by Louis Glück
This poem has appealed to me for decades now. But it most clearly spoke to me in my early twenties, when I wanted to boil my anger and disappointment down into the same economic images and chiseled, muscular lines as Glück’s speakers. The confessional impulse of the poem, as well as its intimate conversational mode, pulled me in. The poem fueled my anti-romantic Romantic impulses, feeding with its bitter turns the young poet in me who both rejected and longed for the communion of souls that Glück’s narrator evokes only to excoriate. Ironically, the poem’s sensual cynicism made me feel less alone.
The poem’s turns lie for me in the speaker’s homage to and then flouting of Romantic conventions and expectations. It is not the moon, she tells us, that lights the yard – it is these “mock” flowers that illuminate it. That might be a delicate, hopeful image, if not for the speaker’s immediate turn away from it: “I hate them,” she announces, thrilling me with her overt (and forbidden) rejection of beauty. “Hate,” my father used to say, “is an unacceptable word in this house.” As intelligent, outspoken girls turning women under his regime, my sister and I were not allowed to express the inevitable anger evoked in us by his patriarchal vision of a “good” world. As a young poet, I learned to use poetry, like Glück, to say what I had not been allowed to say – in words that my father would have difficulty understanding. Using poetry to challenge a male-dominated status quo felt even more dangerous and thrilling.
Glück’s speaker goes further, with another energizing – and taboo – turn: “I hate them,” she says of these “mock” flowers, “as I hate sex,/ the man’s mouth/ sealing my mouth, the man’s/ paralyzing body.” A poem that, in its first lines, could have been the delicate female flowering poem, subverts all of that passivity to become a declaration of war. Love (or the desire for it) is the enemy: its mouth, a man’s mouth, seals the speaker’s mouth. And the speaker’s dry, matter-of-fact tone, her tight poetic lines, her language stripped of excess and artifice, make her statements all the more exciting and chilling. Like the mock orange blossoms, the speaker throws the subject of heterosexual love, of sexual union, into cold relief, stripping it of its power to appeal.
The poem’s next turn drives us to the heart of the matter. There is no communion, no spiritual joining, no rebirth as one flesh in the sexual act; there is only “the low, humiliating/ premise of union.” My twenty-something self reverberated to those lines. In this poem, the sexual act, like the mock orange blossoms, doesn’t deliver the fruit of its promise. The lovers break apart into the “tired antagonisms” that define them.
“We are made fools of,” the speaker concludes, in the poem’s penultimate turn. I must confess that my twenty-something self didn’t understand this line, except that it somehow captured the way I felt at the time, chasing after the very love and union that I wanted to reject – in the same way that Glück’s bitter speaker seems to offer her words from the very bed she wants to burn with her hatred. Are we made fools of because of this desire? Is the scent of mock orange that “drifts through the window” into the final stanza of the poem that smell of failure, of surrender to the enemy?
Glück’s earlier work explores the girl’s fraught relationship to her distant father, particularly in “Dedication to Hunger” (Descending Figure). Here, the poet previews some of the same negative and transgressive images of heterosexuality as in “Mock Orange”: the man’s kiss that “might as well have been/ his hand over her mouth”; the man’s ability, in “Eros,” “to go to women/ and be taken back/ into the pierced flesh,” a communion or reunion denied the woman; the way some women use hunger to express “a fear of death” because “a woman’s body/ is a grave; it will accept/ anything.” Emotional anorexia – this Glück’s speakers offer as a bulwark against the Romantic longings that, in a poem like “Mock Orange,” light the yard with their disturbing sweetness.
The last stanza of “Mock Orange,” with its sharp cry of restlessness, its deep agitation, its failure to find that transcendent Romantic image – the leap out of itself that most of us expect from the spiritually yearning poem – provides the final twist. In essence, the poem here resists the epiphanic ending of the descriptive-meditative structure identified by M. H. Abrams and discussed further by Corey Marks. “How can I be content,” the speaker asks, “when there is still/ that odor in the world?” That smell of flowers lighting the yard, that fecund promise of blossom, that garden from which we have been separated forever?
Nearly 30 years later, I find much to admire in Glück’s poem, and as the buzz of romantic and sexual desire declines, can hear the undercurrent of spiritual longing in her work. Perhaps the poem’s most troubling — and enduring — turn lies in its aftershocks: the speaker’s return to “that odor” or the natural landscape evokes a Romantic sensibility, though the speaker’s bitter tone denies the ecstatic understanding of nature as a repository of the ideal divine. So the poem ends on an angry yet wistful note, as the speaker’s supposed rejection of the God outside the window doesn’t make her any less desirous of an elusive, painful connection with It. How can she rest, after all, when that mocking Odor lights the yard, just outside her bedroom window?
Laurie MacDiarmid is Professor of English and Writer in Residence at St. Norbert College. She is the author of two volumes of poetry – Consolation Prize (Georgetown Review Press) and Float (Finishing Line Press).