During the early stages of the pandemic, I was living alone in a hundred-year-old farmhouse at a dead-end in the woods near Oxford, Mississippi. My second semester of a difficult PhD program along with this geographical locale already had me feeling isolated, and the lockdown imposed a deeper, darker silence. Like many of us, I had trouble focusing, paying attention. I tried to fill the quiet of those long days with music and television binges and ultimately stopped reading and writing because I couldn’t concentrate on the words.
Eventually, I accepted the silence and grew more comfortable with it. I planted a garden next to my sagging porch, and between the tomatoes and marigolds sprung wild violets I didn’t know were there. This small miracle led me back to Lousie Glück’s The Wild Iris, a collection of stark, stunning poems, several of which are named for plants, and others for morning and evening prayers.
I’ve always been a lover of the loose poem: send me tumbling through Frank O’Hara’s Manhattan or Gerald Stern’s Jersey. Pull me through the woods and across oceans: in other words, unroot me. Let’s take a journey. Glück’s work, conversely, is rooted. These poems slice with a lyric intensity that only strengthens in their concision. Each line feels distilled in isolation, determined in its stillness. Tension mounts with each line break, with all that is unsaid in the lyric leaps between them.
“I am attracted to ellipsis, to the unsaid, to suggestion, to eloquent, deliberate silence,” Glück writes in her essay “Disruption, Hesitation, Silence.” A concise poem can hold the tension of the inexplicable; an expansive poem, however, runs the danger of explaining that tension away. The strongest poems “haunt because they are not whole,” she writes. And isn’t this the truth about The Wild Iris? Poems like “Clover” and “Violets” are hauntings: spirits of poems moving deftly down the page. They don’t care to be seen in their entirety, and yet we can’t forget them. Here is the first stanza of “Clover”:
What is dispersed
among us, which you call
the sign of blessedness
although it is, like us,
a weed, a thing
to be rooted out--
These lines grasp us with cold fingers and don’t let go. Rage is sown with restraint. Like clover, a rhizomatic plant, the power of this poem is its tension, which lurks just below the surface of this poem. If we think of the white space as dirt, and the lyric line as the exposed greenery of the plant, then we can call meaning the root system, expanding below the text and springing up here and there in up, seemingly unconnected from the last clump of leaves.
“You want to know how I spend my time?” begins one of her “Matins”:
I walk the front lawn, pretending
to be weeding. You ought to know
I’m never weeding, on my knees, pulling
clumps of clover from the flower beds: in fact
I’m looking for courage, for some evidence
my life will change, though
it takes forever…
I remember being on my own hands and knees on my patch of hard red Mississippi dirt, picking weeds from between my vegetables and flowers. There is value in going back a second time, examining what’s not there and the story that absence may tell. A garden, in some sense, is a difficult poem. “When poems are difficult,” Glück writes, “it is often because their silences are complicated, hard to follow. For me, the answer to such moments is not more language.”
This idea felt counter to what I felt to be true: expansion often seems like the answer. Language seems like the antidote to the unknown--but what if we decided to embrace the unknown? To surrender to quiet is to marvel at tension’s power.
The Wild Iris taught me this, as did living alone throughout the lockdown stage of the pandemic. I embraced silence, in my writing and in my recreation: I started camping more and more often. I’d go alone to a favorite state park in Florida or sometimes meet a long-distance lover at a little site on the Pearl River. I still craved a journey, I suppose, but now I realize I was also seeking even more quiet.
Reading Glück is intimidating because she does so much with so little. Creating a simple yet stirring line is much more difficult than it may sometimes seem, but I set out to learn the craft. I wrote about my garden, my volunteer violets. I wrote about my foraging fails with wild strawberries and juniper berries. I practiced the absence on the page, abstinence from expansiveness. I too began to trust that the unsaid “exerts great power.” Like Glück, I wished “an entire poem could be made in this vocabulary.”
I had some success in this lyric form. My poem “Pearl River” (published online in phoebe) is my favorite of my “Wild Iris”-era poems. It embraces the unsaid: letting the reader make narrative sense of elliptical imagery. It focuses on the unknown: I have never been a botanist and can never remember the names or genera of flowers or trees. I didn’t know what I was doing or how I felt about that lover. I tried to bury my vulnerability by mimicking Glück’s sense of detachment, but the restraint is betrayed by a deep sense of longing. Though this love remains unsaid, turned under the poem’s soil, it exerts great power that grows with each couplet. The silences here are roots expanding.
When I think of “Pearl River,” I think of the cypress trees at the water’s edge. Cypress too have expansive roots, poking from the still water like gnarled knees. I don’t think there is a single cypress in The Wild Iris, but there are apples, figs, and maples. There is an entire ecosystem of grief, rage, and longing haunting the tension and music of these lines.
“I’ve sung to you long enough in the summer night,” Glück writes in “Lullaby,” sowing discomfort into what should be a soothing song. The poem ends with the same suggestion Glück makes in “Disruption, Hesitation, Silence”:
You must be taught to love me. Human beings must be
taught to love
silence and darkness.
Glück taught us to appreciate absence, to love the unspoken and the falling dusk. We are now learning to live with her absence, and while mourning is a part of that task, so too is reaching into this darkness and feeling for what may be rooting there, quietly.
Stacey Balkun is the author of Sweetbitter & co-editor of Fiolet & Wing. Winner of the 2019 New South Writing Contest, her work has appeared in Best New Poets, Mississippi Review, Pleiades, & several other anthologies & journals. Stacey holds an MFA from Fresno State & teaches online at The Poetry Barn and The Loft. She lives and writes in New Orleans.