Collaborative Close Readings
Our first poem for close reading and discussion is “Vespers” by Louise Glück.
Here we have what seems to be not so much a prayer–Vespers is an evening prayer service– as a strongly stated affirmation of human responsibility, a criticism of the lack of beneficence from the forces of nature (or perhaps a deity figure), and the abnegation of divine responsibility that results in human failure. Gluck’s potent metaphors for growth, blight, rot, and death are tightly held in terse language that unfurls against her scene of a garden in the bleakness of approaching winter.
It is the end of the growing season, and the carefully nurtured tomato plants have been subjected to heavy rains and even an early frost. There are blight spots on the fruits that have spread throughout the entire crop. The “I” of the poem reacts to this loss with an acerbic commentary on how the “extended absence” of this higher power has given permission for Gluck to make “use” of the earth, to plant the seeds in her garden, but the lack of any control over the extremes of the weather has caused this rot, even though there had been some sort of expectation of a successful harvest, her intended offering now blighted and ruined. This is a poem of dark images and impersonal language, not the kind of talk one would think would constitute any kind of invocation or prayer to a deity, but rather it is almost like a controlled imprecation, a railing in tightly-held language against the forces of nature that conspire against success.
I am very interested in the way Gluck uses this language to convey her sense of her own responsibility in the face of the unresponsiveness of nature, and also in the juxtaposition of images, both dark (the evocation of the end of the day–and on a higher level, life itself–by calling the poem “Vespers,”) and more hopeful: the vines for which she feels responsible. There are colors in the poem as well that evoke the ending of the day and the dying of the garden: the red of the tomato echoed in the “red leaves of the maple falling/Even in August.” There also seems to be a reversal of whose job it is to be the creator; she herself has planted the seeds, watching “the first shoots/like wings tearing the soil” while the sole job of nature is not to “discriminate/between the dead and the living” thus causing the destruction of the garden. She writes of the “terror we bear” caused by the approach of winter, yet she ends the poem with the word, “vines,” an interconnected plant that grows by network, spreading across rather than falling down, and she renews her sense of responsibility for their continued existence.
Do you think that Gluck is angry at nature/God/the Other for falling down on the job? And why? Whose job is it to be in charge of creation and growth? She writes of her “heart/broken by the blight” and asserts that she doubts “you have a heart, in our understanding of/that term.” How do you think she uses language and lineation to convey her tone, and how does this poem rise above being just the angry musings of a gardener miffed that her tomato crop has been ruined?