MARCH 4, 2013
IT SEEMS RIGHT that the titles of Linda Gregerson’s last three books, combined, take up just five words. Gregerson loves the pun-ish potential of language, the way the entangled accidents of time, circumstance, want, and will make meaning possible, and she frequently builds a poem around the unlikely marriages a single word makes. If the characteristic unit of much poetry is metaphor — the discovery of underlying likeness in seemingly unlike things — Gregerson is just as likely to turn that on its head, rhyming essentially unlike things based on surface likenesses. It’s a model of the ways in which she seems to love the world: not for what it hides but what it shows.
To get a sense of how this works, head back to Gregerson’s first two books, Fire in the Conservatory (1982) and The Woman Who Died in Her Sleep (1996). The latter introduces the form that still, even in its absence, defines her poetry, a jagged tercet with an extremely short second line. In numerous interviews, Gregerson has credited this form with the major breakthrough in her writing, and she may be right. At minimum, it coincided with a number of changes that allowed her to write the poems that make her so unique and so valuable. The most important of these is, I think, an openness to her own excitement, one that reminds me, more than any other poet, of William Carlos Williams, another writer who eventually staggered his poems across the page. Here are the first sentence from each of those first two books. First, from Fire in the Conservatory:
If faith is a tree that sorrow grows
and women, repentant or not, are swamps,
a man who comes for solace here
will be up to his knees and slow
(“Maudlin; or, the Magdalen’s Tears”)
And then, a full 14 years later, from The Woman Who Died in Her Sleep:
The body in health, the body in sickness,
its versatile logic till the least
of us must, willy-nilly, learn
(“The Bad Physician”)
You don’t need to sweat the forensics to recognize shared authorship here. The mind at work, revising and qualifying in graceful asides, hasn’t really changed. Both deploy unmistakable intelligence as engine rather than display. Both shift registers (“comes for solace” yielding “up to his knees,” “versatile logic” giving way to “willy-nilly”) without ever seeming at odds with the guiding disposition. And both, in their way, feel fleet, using the interruptions of line breaks and commas to emphasize the feeling of unfinished business just across the way. But they’re remarkably different, too.
The first sentence seems, well, swampy, at least by comparison. All the nouns are elemental — faith, tree, sorrow, women — and the verbs are elemental, too: the deep, enduring identities of be. There’s a background spiritualism, an echo of its time, that anchors the poem in a kind of latter-day Deep Imagism, a sense, in implication, that the goal of poetry is to arrive at the world behind the world, which, for many in American poetry, was exactly what it was. Even then, though, that’s not what Gregerson was after. The poem is in fact a critique of the religious painting it describes, but one that, for all its lively imagination, hasn’t yet imagined a way to shake off the weight that stood for substance at the time. It feels like she’s locked inside the frame.
One book and many years later, Gregerson’s writing feels clean, and her buoyant wit is controlling the tone as well as the ideas. Her writing, now, is playful, the materials more varied, the implications precise. Both sentences end with two words following an enjambment that cuts them off from an integral third (“slow / getting out,” “learn / to read”), but the effect is entirely different, partly because of the rhythm (in the first, stressed syllables both before and after the line break, slowing things down, and end-rhyme adding even more weight to “slow”; in the second, no rhyme and an unstressed syllable after the break), even more so because Gregerson has made the activity of her thinking into the driving force behind the language she uses, writing after clarity rather than for heft. No longer the solid ontology of a syllogism or heavy patterns of heavy words. Instead, Gregerson seems to be having fun.
Of course, I could be very wrong about that last bit. I’ve never met Gregerson, and the word “fun” never comes up in writing on her work. But for me, her poems persuasively communicate the gift of thinking in language and sound, the gift of an unstable, porous tradition like poetry, as well as the world that allows it, and that it allows us to consider. “Persuasive” for several reasons: one is that it simply seems honest; I suspect that Gregerson’s real breakthrough was figuring out how to write according to her own temperament, rather than the temperament of the time. “Persuasive,” too, because it doesn’t seem needy; a lot of supposedly fun poets remind me of bad comics, always asking for your approval before they’ve even finished the joke, but Gregerson instead meets her readers in a spirit of apparent generosity. And “persuasive,” finally, because Gregerson doesn’t go looking for comfort or absolution.
Go back to that opening sentence from “Bad Physician” above. The poem, like so many from that book, demonstrates a characteristic ability to register and reflect on bad news in a poem where curiosity outruns despair. Here she is after the news of a friend’s daughter’s death from cancer, a cancer whose symptoms included a state in which “her tongue // and then her hands / unlearned / their freedom, so newly // acquired”:
The beautiful cells dividing have
for us, but look
what a ravishing mind
and what a heart we’ve nursed
in its shade.
This is part of Gregerson’s remarkable maturity: an active and, in her case, recognizably Midwestern belief that rejecting the world doesn’t necessarily make the world better. There’s a sense in these poems that much of misfortune and injustice’s power comes from their ability to deny us the very pleasures she so effectively enacts, and that denying joy and beauty in the face of sorrow is another form of sentimentality.
The constellation above — unlearning, cancer’s proliferation, and the connection between those processes and the making of the mind — returns in her two most recent books. In Magnetic North’s “My Father Comes Back from the Grave,” for instance, she writes of cells that “have so enveloped the brain stem that // his legs forget their limberness.” And then, “The one / adaptable will-to-be-ever-unfolding that recklessly // weaned us from oblivion will / as recklessly have done // with us.” It seems worth noting, as it reflects both the way Gregerson’s wit operates — its attraction to unlikeliness — and the way she cherishes thought as both belonging and opposed to our oblivion.
There’s a balance to this, though. You can’t mistake your pleasure for an image of the world. That second book — the one where Gregerson becomes recognizably the poet she is today — is full of outrage, a cleansing, quickening anger, but the outrage doesn’t ever bog the poems down, and it often seems to come not so much from the numerous injustices and terrible accidents she records, as it does the willful blindness that surrounds them. A blindness to, for instance,
nature, who will
without system or explanation
havoc of little mistakes. A natural
mistake, the transient ill we define
as the normal
and trust to be inconsequent,
by nature’s own abundance soon absorbed.
She seems to be selecting these events — including all kinds of harm inflicted on children — to argue against the idea that the world is dependable or just. Which is not to say that the harm itself doesn’t bother her, just that it’s not really — not directly — why she writes.
In her latest book, The Selvage (2012), Gregerson has her latest version of Dido proclaim,
our sorry longings on
the rocks and trees, but then
the very daylight
seemed to say we’d built to scale.
(“Dido Refuses to Speak”)
“Built to scale.” Her writing invests in that ideal. She takes building to be another instance of culture, another achievement worth critiquing, yes, but celebrating, too. Gregerson is one of our very few successful, credible civic poets: writers who capture the intricate energy of a civilization writ large. Robert Pinsky’s another, and it may not be a coincidence that both apparently grew up in still-assimilating, white, working-class immigrant cultures (Jewish for Pinsky, Norwegian for Gregerson): they are people, that is, who grew up with their elders’ ambition to be “American,” as well as the confidence that they could. Neither seems blind to the country’s many failures, but both take seriously its ideals and its activity, not in terms of government but rather in its encompassing so much variety in something that is, imperfectly, all one — made and making constantly.
And Gregerson loves all kinds of making — art, machines, countries, bodies — the way their specialized language can encode aspiration, the fact of their achievement, the value they produce. Her style, with its ability to incorporate multiple registers and borrow effortlessly from earlier linguistic styles, its love of words unlikely and apt, its quick turns and dazzled, headlong connections, easily records the understory of invention that objects hold, as well as the inhuman context — the conditions humans most respond to and accommodate — imprinted in their design. Here she is in “Slater’s Measure” from The Selvage:
is human built, in stone.
Where pitch of roof meets
pitch of gabled dormer and, their
courses laid in twos
and threes, the tapered slates
describe a curving channel, there
the rain may rain, the wind
may blow, the people beneath
will still be warm. The beauty
both a by-blow and a
in all the arts of usefulness.
It’s worth acknowledging here that the roofs Gregerson describes are from the 19th century, and that Gregerson’s interest in manufacture alters as she approaches the present, where our power begins to appall. “This time,” she writes in “Father Mercy, Mother Tongue,” meaning now, long after the Dust Bowl, and considering a massive parking lot: “The earth this time will have to scrape us off.”
Contemporary technologies no longer inspire her curiosity, though they still appear. The creations she most likes in the present more often come from the realms of art and research science (or, in one case, mending older creations), at one remove from “usefulness.” This isn’t necessarily false: it’s harder to see ourselves in contemporary manufacture, with its corporate development, its “economies of scale” supplanting the possibility of building to scale, and its tendency to create, rather than meet, human needs. And it’s of course harder to ignore our still-increasing capacity to harm our earth and each other. But I wish for a Gregerson poem that shows the ways our things get made today, something as alert as her writing, in the current book, on a photograph of a city in the early 20th century with its “nascent / ob- // solescent urban tangle of technologies.” I can’t think of any poet better equipped to take it on, or to account for the fact that these differences are, in some cases, differences of degree, though sometimes cancerously so. (Notably, Pinsky is one of the few to have written well on the subject, but there’s still a lot more to be said.)
The Selvage is, I think, Gregerson’s most humble book. Not in its range: a vaulting curiosity still carries these poems. But there is a stronger undercurrent of gratitude or acceptance, highly qualified, contained, available only in context (and only because of that context), but there — and beautiful. It’s the gratitude of someone who is willing to register good news even when it’s not enough, of one who has already accepted that the world is full of bad news, too, and there’s no turning away from that, that the good news is partly just good fortune and always imperfect, but that our constructions also reflect our progress and achievement. It’s even there in the book’s title, which refers to a slim edge sewn onto fabric to keep it from unraveling (a humble thing but with its own rich human history, the French-sounding word in fact a muddying of the Middle English phrase “self edge”), as well as the ways the margins of a society shift, bind and hold. Here’s the first section of the title poem, which begins by recounting a story that takes place prior to the 2008 presidential election, and which also marks the change in the form of a greater continuity, a greater willingness to go on without interruption:
So door to door among the shotgun
shacks in Cullowhee and Waynesville in
our cleanest shirts and ma’am
and excuse me were all but second
nature now and this one woman comes
to the door she must have weighed
three hundred pounds Would you be
willing to tell us who you plan to vote
for we say and she turns around with
Everett who’re we voting for? The
black guy says Everett. The black guy
she says except that wasn’t the language
they used they used the word
we’ve all agreed to banish from even our
innermost thoughts, which is when
I knew he was going to win.
This is not at all the good news of mass media, of postracialism or easy absolution, and the difficult goodness of it will in fact only become apparent as we discover that Gregerson isn’t going to let it stand as is. The curtain pulls back to reveal the speaker, who had seemed to be addressing us, telling the story in context, in a room (she loves to drop us in the middle of things and loves just as much to help us find our way, including through end notes that generally help immensely.) One of the people in that room congratulates her on what she’s “amounted to considering where you’re from.” And then, not altogether bitter, Gregerson cracks, “One country, friends.” The poem then shifts again, moving into an image of geese taking turns on the edge of a flock, making almost literal the title’s reference to an edge that keeps the whole, and it ends with another image that suggests potential constrained by “taking shelter,” an idea that echoes the language following her “one country” declaration: “where […] they have to take us in.” And yet it marvels — that the edge of our society is expanding, even as it encompasses the worst in us, that shelter is available, that something so revisable, and so in need of revision, has hung together this long, much as it marvels at the geese who compose that unlikely final image.
Because Gregerson sees the world of our experience as an active, altering encounter between human and habitus, even as she imagines it to be larger and more complex than our critiques imply, there is room for sympathy in her poems, space to move beyond outrage without abandoning the premises that made such outrage true. In “Constitutional,” for instance, she uses the title’s pun to connect her grandfather’s morning walks and her father’s reverence for that lost world with, of all things, the ambitions of this country’s foundational document. If that sounds corny in the abstract, it’s subtle and important in the execution.
Gregerson has written critically about her father in the past, and as she shifts her relationship to him here, she enacts a recognition of the bounty both country and family have provided her, as well as the complexity of judging what happened in a context she couldn’t have mastered, at least not as she was constructed by that world. “We’re better at living on paper,” she writes, “some of us,” meaning herself, “better at blessings already / secured.” Those blessings are, she implies, the product of something remote from writing, even if the US Constitution, with its own vision of generations to come, happened on something like paper, too (and even if the paper is also a product of that culture of mastering labor.) “That part,” she notes, referring to the knobs on an electric fence, “at least, I had the wit / to find benign.” And then, with gentle self-mockery (and plenty of wit), she concludes, “let us honor the virtues of form. / And all the dead in company, if only / not to shame them.” Once again, Gregerson’s punning does serious work, “form” imperfectly and modestly yoking her work with theirs, “shame” implying both the embarrassment of having raised children, like the poet, who can’t do those things the elders valued, and the children’s inevitable critique of the past. Much later in the book she will describe a terrible bombing as one of many “failures of decency.” By then, I’m willing to take her at her word.
Work matters here. Work, both the labor and the result, is a gift, an essential part of our “little human pretext,” as she writes, half-jokingly, referring to kids. The fact that some labor is less apparently essential isn’t quite the point. In “Pajama Quotient” (the title refers to an informal measure of economic despair: the parents who come to their children’s school still wearing what they wore to bed), she offers a beautiful rendition of that work’s pleasures, a group of Russian mathematicians whose self-forgetful exchanges at the school bus stop in a university town were “no doubt of urgent consequence // for quantum fields. So filled with joy: / their permanent markers on the / brick.”
It’s worth pausing here to honor Gregerson’s own work in this passage — first, and most clearly, its own available joy, which shows up in everything from Gregerson’s lively iambs to the simple, straightforward, almost-exclamatory fragment “so filled with joy.” And second, the characteristic combination of explanatory hurry with intellectual complexity — that latter, in this case, showing itself in the ways this passage links up to the ideas and illusions of purpose (the professors for whom these subjects “were all our care,” an Adamic echo of dominion, as well as a reminder of parenting), permanence, and even being “American” that reference each other through the poem.
In poem after poem, Gregerson manages to pair narrative immediacy with intricate orchestration, creating a kind of writing that hustles us along even as it reaches back through complicated echoes of earlier moments in the poem. The enticements of her writing point in two directions: that seeming inspiration of ideas linking up carrying us down the page in time, and the simultaneous layers of words and ideas encouraging her readers to turn back and dig. Poems ask us to go and to stay, and Gregerson is unusually good at inviting readers to do both, as well as rewarding them for doing so. It is, among other things a mark of her trust in her readers, a trust that includes her belief that she can seduce us without doing any harm.
It’s also a mark of her remarkable ability to make imagination feel appropriate. Phrases like “the tidemark // of hair at his nape” or “the gills in their air-scorched frenzy” or “her face with its // sockets of grief” sit easily in the energy and variety of her style, and it seems, somehow to represent pleasure rather than display: a shared enjoyment in the way words and experiences can marry within an image of the world. The same goes for her borrowings from various styles of speech. Though Gregerson’s voice is unmistakable, even when she’s trying to write as someone else, that voice’s capacity for affectionate irony lets in echoes of all kinds of speech. Part magpie, part mockingbird, she gathers the varied ways cultures reinvent the language in phrase like “until / you’ve thrown your one allotted life / away” and “the map // of blessed second chances writ in tasseled / corn”; or “When I’m / allowed to run the world you’ll / have to get a license just to take the course on parenting and // everyone / will fail it and good riddance we’ll die out”: her voice is enlarged by such company, such reminders of meaning in other registers, and they, too, fit, eddying where her imagination flows.
Here, as in her previous books, that imagination frequently takes her to other works of art, both contemporary and ancient. There are retellings of classical mythology, responses to a series of fresco paintings, encounters with a turn-of-the-century photographer’s work, a limning of Roman sarcophagus, a meditation on a 16th century female poet. Contemporary poetry is clogged with this kind of thing, and it’s usually insultingly dull: self-indulgence in the guise of selflessness, an act of sharing something because, the finished poem in its lassitude suggests, we need a poem from this person even when she or he had nothing much to say. So it’s worth asking why Gregerson’s works.
Her rich and varied background can’t hurt: her gift for research (a word that is strangely absent from our conversations about writing poems), the fact that Gregerson is such an inspired scholar of these works; her training in theater (Gregerson worked as an actress for a time), which seems to manifest itself in her tendency to treat every poem as an action, one that must feel motivated, exercising some sort of dramatic urgency in its limbs; and her (according to the poems, at least) early, humbled lessons in the value of work, which she deploys not only in admiration but in a feel for culture as a complex, necessary human activity, one that takes place in response to unlikeness and unlikeliness. But more than any of these, it comes, I think, from a quality of mind — that curiosity again, that punning interest in the way accidents, met with intentions, can turn into something crowded with meaning, and the way her very words honor that (and honor the words others use, too). Here she is again on the slate work from “Slater’s Measure”:
Where wooden pegs
will fasten the slate to the
batting they use bill
and helve to bore the hole.
Six shillings eightpence per annum per pit
(the slaters of course don’t own the land)
with an extra
shilling and sixpence to the
measurer. The rents
conveyed at an annual feast. When
frosts have failed and night
after night the stone must be
watered, no wages at all. Who
pays for the feast my sources do not tell me.
In the book’s final poem — the one with the “failures of decency” line — Gregerson writes, having already taken on not only a bombing in Lebanon but also Schindler’s List and the death of her father, having said that in the case of her and her family’s actions in the face of his death “Meaning well / was not enough,” “I have come to think / the argument-by-likeness makes // a simpler point.” It must be partly a statement about her writing. And then, speaking of a cut lemon about to go bad, the moment when “looking // can still be an act of praise.” The line recalls, without religion’s ability to repurpose all we do and lose, Milton’s observations about his own blindness and his assertion in the voice of God that “They also serve who only stand and wait.” It is, I think, the element that makes this book unique among Gregerson’s works, even as it remains so connected to those: “As though // the world had given us / a second chance,” she concludes. Within the actual second chance of writing, she stands on both sides of that “as though,” alert to illusion, yes, but also marveling at the reality that illusion helps to compose.