100 Books List Spotlight: Two Favorite Poets

Written by Guest Blogger Marilyn Berkman

In February 2017, Women’s National Book Association released 100 Fiction Books by American Women and 100 Nonfiction Books by American Women. The fiction list features works that fall in the genres of fiction, poetry, and memoir. The nonfiction list, excluding memoirs, features the true accounts and achievements of American women.

Poetry can be many things, but most people would agree: if it’s not passionate, it’s not poetry. On the other hand, some would insist poetry must be cerebral.

Louise Glück and Sharon Olds, renowned contemporary poets on the WNBA 100 Books List, are simultaneously passionate and cerebral. They address the big topics of Time, Love and Death by exquisitely examining small, wrenching moments.

Glück has the cooler verse in Faithful and Virtuous Night (FSG, 2014). Perhaps one can only conjure death with first-person dreamlike adventures. The speakers vary, some from myth—a knight, King Arthur; some family—the poet’s parents and baby sister, demanding mention:

We read your books when they reach heaven.

Some seem projections of the poet herself, or eerily, the reader. Like the speakers, the landscapes encountered are somewhat familiar, yet rearranged. A cemetery turns out to be a park, and vice versa. But aren’t we all going to the same place?

… I attained the precipice…

the mountain…completely dissolved…

As we had all been flesh together,

now we were mist.

Or will we even know?

…. I was in my bed, the morning sun

contentedly rising…

We had escaped from death—

or was this the view from the precipice?

If Glück describes what it is to have a consciousness, Olds tells how it feels to be a body. And for Olds, body and soul are one. The Pulitzer-winning Stag’s Leap (Knopf, 2012), a sex-and-angst-ridden collection about her divorce, is an evocation of mixed emotions. We are taken through the seasons of the break-up like Stations of the Cross, starting with when her husband of 30 years tells her it’s over just before they go to bed:

Later, when we took off our clothes, I saw

his deep navel, and the cindery lichen

skin between the male breasts, and…

I called out something like flirting to him,

and he smiled.

She tells him she’ll try to fall out of love with him, but

…when he came

home and shed his skin…

I slept with him, thinking it meant

he was back, his body speaking for him.

Even after the final time, she lusts after him, remembering the wine they drank and how they swam in the sea:

…I dove under, and…

glided between his ankles…

his hip joints like the gravital centers

of my spirit.

She comes to realize there were signs

…up against the wall…

with the lock that fluttered like a silver

butterfly beside us, hip-height.

and the photo of a younger woman in his laundry.

Louise Gluck, former US Poet Laureate and winner of the Pulitzer and Bollingen Prizes for Poetry, teaches at Yale.

Sharon Olds, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award and Pulitzer Prize, teaches at NYU.

For the full list of 100 Fiction Books by American Women, click here, and the full list of 100 Nonfiction Books by American Women is here.


About Marilyn Berkman

Marilyn Berkman is the WNBA’s Alternate Liaison to the UN. She studied poetry writing with Anthony Hecht. She recently completed a novel set in the 1970s among the poets of Sydney, Australia.

One Comment

  1. Harriet Shenkman

    Kudos Marilyn. You did a great job of illuminating the verse.

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