It is late afternoon. You enter the movie theater. You walk through the lobby to the auditorium. There, the late afternoon becomes night. You find a good seat. You see the previews of coming attractions, and the command to silence your mobile device. You wait. The movie begins. It is French. Black-and-white images flicker. A story unfolds across the screen.
Reading Faithful and Virtuous Night by Louise Gluck is like that movie experience. Each poem is a film, or a film script for the eye. Consider “the Past, ” one of the shorter of the 24 poems occupying 81 pages:
Small light in the sky appearing
two pine boughs, their fine needles
now etched onto the radiant surface
and above this
high, feathery heaven—
Smell the air. That is the smell of the white pine,
most intense when the wind blows through it
and the sound it makes equally strange,
like the sound of the wind in a movie—
Shadows moving. The ropes
making the sound they make. What you hear now
will be the sound of the nightingale, chordata,
the male bird courting the female—
The ropes shift. The hammock
sways in the wind, tied
firmly between two pine trees.
Smell the air. That is the smell of the white pine.
It is my mother’s voice you hear
or is it only the sound the trees make
when the air passes through them
because what sound would it make,
passing through nothing?
The poem is intensely visual, from the small light appearing between two pine boughs, to the shadows moving, the birds courting, the smell of white pine – and then you come to the mother’s voice. Perhaps it is the mother’s voice, or the sound of air passing through trees. The poem even refers to the sound of wind in a movie – not the sound of wind by itself, but the sound of wind in a movie.
The sense of the cinematic frames each of these poems, whether they are about a decision to finish with romantic adventures, visitors from abroad, an old woman sitting in a park and telling a story, visiting a father’s grave, a visit to Cornwall, or an open window. Gluck is filming small, beautiful movies, a few written in the form of prose poems. Her use of the present tense adds to the film quality, and makes each poem seem as if is happening just as you read it.
Gluck is one of America’s leading poets. The author of 16 poetry collections and three non-fiction works, she received the Pulitzer Prize for poetry for The Wild Iris (1992), was named U.S. Poet Laureate in 2003, and has received numerous other awards, prizes and fellowships. Faithful and Virtuous Night was the 2014 National Book Award winner for Poetry:
Faithful and Virtuous Night is an invitation to walk alongside a poet and watch as she aims her camera to capture her scenes and stories. These poems by Louise Gluck leave us with a sense of wonder; they leave us with the beauty of words and images.
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