Reading Backwards with Louise

by Marissa Grunes

Shortly after her sister passed away from cancer in 2018, I visited Louise Glück at her home. She told me that from her father’s side she and her sister had inherited three things: depression, brains, and cancer. “So far, two out of three isn’t bad,” she said.

My mother was dying of cancer at the time. Louise never met my mother, but they had been in the same room once. It was almost twenty years ago, at the 11th Street Bar in Manhattan. I had just been accepted to Yale, and my mom had Louise on her radar. Louise Glück was a household name for us—my dad kept a copy of The Wild Iris in the living room—and I had been writing poems (badly) since I was around ten. My mom was a painter and a scrappy if ineffectual entrepreneur. (Art is, after all, a business.) She found out that Louise would be reading at the bar shortly before the start of the school year and insisted that we go. “Bring a packet of poems with you,” she told me. “You can give them to her. Who knows, maybe she’ll like them.”

After a six-hour drive from Maryland along the Jersey Turnpike in my mom’s battered Ford Explorer, which she used to haul paintings all over the country, we slept on the oversized couch in her sister’s shoebox apartment. Louise Glück read from Averno. She read “October,” with its opening litany of rhetorical questions. The field burned. Persephone was swallowed by the earth. I can still feel the chill that crept into that crowded, dim room in Manhattan. After the reading, my mom pushed me to give my neatly folded poems to the small, severe woman in black. I was so embarrassed that I’ve blocked the rest of the memory out. But I’m sure I handed Louise the poems.

Throughout my first two years of college, I have emails from my mother with links to apply for the Yale Younger Poets prize, one of the most prestigious prizes in poetry. In my junior year, I wrote back: “It’s OK, Louise Glück makes the decisions and she’s already rejected me twice from her class.” My mom replied, “Send anyway. Don’t think about the $15. Maybe someone else will see something good in what you are doing. Love, Mom.” Of course I did not submit.

I did, however, finally get accepted into Louise’s class. That year, it seems, was a special one. Noah Warren, Katy Waldman, Elisa Gonzalez, Rosanna Oh, and several other extraordinary writers were in that workshop. I was dodging between the legs of giants. I think we were all a little afraid of Louise. She wore all black with a bracelet of small carved skulls. She flensed our poems from top to bottom. She could wield death with two syllables: “Wooden.” “Clichéd.”

Ten years later, sitting on the patio of her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I asked why she continued to read my poems. Even her most accomplished former students, she said, had started off poorly. But they had a spark, they were hungry. “You were not very good when I met you in college,” she told me bluntly. “But you kept writing.”

“I only need to see one line that’s fresh and alive,” she said. “Then anything is possible.”


Two of my classmates from the fall of 2009 have released debut collections last year. Rosanna Oh’s The Corrected Version and Elisa Gonzalez’s The Grand Tour remind me of Louise—how could they not?—but each of these books is distinctly its own.

The praise both books have received is well deserved. The Harvard Review admires The Corrected Version for the “deliberate grace” with which it presents “a haunting portrait of Oh the poet, Oh the Korean American, and Oh the grocer’s daughter.” The Los Angeles Review of Books, in two essays spaced a month apart, meditates on intimacy and trauma in The Grand Tour, calling the poems “unbearably moving” and “invitingly complex.”

These collections come at an inflection point for a generation of poets who studied with Louise. They are books whose raw, private vulnerability is made beautiful by what Louise called “steely” intelligence. They are post-pandemic books that meditate on escape: escaping poverty into privilege, escaping restraint into daring extravagance, escaping global infection alive but not unharmed. One of Louise’s students has described Louise as a poet “you couldn’t hide from.” In these books I also hear the poets ask themselves: what about escaping Louise? What will that take?

Some teachers step into our lives like parents. They loom. We are caught between love and fear, angered by our own desire to please. I don’t know whether Gonzalez and Oh experience Louise’s influence in that way; I certainly do. Their books fall into a tradition Louise helped to forge: intimate, confessional, harnessing myth to make sense of—not hide from—reality. But both books are also filled with surprises. Strange images and diction one cannot imagine Louise using: Gonzalez’s Cyprus with its “pineapple rain”; the “hush-hush” of Oh’s mystical forest where the woodcutter’s wife, having found the wings her husband hid, takes flight. No surprise that I love best these moments where Gonzalez and Oh depart from their mentor.

Take the opening poem of The Corrected Version, “Homework.” The poem recreates a fifth-grader’s homework assignment about life at home, with the matter-of-fact tone that marks both the innocence of a younger self and the adult’s courage in recalling childhood humiliation: “I stay behind the register to bag / the groceries. My dad wakes up at one / to buy fish in the Bronx.” The style is direct, almost prosaic. One may not notice the slanted rhymes—“short answer / Yom Kippur” or “steel wool / at school”—that all but conceal the formal apparatus of a sonnet. The final couplet, stepping out from behind the curtain with a rhyme so obvious as to seem strained by its emotional freight, sets up the book’s dilemma. Told to read her assignment in class, the speaker tells us: “So I obeyed. A boy’s laugh cut me through. / Should I pretend my stories are untrue?” Should the speaker, like the young protagonist of the film Angel (2007), quoted in the sonnet’s epigraph, cloak reality in mythic grandeur? Can the home of a grocer’s daughter also be a “great house cherished by the gods”?

We understand, without being told, that the gods cherish the house in “Picking Blueberries” where father and daughter spend cramped hours picking out rotten blueberries before pricing them: “$3.99 per pint.” And there’s a kind of modern American mythmaking to Oh’s parable of “The Gift.” A customer puts a mango “brindled with black and bruises” on the counter, telling the Korean grocer, “Give this garbage to your children.” The young speaker, knowing such mangos to be sweetest, reaches for it. “It’s not a gift,” her father warns her off. At the poem’s end, the speaker watches her father eating the mango over a garbage can: “Nothing went to waste in our store.” There is poetry and dignity in unadorned reality, but it takes subtle skill and conviction to convey. Louise knew that—but she was not likely to shape that reality into a sonnet or to end a poem with a dollar amount.

In Gonzalez’s “Weather Journal, Warsaw,” meanwhile, the speaker lights a coal-burning fireplace and opens up the chimney,

so the sky is the one
adorned by smoke
like the smoke I used
to mark my arrival home,
a little yellow house
beside the paper factory.
My sulfurous youth.

Unadorned reality this is not.  But a childhood of privation lurks beneath Gonzalez’s pages, too; Gonzalez too asks us to face horror head-on. In “The Night Before I Leave Home,” the speaker’s brother, whose murder haunts the book, takes her to a meadow where he is draining the blood of a whitetail deer.

It takes more time than I expected

for death to be over,
I tell my brother. And he, a hunter, says, Yeah
In the tone that means, Of course.

Later, “the doe’s eyeshine keeps us company,” the brilliance of death made grimly, mysteriously beautiful, as the speaker spins a story of their abusive father “waking to polish his teeth, spit blood / into the eye of a porcelain bowl.” Self-consciously literary, Gonzalez calls on the Iliad and Zbigniew Herbert as companions to her grief. But we also see intimate, even funny moments: the speaker fumbling with her cellphone when her brother calls her at 4:17 a.m., “answering almost upside-down, stretched toward him.” The strangeness of these poems is Gonzalez’s own.


Louise admired intelligence in poetry, as in life. I told her once that what passed for tough-minded intelligence in my own writing was really just anger. “Anger is a kind of steeliness,” she remarked. “There’s a vast rage against the universe. You can find physical outlets, you can garden, make things grow, you can make things with it: poetry.”

I spoke to Louise about my mother. Why did I not give her the attention and love she craved? The recognition? She was dying—she must be so lonely. I went home to feed her and change her bedding, but I couldn’t bring myself to simply sit and hold her hand. And her speech was gone; it was too late to talk to her.

“Your mom knows you better than you think,” Louise told me. “She understands that fundamentally we are all alone.”

Did my mom understand that? Louise had never met her, really. But I believe Louise was right. She had intuited something about my mother’s character that was harder for me—guilt-obsessed as children are—to see.

One weekend in June of 2021, Louise asked me to help proofread her forthcoming book, Winter Recipes from the Collective. The task was simple but strange: read every poem in the book backwards. I had never seen any of these poems and, as she read them aloud from the final period to the opening capitalization, half of my brain tried to read them in reverse and catch their meaning. After finishing the book, Louise suggested that next time we throw the I Ching. She had frequently thrown it with her sister. I had thrown it too, with my mother. I would see my mom sometimes late at night, through the bright doorway of what we called her “art room,” kneeling on the paint-stained carpet and tossing three pennies in front of her. She kept three pennies in the center console of her car too.

Louise and I never found time to throw the I Ching. Attempts to schedule visits collapsed under the weight of logistics. She died two weeks before the fourth anniversary of my mom’s death. Louise and my mother both filled vases with dried alliums: thin, bare stalks that arced in the trajectory of an explosion. Sweden was the last foreign country my mother visited before she died; Sweden was the only foreign country Louise would consider visiting in the final years of her life. My mother also looked for that one living line in a drawing or painting: a sign that anything is possible.

Working through my relationship with my mother will take a lifetime; so too the work of dancing with Louise’s long shadow. Louise helped me get a start on the first one. For the second, I am beginning with these collections by Gonzalez and Oh, as each of these poets creates space for her own voice.

Published on February 28, 2024