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, wome...read more