Louise Glück circa 1977 (Gerard Malanga/Wikimedia Commons)

The poet Louise Glück, who died on October 13, published her final collection of poetry, Winter Recipes from the Collective (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $15, 64 pp.), in 2021. The book is a classic of the late style: spare and strange, with filigree stripped away and mystery left in its place. The lines tend to be short; monosyllables predominate. Everything—form, language, time itself—has been reduced.

Death haunts almost every one of the book’s fifteen poems. In “A Sentence,” the speaker declares that her days have run out: “Everything has ended, I said. / What makes you say so, my sister asked. / Because, I said, if it has not ended, / it will end soon / which comes to the same thing.” In another poem, a dying woman falls into silence in the middle of a story, with those surrounding her bed left unsure exactly how permanent a sleep she has drifted into. What they do know is that, in this moment, “Something…existed between us, / nothing so final as a baby, / but real nevertheless.” Death forces us to confront reality; in doing so, it brings us together.

Winter Recipes from the Collective begins with a poem called, simply, “Poem.” The opening quatrain reads like a fairy tale: “Day and night come / hand in hand like a boy and a girl / pausing only to eat wild berries out of a dish / painted with pictures of birds.” The boy and girl, introduced as points of comparison, become characters in their own right: “They climb the high ice-covered mountain, / then they fly away.” The speaker and the “you” she addresses, though, lack such vitality, their days of tramping without effort or care long gone: “We climb the same mountain; / I say a prayer for the wind to lift us / but it does no good; / you hide your head so as not / to see the end—” Glück always has known how tightly poetry and prayer go together. “I speak / because I am shattered,” she once wrote. In her late poems, people speak and pray and sing because they are shattered, yes, but also because they know that the end is approaching.

Glück always has known how tightly poetry and prayer go together.

“Poem” concludes with the speaker and her addressee not flying up the mountain but falling down it: “Downward and downward and downward and downward / is where the wind is taking us.” Echoing Emily Dickinson’s “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,” Glück has her speaker plummet through world after world, ending, again like Dickinson, with a dash rather than a period. But Glück’s speaker is not alone and the poem’s final note isn’t, as in Dickinson, the isolation of the mind in extremis. Rather, Glück ends with the possibility of intimacy despite and because of fear:

And then we are simply falling—


And the world goes by,
all the worlds, each more beautiful than

the last;


I touch your cheek to protect you—

When Glück visited Purchase College last fall, she told a group of students that she woke one morning with a sentence echoing in her head: “Leo Cruz makes beautiful bowls.” She didn’t know who Leo Cruz was; she didn’t know how or why he made those bowls. But she sensed that there was something there, and so she worked on it—first the line and then the poem—for months. The end result is “Song,” the final poem in Glück’s final collection.

“Song” describes a friendship between the speaker and a ceramicist named Leo Cruz. In “Song,” the speaker and Leo occasionally disagree: “Leo thinks the things man makes / are more beautiful / than what exists in nature // and I say no. / And Leo says / wait and see.” Disagreement can be a form of respect, even love; the response from both parties, after all, is “and,” not “but.” The poem ends with a desert, a kiln, and an image of art’s endurance:

He is teaching me
to live in imagination:


a cold wind
blows as I cross the desert;
I can see his house in the distance;
smoke is coming from the chimney


That is the kiln, I think;
only Leo makes porcelain in the desert


Ah, he says, you are dreaming again


And I say then I’m glad I dream
the fire is still alive

We can read the concluding couplet in a few ways. First, as two distinct statements: the speaker says that she is glad that she dreams; the fire is still alive. But we also might read it as one statement enjambed across two lines: the speaker says that she is glad that she dreams that the fire is still alive. Is the fire a vision, or a waking dream? Is there a difference? The poem doesn’t say. It leaves us, as Glück’s work so often did, dwelling in silence.

The poem doesn’t say. It leaves us, as Glück’s work so often did, dwelling in silence.


In 2022, Glück published her first and only novel, Marigold and Rose: A Fiction. In the acknowledgments, she thanked her friend, the novelist Kathryn Davis: “To Kathryn Davis, whose criticism has shaped this work and whose books have been an inspiration, an unrepayable debt.” Davis’s Aurelia, Aurélia: A Memoir (Graywolf, $15, 128 pp.) came out months before Marigold and Rose. Dedicated to Glück, the book thinks about ends: specifically, the death of Davis’s beloved husband, ecological essayist Eric Zencey. But even more than ends, Davis writes about transition: those experiences—loving, reading, dreaming, dying—in which a carrying over occurs. In such experiences, time reveals itself as mystery and the self is transformed.

The book opens with a striking sentence: “There are points in your life when you think you’re about to become whatever’s next.” Davis, sixteen years old, is en route to Europe. Having read Durrell and Cavafy in preparation, she’s eager to leave her stultifying Philadelphia life behind, if only for a bit. (“I wore a paisley scarf,” she writes, “peasant-style and, briefly, feigned a Russian accent.”) In the white space between paragraphs, time jumps: Davis is now twenty-three, again in Greece, now unhappily married—not to Eric but to her first husband. White space and another jump: Davis is reading Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse for the first time. She encounters the novel’s middle section, “Time Passes,” in which the characters we’ve come to care about in the novel’s first section have departed. We’re left in an empty house, feeling time as if for the first time. “We’re in the place of transition,” Davis writes, “the point of intersection between the rook in Virginia’s brain and the rook in ours, a place of communion between psyches, the skull laid bare, the place of breath, the expulsion of souls, a space or time as vast and long or small and brief as our experience of space/time itself.”

Davis places us, again and again, in transit, in those “moment[s] you step off the edge of the cliff before you hit the ground.” Such moments happen when we read Woolf or listen to Beethoven’s Opus 134: “And there you are, ghostly you and the ghostly artist, in ghostly communion in that non-existent place between words, images, notes.” They happen on trains (there’s a chapter about a blizzard-interrupted trip up north) and on boats (the ship that took the young Davis to Greece). They happen, especially, when someone we love dies. The beloved both is and isn’t who they once were and the bereft is left unmoored: “Memory stops working its regular way—it goes crazy. It is no longer like remembering; it is, more often, like astral projection.”

Davis writes beautifully about death and dying. “It’s different washing the body after the person has died,” she observes. “The wish to inflict no harm is still there, elevated by the absence of response to something resembling desire.” But Aurelia, Aurélia is not just a book of mourning. In her eight novels, Davis has proven herself a slippery writer—her books read like works of mysticism except when they read like detective fiction except when they read like parable—and she’s perfectly suited to explore the slippery nature of time. In her hands, time is a palimpsest. It resembles “an unbroken bolt of fabric” until, in moments of transition, we see it, in exhilarating and terrifying ways, anew. In an earlier poem, Davis’s late friend Louise Glück wrote, “I took time very seriously in those years.” So does Davis, and that seriousness is one of the many gifts that Aurelia, Aurélia offers its readers.

Anthony Domestico is chair of the English and Global Literatures Department at Purchase College, and a frequent contributor to Commonweal. His book Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period is available from Johns Hopkins University Press.

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Published in the December 2023 issue: View Contents
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