but for now I’m going to go with “sickness”—sickness that has marred almost all my friendships began.

Although I liked Rob and still do, I found it increasingly, and inexplicably, difficult to just hang out with him or any of the friends I made at Linfield, and that difficultly has only increased with regard to the friends I’ve made since. Nowadays, I find it difficult even to be minimally in touch with my friends. Instead, I spend my time feeling bad, often terrible, about my inability to do so. I have healthy and loving relationships with my immediate family, thank God, but I find it almost impossible to communicate with my friends, whom I also love.

Besides guilt, there is another feeling that goes along with the sickness, a physical feeling—a buzzing unease located indefinitely between my stomach and my throat. That feeling seems to be with me more often than not, but I feel it most acutely whenever I exchange the peace at church. But I should say I feel it most acutely whenever I’m about to exchange the peace at church—in the moment of contact between myself and a fellow worshipper, I feel only relief and gratitude. It’s not a feeling I want to be rid of altogether, because I think it nudges me toward change. But I’m glad to escape it in those brief flashes.

I think all writers are inclined towards a degree of lonesomeness. And to a certain extent, this seems healthy to me. Writers need time alone to think, and sometimes to recover from thinking—honestly, doesn’t everybody? I think writers just need a little more of that time. It’s easy for me to excuse my sickness by reminding myself that I’m a writer, or at least that I’m always trying to be a writer, and therefore I need every instant of loneliness I can claim. And of course it’s true that I need some of that time, but that is a convenient need, and surrendering to the consideration of that need stops me from having to examine why I can’t talk to people.

Which I really should do. Because people are great.

And Rob is great, and despite my foolishness and insensitivity, we’re still friends—although, admittedly, my friendship with him is like my other friendships: silent, sometimes painfully silent. Louise Glück, I imagine, knows also what that silence is like, although I don’t mean to suggest that she doesn’t have many warm, close, and communicative friendships—just that I hear a lot of lonely silences in her work; she is perhaps the greatest English-language poet of lonely silences. I would like to be friends with those lonely silences.

 

 


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