In her note at the start of The First Four Books of Poems, Louise Glück writes of her goals before and after The House on Marshland: “After Firstborn, I set myself the task of making poems as single sentences, having found myself trapped in fragments. After The House on Marshland, I tried to wean myself from conspicuous syntactical quirks and a recurring vocabulary—what begins as vision degenerates into mannerism.” In the thirty-five poems in this collection, divided into two sections — “All Hallows” and “The Apple Trees — there are indeed fewer fragments, though few of them are complete in a single sentence. The occasional ellipsis leaves its sentence open to further possibilities, and she remains fond of the held breath of the em dash. Fewer of these poems have scorpion’s tail that struck me about Firstborn; maybe seven more years of practicing poetry had given her more confidence in her full creations and less of a need to reverse them in a line or two at the end.
The poems in “All Hallows” are not all autumnal, though the title poem and “To Autumn” certainly are, while “The Magi,” “Nativity Poem,” and “Flowering Plum” bring other seasons to mind. “Gemini,” pairs with “Nativity Poem,” perhaps. “Jeanne D’Arc” and “Departure” face each other, though the former’s departure is both more permanent and more exalted than the latter’s.
The second section, “The Apple Trees” brings more places, love poems, unhappy poems, and the only work that runs more than one page, “Abishag,” which draws on the biblical story of King David and a young woman called to keep him warm in his old age.
I can see the craft in these works, see Glück stretching her range, writing about objects near and people mythical, writing about lovers so close to her speakers and intimate figures in their lives grown distant — but the poems have not really stuck with me. Which is fine.