Prism by Louise Gluck


Prism by Louise Gluck

There is so much gold in this poem, and since it's really long I can't talk about all of it. First of all, it is absolutely gorgeous. I can see the imagery so clearly as she Louise Gluck describes it. My favourite part is probably from paragraph eleven. It was the moment in her life she realized that the life of others wasn't for her. The rest of the poem goes on to talk about her questioning what is 'required' of us as people. And how eventually, as the poem progresses, she becomes disillusioned with the life that was chosen for her.

prism louise gluck poet poetry poem american author books

I feel the same way about myself, and this poem is my favourite by Louise Gluck. This stanza always reminded me of my relationship with my parents; they just didn't get it.

Louise Gluck questions everything that is pushed on us as children. What is 'good' and 'right' and 'wrong.' I always question why someone else gets to determine that for us. Eventually, we might end up feeling like we are not living the life we're meant to, if we blindly do that which is expected of us. Even the title, Prism, alludes to the concept of things looking differently once they come to pass. The title can also imply that she sees things differently than others, or as if the author is the prism the light passes through.

I apply these lessons to my life everyday, by seeing things another way, and never succumbing to societal pressure, but always remaining true to myself.

Even if you disagree with me, I highly recommend you read this poem. Louise Gluck is a poet with a very intricate style, and her work has many different interpretations.


1. Who can say what the world is? The world is in flux, therefore unreadable, the winds shifting, the great plates invisibly shifting and changing–

2. Dirt. Fragments of blistered rock. On which the exposed heart constructs a house, memory: the gardens manageable, small in scale, the beds damp at the sea’s edge–

3. As one takes in an enemy, through these windows one takes in the world: here is the kitchen, here is the darkened study. Meaning: I am master here.

4. When you fall in love, my sister said, it’s like being struck by lightning. She was speaking hopefully, to draw the attention of the lightning. I reminded her that she was repeating exactly our mother’s formula, which she and I had discussed in childhood, because we both felt that what we were looking at in the adults were the effects not of lightning but of the electric chair.

5. Riddle: Why was my mother happy? Answer: She married my father.

6. “You girls,” my mother said, “should marry someone like your father.” That was one remark. Another was, “There is no one like your father.”

7. From the pierced clouds, steady lines of silver. Unlikely yellow of the witch hazel, veins of mercury that were the paths of the rivers– Then the rain again, erasing footprints in the damp earth.

8. The implication was, it was necessary to abandon childhood. The word “marry” was a signal. You could also treat it as aesthetic advice; the voice of the child was tiresome, it had no lower register. The word was a code, mysterious, like the Rosetta stone. It was also a roadsign, a warning. You could take a few things with you like a dowry. You could take the part of you that thought. “Marry” meant you should keep that part quiet.

9. A night in summer. Outside, sounds of a summer storm. Then the sky clearing. In the window, constellations of summer. I’m in a bed. This man and I, we are suspended in the strange calm sex often induces. Most sex induces. Longing, what is that? Desire, what is that? In the window, constellations of summer. Once, I could name them.

10. Abstracted shapes, patterns. The light of the mind. The cold, exacting fires of disinterestedness, curiously blocked by earth, coherent, glittering in air and water, the elaborate signs that said now plant, now harvest– I could name them, I had names for them: two different things.

11. Fabulous things, stars. When I was a child, I suffered from insomnia. Summer nights, my parents permitted me to sit by the lake; I took the dog for company. Did I say “suffered”? That was my parents’ way of explaining tastes that seemed to them inexplicable: better “suffered” than “preferred to live with the dog.” Darkness. Silence that annulled mortality. The tethered boats rising and falling. When the moon was full, I could sometimes read the girls’ names painted to the sides of the boats: Ruth Ann, Sweet Izzy, Peggy My Darling— They were going nowhere, those girls. There was nothing to be learned from them. I spread my jacket in the damp sand, The dog curled up beside me. My parents couldn’t see the life in my head; when I wrote it down, they fixed the spelling. Sounds of the lake. The soothing, inhuman sounds of water lapping the dock, the dog scuffing somewhere in the weeds–

12. The assignment was to fall in love. The details were up to you. The second part was to include in the poem certain words, words drawn from a specific text on another subject altogether.

13. Spring rain, then a night in summer. A man’s voice, then a woman’s voice. You grew up, you were struck by lightning. When you opened your eyes, you were wired forever to your true love. It only happened once. Then you were taken care of, your story was finished. It happened once. Being struck by lightning was like being vaccinated; the rest of your life you were immune, you were warm and dry. Unless the shock wasn’t deep enough. Then you weren’t vaccinated, you were addicted.

14. The assignment was to fall in love. The author was female. The ego had to be called the soul. The action took place in the body. Stars represented everything else: dreams, the mind, etc. The beloved was identified with the self in a narcissistic projection. The mind was the subplot. It went nattering on. Time was experienced less as narrative than ritual. What was repeated had weight. Certain endings were tragic, thus acceptable. Everything else was failure.

15. Deceit. Lies. Embellishments we call hypotheses– There were too many roads, to many versions. There were too many roads, not one path– And at the end?

16. List the implications of “crossroads.” Answer: a story that will have a moral. Give a counter-example:

17. The self ended and the world began. They were of equal size, commensurate, one mirrored the other.

18. The riddle was: why couldn’t we live in the mind. The answer was: the barrier of the earth intervened.

19. The room was quiet. That is, the room was quiet, but the lovers were breathing. In the same way, the night was dark. It was dark, but the stars shone. The man in bed was one of several men to whom I gave my heart. The gift of the self, that is without limit. Without limit, though it recurs. The room was quiet. It was an absolute, like the black night.

20. A night in summer. Sounds of a summer storm. The great plates invisibly shifting and changing– And in the dark room, the lovers sleeping in each other’s arms. We are, each of us, the one who wakens first, who stirs first and sees, there in the first dawn, the stranger.


-Louise Gluck