Language is replete with words covering the full spectrum of human feelings and emotions. However, there are many aspects to our internal struggles that lie beyond the reach of vocabulary. The art of poetry can oftentimes go much further than prosaic language in its articulation of complex human feelings. In this paper, I will discuss how this can be seen to effect in a poem by Louise Gluck, published in her 1968 book Firstborn, entitled “Hesitate to Call”.
Like many of the poems in Louise Gluck’s Firstborn, “Hesitate to Call” is a self-reflective poem that poignantly dramatizes the inner contradictions and feelings of the speaker. This inner conflict of the poem registers early on in the title of the poem with the verbs, “hesitate” and “to call.” This act (or non-act) of “hesitation” by the speaker is provoked by certain memories that re-call instances of anguish endured by what might be called, an aborted love. The verb “hesitation” is a verb that connotes a contradiction in feeling. There is an impetus to telephone this lost lover as well as a simultaneous recoiling of this same feeling. The speaker is divided before the poem starts: pulled on each end by competing emotions. The poem reads:
Lived to see
Me aside. That fought
Like netted fish inside me. Saw you throbbing
In my syrups. Saw you sleep. And lived to see
That all that all flushed down
The refuse. Done?
It lives in me.
You live in me. Malignant.
Love, you ever want me, don't.
In the poem, the first four lines contain four instances of the verb “to see”. This act of “seeing” is an internal re-calling of moments of anguish. Additionally, these vexing moments of re-call, complicate the object of hesitation in the title; is the hesitation physical, or literal; is it a hesitation to call a lover, to call to remembrance trauma of the past, or to call or label someone a lover, from his/her past? Two instances of the verb “to see” are presented in its past-tense form, “saw.” Both sentences where the occur start with this verb, and play with the double meaning of “saw” in its other use as a verb to cut away, slowly and violently — as in, to cut away these images from memory.
Returning to the body of the poem, the overall size of the poem is brief. This may imply that a larger more fuller poem had been curtailed, aborted, or “throw[n] aside,” “flushed down / The refuse.” Furthermore, this image of an “abortion” can be read as an extended metaphor throughout the poem: “Like netted fish inside me”, “Saw you throbbing/ In my syrups,” “flushed down / the refuse,” or “It lives in me.”
However, the verb “to abort” also has another sense; it can imply a failed attempt: as though the casting away into the “refuse” was not the end as the one word sentence implies, “Done?” The word “refuse” in the noun form is object denoting garbage, but the very, action sense, implies defiance, a “refusal” to be cast away. The collections title, “Firstborn,” might imply a successful entrance into the world after a fight to live — amidst a defiant refusal to be aborted.