WHAT’S IN A TITLE?

It’s always a pleasure to discover a new and intriguing poet and curl up to read.  I recently reintroduced myself properly to Louise Gluck. The truth is, when I first read her, maybe 10 years ago, I turned away.  It seemed inaccessible to me. But sensibilities do change, and just yesterday I read some of her earliest work, which seemed very accessible. I am now astonished at the gap in my knowledge. She has written nine books and received important awards including the Pulitzer for The Wild Iris (Ecco Press 1992). In 2001 she was awarded the Yale University Bollingen Prize in Poetry.

Apart from the compelling discourse and beauty of the poems, what intrigued me about The Wild Iris was her use of the same title for several poems — a choice I was not aware I had seen before and which prompted me to explore Gluck’s other titling selections.

The two repeated titles are Matins and Vespers. Gluck gives me the feeling that the titles have significance beyond the content of the poems, that they may provide a framework, suggest a theme, or simply tie us to the earth, its beauty and rhythms, as a ground for her discourse on the human condition.

Matins, used for seven poems in the book, is a Catholic term referring to the first of the seven canonical hours, signifying the period for morning prayers.  (Matin translates to forenoon or morning). Ten are titled Vespers, the sixth canonical hour, signifying the time for evening prayers. (Vesper is French for Venus.) In my reading (and in desiring to understand the message, if any, conveyed in the use of these titles for seven poems), I longed to examine the question why. Are the titles meant to convey a time of day, a repeated form of conversational prayer, a mood, or possibly all of these and more?

Here is the first Matins poem:

The sun shines by the mailbox, leaves

of the divided birch tree folded, pleated like fins.

Underneath, hollow stems of the white daffodils,

Ice Wings, Cantatrice; dark

leaves of the wild violet. Noah says

depressives hate the spring, imbalance

between the inner and the outer world.  I make

another case—being depressed, yes, but in a sense passionately

attached to the living tree, my body

actually curled in the split trunk, almost at peace,

in the evening rain

almost able to feel

sap frothing and rising: Noah says this is

an error of depressives, identifying

with a tree, whereas the happy heart

wanders the garden like a falling leaf, a figure for

the part, not the whole.

Only “the sun shines by the mailbox” suggests early day for the morning prayer theory….

* * *

Matin #2

(Begins with) “Unreachable father”… which suggests the opening of a prayer

ends with

“We merely knew it wasn’t human nature to love

only what returns love.”                                       What a beautiful line!

Matin #3

Forgive me if I say I love you: the powerful

are always lied to since the weak are always

driven by panic. I cannot love

what I can’t conceive, and you disclose

virtually nothing: are you like the hawthorn tree,

always the same thing in the same place,

or are you more the foxglove, inconsistent, first springing up

a pink spike on the slope behind the daisies,

and the next year, purple in the rose garden? You must see

it is useless to us, this silence that promotes belief

you must be all things, the foxglove and the hawthorn tree,

the vulnerable rose and tough daisy—we are left to think

you couldn’t possibly exist.  Is this

what you mean us to think, does this explain

the silence of the morning,

the crickets not yet rubbing their wings, the cats

not fighting in the yard?

The time is clearly morning and the lines “—we are left to think you couldn’t possibly exist”seem to be directed to God. Questions appear throughout the Matins, as well as in the other poems, sometimes spoken from an I perspective, sometimes we or us.

In Matin #6  the capitalized “Father” occurs.

“Father,/as agent of my solitude, alleviate /at least my guilt; lift/

the stigma of isolation…”

Matin  (#7) In its entirety.

Not the sun merely but the earth

itself shines, white fire

leaping from the showy mountains

and the flat road

shimmering in early morning: is this

for us only, to induce

response, or are you

stirred also, helpless

to control yourself

in earth’s presence—I am ashamed

at what I thought you were,

distant from us, regarding us

as an experiment: it is

a bitter thing to be

the disposable animal,

a bitter thing.  Dear friend,

dear trembling partner, what

surprises you most in what you feel,

earth’s radiance or your own delight?

For me, always

the delight is the surprise.

These Matins poems as well as the ten titled Vespers suggest to me conversations with “God,” steeped in the sense of growing things, the awareness of birth, blooming, dying – ingenuous in the personal expression of love for and intimacy with the father-creator-being.  Many of the other poems in the book also involve yearning dialogues with a God-person. Gluck also titles other poems in The Wild Iris with plants or trees and these living things speak in human discourse. Examples: The Red Poppy, Witchgrass.

What helped me to understand Gluck’s nuances in using the morning and evening prayer titles was a little book by J. Philip Newell — Sounds of the Eternal: a Celtic Psalter Morning and Night Prayer (Eerdmans Publishing Co. 2002). Quoting the founder of the Iona Community in Scotland, who said “Matter matters because at the heart of the physical is the spiritual,” Newell states that matter is important, whether it be the matter of our bodies, the matter of creation, or the matter of what we handle daily.

In Gluck’s poems, the conversations are rooted in nature, in matter, and in our relationship to the Creator. So perhaps for her, morning and evening prayers encapsulate the matter of the day, serving as spiritual bookends.

I’d be delighted to hear your thoughts on the titling of poems.

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