I read this poem a couple days ago, new on Slate, by Louise Gluck, a former U.S. Poet Laureate. I love her stuff, but this one’s stayed with me a while, more so than usual. I read it again today and thought I’d share it. (Here’s the link.) It’s more than Gluck’s usual deeply probing poems, written in her straightforward, unfussy style. It also poses, I think, a real challenge to our society’s focus on “the self.” Here’s what I mean:
The unnamed friend in the poem seems to live a happy existence. With each new love of his, he fully inhabits that person’s mind, learning to think, act and feel exactly as she would. But the flip-side (not necessarily a down-side, based on my reading) is that he loses any ability to develop his own personality, his own sense of self. When he moves on to another lover, he simply becomes someone else.
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that he’s somehow “fake” or disingenious; not at all. He’s just mastered the skill we all more or less sharpen when we love someone, romanticly, or as friends, family, or otherwise. He’s gone beyond empathy, beyond sympathy even, and reached an utterly un-self-conscious kind of understanding. A real transcending of the self, and all the crap that comes with it — pride, temerity, caution, selfishness. He no longer views the person he’s with objectively either, and thinks entirely as she would. To his lover, this could make him unreliable of course, being of no use when she asks for honest advice. But he is happy, always discovering something new.
One challenge this kind of person poses is that he leaves no trace on his peers. When his former girlfriend’s brag to their new boyfriends about this old flame, Gluck writes, the new boyfriends “tolerate this, they even smile. / … they know this man doesn’t exist.” He embodies no qualities that his peers can look up to (or be jealous of), that they really admire about him. That is besides, of course, the happiness he’s learned to acquire through constant transformation.
Would you want to be him? Or, if you’re less enthused, do you even like him?
Just a thought.