Review: “Matins” by Louise Glück

Since I’m struggling to think of what to blog about, I figured I would just write about a poem I really like. I came across Louise Glück’s book The Wild Iris one day last winter when I was in the library looking for books to take out just for fun. I was choosing, as I have the bad habit of tending to choose books, by covers and the vibes they gave off (I know I sound like some weird hippy). The cover of The Wild Iris reminded me of an art project I did at summer camp some years ago where we pressed flowers to pieces of fancy photo paper, left them out in the sun, and were left with cool negative prints. So of course, the book gave off a “good vibe” and of course, I borrowed it and loved it. The poem “Matins” (the second poem in the book by that title) turned out to be one of my favorites. It’s a religious poem, which for some reason I’ve been drawn to lately, specifically ones like this where the speaker is struggling with their faith and there’s a palpable tension between human imperfection/rebellion and godly “tough love.”

The poem starts very unexpectedly, with the first line addressing God not by something typical like “dear Lord,” but instead “Unreachable father.” The word “unreachable” speaks volumes–the God of Judaism and Christianity (which is who I assumed is the god in this poem because of the next line mentioning an exile from paradise) is supposed to be omnipresent and ever-listening; so what has happened to make God “unreachable,” as if his telephone wire has been cut? Where does the fault lie–on God for not hearing what the speaker is communicating, or on the speaker for not successfully communicating? The speaker continues by describing humanity being cast out of paradise and sent to “a replica, a place in one sense / different from heaven, being / designed to teach a lesson: otherwise / the same–beauty on either side, beauty / without alternative– Except / we didn’t know what was the lesson.” I love the “beauty on either side, beauty / without alternative” line. The first part makes me think of the world in a more collective way; rather than a vast globe broken into continents and seas and countries with pockets of good and bad, the earth is a whole, simple thing, almost like a sheet of paper, with beauty on both of its faces. The second part reminds me how abstract and yet unfathomed some human values, like beauty, are; beauty is an absolute that cannot be broken down into smaller terms, try as we might. I think one could substitute “God” in both lines for “beauty,” but the fact that it is “beauty” rather than “God” almost makes it seem like the humans in this poem have been shallowly worshipping appearances rather than their creator.

Next, the speaker talks about how the humans “left alone… exhausted each other” and then “Years / of darkness followed; we took turns / working the garden, the first tears / filling our eyes as earth / misted with petals, some / dark red, some flesh colored.” I love the feeling here of humans being left to learn their lesson the hard way, forced to forge lives without the guidance of God. Then finally, after all the suffering and toil, they have succeeded in producing something good. The red and pink imagery of the fruit of their labor felt very corporeal and raw to me–it reminded me of a heart, a stomach, or even a newborn. I love the line “misted with petals” partly because I love flowers as a metaphor for life(-giving), and partly because “misted” makes me think of “spray” like in a spray of flowers which, although it sounds pretty, is typically only used for funerals. The tension between life and death that this creates is really interesting. The last few lines are “We never thought of you / whom we were learning to worship. / We merely knew it wasn’t human nature to love / only what returns love.” Here is another abstract, unfathomed value–love– and humans discovering it for the first time. Real love, I think, is given unconditionally, with no expectation of getting any back (although one may hope). Humanity continued to cultivate the earth through “Years / of darkness,” showing it love even when it yielded nothing at first. I love the accessibility and relevancy of the poem’s theme–practicing love, no matter what.

The poem can be found here if you flip through the front matter and past the first two poems.

One Reply to “Review: “Matins” by Louise Glück”

  1. Thanks for introducing us to this poem, Carrie. I love the way you’ve identified a technique we might try ourselves: an opening which takes a familiar phrase and makes it unfamiliar in order to teach us something new both about the phrase and ourselves.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.