The Seven Ages
Louise Glück
HarperCollins/Ecco Press 2001

In "Proofs and Theories," Louise Glück’s awarding-winning collection of essays, she wrote how she was desperate to impress a mother "who always, and in detail…told me exactly what she thought," a condition that finally lead to anorexia, an affliction that is "a physical sign calculated to manifest distain for need, for hunger, designed to appear entirely free of all forms of dependency."

When she was down to around 75 pounds, the teenager realized that she if she didn’t take charge of her life and get help, she was going to die. So one day Louise said to her mother, "Perhaps I should see a psychoanalyst." This lead to seven years of psychoanalysis, a process that taught her to "examine my own speech for its evasions and excisions," and which made her into the painfully insightful, and linguistically precise, poet that she is today.
"The Seven Ages" is Glück’s ninth book of poems. Though its language is direct, its thoughts carry an oblique intensity "that was never permitted to develop / into tolerance or sluggish affection." Not a word is superfluous, every poem counts; or, more correctly, accounts for something, as the poet seems intent on summing up, if not justifying, the person she’s become—

Amazingly, I can look back
fifty years. And there, at the end of the gaze,

a human being already entirely recognizable,

the hands clutched in the lap, the eyes
staring into the future with the combined
terror and hopelessness of a soul expecting annihilation.

(From, "Birthday")

As I read this book, though I kept trying to ward it off, the ghost of another poet kept floating into my mind. Like Louise Glück, Sylvia Plath was an immensely gifted poet who also struggled to emerge from the cocoon of her childhood. With Plath it was her father, with Glück her mother. Sylvia finally took her own life, gassing herself in a stove, while Louise began eating again, putting on weight, not just physically, but emotionally too.
Yet, like one of her beloved gods pushing a rock uphill (In a 1999 interview, she told the Harvard Advocate, "The gods and heroes were the first people I knew. They were the stories that I read when I was a child…So the gods were my companions."), Glück seems eternally engaged in the task of freeing herself from her heavy perceptions of paternal chains. In "Mother and Child," the poet opines:

This is why you were born: to silence me.
Cells of my mother and father, it is your turn

To be pivotal, to be the masterpiece.

Louise Glück does succeed in making masterpieces, brilliantly scribing porous memories, sustained by simpering ghosts that orate like a Greek Chorus. But this is a time when we don’t need masterpieces; we need poets who can breathe fresh visionary language into a society weathering the increasingly stale and self-serving rhetoric of its political and cultural leaders. We need poets who live in a larger world than the one this poet has yet empowered.

(C) The Oreginian 2001