Circe’s Grief by Louise Gluck presents the pain of a woman in a modern relationship in context of mythological allusion. Immortal sea witches have feelings after all. Once Gluck uses the title to invoke mythology, the poem takes on a universal and larger sense. An important qualification that makes this a fine poem is that the myth is alluded to and not retold. The speaker is powerful and calls upon us to remember that Circe is a woman in control.
Circe’s Grief also alludes to Penelope, who was married to Odysseus. Circe had an affair with Odysseus.
The dramatic monologue has sixteen lines contained in a single stanza. The poet chose to extend her ideas and punctuate as only two sentences. And, in fact, there are two sentences being imposed by the goddess. The wife has been condemned to have the “sound without the body” in her head forever and the man will never be free of her: if I am in her head forever/ I am in your life forever (L15-16.)The poem is addressed to a man who is married and whom Circe both hates and pines for. She cannot let him go, though he has willingly left her.
Gluck chose to end some of her lines in what might be considered weak words. L2 ends in as, L3 ends in the word in, L4 ends in she and L13 in her. Prepositions and pronouns are generally considered to be weak line endings. Of course, Louise Gluck is a master poet and there are no universal rules in poetry. The choice made me wonder, though, if she was less careful in her writing as she became more widely published. But, in reading her poems I see that she does end many lines in short prepositions and pronouns throughout her career. This might also have to do with the sheer volume of her work. Prepositions and pronouns are a large part of our vocabulary.
What is the effect of ending the lines in prepositions and pronouns?
a god would, in her own house, in
Ithaca, a voice
without a body, she
The first effect is that the lines are separate and adhered. If the line a god would, in her own house, in were taken as a separate unit, the reader could imagine what a god might do in her own (the god’s house, even as she is saying she would be bold and invasive in doing this in the wife’s house.) If the line is taken with the next line Ithaca, a voice the god now inhabits the world of the other woman and is given a specific locale, Ithaca. Still further, if Ithaca, a voice is read as a distinct entity, one can imagine the voice of the place mingled in the lines. The voice has no body. Now a place is given a voice. Brilliant. Finally, without a body, she is a poignant line in the poem because we know that Circe’s voice is the most important part of the myth. Now if we imagine Circe’s jealousy, the poet has justifiably allowed Circe to picture her lover’s wife without a body. If her lover’s wife has no body then she cannot sleep with him. It is a brief glimpse, read in a line made possible by surrounding prepositions and pronouns. Another example of a pronoun-ended line standing on its own in the poem is:
you see her again, tell her
because the reader can readily fill in the unspoken “tell her about us.”
Gluck’s references to mythology, dramatic and strong monologue and masterful use of pronouns and prepositions might fail in the hands of a lesser poet, but make this poem a non- clichéd and fresh use of ancient mythology and a commanding example of the poetic line.
You can read the poem here: