Philosophers in the Cradle: Marigold and Rose, by Louise Glück, review


“We look at the world once, in childhood. The rest is memory”, this is how Louise Glück closes her poem “Nostos”. The same feeling guides Marigold and Rosethe 2020 Nobel Laureate’s latest book and the poet’s first to be considered “fiction”.

Marigold and Rose are babies – toddler twins in their first year of life. They also stand in for Glück’s young granddaughters, not to mention the author herself, in this piercing book in miniature that makes it seem like the former American Poet Laureate is tapping into her own supernatural memories to explore who she is.

“I want the experience to mean something,” Glück said, seemingly even though that experience lies in a cot leafing through an AZ primer, where we meet Marigold, the younger twin. She’s a writer – or would be if she knew real words and wasn’t a baby. Rose, on the other hand, is a social being. But we have inner lives, thought Rose.

Marigold is eager to be done with infancy and thirsts for knowledge, frustrated that the twins can’t ask questions. “They had to take what they could pick up, like pigeons in the public park.” Things happen to them, problematic things, like their grandmother going to heaven, and worse:

It was also around this time that Mom started talking about going back to work. She told Father she wanted to help with the household. If you asked the twins (no one did), they would say that Mother contributed by being Mother. Father explained that for Mother it was different because mothers were not paid and apparently people who were paid contributed and people who were not paid were of no help. The twins saw clearly.

Marigold in particular is watching everything. “I’ll put that in my book, thought Marigold, when things haven’t gone well for her,” writes Glück, who has amassed 13 volumes of poetry and two collections of essays doing just that since her first book, first born, was released in 1968. Both babies are plagued with insecurities, which seems unfair and yet perfectly logical considering how difficult infants seem to find life. Each sister worries that the other is better: more perfect, more resourceful.

This slim book, which alternates between the third-person perspectives of Marigold and Rose, may be light on the action, ending as it does on babies’ first birthdays, but it’s heavy on ideas. The twins’ musings encompass everything from the futility of existence to the purpose of memory, perennial themes for writers from Elizabeth Strout to Annie Ernaux:

It seemed to Marigold that you remembered things because they had changed. You didn’t need to remember what was right in front of you. And the twins were still too small to be much behind. But Marigold wanted to be prepared for change, which meant you had to learn to remember before you had to remember.

As any parent who has tried to write letters for their young child knows, a baby’s voice is hard to hear. In lesser hands marigold and rose might feel cutesy. But Glück, at 79, hasn’t won most of the major literary prizes to spoil it all. This is a moving, captivating book. As soon as I was done, I read it again.

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