‘Otherwise, you live’: what Louise Glück tells us about death

‘I’m preparing to be a ghost’, wrote Louise Glück almost two decades ago. At the time, the Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet was only in her early sixties; she would go on to publish six more books and win the 2020 Nobel Prize in Literature. Up until last month, she was still teaching undergraduate courses in verse writing as the Frederick Iseman Professor of Poetry at Yale University. Yet, even as she went back and forth between award ceremonies, interviews, and lectures on Yale’s New Haven campus, Glück was thinking about death. As in Averno, the collection from which the opening line is taken, its spectre has haunted each step in her writing.  

After she passed away on October 13—just two weeks ago—from cancer, obituaries and essays from grieving friends and colleagues flooded the literary world. ‘Remembering Louise Glück’ has since become a recurring heading across multiple media platforms; pieces such as this one from The Paris Review carefully chronicle the authors’ memories of Glück’s habits and quirks, seeking to reconcile the image of the great poet posthumously with her mundane humanity. Even now, articles are still being published, as if through a collective desire to preserve her in little, heartbreaking moments of remembrance—a desire that is also ironic, as her student Elisa Gonzalez puts it: ‘Before [Gonzalez herself] can think how to begin’ her tribute, she already finds ‘reproof’ for the act in Glück’s poetry. 

Glück’s voice calls out from ‘The Wild Iris’: ‘Hear me out: that which you call death / I remember.’ Here is the ‘you’, the reader with all their assumptions about death (and is ‘death’ really ‘death’ anyway? or is ‘death’ just what we ‘call’ it?); here is the speaker—distanced, self-proclaimed to be knowledgeable, and demanding recognition as the authority on all matters mortal. ‘I remember’ death itself, she announces with certainty, overriding both everyone else’s normative perceptions of death and their strategy of grieving through ‘remember[ing]’. Having so powerfully confronted the conventions surrounding death, would Glück have similarly eschewed the essays of her own grievers? 

Speaking to, from and on the realm of the dead has always been one of the hallmarks of Glück’s poetry. Her fascination with mortality is endless: ‘The Triumph of Achilles’ (1985) approaches the topic through the lens of grief, examining how the Greek hero mourns his companion Patroclus, while the 2006 collection Averno takes its name from an Italian lake believed to be the entrance to the Roman underworld. In these poems, depictions of death are interwoven into mythological narratives, as if to say: three thousand years, and humanity still faces the same sorrow. Yet it is also precisely in the universal nature of this loss that Glück finds meaning. Even as her poems draw upon classical mythology, they firmly resist its deeply-rooted heroic narratives, instead pulling back the glorified protagonist’s skin to uncover the common man and his response to mortality. Under Glück’s pen, Achilles is no longer Homer’s hero with streaming hair. He is made real, into a man who ‘loved’ and lost, who is forced to register the true ‘Triumph’ of humanity beyond battle glory. While her collection Averno alludes to Hades, it un-dramatises death even further by taking on a private, personal quality: the titular poem is preoccupied with Glück’s own uncertainty about death as she ages, filtered through her children’s unease about ‘the government’ ‘tak[ing] everything’ and the mundane image of a farmer’s burnt field. Averno’s mythological weight fades to the poem’s backdrop; being no longer the heroes of old, Glück’s path and our own (to Elysium? somewhere else?) are not nearly so clear. 

What Greek mythology and Glück’s poems have in common, though, is the attempt to prolong human influence past our allotted lifespans through the use of written records. The Iliad has certainly survived the tides of time, and Glück’s poems are still much venerated after her death, recent as it may be; humanity’s efforts to construct its own eternity seem to be working. But is this really resistant of death? is the question we always end up asking. In her responses, Glück turns to the truly timeless force of nature.  

In ‘The Night Migrations’, the speaker ‘grieves’ not the deceased, but the fact that they will not see ‘the red berries of the mountain ash / and in the dark sky / the birds’ night migrations’. The question, then, is answered: immortality in works or legacy is no salvation from one’s isolation from the life that goes on. And it does go on—the berries grow plump and proliferate, birds cross the sky, the speaker only thinks of the dead when she ‘sees again’ these sights, reconciling with herself soon enough. Not only do we lose our personal access to lived experience upon dying, but we must also face the fact that the world, even the most mundane beauty in it, ‘go[es] on existing’ without us. 

But it’s also important to recognise that Glück doesn’t end there—she concedes, later on in the poem, that ‘maybe [the soul] won’t need / these pleasures anymore; / maybe just not being is simply enough’. Perceptive as always, she capitalises on our lack of knowledge about death to show us that is precisely what we know: nothing. Our preconceptions of death as a great loss therefore arise from our imposition of what we currently value upon the afterlife, where in fact the dead may simply be at peace; those who end up troubled by mortality, like the speaker, are in fact the living. To return to the image of ‘The Wild Iris’, humanity essentially embodies the flower before rebirth: weak and wallowing, suffering something ‘terrible’ in the uncertain gap before it decays. 

Here is where the true value of Glück’s poetry comes in: simple yet powerful, it holds our hands through such periods of uncertainty, where we confront the inevitable spectre of mortality with shaking knees. By tackling such a universal concern in her writing, Glück not so much gives us the definitive answers to questions of what death means, how we should face it, and what comes after, as shows us her own personal reflections and tells us: this is what I think. I’m struggling with it too. What about you? 

And here also is why lasting records of poetry still matter even if the writers eventually pass on, as Glück does, subsumed within the cycles of nature. Humans, unlike the wild iris, may not be able to access the guaranteed rebirth of spring; yet, by leaving their voices with us, to ‘speak[…] again’ and ‘again’ on shared matters of concern and give solace to generations of the living, they are imbued with a continued purpose, transcending mortality, in the endless song of the world.


Featured Image: Juliet Sarmiento on Unsplash  

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