Psalmist Who Speaks from the Center of Life

DIANE SCHARPER

April 27, 1993|By DIANE SCHARPER

The poet's voice was hypnotic, but it was the poems themselves -- intimate, in a sense prayerful -- that touched everyone. It was October 1992. Louise Gluck had come to Baltimore to read from her newly-published book, ''The Wild Iris.''

Ms. Gluck approached the podium, smiling but somewhat nervous. Wearing jeans and a shirt, this small, brown-haired woman with dark eyes appeared younger than her 49 years.

Some critics consider her to be the best poet writing in America today, and compare her favorably to T.S. Eliot, whose sober influence is in her poetry. But there's also an ecstasy in Ms. Gluck's work. A heart -- reminiscent of Walt Whitman -- beats in these poems, as they bring to mind a line from ''Leaves of Grass'': ''Your very flesh shall become a great poem.''

The author of six books of poetry, Ms. Gluck has received numerous honors, among them, two John Guggenheim awards and three National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships. She was included in the anthology, ''The Best American Poems of 1992.'' One of her previous books, ''The Triumph of Achilles,'' received the prestigious National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry. Most recently, ''The Wild Iris'' received this year's Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

Last October, however, the audience did not know that the serious, even stern-looking poet before them would win the Pulitzer Prize. They only knew that this small woman had a hypnotic reading voice. She half sung, half spoke her poetry. Hearing her read was like listening in on someone's prayers. Ms. Gluck's voice, to use a line from one of her poems, was ''full of grief,'' her ''sentences like cries strung together.'' (''Trillium'')

That voice kept a large audience, many of them college students, spellbound for over an hour. When the audience left the auditorium, a few people stopped and spoke to her. They seemed shy, as if in the presence of a holy person. Her words had put them at a loss for words. This was no ordinary poet.

''Whatever returns from oblivion, returns to find a voice,'' the poet writes in the title poem of her book, ''The Wild Iris.'' According to the book, everything returns from oblivion. There is death. If you have a soul, you do not die. Each of the book's voices -- the poet's, the creator's and nature's -- testifies to eternal life and love.

The book's subject is the connecting power of love. Love gives birth to words. Words come ''from the center of life . . . a great fountain, deep blue shadows on azure seawater.'' Words

connect the poet (and by extension all people) to life and life's creator. The message of the words is love.

The poet is the ultimate message bearer, with poems that ''leave signs of feeling everywhere . . . Unreachable father, . . . What is my heart to you,'' the poet asks, ''that you must break it over and over?'' The tone is ironic: You are like a ''plantsman testing his new species. Practice on something else.'' (''Matins'')

The poems address need: ''Your gift to me is to make me conscious of my need for you . . . or have you abandoned me,'' the poet writes to the creator. (''Vespers'') ''Love of my life . . . you are lost . . . I try to win you back, that is the point of the writing . . . '' (''Vespers Parousia'')

The creator, though, isn't lost. He responds to the poet as a lover would, making this book into a contemporary version of the Psalms. The voice of his creatures reaches him always, he says, ''I answer constantly . . . My tenderness should be apparent to you in the breeze of the summer evening . . . '' (''Sunset'')

The poems occur in two worlds: One is the ''emptiness of heaven, a white light no longer disguised as matter.'' The other is the garden. ''Good-bye,'' the creator says. ''Good-bye is the one continuous line that binds us to each other.''

Here in the garden are the voices of nature -- flowers, trees earth, etc. -- which the poet hears and fashions into poems. In a sense, Ms. Gluck becomes a medium. Everything speaks to her. The violets, for example, tell the poet that she, in all her greatness, knows nothing of the soul's nature, ''which is never to die . . . ''

These are powerful poems from a poet at the height of her power. ''I have only my body for a voice,'' she writes. ''I can't disappear in silence.'' (''The White Rose'')

Diane Scharper teaches writing at Towson State University.

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