Thursday, August 7, 2008

>Louise Glück's "Before The Storm"

>“Before The Storm,” The New Yorker, 8.4.08

“Before The Storm” is a consistent Glück poem: the tone is subdued, almost flat; the diction is sharp but simple; and, the sentiment is forebodingly dangerous. What makes it different than much of her other—really of her earlier—work is that the “I” and “you” often so terribly present is more or less absent here; in fact, the speaker remains anonymous, though clearly she’s intimately knowledgeable of the scene. The “you” remains equally anonymous. As a consequence, “Before the Storm” works on a much less personal level than many of Glück’s other poems. Her distanced observer, however, makes the poem no less intimate.

The story, here, is that a big storm is coming, something on par with a hurricane, and that it will last “perhaps ten hours all together” after which “the world as it was cannot return.” We have myriad signs that the storm is approaching, that it will be devastating—the world will be changed, we can sense the tempest from a distance, which suggests its magnitude—but we do nothing to heed the signs. Or, perhaps we notice the signs, but they reach beyond the fail-safe point: nothing can be done except weather (pardon me) the weather.

The storm in the poem remains vague enough to become a stand-in for many, many other things, and with my environmental leanings, it’s difficult for me not to read the poem in the chic fashion of the Green Movement. The first line stages a typical (dare I say American?) perspective, complete with a near total lack of foresight: “Rain tomorrow, but tonight the sky is clear, the stars shine.” Well, whoop-dee-do! As long as the world is right, as long as the Heavens shine brightly on we believers, then little harm can come to any of us. But, as the poem continues in lines two and three, “Still, the rain’s coming, / maybe enough to drown the seeds.” Lack of foresight or not, we’re in for a long night. As with much of the poem, these line are tonally honest and brutally straightforward, even boring in their way, which heightens the drama of the conflict without becoming melodramatic or waxing poetic. There’s a definite schism between content and tone, and the result, for me, is fear.

Other details heighten my anxiety for the poem’s pastoral landscape and beyond. Not only are the seeds, which suggest spring and new life, about to be ruined, and thus the future crop and all that would follow (food, money, next year’s seeds, etc.,—cascading repercussions), “the ram, the whole future” is missing, “tomorrow there’ll be blood in the grass….dawn won’t come…the world beyond the night remains a mystery.” These are portentous forecasts. There’s potential for rack and ruin, here. But, while the storm may be unavoidable, the poem heavily implies it could be better endured by paying attention and heeding warnings—“[t]his far from the sea and still we know these signs”—than it will be. Eden is about to be sacked? Let’s avert our eyes to the stars’ eternal beauty and pretend nothing’s going to happen. It reminds me of the last moments of the isle of High Brazil from the cult classic Erik the Viking. As the island is sinking, Erik (Tim Robbins) pleads with the island society’s king (Terry Jones of Monty Python fame) that it is, in fact, only seconds from being submerged along with the king and his people. Jones replies with something to the effect of No, it isn’t; no, we’re not.

Another image that stands out is that of the mountain, which “stands like a beacon, to remind the night that the earth exists, / that it mustn’t be forgotten.” To use a mountain in a poem is to use an image laden with context metaphoric and otherwise. A mountain is an impasse. It is, or has been, home to many gods and goddesses. Reaching its top, acquiring its glory, is a crowning human achievement, a sign of our ability to conquer the unconquerable forces of nature. It is a symbol of hope for humankind, which can do anything if it can rise even higher than the mountain. Glück gets good mileage out of the image in each of these ways. Interestingly, the human element does seem removed here. The mountain “reminds the night that the earth exists,” that it, not humankind, must be remembered. The moment is cold and detached, and the image is apropos not just for the nature of nature, which is not necessarily cold but is certainly indifferent to human desire, but for the poem’s equally cool tone. When the mountain element recurs, it’s presented in strong contrast to the human element: “One by one, the lights of the village houses dim / and the mountain shines in the darkness with reflected light.” Something will persist; something will endure. But, it will not be the village, at least as we’ve come to know it.

“Before the Storm” is built with a variety of sentence-types and line lengths, which heighten the writing’s tension. Some of the sentences stretch across two lines and their verbiage to the right-hand margin; others are fragments as short as two words, lines as short as four. The effect is a stilted rhythm. The poem lopes along and then stops, saying pay attention, which seems to be what it’s all about. After all, “The night is an open book” Glück writes in the poem’s penultimate line, “[b]ut the world beyond the night remains a mystery.”

Well, an inevitable mystery, yes, but not necessarily one for which we cannot prepare ourselves. If only this was in our nature…

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