Annotation by Sarah E. Miller
From the beginning of Louise Glück ’s The Wild Iris there is a questioning that begins in the reader; is this flower life or human life? The cycling of her poems from flower to human to seasons to relationship to religion-reigning-over-it-all creates a deep and arduous sadness about the entire book. Glück achieves this by employing repetition on various levels.
Everything in this book cycles and grows. Through a successful use of repetition, Glück creates a deepened picture of grief and the other side of grief, the moment when one can finally breathe. The poem title “Matins” is repeated throughout the book, usually in twos. It sets a tone of darkness turning to light, a nighttime prayer that ends at dawn. The poems titled “Matins” serve as a sort of break throughout. They are a more human response to the nature call and they are severely honest: “…it is a bitter thing to be the disposable animal, a bitter thing.” The “Matins” also prove to be familiar to the reader, something we’ve all heard and felt at another time in life, “What is my heart to you/that you must break it over and over/like a plantsman testing/his new species?”
In addition to the repetition of titles, Glück uses questions in the body of the poems. There is not a single poem that goes without asking questions, either outright or implied. At times the question is directly posed to the reader, something that must be answered; in other poems it feels more stream of conscious, especially when Glück uses a dash in place of a question mark. The questions are actively pulling the reader into this world and giving human quality among the abundance of nature. In “Snowdrops,” Glück begins with a human question and delves back into nature, “Do you know what I was, how I lived? You know/what despair is; then/winter should have meaning for you.” Again in “The Jacob’s Ladder,” she utilizes a question we might ask one another but one that is meant for nature, “Trapped in the earth/wouldn’t you too want to go/to heaven? I live/in a lady’s garden. Forgive me, lady/longing has taken my grace.”
Finally, Glück uses repetition at the word level: grief, blue, you, stars, and earth are found throughout the book. This repetition could easily become mundane and give less weight to each word as it is repeated. However, Glück employs each word to hold deeper meaning each time it is used. For example, the word “grief” is sometimes stacked so closely to itself that the poem begins to take on the weight of the word. In “Violets,” the word is used and defined repeatedly, “…we do not grieve/as you grieve, dear/suffering master; you/are no more lost/than we are, under/the hawthorn tree, the hawthorn holding…” In just two poems later, Glück is using the word grief again in “The Jacob’s Ladder,” as a connection between nature and life, “…I too desire/knowledge of paradise—and now/your grief, a naked stem/reaching the porch window.” Moreover, she places these words in surprising contexts, such as nestled in a monologue from a flower, suddenly giving human quality to nature. Often the flower and plant subjects are grieving their lot in life but they always receive another chance to live and blossom. This notion is often set against the notion of human mortality, highlighting the sometimes ridiculousness of human life. At times it feels as if the flowers are condemning human emotion as in “The Red Poppy,” “I am speaking now/the way you do. I speak/because I am shattered.”
Employing nature, particularly flowers, would seem too “obvious” a choice for the subject of poetry; however, Glück breaks out of stereotypical uses of these tropes through crafty timing and placement of repetition, often of simple diction. As poets, we often think of repetition as being limited to a poem or only on the word or sound level, but Glück shows us how to think of and use a wider range of repetition without the fear of being redundant or unoriginal across a body of work.