PERHAPS ONE OF THE MOST VALUABLE SERVICES poetry can provide is to help recultivate the art of attention. It distracts us from our quotidian distractions, apprenticing us to the craft of concentration and demanding that we drink of the world deeply and consciously. Few contemporary American poets offer so rigorous a curriculum in this kind of mindfulness as Linda Gregerson. Her Prodigal: New and Selected Poems, 1976–2014 — made up of 50 poems from five previous books preceded by 10 new pieces — wanders far; it gives voice to Juno and records the experience of door-to-door political canvassing, complicates the narrative of motherhood, and embodies photographic subjects. By weaving these various thematic streams together, Gregerson aims to scrutinize the historical present, making the private lyric public — and, more importantly, relevant.
This collection is timely in more ways than one. These days, when the erosive effects of ephemeral headlines and clickbait are more evident than ever, Gregerson’s lifetime achievement stands as a redoubtable example of living intentionally and attentively. The collection also arrives at an important moment in Gregerson’s career. As the Caroline Walker Bynum Distinguished University Professor of English Language and Literature at the University of Michigan, Gregerson has long been regarded as an important Renaissance scholar and a major American poet. Her honors are extensive, ranging from the Kingsley Tufts and American Academy of Arts and Letters Awards, to grants and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endownment for the Arts. And 2015 marked another major milestone in her career: she was appointed to the Academy of American Poets’s Board of Chancellors. The poems in this collection serve as a fine introduction for readers still unfamiliar with this contemporary master’s work.
“Sostenuto,” the collection’s first poem, means “sustained” in Italian and denotes a passage of music that is played in a “sustained or prolonged manner.” This concept perhaps best illustrates Gregerson’s signature approach to syntax and lineation, as well as the pacing of her narratives:
in borrowed air,
in borrowed bits of heat, in costly
cubic feet of steerage we’re
held note, as when the choir would seem
to be more
than human breath could manage.
If the language of Gregerson’s poems could be played on the piano, the player would have to press down on the sustain pedal in order to render musically the length of attention paid to every word. In the previous passage, the word “here,” separated from the rest of its sentence by a stanza break and indentation, hangs, both syntactically and conceptually, “in borrowed air.” All of Gregerson’s poems are both meticulously formal and immediate; it is precisely because she breaks her lines with such precision that we hear her words as if they were uttered in real time. Gregerson orchestrates voice and persona with maximal care, asking readers to connect to that voice in the moment and insisting that they remember what is said.
In an interview with Memorious, Gregerson says, “Poetry requires both structure, or stricture, and unfolding possibility.” We sense this tension between structure and possibility in all of Gregerson’s work, but especially in the 10 most recent poems and in those gathered from her last two collections, The Selvage (2012) and Magnetic North (2008). In one of the new poems, “Font,” we see a speaker reconciling the contradictions of bearing witness over the internet; the speaker marvels at the possibilities made available by new technology, while the poem’s form enacts both her distance from and fixation on the scene she observes:
The download comes with
pictures too. Of workmen, wrenches,
bits of shattered
PVC, and one for whom
the whole of it — commotion, cameras,
IV needle in the scalp —
is not more strange
than ordinary daylight.
Prodigal is an intimate collection, though it is free of confessional overshares. Readers familiar with Gregerson’s previous collections would readily identify the author’s hand in the new poems, even without attribution. Indeed, Prodigal reveals no great overhaul, but rather a gradual perfection of style. The poems of her first book, Fire in the Conservatory (1982), tend toward left alignment, blockier stanzas, less breathy line breaks. And yet, as we leap from the new poems to selections from Fire, we come to appreciate the consistency of the poet’s concerns. The new poem “And Sometimes,” ends:
a single path but many,
the forms of devotion, I mean.
The part that makes us human more
than we’d thought.
And this is followed by an excerpt from the early “De Arte Honeste Amandi,” which also reckons with the elusive, conflicting sense of what makes us what we are: “That was when the war was on, the one we felt good / to hate.”
The rest of the collection celebrates Gregerson’s fine metalwork of form — the chandeliered stanzas, hanging delicately from their titular ceilings. The poems move at the speed at which ideas surface in the act of noticing. Take, for instance, the opening of “Bleedthrough,” which first appeared in The Woman Who Died in Her Sleep (1996):
As when, in bright daylight, she closes
but doesn’t turn her face away,
or — this is more like it — closes her eyes
to take the brightness in
In the half-moment it takes for us to move from “closes” to “her eyes,” we might imagine the act of the eye closing; between “closes her eyes” and “in order,” we follow the speaker committing to her own perception of the action, and refining ours. In this way, many of the poems seem to distill the world into moments, asking the reader to gaze upon an action, a word, a face, or an artwork with such intensity that the poems’ subjects often take on symbolic resonance even as they remain firmly rooted in verisimilitude.
This deliberateness of exposition should not suggest that Prodigal lacks energy; the poems captivate even as they challenge, holding us rapt with voices fit for the stage, delivered with dramatic immediacy. Occasionally, Gregerson also addresses the reader (“Do you like / me, reader? / Do you like me sorry now?”), not so much to engage us in direct conversation as to call our attention to the fourth wall. We are reminded that these poems are an act of art allowed to live beyond the poet’s own life, contained and curated by our own internal and individual voices. Through Gregerson’s script, we become a mother, a god, a witness, and, most importantly, human, again and again, for perhaps — and this might be the collection’s argument — we prodigals always need to be reminded to come home to our humanity.
Emilia Phillips is the author of two poetry collections from the University of Akron Press, Signaletics (2013) and Groundspeed (2016), and three chapbooks, most recently Beneath the Ice Fish Like Souls Look Alike (Bull City Press, 2015).