Opening the box. Opening the book. Opening the self. What often initially emerges from opening is just what Pandora unwittingly released into the world: fear, ignorance, jealousy, and hatred. And just as often, agency has either been denied or stripped from the one who lifts the lid, or in the case of Pandora, uncorks the jar. This swirling cloud of misery easily blinds us to the hope trapped inside the vessel of gifts from the gods and goddesses. In opening, we release boundaries either permanently or temporarily, and for varying lengths of time and amounts of space. For many, the potential discovery, insight, and growth are worth suffering, with the absence of clarity ultimately causing deeper damage to the self. Experiencing the self must become communal for the price of isolation is the death of identity, the soul. Helen Vendler writes that art, especially poetry, is a means by which one identity reaches out to another, tries to explain itself to another, gathers images to define its shape, to clarify itself, to author itself. A constant, ever-changing business, the desire for terminus is intense, and the existential angst can devour one. There is great relief in declaring something finished, beyond change.
In the poetry of Louise Gluck, the boundaries of self are destroyed and recovered through the dialectic of identity formation. Like Kali, the speaker in Gluck’s poems both creates and destroys the world of the self in hope of reconciling with death and accepting the way things are (reality). Our identities are constructed, according to the modern paradox, by others. And one’s inner authority struggles against outside disabling conceptions to accomplish the self. Yet, identity is provisional, constantly evolving in slender moments of time and space, sometimes almost imperceptibly. It is also through these multiple perspectives that Gluck comes to know and understand the self. Her lyric personae become vehicles through which the poet discovers and authors both the linguistic, ephemeral self and the contingent, embodied self. The tension produced between these incarnations is what makes
Gluck’s work so powerful. The evolving self, constantly subject to revision, is composed of different voices, is most safely explored on the page, yet to enter language is to abandon human relation.
In The Triumph of Achilles, Louise Gluck records the process of creating the self. These early poems explore the tentative movement from emotional isolation to humanity. For Gluck, leaving the safety of the mind for the page is a risky endeavor for even something as controlled as the poetic lyric posses the power to expose too much of the self, thus inviting vulnerability. Yet the desire for intimacy requires action, and Gluck accomplishes this through the form of the poem. It is the tension between what can and cannot be said, through the possibilities and limitations of language that Gluck explores being and non-being. The lyric form's power to contain yet release, to hide yet reveal, to dissolve yet embody allows Gluck to cautiously test the boundaries between two equally attractive states: the protected self of Platonic forms and the vulnerable self of the assailable world.
In The Iliad, the great warrior Achilles embodies the perfectionist qualities of the Greek heroic age. He admits there are better orators, more clever men amongst his ranks, yet he knows his strengths, and therefore has lived for honor, for his standing in the eyes of others; for Achilles, life is less important than his reputation. By the tenth year of the Trojan War, Achilles has achieved his goal of surpassing all others to become the greatest hero among the Greeks. Isolated from the Greek troops, Achilles is consumed by his uncontrollable rage, a rage that is a curse and a gift from the gods. Yet despite the hero’s temperamental, impulsive, selfish character, Achilles’ withdrawal from battle provides him the opportunity for discovery and allows for the truly defining moment in his mortal existence. Sulking in his tent over Agamemnon’s insult, Achilles explains to Odysseus why he will not rejoin the fight:
Fate is the same for the man who holds back,
The same if he fights hard.
We are all held in a single honor, the brave with the weaklings.
A man dies still if he has done nothing, as one who has done much.
Nothing is won for me, now that my heart has gone through its afflictions
In forever setting my life on the hazard of battle. (Book 9, 318-322)
The dishonor Achilles has suffered leads him to question the basis of his life, and in his bitterness, he encounters emptiness previously unknown to him. However, his insight is squandered as Achilles chooses to remain selfishly centered on what he might personally gain or suffer. Confronted with this new self-knowledge, Achilles’ boundaries must shift. He cannot remain by his ships forever – he must decide whether to sail for home where he will live a long, undistinguished life, or stay to fight where he will further enhance his reputation but die in the process. It is only upon the death of the beloved that Achilles is moved to act. When he hears of Patroclus’ death, Achilles is transformed through the pain of loss. It is not, after all, his prowess on the battlefield that earns the hero victory but rather his entry into the fallen world of the mortal. Being almost a god, Achilles appears to have seldom experienced such passion other than his rage. He does not know what it means to be fully human. But the pain of separation from the human, Patroclus, leads Achilles to grief and the expression of his grief takes form in his particularly brutal stalking, killing, and defilement of Hector.
Gluck’s The Triumph of Achilles becomes a metaphor for the human condition as it charts the evolution of the self in all its incarnations. Throughout the collection, the self’s choice remains constant: to enter the world of human relation or to live in the perfected world of the mind. Gluck’s speaker locates the struggle for the self in the argument that because the body will perish, the autonomous self will be betrayed; the dependence of the self / spirit the mortal frustrates autonomy. Gluck’s compromise is the poem, the linguistic self. Neither fully vulnerable nor entirely exposed, the self on the page comes as close to perfection and protection as possible. Gluck’s compromise, then, is the divided self. Like Achilles, who is part mortal (Peleus, his father) and part immortal (Thetis, his mother), Gluck’s speakers celebrate and lament existence. The poems in The Triumph of Achilles explore the opposing human longings of creating the self, creating boundaries, and giving the self to the other, thus losing distinction, which threatens identity. The loneliness of one and the pain of the other.
The signature of Gluck’s poetry is tone. Particularly in the first four collections, the poems are subtle, calm, and controlled, embodying stoicism and endurance. Furthermore, Gluck uses understatement, metaphor through statement to create the complex, evolving self. In The Triumph of Achilles, the self is explored in a mythical context, chiefly through Biblical and Greek classical subjects. Gluck’s use of artifact and story revision allows her to create a distance from her own life necessary to observe the self with disinterestedness, thus simultaneously opening and protecting the boundaries of the self. The self embedded in the myth and the form of the poem becomes the lyric persona. The speaker in “Mythic Fragment” is Daphne, who escapes Apollo’s pursuit through the interference of the father who grants her request for freedom by changing her into a tree. Apollo’s passion represents a threat to Daphne’s autonomous self and therefore she is unable to retain her boundaries. To avoid having the self subsumed by one male, the female relinquishes agency to another, the father; Daphne renounces power in exchange for protection. The paradox is, of course, that the protection also limits the self, cuts it off from human relation, including the father who abandons Daphne to isolation in her new form. This altered self is captive in the form of a tree, an object that is hard and incapable of feeling: a petrified self. Daphne must choose between beauty and erotic desire (Apollo) and safety and confinement (the father), and in either case, the autonomous self is negated. To give in to erotic desire is to lose control of the self, is to draw closer to one’s body and the body of the other, and the resulting pleasure adds to the mixture forcing the speaker to acknowledge mutability. If one never partakes, then one is never empty.
“Mythic Fragment,” then, is a metaphor for the self’s struggle to find a form, to find a voice, to exist on its own terms. The structure of the poem, 18 two beat lines, mimics the fragmented self it portrays. Much of what we know about Greek antiquity comes to us in pieces, quite often with major sections of the vase, temple, painting missing. The story is incomplete. In the middle of line 11, the brief narrative comes to a full stop just as Daphne’s self becomes arrested. Upon realizing the price she must pay to preserve the autonomous self, Daphne tells her reader:
the god arrived, I was nowhere,
I was in a tree forever. (9-11)
The remaining lines constitute a direct address to the reader, the tone, released through spare diction and imagery, initially sarcastic as the speaker asks us to “pity Apollo,” then becoming stoic and detached:
I stiffened in the god’s arms,
my father made
no other sign from the water. (14-17)
At the end of the poem, the father remains unresponsive, the father-daughter relationship empty. In “Mythic Fragment,” the speaker, Daphne, has no chance to become whole. Although Gluck does not consider herself a feminist poet, the fact remains that “Mythic Fragment,” as do many of her other poems, gives voice to the female trapped in patriarchy. Once again, the embodied self betrays the authentic self or spirit. It is the form of the poem that confirms identity.
Whereas the speaker in “Mythic Fragment” clearly rejects the prospect of union with another, the speaker of “Hawk’s Shadow” reveals ambivalence toward the other. Gluck uses the image of the hawk carrying its kill as a metaphor for the speaker’s relationship to her lover. As the predator hawk soars through the sky, the single shadow cast on the ground is composed of the living and the dead. The shadow is an omen of separation. Here, Gluck imagines again that giving the self to the other results in violence and thus damage to the autonomous self. As the speaker remembers the lovers’ embrace, she notes that once the hawk and its prey merged into shadow “they disappeared.” In response, there was discovery, the emergence of the self, in the speaker’s mind:
And I thought:
one shadow. Like the one we made,
you holding me. (10-12)
The structure of the poem emphasizes the passivity of the speaker and the agency of the natural world, which she sees as hostile. The image of the hawk, its kill and the shadow they create is bounded by statement in lines 1-4. Next, the vivid image of the predator in lines 5-9 is followed by another statement in the last three lines. Statement “embraces” what destroys, creating boundaries that isolate the self. In the shadow of the hawk and its kill, the speaker sees the archetype of the self, or rather the self that is created in the relationship with the lover. The monosyllabic words and enjambed lines create tension and speed the pacing of the poem, expressing the speaker’s anxiety over the relationship. The poem ends with the simile expressed as a sentence fragment, which reflects the speaker’s sense of the self being engulfed. Moving from statement to image of predator and prey back to the abstract shadow, embodied existence is contained within the boundaries of the mind where it may be controlled and protected.
Relationship is seen as a test of endurance in part eight of “Marathon.” The nine section poem documents the end of a love affair and the speaker’s discovery that time ultimately takes all love away. But time can also slow or even stop time in the speaker’s mind. In “Song of Invisible Boundaries,” the speaker addresses her lover as she struggles to locate the self in time and space. One moment in dream the next awake, the disembodied speaker still floats in post-coital disorientation. As a result, even location in the physical world becomes difficult to determine:
Last night I dreamed we were in Venice;
today, we are in Venice. Now, lying here,
I think there are no boundaries to my dreams,
nothing we won’t share. (1-4)
On reflection, the speaker admits that intimacy with the other consumes the self, “this lying in the bright light without distinction” (13). Yet the speaker locates authenticity in the linguistic self; the sensual, corporeal self is allowed minimal expression. By the end of this section, the speaker sees that grief does not fully transform the self; there will always be the body’s memory of the union.
In the title poem “The Triumph of Achilles” Gluck further explores and creates the linguistic self through the mask of the legendary Achilles. Myth allows Gluck the distance to approach what is most intimate and vulnerable – to love another human being. The godlike Achilles finds himself grief stricken over the loss of his beloved Patroclus. This loss forces Achilles to confront his own mortality. With these new boundaries of self, Achilles is able to achieve his greatest triumph: Becoming truly human. This grief makes Achilles fully alive and initiates him completely into the fallen, mortal world of humans. Observing the self through the Achilles—Patroclus relationship, Gluck discovers that separation from the other can be more devastating to the self than intimacy. When Patroclus wears Achilles’ armor, he in effect becomes Achilles and for a time, the two men merge into one identity. By reclaiming his armor and rescuing Patroclus’ corpse, Achilles rescues the self and honors union simultaneously.
For the most part, The Triumph of Achilles expresses Gluck’s ambivalence of being. From the stringent opening lyric “Mock Orange,” a poem in which the speaker expresses her revulsion with sex and its power to destroy the self, to the closing “Horse,” in which the other is finally given a voice, a voice that attempts through empathy to reinforce the bond between lovers, Gluck charts the self in transition, in constant flux. Yet that Gluck chose to title the book The Triumph of Achilles suggests that the developing identity on these pages acknowledges more consistently that perhaps although need and desire threaten the autonomous self, they do not necessarily reveal a defective selfhood. After all, Achilles was only one half immortal.
-- Caroline Malone