It's a somewhat sorrowful beginning, so I apologize I couldn't start the year with a more sprightly piece. There is, however, beauty in the sadness, so much in fact, that the speaker asks the question directly, "How much beauty / can a person bear?"
You'll hear that word a lot here. Speaker. It might seem like the writer and the speaker are interchangeable, but I assure you they are not. It's one of the first lessons I learned in my graduate school workshops. The person sitting across from you may have written the poem, but you can't make assumptions. In some cases, of course, they are the same person, but to maintain some consistency for the sake of discussion, the speaker will be speaking and the writer will be writing.
Though the season is never explicit, it appears to be winter (mostly due to the somber tone), but then there is a reference to the sun maintaining "steady warmth" and papayas, a summer fruit, so it remains ambiguous. I like that element about the poem, actually, as it gives you more to imagine. The woman in the first stanza could be bundled in a coat and scarf, her hands shivering as she inspects the lettuce. Or the children could be shirtless, bounding near the fountain to cool down on a hot day while the stalls behind them burst with fruits and vegetables of the season. So, read on and see how you imagine things.
By Louise Gluck
From The Triumph of Achilles (1980)
It is a good thing,
in the marketplace
the old woman trying to decide
among the lettuces,
impartial, weighing the heads,
the outer leaves, even
sniffing them to catch
a scent of earth
of which, on one head,
some trace remains—not
the substance but
she prefers it to
the other, more
estranged heads, it
being freshest: nodding briskly at the vendor's wife,
she makes this preference known,
an old woman, yet
vigorous in judgment.
The circle of the world—
in its midst, a dog
sits at the edge of the fountain.
The children playing there,
coming and going from the village,
pause to greet him, the impulsive
loving interest in play,
in the little village of sticks
adorned with blue fragments of pottery;
they squat beside the dog
who stretches in the hot dust:
arrows of sunlight
dance around him.
Now, in the field beyond,
some great event is ending.
In twos and threes, boldly
swinging their shirts,
the athletes stroll away, scattering
red and blue, blue and dazzling purple
over the plain ground,
over the trivial surface.
Lord, who gave me
my solitude, I watch
the sun descending:
in the marketplace
the stalls empty, the remaining children
bicker at the fountain—
But even at night, when it can't be seen,
the flame of the sun
still heats the pavements.
That's why, on earth,
so much life's sprung up,
because the sun maintains
steady warmth at its periphery.
Does this suggest your meaning:
that the game resumes,
in the dust beneath
the infant god of the fountain;
there is nothing fixed,
there is no assurance of death—
I take my basket to the brazen market,
to the gathering place.
I ask you, how much beauty
can a person bear? It is
heavier than ugliness, even the burden
of emptiness is nothing beside it.
Crates of eggs, papaya, sacks of yellow lemons—
I am not a strong woman. It isn't easy
to want so much, to walk
with such a heavy basket, either
bent reed, or willow.
At first, this is a poem about a farmers' market. A woman is inspecting the lettuce, touching the leaves, and choosing the globe she wants to place in her basket. There is an exchange with the vendor and a tactile, physical experience, a connection to the earth, but the speaker exists mostly as an observer. By the second and third sections, we enter the speakers mind and hear her voice for the first time. In the fourth and final section, she presents the poem's central question: "How much beauty can a person bear?"
There is a strong sense of reconciling abundance with loss and solitude, recognizing beauty in the moment, yet realizing there "is nothing fixed," and that life is temporary.
Although the poem could be set in winter or summer, I'm leaning towards the cooler months since we're among them now. Winter, of course, is citrus season. Bright, refreshing flavors arrive to perk up cold nights and gloomy days, which I'm always grateful for. Meyer lemons, in particular, are one of my favorites. To reflect the nuances of the speaker's emotion, I wanted opposites to be at play. Tender butter lettuce cradles a heavy, fried egg, its soft yellow yolk spilling into the plate. Lemon-zested croutons provide a crunch and fresh chives are scattered at the last moment to brighten every bite.
WINTER MARKET SALAD // Butter lettuce, lemon croutons, chives, fried egg
2 large slices whole wheat baguette
1 Meyer lemon
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Butter lettuce, enough for 2 large portions
Fresh chives, minced
2 large eggs
Cover the bottom of a sauté pan with a thin layer of extra-virgin olive oil. Tear the bread into small pieces and add to the sauté pan. On low heat, stir the bread so each piece is sufficiently soaked with oil and sprinkle with sea salt. Zest half of the lemon over the pan and stir to combine. Cook, stirring occasionally, until golden brown and the oil has absorbed, about 15 minutes.
While the croutons are cooking, make the vinaigrette. In a bowl, whisk the juice of 1/2 lemon, salt, pepper and mustard. Slowly whisk in olive oil until the dressing is thick and emulsified.
When all the components are prepared, heat a tab of butter in the same sauté pan you used to make the croutons. Over low heat, crack two eggs and cook for 3-5 minutes, until just cooked through. Season with pepper.
On two plates, compose the butter lettuce and drizzle with dressing (you may have dressing leftover). Scatter some croutons, then place the egg on top of the lettuce and garnish with chives.