A week or so ago the poet Louise Glück became the first American woman to win the Nobel prize for literature in 27 years, cited for “her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal”.
Glück is the 16th woman to win the Nobel, and the first American woman since Toni Morrison took the prize in 1993. The American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan was a surprise winner in 2016.
One of America’s leading poets, the 77-year-old writer has also won the Pulitzer prize and the National Book Award, tackling themes including childhood and family life, often reworking Greek and Roman myths.
The Wild Iris’ by Louise Glück is the title poem of her 1992 collection. This volume follows a specific sequence, poem to poem, describing the poet’s garden. In this piece, she considers the human soul, immortality associated with rebirth, and the commonalities between all life no matter how that life is manifested.
Looking at the text …
The Wild Iris
At the end of my suffering
there was a door.
Hear me out: that which you call death
Overhead, noises, branches of the pine shifting.
Then nothing. The weak sun
flickered over the dry surface.
It is terrible to survive
buried in the dark earth.
Then it was over: that which you fear, being
a soul and unable
to speak, ending abruptly, the stiff earth
bending a little. And what I took to be
birds darting in low shrubs.
You who do not remember
passage from the other world
I tell you I could speak again: whatever
returns from oblivion returns
to find a voice:
from the center of my life came
a great fountain, deep blue
shadows on azure seawater.
Louise Gluck (1943 –
The iris is wild as though it has a natural uncultivated presence.
The door is death and going through the door ends suffering and someone has gone through the door. It is not unreasonable to assume a person has died. But in the second stanza we see that the person wants to talk about ‘death’ – what you call death – after ‘death’ has actually taken place.
The next two stanzas change thoughts from personal death to the death of an iris. The dead iris is buried in the earth. However, the dead iris is not dead but has become a consciousness. This consciousness is ‘terrible’. The question is left for the reader to ponder meaning. Maybe it is terrible because it wants to become. Equally the reader can entertain the thought that all death might become latent consciousness.
Then it is over. That horrible time of the consciousness not being able to speak – not able to become living and have a voice and meaning. And we see the stiff earth bending a little, as though the iris has started to break through the earth.
Then the voice beyond ‘death’ speaks again to tell us that all re-birth seeks a voice.
In the last stanza the voice of the blue iris coming to life is described in dramatic terms. The voice of the iris in all its splendor is a great fountain. The whole purpose of the iris is to flower in glory.
While the speaker is talking about a flower, there are obvious implications for humanity, and the human soul. What are we meant to become? And is life a continual cycle of re-birth? And are we naturally beautiful?