I have a friend who still believes in heaven.
Not a stupid person, yet with all she knows, she literally talks to God.
She thinks someone listens in heaven.
On earth she’s unusually competent.
Brave too, able to face unpleasantness.
We found a caterpillar dying in the dirt, greedy ants crawling over it.
I’m always moved by disaster, always eager to oppose vitality
But timid also, quick to shut my eyes.
Whereas my friend was able to watch, to let events play out
According to nature. For my sake she intervened
Brushing a few ants off the torn thing, and set it down
Across the road.
My friend says I shut my eyes to God, that nothing else explains
My aversion to reality. She says I’m like the child who
Buries her head in the pillow
So as not to see, the child who tells herself
That light causes sadness–
My friend is like the mother. Patient, urging me
To wake up an adult like herself, a courageous person–
In my dreams, my friend reproaches me. We’re walking
On the same road, except it’s winter now;
She’s telling me that when you love the world you hear celestial music:
Look up, she says. When I look up, nothing.
Only clouds, snow, a white business in the trees
Like brides leaping to a great height–
Then I’m afraid for her; I see her
Caught in a net deliberately cast over the earth–
In reality, we sit by the side of the road, watching the sun set;
From time to time, the silence pierced by a birdcall.
It’s this moment we’re trying to explain, the fact
That we’re at ease with death, with solitude.
My friend draws a circle in the dirt; inside, the caterpillar doesn’t move.
She’s always trying to make something whole, something beautiful, an image
Capable of life apart from her.
We’re very quiet. It’s peaceful sitting here, not speaking, The composition
Fixed, the road turning suddenly dark, the air
Going cool, here and there the rocks shining and glittering–
It’s this stillness we both love.
The love of form is a love of endings.
* * *
The poem opens by talking about a friend who believes in heaven and “literally talks to God”. This is a conversational journey between two friends who discover a caterpillar being eaten alive by ants. On a superficial level the poem pivots between discussion of God and nature. If you read deeper into the poem you will notice Glück is struck by her friend in her own dreams. In reality the friend criticizes her for being oblivious to God. In the dream world that same friend takes on a more maternal role. The title of the poem is born out of the dream world when the friend explains, “when you love the world you hear celestial music”.
Simply put, the friend is obsessed by God and heaven. Glück’s mind daydreams in nature and this is where she finds her spirituality. Even though the two friends have contrasting views of the cosmos, this doesn’t deter them from their friendship. One could argue that nature is the medium which keeps them together. Apart from the death of the caterpillar the pair are also struck by the sight of clouds, the sunset, the silence interrupted by the sound of a bird and the implied effect of nighttime on their surroundings.
The poem ends with many layers of self reflection. While Glück is able to sit quietly and (on some level) embrace the caterpillar’s death; her friend acknowledges it by drawing “a circle in the dirt”. We are told that the friend wants to make the ugly death beautiful. Because poem is written in the first person…we never get to fully understand what made her draw that circle. Maybe Glück has the poet’s curse of seeing an image (or semblance of meaning) in almost every emotion and ripple in nature. What if I told you that the friend drew the circle because that was her way of giving the poor creature a “funeral”. It was her way of saying goodbye, wasn’t it?
If you are left with more questions than answers by the end of the poem…you are not alone. The themes of God, friendship, motherhood and forces of nature are all woven along the same path. It is an ambiguous one. I tend to learn more as I walk.
A note on the text
I wrote this with a few things in mind. It serves as a short and simple explanation on the poem. I found it difficult to stay succinct. Poetry analysis tends to make me stabby. I fell in love with poetry through reading and scribbling on scraps of paper and many journals. I think poetry gets dissected in primary school and butchered in high school. I think very few people find meaning by staring at the entrails. If that’s your thing…you’d be better off listening to some Cannibal Corpse.
a few things worth mentioning
My original idea was to help a few plebeians decipher what this poem is all about. I also suffer palpitations of curiosity. Trust me…there is no cure for that. With that said I’ve decided to end off this post with some additional reading for those who find a few internet articles exciting at midnight. Before I get to that I’m gonna include a little more background on the poet.
You see she uses what I like to call the “unspoken voice”. I like to think of it as the gaps in silences rather than the words themselves.
In her essay from Proofs and Theories, titled “Disruption, Hesitation, Silence,” Louise Glück says:
“I do not think that more information always makes a richer poem. I am attracted to ellipsis, to the unsaid, to suggestion, to eloquent, deliberate silence. The unsaid, for me, exerts great power: often I wish an entire poem could be made in this vocabulary. It is analogous to the unseen for example, to the power of ruins, to works of art either damaged or incomplete. Such works inevitably allude to larger contexts; they haunt because they are not whole, though wholeness is implied: another time, a world in which they were whole, or were to have been whole, is implied. There is no moment in which their first home is felt to be the museum. … It seems to me that what is wanted, in art, is to harness the power of the unfinished. All earthly experience is partial. Not simply because it is subjective, but because that which we do not know, of the universe, of mortality, is so much more vast than that which we do know. What is unfinished or has been destroyed participates in these mysteries. The problem is to make a whole that does not forfeit this power.”
- The Unsaid (http://transactionswithbeauty.com/home/theunsaid)
- The Essay Project: Stripping Down (https://www.bigbangpoetry.com/2021/03/the-essay-project-stripping-down.html)
- Disruption, Hesitation, Silence (https://www.thefreelibrary.com/_/print/PrintArticle.aspx?id=14375024)
- Poetry Wednesdays: Louise Glück, “Celestial Music” (https://lakwatserang-guro.com/2012/05/02/poetry-louise-gluck-celestial-music/)
- AMG’s Guide to Cannibal Corpse (https://www.angrymetalguy.com/amgs-guide-to-cannibal-corpse/)