The Wild Iris, by Louise Glück
This was an odd book, but in the best way. In reading this book I was struck by various series of cycles that appeared to manifest themselves over and over again in the poems as a whole. There was the hint of conversation between a husband and a wife and God, upset with the flaws of humanity and the failure of mankind to transcend pettiness and immaturity. There was the reference to the hours by which prayers were given, as several poems were titled Vespers and Matins, which refer to a Catholic tradition I must admit I do not know particularly well. There are also seasonal cycles and references to the cycle of day and night. When you also add to it the book’s many references to plants in particular and one has a strong sense of a poet who has been able to pack a lot of layers of meaning into a work. And that is what I mean by a book that is odd in the best way. The multilayered aspect of the book encourages the reader to muse and ponder on the poems and how they relate to each other as part of the book as a whole, and the author is subtle enough to let the reader understand why several poems have the same names or nearly the same names without beating you over the head with the lack of subtlety that afflicts so many poets.
The book as a whole is a short one at just over fifty pages. She begins the poem with the titular work and then moves on seven poems titled matins sprinkled throughout the work. The poet reflects on the dark name of witchgrass as well as the hawthorn tree and the trillium. Nine poems are titled simply vespers and another poem references the parousia in addition to vespers. Other poem titles refer to daisies, field flowers, the red poppy, the white rose, and the silver, gold, and white lilies. The author clearly has several different kinds of interests here, as there are reflections about creation as well as about the place of mankind (and womankind) within that creation. Throughout the collection as a whole the author manages to strike a keen balance between being too obscure and being too blunt, giving plenty of layers of meanings and connections within the poems as a whole to allow the reader to tease out some of the complexities of her work. It is little wonder, therefore, that this book and its author have been so highly honored, because a poet with this sort of skill is not easy to find.
Ultimately, in reading this poem I got the sense that the writer was looking at the passage of time and hoping for a reconciliation between mankind and womankind and between mankind and God as well as God’s creation. Over and over again the poems pointed to loss and to the desire to be made right, and to the frustration that God has in dealing with unredeemed and unrepentant humanity. It is a rather daring thing for a poet to try to take on the perspective of God, but at least a couple of times (if not more) the poet manages to do so well here. What is it that allows the poet to do this in a way that is not offensive when so many poets try and fail to be daring in their work and to make large spiritual points? Perhaps it is the fact that the author is focusing on relationships here and not on mere politics that makes this work come off so well. It is certainly an approach that others would do well to follow, whether or not they want to go about it in as layered an approach as the author, who is clearly drawing from both a keen interest in plant life as well as Catholic spirituality.