Home > Essays > How to Read the World: Louise Glück’s “Prism”
Published: Thu Apr 15 2004
Diego Isaias Hernández Méndez, El Fracoso de los Texeles / The Failure of the Church Women (detail), 2004, oil on canvas. Arte Maya Tz’utujil Collection.
AGNI 59 On Poetry Reading Mysteries
How to Read the World: Louise Glück’s “Prism”

T​​​​​he poetry of Louise Glück matches earnest hopes for transport (by dreams, by love, by art) to certainty of disappointment. Then Glück wonders aloud whether certainty of disappointment, if rendered rightly, might be the ultimate means of transport, but she comes to see the whole internal debate under the sign of vanity, ironizing even her heartbreak. Finally, like George Herbert, she finds in her own incessant feints and parries her real subject: how to integrate a sensibility which matches scrimshaw-like delicacies of perception to an intellect, oceanic and vast, that will not allow her to become merely a connoisseur of tiny, picturesque events. Like Herbert, she cries out from within the exquisite architecture of her poems beyond that architecture: “O that I once past changing were.”

And so with Glück’s remarkable autobiographical poem “Prism,” which first appeared in the August 25, 2003, New Yorker.  Its title indicates a structure of alternating “faces,” nonlinear in sequence, non- or loosely chronological, with an impressionistic, rather than strictly causal, logic of development. The poem is divided into twenty sections, no one section longer than twenty-one lines and many sections only a very few lines. We picture a spherical prism suspended from a chain, rotating on its axis and, as it does so, revealing new faces, projecting new wavelengths. Like Stevens’s “Planet on the Table” it is manifestly a miniature world that replaces the world. Appropriately, therefore, it begins with an acknowledgment, equal parts repudiation and embrace, of “the world”:

Who can say what the world is?  The world
is in flux, therefore
unreadable, the winds shifting,
the great plates invisibly shifting and changing—

The poem thus begins by foreclosing one possible path, the path of synoptic, transcendent vision. For the “unreadable” world it will substitute a “readable” one, namely itself. As this poem builds itself it builds its world. But because it is a prism, it functions by fragmenting existing reality into “manageable” portions. In section two it finds a level, barren place and begins, with the few tools lying around, “constructing” its shelter:

Dirt. Fragments
of blistered rock. On which
the exposed heart constructs
a house, memory: the gardens
manageable, small in scale, the beds
damp at the sea’s edge—

This small stay against exposure is one of many attempts in the poem to master the “unreadable” world by portioning it out into its constituent parts. In place of the world which offers unmediated, and therefore imperiling, reality (“exposure”), it “constructs” a world, phrase by phrase, unreal though “manageable.” The poem counterpoints its own linguistic construction with the failed constructions of others. Glück’s sister’s erotic “formula” (“When you fall in love . . . it’s like being struck by lightning”) fails because it “repeats exactly” their mother’s formula, and “what we were looking at in the adults // were the effects not of lightning / but of the electric chair.” Glück’s own self-description in a later section fails for the same reasons:

When I was a child, I suffered from insomnia.
Summer nights, my parents permitted me to sit by the lake;
I took the dog for company.

Did I say “suffered”?  That was my parents’ way of explaining
tastes that seemed to them
inexplicable: better “suffered” than “preferred to live with the dog.”

The function of these linguistic artifacts—“formulae,” “riddles,” “codes,” and other reiterated descriptions—is to hypostasize essentially dynamic, “shifting” phenomena. These are the illegitimate forms of the poem’s own method of mastery—self-ennobling or self-inoculating linguistic artifacts from which Glück’s own artifact, her “Prism,” must distinguish itself.

What do we do when faced with the inscrutable?  We may reduce it to a code, translatable into another, more familiar code (“The word [marry] was a code, mysterious, like the Rosetta stone”). Or develop crude means of orientation, like road signs or signposts or crude epistemological road signs and signposts like riddles. Riddles are especially important in “Prism,” adding to its ambience of concealed or obscured meaning. (In this respect alone it recalls Frost’s poem “Directive” and its suggestion that—as in a quest—memory is the successful recovery, through time, of precious and imperiled objects.)

Why was my mother happy?

She married my father.

The attraction of riddles is in their structure of suspended certitude, as the nearby and actual is made strange by fresh description. Riddles are not questions without answers, but rather questions whose answers are hidden in plain sight. The deliberate mystification of what is plainly obvious is consistent with this poem’s remembered world, where the sense of being involved in a mystery turns everything, no matter how slight, into a clue. Mysteries have this advantage over other kinds of narrative, in that they sharpen perception into scrutiny.

But what is a remembered mystery?  A remembered riddle?  As structures of sharpened expectation, both mysteries and riddles create a strong future tense. Temporary deprivation will be relieved. (The pleasure of riddles and mysteries arises from the desire for temporary— “manageable,” to borrow Glück’s word—deprivation.)  But down the long corridor of remembered time, “Prism” sights its answers and its questions simultaneously. The riddles have their solutions yoked to them; the mysteries, large and small, are solved (or at least settled). It is this notion—of remembered palpable futurity, a self tensed for coming crisis recalled long after the crisis has been suffered—that most distinguishes “Prism.” This mode opposes the false naïveté of many poems about childhood, where subsequent knowledge must be disavowed, erased, in favor of perceptual and idiomatic fidelity to the child’s world. (Bishop’s marvelous, overexposed poems about childhood, with their whitewashing of affect and image, would be an example.)  A walk by the boat basin becomes, in “Prism,” an immensely subtle blocking out of one’s selves in relation to one another, within time:

Darkness. Silence that annulled mortality.
The tethered boats rising and falling.
When the moon was full, I could sometimes read the girls’ names
painted to the sides of the boats:
Ruth Ann, Sweet Izzy, Peggy My Darling

They were going nowhere, those girls.
There was nothing to be learned from them.

The “rising and falling” of the boats, discernible only within a scene otherwise darkened and silenced, will later (in the poem, and in the life) become the “breathing” of lovers in a darkened room. Within the silence and darkness of the scene, something additional can be made out: internal, slight variety, so that “when the moon was full I could sometimes”—only sometimes, within the existing “sometimes” when the moon was full—“read.” What we read that Glück “reads” on those moonlit nights is the consequentiality, from the point of view of the future, of present things (the boats that will come to mean breathing, the girls’ names from which “there was nothing to be learned”). It is the most natural thing in the world, of course, to project oneself into the future perfect: often we say of things, “That will have been nothing,” or “That will have been something.” In this poem the additional overlay of actual recollection adds tremendous, almost eerie poignancy to these moments of forecasted or imagined recollection.

This poem must, therefore, invent a readable world, then read it. It must find a language for memory that is neither amusement nor anodyne, but one that nevertheless provides shelter for the exposed heart. Its prismatic structure (avoiding narrative causation) is one method; its strict monitoring of language, its own and others’, is another; its self-consciousness as an artifact (the poem is named “Prism,” not “Childhood”) is a third. Its habit of placing itself feelingfully within overlapping time frames, being at once recollective and prospective and recollective-prospective, is for me its most profound solution. These strategies are “distancing devices,” to use Bonnie Costello’s helpful term, but (as with her use, in Meadowlands, of Homer) since they function as checks on sentiment, they also make sentiment possible. Scenes that in another poet’s hands might seem photogenic, angled for delicacy, seem, in “Prism,” hard won. The private life has been retrieved, in these scenes, since it exists only as one prismatic face among many:

The room was quiet.
That is, the room was quiet, but the lovers were breathing.

In the same way, the night was dark.
It was dark, but the stars shone.

The man in bed was one of several men
to whom I gave my heart. The gift of the self,
that is without limit.
Without limit, though it recurs.

In addition to the temporal dislocations of “Prism,” and owing to them, there is also in this poem a kind of deliberate blunting of identity. Personal reminiscence (the dog, the boats), though vivid, is subordinated to forms of anonymity. What one finds in childhood is not some essential ore of person, but rather an alloy of person forged by forces (familial, social, historical) outside oneself. The self is clearest, in “Prism,” at moments when it fiercely resists others’ descriptions of it (“our mother’s formula,” “suffered”), blurriest when left to its own descriptive resources. We can say with great certainty what we are not, but the ground-note of self-description is doubt. But anonymity is not, here, to be construed solely negatively: The loss of self is ecstasy as often as it is endangerment. For Glück’s mother, speaking to her daughters, “There is no one like your father”; for Glück, “The man in bed was one of several men / to whom I gave my heart”:

I’m in a bed. This man and I,
we are suspended in the strange calm
sex often induces. Most sex induces.
Longing, what is that? Desire, what is that?

In the window, constellations of summer.
Once, I could name them.

The man, the constellations, the “I”—each of these elements is abstracted, rather comfortingly, into paradigm. “I could name them, I had names for them,” Glück will say, a little later in the poem: “Two different things.” Different because the act of “naming” something bestows identity, inflexible and permanent, upon it, whereas “having a name” for something simply orients us to it. The one gives essence, the other establishes relation. And when the poem ends, it ends with another loss of orientation, as the unnamed “man” in bed becomes, in the dawn light, “the stranger”:

A night in summer. Sounds of a summer storm.
The great plates invisibly shifting and changing—

And in the dark room, the lovers sleeping in each other’s arms.

We are, each of us, the one who wakens first,
who stirs first and sees, there in the first dawn,
the stranger.

In this poem where every relation is named (“master,” “enemy,” “sister,” “father,” “mother,” “dog”) and where identity is relational, the name “stranger” indicates a sudden vertigo within relation, a moment when, since the position of the other is so radically unfixed, one’s own position becomes so. This loss of self is the nightmare form of the earlier, quite pleasant forms of anonymity, and a poem that had invoked “strange calm” ends where it began, in panic. The poem finished, the world resumes in its old, frightening, unreadable way. 

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Dan Chiasson is the author of three books of poetry, most recently Where’s the Moon, There’s the Moon (Knopf, 2010). He is also a widely published literary critic and the author of One Kind of Everything: Poem and Person in Contemporary America. (updated 6/2010)

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