In Proximity to Oblivion: A Review of Louise Glück’s Winter Recipes from the Collective

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Winter Recipes from the Collective
by Louise Glück
(FSG, 2021, 42 pp. $25)

My Uncle Al loves Voodoo Lounge, the 1994 Rolling Stones album. He texted me, “ ‘Love is Strong’ and ‘I Go Wild’ are great songs. The album is great! Give it a shot and don’t compare it to Exile.” But when I listen to Voodoo Lounge—which came out sixteen years after their last “great” album, Some Girls—all I hear are the Stones watered down, well past their prime. Doesn’t The Best of The Rolling Stones already have enough terrific songs? I can’t help comparing it, as my Uncle Al knew, to Exile on Main Street, their masterpiece. Would we even listen to Voodoo Lounge if it were the only album by another band? I think not.

Louise Glück is perhaps my favorite poet, and I admit I opened her new book, Winter Recipes from the Collective—her first since she received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2020—with trepidation. I’ve relished the extraordinary spaces she creates in her poems ever since I first read “Gretel in Darkness,” from The House on Marshland (1976), where she portrays Gretel, from the Hansel and Gretel fairy tale, as traumatized and bitter. In books like The Wild Iris (1992)—a sequence using voices of flowers, a poet-gardener and a gardener-god—Glück embellishes figurative terrain with literal detail, building these uncanny, impossible landscapes. Her last two books, A Village Life (2009) and Faithful and Virtuous Night (2014) are perhaps quieter, less ferocious and beautifully “cold” than the Glück I fell in love with. So many artists seem to taper off as they get older. I wasn’t prepared for her to be one of them.

Winter Recipes from the Collective is—at forty-two pages, just fifteen poems—a slim book that conveys a sense of looking back over a long life. The collection might have borrowed its title from one of its long poems, “The Setting Sun,” if that had not been too on point.

At the heart of Winter Recipes are four long poems: little prose-like stories, allegories of existence, of art, full of dialogue. Their logic is liminal, dream-like, mystical, almost outside of time, with characters appearing and reappearing, almost blending with each other. These long poems are divided into parts, with distinct speakers, in various contexts: the title poem describes a village of people gathering moss, making bonsai trees; “The Setting Sun” is about a painter conversing with her blind painting teacher.

“The Denial of Death,” my favorite long poem in the book, is separated into two parts: “A Travel Diary” and “The Story of the Passport.” In the first part, the speaker, while visiting “a beautiful hotel, in an orange grove, with a view of the sea” with a lover, loses her passport. The lover “stood on the balcony, / pelting me with foil-wrapped chocolates,” then continues on his journey, leaving the speaker alone at the hotel with the concierge, busboys, and other staff. She receives postcards from him, but he never returns. Gradually, the longer the speaker remains at the hotel (“I loved those days! each one exactly like its predecessor”), what might have seemed like a clear literal story inches into the murky swamp of allegory. The remainder of the poem is punctuated with conversations with the concierge.

The concierge, I realized, had been standing beside me. Do not be sad, he said. You have begun your own journey, not into the world, like your friend’s, but into yourself and your memories. As they fall away, perhaps you will attain that enviable emptiness into which all things flow, like the empty cup in the Daodejing—

The wise concierge refers to a section of the Daodejing, the Chinese book of philosophical proverbs, written by Lao Tzu in 400 BC: “The Tao is like an empty container: / it can never be emptied and can never be filled. / Infinitely deep, it is the source of all things. / It dulls the sharp, unties the knotted, / shades the lighted, and unites all of creation with dust.” Tao can be translated as the “natural order,” or the “way to enlightenment.” Glück’s speaker is pondering the state of her soul, and the value of dropping out of the world of material things in favor of an “infinitely deep” meditative life.

When the passport returns, in the second part of the poem, the speaker “threw it into the sea.” She takes long contemplative walks with the concierge, and by now we know the hotel to be a liminal, almost spiritual, ecosystem: a symbol of the speaker’s renunciation. The concierge tells the speaker, “you no longer / wish to resume your former life, / to move, that is, in a straight line as time / suggests we do …” As a poet and admirer of Glück’s poems, I’m tempted to read these lines as Glück, now in her late seventies, looking back on her life as an artist, wondering if it has been worth it to watch from the sidelines. The concierge says:

But you have stopped making things, he said, which is what the philosopher does. Remember when you kept what you called your travel journal? You used to read it to me, I remember it was filled with stories of every kind, mostly love stories and stories about loss, punctuated with fantastic details such as wouldn’t occur to most of us …

The speaker seems to want to renounce her narrative of self: the simplified, partly fantastical story we tell ourselves about ourselves. To let go of the illusory “straight line” of her “former life” and be, instead, an empty cup. By refusing narratives, she could embrace “that enviable emptiness into which / all things flow” without trying to force a coherent story onto it. “There are no plot stories in life,” as Sherwood Anderson said. The speaker’s “travel journal” is, possibly, Glück’s life work: her books. Those world-famous poems where she has puzzled through her life with family, childhood, and love. Glück here conveys a sense of cool distance from, and even admiration for, her own poems. She doesn’t tell us if it has been worth it, but in her tone seems to concede that it is now over.

Aside from some atypical, trite moments (“Everything is change, he said, and everything is connected”; “that stillness at the heart of things”), “The Denial of Death” feels like Glück, even if the voice is perhaps less harsh and cold than that of her earlier poems. The ending makes reference to Ernest Becker’s nonfiction book, The Denial of Death, which claimed that human civilization is a kind of defense mechanism against knowing about death. The implication, I think, is that the speaker’s “travel journal” has been part of this system: an attempt, as perhaps all life is, to deny death. But not anymore.

Winter Recipes is punctuated with smaller poems, tinier allegories, simple yet demanding to be read over and over (e.g., the first stanza of the first poem: “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”). Each poem is somehow clear while also remaining stubbornly elliptical, receding.

“A Memory” begins, “A sickness came over me / whose origins were never determined …” The speaker “wanted only to be with those like [herself]”; “eventually I did find some companions / and in that period I would sometimes walk / with one or another by the side of the river …” After describing details of this river, the poem ends this way:

And it seemed to me I remembered this place from my childhood, though there was no river in my childhood, only houses and lawns. So perhaps I was going back to that time before my childhood, to oblivion, maybe it was that river I remembered.

Winter Recipes occurs in close proximity to oblivion. The metaphorical river of “A Memory,” which both does and does not exist, winds through the book. This river evokes the Taoist concept of Wu-wei, which sees life (again) as a “flow” that requires of us, rather than force, a kind of non-doing. Glück seems to be both reaching toward spiritual clarity, and looking back on her life. The hotel in “The Denial of Death,” with its foil-wrapped chocolates and specific dialogue, reminds me of Tobias Wolff’s short story, “Bullet in the Brain”: the character’s intense memory of playing shortstop on a baseball team in Mississippi when he was a kid, flooding back to him in his last moments before death after he’s been shot in a bank.

The long title poem is, I think, a generous offering on Glück’s part. Early in the poem, moss collectors gather food for a little village: “wild mustards and sturdy herbs / packed between the halves of ciabattine.” The cookbook, referred to in the title, “contains / only recipes for winter, when life is hard.” Later in the poem, the village attentively watches over bonsai trees: “not simply caring for the little trees / but caring for ourselves as well …” The poem describes a community of people making precious things, sharing them with one another. The implication is that Glück’s book, particularly the idea of the Tao, might be useful recipes for us as a society. Glück’s gift to us, in a time of winter.

Winter Recipes is no Voodoo Lounge. It’s highly original, deeply weird, and not exactly like anything else I’ve read. Less like Glück’s old work, and more like Kafka, Murakami, Borges, Calvino. Fiction writers, surrealists. Although I admit I crave the sharp, almost accusatory voice of Ararat (1990), I find the astonishing figurative spaces in Winter Recipes well worth a visit. Be warned: it’s mellower, not so angry. Nevertheless, it’s intensely satisfying. Not Glück’s Exile on Main Street but (as Uncle Al says) we shouldn’t expect it to be. It’s the slow R&B album, late-life masterpiece, that the Stones never made because they burnt out too young.