reviewed on October 12, 2023
I have speculated previously that among the emerging movements in contemporary poetry—alongside what I have called the “gas-station realism” of Anders Carlson-Wee, Edgar Kunz, and Jacob Sunderlin, for instance, or the “queer pastoral” of Jacques J. Rancourt, Bruce Snider, and Emily Van Kley—is a Yale School of young writers consolidated around the figure of Louise Glück and around their own attendance at that university across the early 2000s. Though many of these writers were students of Glück, including Eli Mandel, Rachel Mannheimer, Max Ritvo, and Noah Warren, their affiliation with the Nobel Laureate seems as much aesthetic as biographical, characterized as their work is—with some exceptions—by a tonal austerity, lapidary diction, spare syntactical construction, and by a pathetic-fallacy naturalism itself indebted to the Deep Imagists.
Gonzalez’s debut collection—published, for reasons one might well surmise, by Glück’s publisher FSG—is the latest enrollee in that school, even as she alters its curriculum.
Like the post-graduate wanderjahr from which it takes its name, Grand Tour spans a Continental itinerary, from Berlin to Rome to Warsaw to Nicosia, its place sketches possessed of a Glück-like coldness and of the deceptive simplicity that makes much of Glück’s work so beguiling. “Rain last night, caught in a black bowl,” Gonzalez writes. “Inside, a face flickers. Whose?” As in Glück, of course, Gonzalez’s austerity sometimes descends into an aristocratic mannerism, as when the latter writes—as if from some empyrean Ivy League height—that “[n]evertheless, / in the months that passed, / the earth warmed. // The neighbors inquired politely […].”
Grand Tour lives up to its title most successfully, though, not in its haute deportment but—if one reads that title as ars poetica—in its grandeur and mobility, in long poems which move vertiginously, for instance, from a Croatian apartment to a shotgun wedding in Manhattan to the evolution of the Corvidae family of birds (i.e. crows) to a Prague bar called the Fumes of the Absurd, a schedule Gonzalez navigates with great fluency. Grand Tour is most impressive, that is, when Gonzalez is most herself, when she casts off the imitative mode to pursue her own formal and stylistic idiosyncrasies.
Indeed, this relationship between a writer and her influences encodes itself in Grand Tour as an anxiety about literary history, in particular about how to fashion an authentic self alongside other forms of selfhood modeled from Homer to Zbigniew Herbert. In a poem about the murder of her brother, Gonzalez recalls the former: “in my ear Priam repeats, I have kissed the hand of the man / who killed my son. / Would I do that? I ask as I pass the store labeled SIGNS SIGNS.” Later, in “To My Thirteen-Year-Old Self,” Gonzalez discloses in the epistolary mode that she “know[s] you have girded yourself / not to plead. You intend to die a Greek hero. // You’ve made notes on the Iliad.”
Rarely descending into the sentiment of the first-book childhood poem, Grand Tour thinks meaningfully about the inheritances to which children are subject—not only, in Gonzalez’s case, the death of her brother but the abuse she endured at the hands of her father, and the learned shame that results from it. “Przepraszam, / I say to everyone angry / at my body’s inconvenience” Gonzalez writes in “On the Night Train from Gdańsk”:
everyone who passes, including
the nun, who returns
rubbing germs between her palms. Forgive me, that I have
a body—a thought I’ve had many times.
My father, who hated by body, asks me to stand—no it’s the
Though recognition is no arbiter of artistic merit—“I like this poem because it’s about a dog and I have a dog"—readers will no doubt relate.
In contrast, one rarely locates oneself—or feels the spark of being seen, of being recognized—in the writing of Gonzalez’s teacher. Glück is an astonishing poet, but her work is often so austere as to seem alien, aloof. It may be ironic then, given what I would call the inhumanness of her work, that part of Glück’s legacy will be those students she has influenced and aided in their literary careers, a bid, perhaps, for “founder of discourse” status—like Lowell, like Foucault.
“My parents didn’t speak money, didn’t speak college,” Gonzalez writes in “Failed Essay on Privilege,” a kind of künstlerroman implicitly about the influence of her teacher. “Still—I went to Yale.”