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Chard deNiord

Chard deNiord

Chard deNiord is the poet laureate of Vermont and author of six books of poetry, most recently Interstate (2015) and The Double Truth (2011). His book of essays and interviews with seven senior American poets was published by Marick Press in 2011. His new book of interviews, titled I Would Lie to You If I Could, is due out in the spring from University of Pittsburgh Press. He is a Professor of English and Creative Writing at Providence College and a trustee of the Ruth Stone Trust. He lives in Westminster West, Vermont with his wife Liz.

That Odor, That Other; On Louise Glück's "Mock Orange" and Beyond

On the occasion of the publication of Louise Glück's career-spanning volume, Poems 1962-2012, I was struck by just how many of Glück's poems remain not only memorable—such poems as "Celestial Music", "The Garden", "Eros", "The Drowned Children", "Vita Nova", "Gretel in Darkness", "Nostos", "Averno", "Persephone the Wanderer", "The Wild Iris"—but essential for their mythic force that continues to resonate in her deceptively simple language. Throughout her career, which has continued with both vatic and psychological force since the publication of her collected poems, Glück has written with a bold, counterintuitive voice that has challenged masculine conceits, particularly romantic conceits, with unabashed feminine fury, chthonic authority, and a spare, incisive style that is well suited for her fictive urgency that decries sincerity as a misguided poetic criterion. "The advantage of poetry over life," she wrote in her famous essay "Against Sincerity," "is that poetry, if it is sharp enough, may last. We are unnerved I suppose, by the thought that authenticity, in the poem, is not produced by sincerity."

Accomplishing what Emily Dickinson was forbidden to accomplish by the patriarchal and conventional editors of her day (particularly Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who also refused to publish Walt Whitman, in addition to Dickinson, in the premier literary journal of the day, The Atlantic), namely, a celebrated public career, Glück has reprised the fiercely independent spirit of Dickinson's unpublished voice—a feminine "response" that surprises the proverbial masculine call with the surprising announcement that "Renunciation – is a piercing virtue" (745). 

The one poem from the trove of Glück's verse I have chosen to teach most often in my contemporary American poetry class is the bold apostrophe, "Mock Orange." Of all her poems, this short lyric continues to reverberate, in confessional as well as vatic ways, with both a mythic and contemporary import that both mystifies and engages my undergraduate students most consistently.

In this poem, Glück defines a contemporary fault line between the sexes with a conceit of rebuttal to the Western legacy of mostly male love calls that embrace the beloved as both love and sex object. With her blunt lyrical "response" to not only "the man" whose mouth seals her mouth, but those legions of lovesick juglares and suitors as well who have propositioned women throughout the ages to both "live with" and "be" their loves, Glück inverts the conceits of courtly love in "Mock Orange" with apophatic savvy. How startlingly this brief lyric resounds like a sharp note in the long silence of suppressed female responses over the centuries. While it doesn't perhaps speak for all women in its strident dissent, Glück voices a feminine conceit in "Mock Orange" that corrects male presumption with cold-eyed renunciation.

      Mock Orange

      It is not the moon, I tell you.
      It is these flowers
      lighting the yard.

      I hate them.
      I hate them as I hate sex,
      the man's mouth
      sealing my mouth, the man's
      paralyzing body
     
      and the cry that always escapes,
      the low, humiliating
      premise of union
     
      In my mind tonight
      I hear the question and pursuing answer
      fused in one sound
      that mounts and mounts and then
      is split into the old selves,
      the tired antagonisms. Do you see?
      we were made fools of.

      And the scent of mock orange
      drifts through the window.

      How can I rest?
      How can I be content
      when there is still
      that odor in the world?

As if with Dickinson's poem "I cannot live with You" (706, Franklin) in mind, Glück updates Dickinson's anti-antiphonal confession with an unabashed brown study of her own on post-coital tristesse. By renouncing Christopher Marlowe's idyllic invitation, "Come live with me and be my love/ And we will all the pleasures prove," written in 1599, Glück sounds a sea change in the tradition of the love lyric. Like Dickinson's speaker in "706" and Walter Raleigh's nymph in "The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd," Glück takes a jaundiced view toward love's pleasures without denying engaging in lovemaking. Dickinson gives several reasons for why she cannot live with her beloved, all of them sadly impracticable for emotional and theological reasons.

      It would be life
      And Life is over there
      Behind the Shelf
      the sexton keeps the key to...

      Because Your Face
      would put out Jesus'...

      Because You saturated Sight
      And I had no more Eyes
      For sordid excellence
      As Paradise.

Glück, on the other hand, writes from the perspective of an angel trapped in human skin, willing to partake in sex while nonetheless cognizant of the inevitable melancholy that follows sex, or as Dickinson herself so succinctly described the same bittersweet of human experience: "For each ecstatic moment/ We must an anguish pay/ In keen and quivering ratio/ To the ecstasy."

On the surface, "Mock Orange" reads as a mere iteration of both the good and bad news about sex. On further reading, however, one discerns Glück's refreshingly bold rebuttal as an overdue feminine objection in the poetic legacy of the prevailing male love call. No slant telling of the truth about the double-edged reality of sex here. Rather, Glück tells the truth about sex straight out in remarkably economical, exigent language that avoids addressing her speaker's lover in favor of instructing her reader about the psychic whiplash of love-making.

Glück takes Dickinson's lovesick response to her shepherd in "760" (Franklin) a step further in "Mock Orange" by ultimately renouncing both her lover and sex. By invoking a Manichean view of lust, Glück dismisses the sexual act as an inherently flawed "material" ecstasy, "a low, humiliating premise of union" that makes "fools" of lovers. How carefully Glück has chosen the word "premise" here over "promise" as a sonically clever indictment of sex's deception. Premise rather than promise escapes as the conceit of the love cry itself. While bitter kiss-off poems are as common as ecstatic love lyrics in the Western Canon, from the troubadours to Thomas Wyatt's "Whoso Lists To Hunt" to Bob Dylan's "Boots of Spanish Leather," there are only a very few Medusa-like poems by women that turn their readers to stone. This is one of them. (Kaherine Philips' "Against Love," Emily Dickinson's "I had not minded walls," and Sylvia Plath's "Lady Lazarus" are three others that come immediately to mind).

No less than a calling out of lust's bluff, "Mock Orange" depicts sex as an inadequate anodyne for the "old antagonisms" that return with a vengeance when lovers "split into the old selves" following sex. Although profoundly fresh, if sobering, as a contemporary feminine rebuttal to the age-old male love call, this poem borrows strongly from D.H. Lawrence's extended metaphor about tortoise sex, "Lui Et Elle," written in 1923. By employing a crucifixion trope to highlight the "fragmentariness" that sex begets, Lawrence also indicts sex as a fool-making activity.

      Alas, the spear is through the side of his isolation.
      His adolescence saw him crucified into sex,
      Doomed, in the long crucifixion of desire, to seek is consummation
      beyond himself.
      Divided into passionate duality,
      He, so finished and immune, now broken into desirous fragmentariness,
      Doomed to make an intolerable fool of himself
      In his effort toward completion again.

By impugning the mock orange, which is the traditional wedding flower, as a trope for sex's trickery, Glück conjures a feminine conceit that offers a devastating response to romantic custom. She equates the mock orange metaphorically with the curse of sex, picking up where Sylvia Plath left off in her poem "Tulips," namely, with a similarly defiant feminine voice that cries out "from a country as far away as health." Glück isolates sex from love as a biological act with an odor that mocks the beauty of the very flower from which it emanates, portraying it as false as the poem's eponymous flower. Glück, like Plath, employs health as a trope for convention that is anything but salubrious in her dystopic mind frame. By also dismissing the moon as well in the first line of the poem as a possible cause of her lyrical brown study, she makes sure at the start to inoculate her radical complaint from any proverbial male claim of menstrual contrariness.

At the conclusion of her essay "Against Sincerity," Glück writes that "the true, in poetry, is felt as insight." She then adds that such insight "is very rare, but beside it other poems seem merely intelligent comment." Indeed, "Mock Orange" manifests a deeply felt insight that is instructively offensive to the male tradition of courtly love. As the Lady speaks in this poem with such exquisite lyrical velocity, as if directly from the shadows of Averno, the reader hears her "felt" truth that transcends mere "intelligent comment." In so doing, he suddenly realizes that this lyric has been in the making for centuries, culling from the long silence of women's suppressed voices the right response to the beautiful but "foolish" calls of so many troubadours. How to reinvent a credible complementary romantic tradition in this century without continuing to sound foolish or oppressive or polarized? This is the implicit question that the speaker's final rhetorical question poses since contentment, at least for men, has historically presupposed romantic inspiration—the call for the unpublished response—as one of its primary emotional staples.

The oracular voice in "Mock Orange" calls for a new male love call that transcends the conventional invitation of Marlowe's passionate shepherd with more psychologically complex poems that address Thanatos as well as Eros (as Eliot certainly did profoundly for the first time in the 20th century in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" in 1921), alienation as well as union. While today's poets continue to write and publish love poems, only a relative few address Glück's challenge to write beyond the immediate longings and overtures of Eros with similar apophatic strategies and conceits.

In a zeitgeist where romantic love is losing many of its former risks, primarily pregnancy, today's sexual agora has diminished Eros into more of an archaic pastime than a romantic obsession. One wonders what new love poetry will emerge that defines Eros anew within the changing cultural context of love's mores, expressions and practices in the 21st century. Or will Cupid simply continue to inspire poets with his same old private obsessions that have no regard for any zeitgeist. The legacy of love poetry has favored the latter for centuries, constantly calling for new, bold, and highly personal originality.

Glück's candid, emotionally complex "response" to the traditional antiphonal male love poem picks up where Sylvia Plath left off in "Lady Lazarus", with more renunciation than romance. One can only imagine Christopher Marlowe's passionate shepherd's response to Glück's brutal rejoinder.

"Mock Orange" has endured as an iconoclastic response to the irrepressible male love call for forty-nine years since it was first published in 1968, achieved iconic stature on its own as a feminine "howl", quiet as it is in lyrical savvy. Although it echoes the most strident Dear John poems of the female troubadours in the Middle Ages, it also takes rejection one step further than the trobairises' mere personal fury into ontological territory where romantic love is vilified in general as a deceptive phenomenon whose odor serves only to remind the disillusioned lover of "the low, humiliating premise of union." The conceit in this poem, while evocative as a reaction to the ephemeral nature of sexual ecstasy, effuses like the mock orange itself with figurative implications for extrapolating other frissons of human experience as equally disappointing as the "low, humiliating premise of union" that Gluck's speaker experiences in the aftermath of sex.

William Blake wrote that "the most sublime act is to set another before you." The antinomy of Glück's "low, humiliating premise of union" in "Mock Orange" resonates in conceits that look beyond the disillusionment of sex to "the other" for transpersonal ways that mitigate against the dystopia of disillusionment.

In American poetry, Walt Whitman's "have-self-will-travel" persona comes immediately to mind, as does Elizabeth Bishop's six-year-old speaker in "In the Waiting Room." More recent examples of high premises of union can be found in such poems as Marie Howe's "Gateway", where the mystical presence of Howe's dead brother informs her of not only what she's been waiting for, but how to wait, which is code for how to live:

      This is what you have been waiting for, he used to say to me.
      And I'd say, What?
      And he'd say, This—holding up my cheese and mustard sandwich.
      And I'd say, What?
      And he'd say, This, sort of looking around.

Or Lucille Clifton's poem "John" in which Clifton prophesies "the other" as

      the messiah who will come.
      in blackness
      like a star
      and the world be a great bush
      on his head
      and his eyes be fire
      in the city
      and his mouth be true as time

Or James Wright's "To A Blossoming Pear Tree" in which Wright's speaker acknowledges the human draw of his "dark blood" that exceeds the beauty even of the blossoming pear tree:

      Young tree, unburdened
      By anything but your beautiful natural blossoms
      And dew, the dark
      Blood in my body drags me
      Down with my brother.

But this is a subject for another essay or even book in which sex and romance don't redound as overwhelming physical and psychic forces that inveigle the poet to associate a flower, no matter how overpowering its odor, with any human intercourse.

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