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The Triumph of Achilles by Louise Gluck (Ecco: $13.50; 60 pp.)

February 23, 1986|Holly Prado | Prado's novel "Gardens" has just been published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. and

When poets talk about "voice," they mean that inexplicable part of poetry that echoes as the poet's individual mark. A writer can learn technique but never voice.

Louise Gluck's poems succeed because she has an unmistakable voice that resonates and brings into our contemporary world the old notion that poetry and the visionary are intertwined. The tone of her work is eerie, philosophical, questioning. Her poems aren't simply mystical ramblings. Far from it. They're sternly well-crafted pieces. But they carry the voice of a poet who sees, within herself, beyond the ordinary and is able to offer powerful insights, insights not to be quickly interpreted.

Gluck is particularly drawn to an exploration of the masculine--men with women, men in their own myths. She writes of Christ, or Achilles ("he was a man already dead, a victim/ of the part that loved,/ the part that was mortal"), of David and of Moses. A series of love poems, "Marathon," is perhaps the most personal work in the book, but these poems, too, include the "other," the lover, in the sense of great drama that has been played over and over, forever. It's hard to say, of any of the poems, "This is about . . ." because nothing here is easily labeled. The writing presents, rather, an image and its variations, its rich possibilities. Gluck retells and re-sees what human beings have been saying and seeing for a long time. She refreshes the pat stories, the cliched views of myth--Greek and biblical, as well as our modern attitudes about family and relationships.

One of the most arresting poems is "Winter Morning," in which Gluck meditates on the Christ myth: "Today, when I woke up, I asked myself/ why did Christ die? Who knows/ the meaning of such questions?" She doesn't, within the poem, find a final meaning, but places herself in the question, lives in Christ's time again--"In untrustworthy springtime/ he was seen moving/ among us like one of us"--and manages to involve the reader in the secrets of both mortality and blind faith. Then she concludes, beautifully, keeping the mystery of death and resurrection but renewing it, too: "And suddenly it is summer, all puzzling fruit and light."

The voice in Gluck's poems reassures us that poetry isn't and never has been explanatory at heart, but can become a wonder of spirit and symbol, touching love, passion, loss and suffering without romanticizing those large subjects. "The Triumph of Achilles"--just announced as the recipient of the National Book Critics Circle poetry award--risks the criticism of being "difficult" in order to send us into our own darkened questions, perhaps to discover our own voices there.

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