The world / was whole because / it shattered. When it shattered, / then we knew what it was.
“Formaggio” is Italian for “cheese.” The poem so titled is in Louise Glück’s book Vita Nova. On first reading I experienced the poem as an affront. The malaise it induces is apparent in its first lines (quoted above). I can climb out of my funk only through paraphrase
A thing — the very world — is affirmed intact because it broke apart, or perhaps was perceived whole in hindsight as a consequence of its disintegration. When it broke up, then we knew what it was. Those conjunctions — because, then — are consequential in the hands of a stylist as meticulous as Glück.
It never healed itself. / But in the deep fissures, smaller worlds appeared: / it was a good thing that human beings made them: / human beings know what they need, / better than any god.
In the cracks of a chronic lesion, aftermath of a cosmos splintered into unity, there appeared not shrapnel but mini-worlds created by us, and a good thing, too, for we know our needs better than any god. The theology rings true enough, but the rest is nonsense: the arc of Homo erectus’ spawn is short, and bends toward self-destruction, as current events attest.
My peevish commentary will sink of its own weight if pursued much further. Suffice it to say, the worlds we created became stores on Huron Avenue — a Chicago or Hamtramck of the mind where fish and cheese are sold — and they are visions of safety. Like a resting place, staffed by persons who could be parents, only kinder.
As tributaries feed a large river, the speaker had many lives, one or more of which were lived among flats of fruit fronting a flower shop run by one Hallie, perhaps. These life streams were absorbed into the great ocean; however, asks the speaker, If the self becomes invisible has it disappeared? A query not without interest.
The speaker thrived, lived alone, but not completely so: Strangers [were] surging around me. A strategic stanza leap punctuates a vault across poetry space to where we secretly exist; there, by apposition, is the definition of sea:
That’s what the sea is: / we exist in secret.
The speaker’s many former lives are summed in imagery as a beribboned spray of flowers held by a hand. Above the hand, stems terminate in blossoms of future; And the gripped fist — / that would be the self in the present. And that would be the poem’s conclusion.
I come to fathom poetry, not to mock it. This poem looks like a space where afflatus collides with metaphysics. Glück is one to achieve what she intends. By her own report she doesn’t rush to publish. In one poem, the speaker-poet prays not for happiness, but for another poem. Steep lyric is bracing when scalable. I didn’t summit on this one, but other peaks are still ahead.
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