Meadowlands, by Louise Gluck

A few years ago, when we did our Niagara/Ontario winery tour, Kim arranged for us to get a VIP tour at one quite impressive outfit. Being a wine neophyte, I was surprised to learn what a high percentage of bottles are “corked”, their taste ruined by leakage through the traditional cork. “If you’ve tried a wine that everyone said was great and hated it, that bottle may have been corked. Instead of giving up on that wine, you should try another bottle—you might really like it,” our guide said.

I’d heard about wines needing to breathe, of course, but he let us taste the difference between a newly opened wine and the same wine that had been allowed to breathe. I became a convert. Even more astounding, for me, was the effect of the shape of the glass on the taste of the wine. Our guide hauled out an assortment of the truly expensive glasses and showed us how to pair a shape with a particular wine. We tried the same wines in a variety of glasses and the difference was very clear even to my undiscerning palate.

All this is to explain why I went back to Meadowlands after not liking it at all the first time I read it.

I’d read and enjoyed two of Gluck’s earlier collections, The House on Marshland and the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Wild Iris, but it was Vita Nova that blew me out of the water. I read and reread it. For a year, I dipped into it almost daily. During that turbulent time, it became an anchor for me, a solid block of perception, of knowing that steadied me and helped me through.

So I came to Meadowlands with high expectations. I found the language, of course, to be both strong and lovely, but the subject matter simply didn’t resonate with me. The hull of the book is made up of poems featuring a couple whose marriage is falling apart, some of them recording dialogues of their arguments. Completing the structure are poems, parables ,and monologues based on The Odyssey and exploring marriage, distance, and licit and illicit loves from different perspectives.

Perhaps I was jaded from just having read too many books about marriages breaking up, mostly from the man’s perspective justifying why he simply HAD to have an affair with that cute young cookie. Yawn. I’d also just been reading way too much about the earlier period, not just rereading The Odyssey itself, but books such as Elizabeth Cook’s Achilles and Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad that left me feeling like I’d overdosed on the whole cycle.

Then recently I read Gluck’s later book, Averno, for one of my book clubs and fell in love all over again. One of the members of the book club, in response to a comment of mine about Meadowlands, said that it was his favorite of her books and encouraged me to look into it again.

Without pushing the metaphor too hard, I’ll just say that like wine, the content of a book can age well or poorly through no fault of its own, such as the controversy over Mark Twain’s use of language: true to its time but anathema to ours. Also, much of the enjoyment of a book is out of the author’s hands entirely, dependent on the reader’s filters of context, background knowledge, and preferences.

I did enjoy Meadowlands a lot more this time around. The subject of failing marriages still doesn’t much interest me, but the people in these poems came alive for me in a way they hadn’t on the first reading. I particularly liked the poems from Telemachus’ point of view, what he thought of his parents’ problems. And I snickered at Gluck’s sly bits of humor: I’m astounded by the way she can tear your heart up and then make you laugh, all in a few lines. I’ll write about Averno another time.

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