I wish to end summer (or begin ending summer) by replaying my parts in a collaborative reading of Louise Glück. The poem:
In your extended absence, you permit me
use of earth, anticipating
some return on investment. I must report
failure in my assignment, principally
regarding the tomato plants.
I think I should not be encouraged to grow
tomatoes. Or, if I am, you should withhold
the heavy rains, the cold nights that come
so often here, while other regions get
twelve weeks of summer. All this
belongs to you: on the other hand,
I planted the seeds, I watched the first shoots
like wings tearing the soil, and it was my heart
broken by the blight, the black spot so quickly
multiplying in the rows. I doubt
you have a heart, in our understanding of
that term. You who do not discriminate
between the dead and the living, who are, in consequence,
immune to foreshadowing, you may not know
how much terror we bear, the spotted leaf,
the red leaves of the maple falling
even in August, in early darkness: I am responsible
for these vines.
I think that a certain mode of interaction with divinity is at work in this poem. Glück’s “Vespers” takes me to some parables, in particular those where a landlord leaves the land to his tenant and returns after a time to call them to account. The Parable of the Talents is perhaps the most famous, but there are others. The persona here sounds like a tenant, but one who recognizes the landlord for the divinity he symbolically is (one who could “withhold// heavy rains”).
I am interested in the diction, especially in the words found at the outset, such as “anticipating,” “return on investment,” and “principally,” all of which where ripped right out of a business management textbook. Because of these words, by the time we arrive at the addressee’s “heart” and the persona’s “doubt” regarding his understanding of it, “that term” takes on another meaning (or understanding) as a period in the venture, or a phase (“twelve weeks of summer”). That’s in business, but it glides (too smoothly, perhaps) into parable where the “term” is the span of time that the lord allotted to the tenant in order to work the land and, in the process, to prove the worth of the earth as well as of the self.
“That term” has another layer for me: metapoetry. Here we return to the place (or figure, as in this poem) where the word “term,” like other words, could be taken in all its multivalence to bear fruit, become “heart”. In fact, we can make a case of the addressee here as poetry itself, as that which withdraws inspiration (in your absence) so that the poet is forcefully abandoned to work the earth.
While doing so, she believes in a return, a second coming which is desired, of course, but also dreaded, because she will be called into account (the Vespers, the evening prayers, the closing of the day), and she fears coming to poetry empty-handed, especially as that would mean that all she has done was waste “that term”: earth, time, and precious life, the span of her heart (perhaps also not only her life, but the lives of those she “grows” such as tomatoes, relationships, children).
"Vines" here is a particularly cruel word. In parable, that means grapes, and wine, and crushing. But the vines also are entangling, like flaws in verse, or wrong life-choices. And there must be a sense of power here, for the persona, when she takes responsibility for that which provides life as well as chokes it out of us.
“Verse” shares the same etymological root as words like reverse, converse, and inverse and traditionally same sense of the “turn” (These turns are ascribed to the rows of farms, the furrows, which are seen as correlates of the lines in a poem. Aside from formal turns, a poem is usually expected to make a turn in narrative or rhetorical turns. A sonnet takes this turn or swerve usually after the 8th line. Shakespeare takes it further than Petrarch by introducing the couplet, which some read as a further turn, or at least an introduction of a nuance of the turn. It follows rhetorical ends, because you must first show the persuasee that you know his or her mind before you take him or her turn to your point of view).
Anyway, what I wanted to say is that the farming language commingles metapoetry, business, and parable quite naturally because of its place at the root of civilization, that which gives rise and perhaps makes necessary the forms of commerce, religion, and literature we know today.
God, poetry? Perhaps death is what’s immune to foreshadowing? This a puzzle in the poem for me.
I can’t take vines as a purely beneficent, life-giving image. Maybe because weeds also come in the form of vines. The god of wine, Dionysus, uses vines to collapse buildings, ships. It can be viewed as an entropic symbol, or if that’s too exaggerated, at least a symbol of the earth taking back (in) the constructs of man, as well as man’s own corporeal form. I suppose that the persona’s claiming responsibility over her constructs, her verses, even her life. But the way it sounds to me, she seems likewise staking a claim upon her own death, or at least its form: how she has decreed her decline to proceed entwined with her the fortunes of her verse.
Early on, I wanted to know the implications of using tomatoes, and this reading fits! It’s a weekly, almost daily thing, so much so that you could lose that all that color (we love it in every one of its stages, from green to red, and all the minglings of yellow and orange in between) and succulence if you don’t pay good attention, the type of attention an artist would give. Of course also, a poet like Glück.
It’s not a special occasion fruit, or something so otherworldly as the pomegranate, it’s almost unsymbolic because of its dailiness (almost). What fun to see your poetry (vocation?) in the image and likeness of a tomato.