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From Wild Iris (1992)
In your extended absence, you permit me
use of earth, anticipating
some return on investment. I must report
failure in my assignment, principally
regarding the tomato plants.
I think I should not be encouraged to grow
tomatoes. Or, if I am, you should withhold
the heavy rains, the cold nights that come
so often here, while other regions get
twelve weeks of summer. All this
belongs to you: on the other hand,
I planted the seeds, I watched the first shoots
like wings tearing the soil, and it was my heart
broken by the blight, the black spot so quickly
multiplying in the rows. I doubt
you have a heart, in our understanding of
that term. You who do not discriminate
between the dead and the living, who are, in consequence,
immune to foreshadowing, you may not know
how much terror we bear, the spotted leaf,
the red leaves of the maple falling
even in August, in early darkness: I am responsible
for these vines.
Hello there. Corinna Laughlin here with the Poem of the Week.  This week, I’ve chosen a poem by Louise Glück. You may have heard her name recently—she is the recipient of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Literature. Jackie O’Ryan will read Glück’s poem “Vespers,” and then I’ll be back with some brief commentary.
Louise Glück is an American poet, born in 1943 in New York City to a Jewish parents of Russian and Hungarian descent. She wanted to be a writer from a very young age, and even in her early teens was sending poems and even books of poems off to publishers. As a teenager, she struggled with anorexia, and her illness and eventual cure was a significant turning point in her life. She credits her years in psychoanalysis not only with treating her disease, but with teaching her how to think.
Glück published her first book of poems in 1968, and many other books have followed. Glück has also spoken of years of crippling writer’s block. One critic has written: Glück’s “basic concerns” are “betrayal, mortality, love and the sense of loss that accompanies it… She is at heart the poet of a fallen world” (Don Bogen). Her language is “staunchly straightforward, remarkably close to the diction of ordinary speech….. [but with] a weight that is far from colloquial” (Dana Goodyear).
I think that assessment of Glück’s language is helpful in approaching this poem, “Vespers.” The poet describes something so ordinary—her struggle to grow tomato plants—and yet the stakes are high. The poem begins:
In your extended absence, you permit me
use of earth, anticipating
some return on investment. I must report
failure in my assignment, principally
regarding the tomato plants.
Clearly, the poem is addressed to God, and the speaker is giving an accounting. I am reminded of the parable in Matthew: “a man who was going on a journey called in his servants and entrusted his possessions to them. To one he gave five talents; to another, two; to a third, one—to each according to his ability. Then he went away” (Mt. 25:14-15). Like the servants in the parable, the speaker knows she has to do something with what God has given her.
Note the formal, distant language—“return on investment,” “report,” “assignment,” “principally,” all words which we would expect to see in business correspondence—not in an address to God. This gives a lightness, even a humor, to the subject: “I must report / failure in my assignment, principally / regarding the tomato plants.” But after this light beginning, the poem goes deeper. The speaker confesses her failure, but also points out to God all the circumstances beyond her control which played their part. If God wants her to grow tomato plants, why did he make it so hard? Why not provide her with dry days and warm nights, the weeks of summer others enjoy? 
The emotional distance of the beginning of the poem breaks down, and now we hear how deeply the speaker feels this failure. She was so aware of the beauty and promise of these plants, their “first shoots / like wings, tearing the soil,” and the disease that struck them was painful, even heart-breaking. And this heartbreak is a uniquely human experience: “I doubt / you have a heart, in our understanding of / that term.”  For God lives in eternity, and thus, Glück says in an interesting phrase, God is “immune to foreshadowing.”
So what are these tomato plants foreshadowing?  By the end of the poem, we know that this is not just about tomato plants: it’s about things dying before their time, the fear of failing in our responsibility towards the gifts and the living things entrusted to our care. “you may not know / how much terror we bear,” the speaker observes, to see that first diseased leaf, to see leaves falling from the trees before their time, “in August, in early darkness.” The poem ends “I am responsible / for these vines.” To be unable to protect, to bring to fruition, what we are responsible for—this is what is heart-breaking, terrifying. The title of the poem, “Vespers,” reinforces the prayer-dimension of this address to God, and also reminds us of evening, the coming of darkness.
This poem is a great example of Glück’s work—deceptively simple language, powerful impact. As one critic has observed, “No one writes about emotionally charged subjects with such sparse, cold, and nuanced language” (Jeffrey McDaniel). The poem is a prayer, and a difficult one. Glück prays here like Job, and asks questions the way Job does: “I would speak with the Almighty; I want to argue with God” (Job 13:3).



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