For the last few years, since I first read it, this has been probably my favourite poem. At least I think of it as a (long) poem. Possibly it’s verse novel, or maybe an epic poem. Not too epic though – it’s about 45 pages long – long for a poem, but short for an epic. It’s presented as a series of poems, or sections rather, as they wouldn’t really work on their own.
The Glass Essay is narrative, but not that much actually happens in terms of plot. A woman – the narrator – goes to stay with her aging mother. She walks on the moors, they take a trip to see her father who has advanced Alzhiemers. The narrator is recovering from a break up, and she’s reading a lot of her favourite author: Emily Bronte.
Some of the reasons why I love The Glass Essay so much are: the way the narrator’s story interviews so gorgeously with the life and work of Emily Bronte; the beautiful, spare language; the control the occasional wry trip of humour; the fact that it’s sometimes poetry-as-literary-criticism.
I also love it because I find it really inspiring. She writes differently to how I do, but this poem inspired me to write ‘Passion’, about Emily Bronte, which was published in JAAM 25.
I’m going to try to write a piece about The Glass Essay for A Fine Line, the Poetry Society magazine (wish me luck), so I won’t go into it at length now. But to give you a taster, here’s an extract (below). But wonderously, I’ve just discovered you can read the whole thing online at the Poetry Foundation.
Three silent women at the kitchen table.
My mother’s kitchen is dark and small but out the window
there is the moor, paralyzed with ice.
It extends as far as the eye can see
over flat miles to a solid unlit white sky.
Mother and I are chewing lettuce carefully.
The kitchen wall clock emits a ragged low buzz that jumps
once a minute over the twelve.
I have Emily p. 216 propped open on the sugarbowl
but am covertly watching my mother.
A thousand questions hit my eyes from the inside.
My mother is studying her lettuce.
I turn to p. 217.
'In my flight through the kitchen I knocked over Hareton
who was hanging a litter of puppies
from a chairback in the doorway. . . '
It is as if we have all been lowered into an atmosphere of glass.
Now and then a remark trails through the glass.
Taxes on the back lot. Not a good melon,
too early for melons.
[. . .]
Out the window I can see dead leaves ticking over the flatland
and dregs of snow scarred by pine filth.
At the middle of the moor
where the ground goes down into a depression,
the ice has begun to unclench.
Black open water comes
curdling up like anger. My mother speaks suddenly.
That psychotherapy’s not doing you much good is it?
You aren’t getting over him.
My mother has a way of summing things up.
She never liked Law much
but she liked the idea of me having a man and getting on with life.
Well he’s a taker and you’re a giver I hope it works out,
was all she said after she met him.
Give and take were just words to me
at the time. I had not been in love before.
It was like a wheel rolling downhill.
But early this morning while mother slept
and I was downstairs reading the part in Wuthering Heights
where Heathcliff clings at the lattice in the storm sobbing
Come in! Come in! to the ghost of his heart’s darling,
I fell on my knees on the rug and sobbed too.
She knows how to hang puppies,