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The Transformative Simplicity of Louise Glück’s “Winter Recipes from the Collective”

The Transformative Simplicity of Louise Glück’s “Winter Recipes from the Collective”

  • Our review of Louise Glück's latest poetry collection, "Winter Recipes from the Collective"

After a major award—and Louise Glück’s 2020 Nobel Prize for Literature is one of the most prestigious—there are often weighty expectations for the winner’s next project. Winter Recipes from the Collective is an exquisitely small collection—the way an atom that contains the world is small—that further solidifies Glück’s place as one of the eminent poets of our time.

I’m at the late midpoint of my life, if I’m being exceedingly generous. Considering our decreasing life expectancy due to environmental catastrophes and signs of biblical apocalypse, the egg timer is likely further along than is comfortable to contemplate. Ahead of me, walking more slowly than they used to are long-lived family members—those whose genes my doctors commend me on—yet these days that feels more like a threat of impending loss.

All to say that this slim and mighty volume strikes me in a place that I have no words for, that I shy away from like an accidental glance at my pandemic body in a full-length mirror and shove away from my quivering psyche that fears such contemplations beyond measure. Which is to say that these poems are about the losses that are triggered the moment life begins. 

This work exists in multi-temporality where beginnings and endings cross each other like a game of cat’s cradle. In many of these pieces, the speaker might as well be passing by herself. Would we know our younger selves if we came across them? Could our younger selves recognize us? How would that, could that, change our narratives? 

“Your eyes are closed. We pass
the boy and girl we saw at the beginning;
now they are standing on a wooden bridge;
I can see their house behind them;

How fast you go they call to us,
but no, the wind is in our ears,
that is what we hear—

And then we are simply falling—

And the world goes by,
all the worlds, each more beautiful than the last;”

If Virgil was Dante’s—and our—guide through Hell, with this book, Glück is our guide to the transitions between life and what may come before or after. Perhaps we can only consider our brief existence the way children experience school years. We work for two-thirds of our lives (or more) and if we’re lucky, get some time off. What happens when we graduate? What journeys come later, and how can we—or can we—prepare ourselves?

This collection is a contemplation of loss and grief and as well as what may yet come. It provides a roadmap from which to unpack and reconfigure our lives as poets and philosophers have done for humankind since language was afforded us. 

In these poems, Glück is considering the form and content of life itself. We are each in limited physical forms—perhaps a villanelle, perhaps a haiku or a ghazal—and our life paths are the content that reflects or combats that form. But what comes next? How will we be reconstructed? What verses are there past our closing stanzas? These poems consider how we might be unbound by such conventions, even if they are all we can register with our limited senses. The conflict between being interconnected with all that is in the universe and also being, essentially alone, how “Long ago I was born. / There is no one alive anymore / who remembers me as a baby.”

There’s a concierge—a companion—to whom the speaker converses in several of these poems. Beyond traditional etymology, concierge also means a keeper of a prison, and there’s a possible reference to an older Latinate word “conservius” or a fellow slave. Whether or not Glück meant for this final meaning, one can’t be sure, but I find that I like this description most of all. We are all slaves to our mortal lives and often fear our release from this particular jail. Glück turns the poetic camera to that liberation, imagining the threshold of what we all will cross, here in the poem “Denial of Death”:

“The concierge, I realized, had been standing beside me.
Do not be sad, he said. You have begun your own journey,
not into the world, like your friend’s, but into yourself and your memories.
As they fall away, perhaps you will attain
that enviable emptiness into which
all things flow, like the empty cup in the Daodejing—

Everything is change, he said, and everything is connected.
Also everything returns, but what returns is not
what went away—”

In this poetry—as in many Eastern ideas of time and the universe—there’s less of a quest for answers than this notion of constant change that is also entwined with the concept of stillness. Being and observing—and at the same time observing the inner self—is the point. Indeed, one can imagine that the speaker could also be the concierge; both the guide and the one who is guided. There’s also a distinct “you”—a beloved—often addressed in these poems though it could just as easily be an address to the reader:

“We make plans
to walk the trails together.
When, I ask him,
when? Never again:
that is what we do not say.

He is teaching me
to live in imagination:”

We too make plans to meet the poet, on the page, through these trails of words, living in our imagination, across space and time. In this collection, Glück explores many such small and powerful moments, those that are building blocks of the most complex issues of life and philosophy. It’s in this quietude that we see what we must hoard for the winter of our lives: the sights, sounds, loves, memories that we need to get us through to the next season whatever and whenever that may be. The power is in the stillness: stand motionless and the deer may approach to eat from your hand, having decided that you mean no harm, that you are part of the same ecosphere, the same life, the singular experience of being here, now.

“I see, he said, that you no longer
wish to resume your former life,
to move, that is, in a straight line as time
suggests we do, but rather (here he gestured toward the lake)
in a circle which aspires to
that stillness at the heart of things,
though I prefer to think it also resembles a clock.”

The clock—or variations of marking time—has been with us for millennia, but as Albert Einstein noted: “The distinction between the past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” If we consider time as a multi-dimensional circle we might be able to sense, perhaps dimly, as a forest at dusk, all the seemingly infinite repetitions, though all we truly have are these moments, these poems, these connections.

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We often think of winter as a time of frozen white, like the blank page. Yet there is still motion, underneath, though imperceptible. Much in the same way, this collection may seem to be an examination of the—or an—end, but it’s also a way of reframing what ending connotes, perhaps as a wave that is shifting toward a different tributary.

“…The book contains
only recipes for winter, when life is hard. In spring, 
anyone can make a fine meal.”

We are always transforming from one element to the next, one life to the next, one plane to the next, where poetry is sometimes language, or the wind, or what is imperceptible, at least here and now. These recipes for winter offer a robust meal that feeds both spirit and soul, about the nature of life, and time, prepared by one of our finest poets. 

Winter Recipes from the Collective
by Louise Glück
Farrar Straus and Giroux
October 26, 2021

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