Grief as a Test: The Collected Poems of Louise Glück

Achilles and Patroclus. By Philippe Auguste Hennequin. 1784-1789.

Grief, I have learned, any type of grief, is a test—albeit a cruel, harsh, and unfair one—of the people around us, those whom we lean on and consider our support system.  Grief strips away any pretensions, facades, masks, and posturing and challenges all types of relationships in a way that no other human emotion can. People deal with a grieving loved one in with such a vast range of emotions and reactions—some rise to the occasion to offer support, love, kindness and others back away, withdraw, remain silent.  

I’m not making any kind of a judgment here. People are who they are. There is no changing that—for a variety of reasons some are wired to avoid any type of emotions whatsoever, especially the difficult ones.  But on the other end of the spectrum there are those who have a special presence, know just the right things to say, and show unconditional love and kindness.  I keep thinking about grief-as-test in the last few weeks as I’ve made my way through Louise Glück’s Poems 1962-2012; her insights on loss, grief, pain, heartache, and the everyday difficulties that life throws at us have struck a cord with me.    Glück writes about growing up and watching her mother grieve over a lost child and the effects it had on  Glück and her sister. Grief as a test of the family, especially the surviving children:

It was something I was good at: sitting still, not moving.

I did it to be good, to please my mother, to distract her from the child that died.

I wanted to be child enough, I’m still the same,

like a toy that can stop and go, but not change direction.

Glück also processes through her poems the death of her father with whom she had a difficult relationship. She writes: “I thought that pain meant I was not loved/it meant I loved.” And her struggles with grief suffered in various romantic relationships, including marriage, are raw, honest and astute. “Seated Figure” has particularly been on my mind, I’ve thought about this poem every day for weeks:

It was as though you were a man in a wheelchair,

your legs cut off at the knee.

But I wanted you to walk. I wanted us to walk like lovers,

arm in arm in the summer evening,

and believed so powerfully in that projection

that I had to speak, I had to press you to stand.

Why did you let me speak?

I took your silence as I took the anguish in your face,

as part of the effort to move—

It seemed I stood forever,

holding out my hand.

And all that time, you could no more heal yourself 

than I could accept what I saw.

Although it’s not specifically about grief, I do see it through that lens. Glück wants this man to stand and be in a relationship with her; oftentimes because of grief, pain, heartache we ask someone to stand for us—for support, kindness, patience, love, understanding—and are faced with silence. As  Glück says we believe so powerfully in the projection we have of a person that we refuse to accept the reality of who they are and what they are capable of giving us.

Finally, I need to mention Glück’s use of Greek mythology as examples of grief-as-test. She has a series of poems written from the perspective of Penelope, Telemachus, and Circe and how they deal with the grief caused by Odysseus’s absence. Her best poem involves one of the most heart-wrenching examples of grief in ancient literature, Achilles’s reaction to the death of his best friend and fellow warrior, Patroclus:

In the story of Patroclus no one survives,

not even Achilles who was nearly a god.

Patroclus resembles him, they wore the same armor.

Always in these friendships one serves the other,

one is less than the other: the hierarchy is always apparent,

though the legends cannot be trusted— their source is the survivor,

the one who has been abandoned.

What were the Greek ships on fire compared to this loss?

In his tent, Achilles grieved with his whole being

and the gods saw he was already dead,

a victim of the part that loved, the part that was mortal.

Achilles’s grief tests his mortality, his emotions, his fellow soldiers, and an entire Trojan army. The end of the Iliad and Greek’s return home show us the various ways that men on both sides handle that test, for good and bad.

Grief has certainly cast in a new light every relationship that I have now or will have in the future. 

Grief as a test.

Of myself.

Of those around me.

Who stands up and who is incapable of standing up?

I’ve even learned that sometimes I’m the one who needs to stand up.

And maybe even walk away…



Filed under American Literature, Poetry

18 responses to “Grief as a Test: The Collected Poems of Louise Glück

  1. From my experience of it, grief is one of the most powerful emotions we have, and as you say everyone deals with it in different ways. When I lost my father, my method was to try to carry on as normally as possible until the pain ebbed. This is possibly related to my usual method of bottling things up, which is not always healthy. It’s hard to judge how others approach us – but backing away, however difficult it is to take on someone’s pain – is not really the best way. I hope you are still getting support and comfort from those around you, and know that your virtual friends still hold you in their hearts. x

    Liked by 1 person

  2. There are some things that can only be said through poetry. Thank you for this profound reflection.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for presenting and discussing a choice of Louise Glücks poems in the light of grief.
    Before Christmas, I would have liked to go to the local book store to find and get one of her books. According to the Covid-rules, the book stores had to close as well.
    Good wishes

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m not sure about the idea of grief as a test… because a test is something one can pass or fail and grief is not like that. I’m not even sure that it’s something we can do better at… even the knowledge that the pain will be less intense as time goes by doesn’t help because at the time it’s happening that just doesn’t seem possible, it feels as if it’s unique and that’s because it *is* unique.
    Grief, however it comes upon us, is part of life, and each of us experiences it in different circumstances and we deal with it in different ways and along a different timeline.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I do see it as a test of relationships. It can make some stronger and make others collapse. So in a sense there is a pass/fail sense to it. People can fail us when we need them the most.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I can sense your pain here, and if that’s your experience, that’s valid. But — having had friends ‘fail’ me at various times in my life, and also having ‘failed’ others myself — I’ve found that it doesn’t have to make a relationship collapse. Over time it can be part of the growth we make in sustaining relationships, and sometimes we find that there were reasons we didn’t know about for the ‘failure’. This is sometimes more true for older people, who can become overwhelmed by the number of friends who die due to ageing, and they are just not able to be there over and over again when they are grieving too.


      • Grief can be seen as a test; that is one way to look at it. Difficult to hear about those who do offer expressions of love or support or even much acknowledgement. I would be deeply hurt by that and probably not inclined to want to be around them, at least not for a long time. You write that you aren’t judging, but it sounds like indeed you are – however, I’d likely do, or at least feel, the same.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I’m actually not judging. I understand that what happened to me is so upsetting to others that I understand if they can’t handle it. It took me a little while to see that. But I understand it now.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Melissa, your sharing of all of this is so valuable to each and every one of us. I’m sure it can’t be easy at times to write about these experiences, but they are so important. Thank you.


  5. I do so deeply love reading what you write. You a shining star in this craft.


  6. This is beautiful writing Melissa and sometimes poetry and literature give us a tiny path through our pain. Have been thinking of you a lot recently and sending you much virtual love.


  7. Fortune and Bravery

    Hi Melissa,
    I came across this sort of at random and it really struck me. This was very much my experience as well when my father passed away. The way people reacted really struck me and was hurtful at times. I just wanted to talk about him and keep him in my words and thoughts and some of my friends were very uncomfortable about it. It was very revealing and I think some of those relationships will never quite feel the same now. Thanks for sharing this.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Michael

    I just by chance picked up Gluck’s “The Wild Iris” at my local library branch so your review is an unexpected synchronicity – as all synchronicities are, I guess. I had to take it back as I was accumulating a stack of borrowed books but will get back to it after I (semi) finish other partially finished books looking at me accusingly! Gluck (how do you insert the umlaut?) proposes to discuss grief through a couple of modes one being the planting and dying of various garden and native plants. The title poem really captured my attention and I read it several times in a kind of poetic savoring. Plain language really but to the point without a clutter of obscurity (e.g. Franz Wright).

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s