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Spring 2014

A Sharply Worded Silence

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Let me tell you something, said the old woman.
We were sitting, facing each other,
in the park at ___, a city famous for its wooden toys.

At the time, I had run away from a sad love affair,
and as a kind of penance or self punishment, I was working
at a factory, carving by hand the tiny hands and feet.

The park was my consolation, particularly in the quiet hours
after sunset, when it was often abandoned,
But on this evening, when I entered what was called the Contessa’s Garden,
I saw that someone had preceded me. It strikes me now
I could have gone ahead, but I had been
set on this destination; all day I had been thinking of the cherry trees
with which the glade was planted, whose time of blossoming had nearly ended.

We sat in silence. Dusk was falling,
and with it came a feeling of enclosure
as in a train cabin.

When I was young, she said, I liked walking the garden path at twilight
and if the path was long enough I would see the moon rise.
That was for me the great pleasure: not sex, not food, not worldly amusement.
I preferred the moon’s rising, and sometimes I would hear,
at the same moment, the sublime notes of the final ensemble
of The Marriage of Figaro. Where did the music come from?
I never knew.

Because it is the nature of garden paths
to be circular, each night, after my wanderings,
I would find myself at my front door, staring at it,
barely able to make out, in darkness, the glittering knob.

It was, she said, a great discovery, albeit my real life.

But certain nights, she said, the moon was barely visible through the clouds
and the music never started. A night of pure discouragement.
And still the next night I would begin again, and often all would be well.

I could think of nothing to say. This story, so pointless as I write it out,
was in fact interrupted at every stage with trance-like pauses
and prolonged intermissions, so that by this time night had started.

Ah the capacious night, the night
so eager to accommodate strange perceptions. I felt that some important secret
was about to be entrusted to me, as a torch is passed
from one hand to another in a relay.

My sincere apologies, she said.
I had mistaken you for one of my friends.
And she gestured toward the statues we sat among,
heroic men, self-sacrificing saintly women
holding granite babies to their breasts.
Not changeable, she said, like human beings.

I gave up on them, she said.
But I never lost my taste for circular voyages.
Correct me if I’m wrong.

Above our heads, the cherry blossoms had begun
to loosen in the night sky, or maybe the stars were drifting,
drifting and falling apart, and where they landed
new worlds would form.

Soon afterward I returned to my native city
and was reunited with my former lover.
And yet increasingly my mind returned to this incident,
studying it from all perspectives, each year more intensely convinced,
despite the absence of evidence, that it contained some secret.
I concluded finally that whatever message there might have been
was not contained in speech—so, I realized, my mother used to speak to me,
her sharply worded silences cautioning me and chastizing me—

and it seemed to me I had not only returned to my lover
but was now returning to the Contessa’s Garden
in which the cherry trees were still blooming
like a pilgrim seeking expiation and forgiveness,

so I assumed there would be, at some point,
a door with a glittering knob,
but when this would happen and where I had no idea.

—Louise Glück

Louise Gluck teaches at Yale and lives in Cambridge. In the winter of 2014 she was the Mohr Visiting Poet at Stanford University.

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