Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
It is terrible to survive
buried in the dark earth.
- One minute we're gazing up at a pine tree, and the next minute we're buried alive like some hapless victim in a horror movie? Glück sure is jerking us around a lot.
- We certainly agree that it's terrible to be buried alive. But isn't that an awfully human sentiment? If the speaker is a wild iris, being buried in the dark earth could be a good thing. As a perennial plant, the wild iris reseeds itself each year, and the seed has to be buried underground in order to grow.
- Still, through personification, the poet can give a plant consciousness. Evidently, Louise Glück is using this technique to explain something about human experience. But we're not sure what. Yet.
Then it was over: that which you fear, being
a soul and unable
to speak, ending abruptly, […]
- The phrase "being / a soul and unable / to speak" could be interpreted simply as a description of death. If so, it's certainly a scary vision. When combined with the previous lines about buried consciousness, it evokes the panic of being buried alive and unable to cry for help.
- At least the poet doesn't leave us there for long. In fact, the horror movie only lasts for the duration of the white space between stanzas four and five; then the experience is "over." Phew, that's a relief.
- Still, the speaker seems eager to explain what was going on during that time, linking the idea of "consciousness" to the state of "being a soul." Often, the word "soul" is used in the context of life after death. So is the speaker going to heaven, or what?
- And why the emphasis on speech? Naturally, being buried alive would be horrible for any number of reasons, but lines 11 through 13 ("that which you fear") seem to suggest that the inability to "speak" is the worst thing about being buried alive.
- What makes it so bad? Because you're a soul—you're a human being—but you have no voice. Just imagine that for a second, and you'll see what she's getting at.
[…] the stiff earth
bending a little. And what I took to be
birds darting in low shrubs.
- So right after the horrifying buried-alive business, the speaker recalls the earth "bending a little." Now that's more like it.
- During a long dry winter, buried alive underground, a wild iris bulb is in stasis, a period of inactivity. But when spring arrives, the plant begins to sprout, pushing its way up through the soil. These lines of the poem likely refer to this process.
- The word "bending," however, seems odd in this context. When's the last time you heard someone say that the earth was bending? We talk about the earth shaking or trembling during an earthquake. And we might refer to the earth (soil) shifting when a mole burrows through it or a wild iris bulb begins to sprout.
- But earth bending? We're more likely to refer to our minds bending than the earth bending. And maybe that's the whole point; the slightly surrealist image of the earth bending signals a mind-bending experience of some sort.
- Plus, the earth bending signals that it's relenting a bit. Before, it had all the power, what with burying the iris alive and all. But now the iris can exert a little power back on the earth. Oh, how the tables have turned.
- To be fair, at this point, the speaker's perspective still seems to be underground. Yet the very next reference is to birds. How could someone underground see birds? Well, the speaker admits to not being sure ("what I took to be birds"). Maybe the speaker can hear the rustling of the birds' wings as they dart in and out of the "low shrubs," or maybe the birds are chirping. Remember the noises of the pine branches overhead?
- In any event, there's nothing particularly mind-bending about birds in the bushes, is there? Well, no, not if they're just ordinary birds.
- But in poetry, as we know, even the most ordinary thing can morph unexpectedly into something extraordinary. For example, in Christian art, there's a long tradition of birds symbolizing the human soul.
- So maybe it's no coincidence that the speaker referred to the "soul" just a couple of lines earlier.