MAY 29, 2019
BECAUSE POETRY IS so attuned to death, it is common practice to look back at a poet’s work when he or she has died and consider how they confronted their mortality. When Mary Oliver died, “The Summer Day” gained an almost divine incandescence, and when W. S. Merwin died in March, many returned to his poem “For the Anniversary of My Death.” Because poetry, in the simplest terms, interrogates what it means to exist, it necessarily asks what it means to die. “Poetry begins with elegy,” wrote Donald Hall.
For Linda Gregg, who passed away at the age of 76 in March, confronting death was merely an extension of the problems she found in confronting life. “I am content to live in silence / with the dead,” she wrote in one of her later poems, “Hearing the Gods.” Silence, in all its varying forms, was of utmost concern to Gregg: silence as the unseen or the invisible, as the unsaid or unsayable. This silence isn’t an empty void or lack of vitality but something akin to the “sound of the gods / in the sound of a grasshopper” or “the sliding of the dead / in a lizard’s tail.” Gregg didn’t resign herself to the incommunicability between living and dead but rather lived in awe of it.
Though her career was prolific, in recent years Gregg’s work seems to have faded into obscurity. Many factors have contributed to this growing anonymity: she lived abroad for a large portion of her early adulthood, never settling into any literary scene, and in later life she described herself as living reclusively in her New York City apartment. Her first collection wasn’t released until she was nearly 40 (a useful anecdote to remember when idolizing young writers), her second book, Alma, which J. D. McClatchy hailed as “austere, intense, afflicted,” is out of print and difficult to acquire, and she never released a complete collection of poems. But she did receive numerous accolades in her lifetime, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Whiting Award, and the highest honors for poets from organizations like the Poetry Society of America, Poets & Writers, and PEN America. Gregg was also a transformative teacher, mentoring writers such as poet laureate Tracy K. Smith. Yet perhaps most potent of all has been the integration of her work into the cult-veneration of another poet, Jack Gilbert.
I first encountered Gregg, like many, through Gilbert’s poetry. I discovered Gilbert when I was an undergraduate, and it seemed to me then that everything he touched flourished into myth. Romance was central to his poetry, and a distinctively lucid and elegiac style gave each of his relationships a profound, striking solemnity. Among my friends in the English department, his lovers were as legendary as Beatrice or the Dark Lady. There was Gilbert and Gianna Gelmetti, his first love; Gilbert and Michiko Nogami, a sculptor who died tragically young; and, of course, Gilbert and Gregg, with whom he lived for many years in Greece and Denmark.
It was part of the lore surrounding this latter relationship that Gregg was also a writer, but it took me years to read Gregg’s poetry. This is one of the great shames of the timeworn link between Gilbert and Gregg — it conflates them and in many ways subsumes Gregg in Gilbert’s hagiography. There is no denying the huge insights that can be gained by considering the two in conjunction. Their lives were inexorably tied, even after their years-long romance ended. Gregg dedicated both her first and third collections to him and maintained a close relationship with Gilbert through his death in 2012, acting as his primary caretaker when he suffered from dementia in his final years. They both lived enigmatic, often impoverished, lives outside of the literary establishment and were each concerned with travel, desire, and the inner spirit in their work. Volumes could be written about their poetic dialogue: between Gregg’s Eurydice and Gilbert’s Orpheus, between their conceptions of fidelity and infidelity. It is lamentable that Gregg’s career may only be given due consideration on its own grounds after her death.
The word that seems to appear most frequently when describing Gregg’s poetry is “spare.” In this sense, her work more closely resembles that of Louise Glück than Gilbert. Take her astonishing poem “The War,” which depicts with devastating clarity a group of men tormenting a scorpion:
The men gathered around, their open pocket knives
held shoulder high. The man picked up the scorpion
by the tail and put it on his friend who yelped,
jumping. The men laughed. The scorpion fell.
Another man picked it up and threw it lightly
against the wall. The scorpion fell and kept trying …
The lines are pure image; there isn’t a single metaphor in the entire poem. The reader experiences only the men’s bald violence, the scorpion’s suffering. But the most remarkable moment occurs in the final lines, when Gregg writes, “Somebody else picked up the scorpion and I told John / I was going. We went outside where there was nothing.” There could hardly be a starker denouement. A lesser poet might have had ended with a revelatory image, something formidable and evocative. But the choice of absence magnifies the brutality of the scene and suggests that the poet’s role is not to look for what is immediately extraordinary but to see the world unadulterated, to turn your eye even to silence and nothingness.
Gregg frequently said that seeing, especially seeing what one might not otherwise make an effort to see, was essential to her work. In the essay “The Art of Finding,” she recounts being astonished “in [her] teaching to find how many poets are nearly blind to the physical world.” She had students keep journals logging things they saw each day, and she discovered that all her students typically saw the world “artistically, deliberately, or not at all.” But for Gregg, poetry depended on a mode of seeing so incorporated into daily life that it became passive. This was the only way to truly be attuned to the material world. Once her students realized this, she recalls, “Their journals filled up with lovely things like, ‘the mirror with nothing reflected in it.’” Here, seeing par excellence requires an eye on the profoundly mundane, on the apoetical world. A mirror with nothing in it is just one more iteration of “outside where there was nothing.”
Another facet of this perception was an aversion to excess. As McClatchy wrote, Gregg was “a poet of essentials.” Seeing clearly meant identifying the rudiments of any given thing, whether it was the images undergirding a scene or the emotions and motives at play in a relationship. In “Heavy With Things and Flesh,” Gregg paints a rural scene with intensely concentrated details:
Wind in the heat. A woman
in her farmhouse talking
to someone outside. Along with
hobbled goats in the field.
At eight in the evening
a man in his heavy wooden boat
is repairing the holes in
the yellow net piled around him.
I came here exhausted in my heart.
The stringent descriptions generate a taut energy. We can sense the weight of the scene, the spiritual fatigue embodied in the physical stillness. Yet there is wonder hovering over each image, awe at the heaviness of being.
Despite Gregg’s spartan eye, her poetry was distinctly romantic, always oriented toward “what is found out about the heart and the spirit.” In a tribute to Gregg on Literary Hub, Timothy Liu tells a story, possibly apocryphal, of a reading where Stanley Kunitz introduced Gregg and Glück. In his opening, Kunitz described Glück’s work as “haunted by cemeteries,” while Gregg’s was “haunted by cemeteries … that were flowering.” Gregg’s attention to the inner life was informed by affliction as much as by blessing, but she was fundamentally awake to beauty.
Gregg often pointed to her youth in Marin County, surrounded by uninhabited mountains and tall trees, as a creative wellspring. At an early age, she became fascinated with the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. She explained at a 2015 talk at the Palm Beach Poetry Festival that Hopkins’s invocation in “The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo” to “give beauty back” became her creed. Hopkins provided her with a “special way of knowing the earth and experiencing God,” and as she grew up, she developed a devotion to “nature, the sacred, love, and poetry.”
Gregg has an almost ecstatic eye for the natural world: “Everything that is touched by light / loves the light. We the stubborn-as-grass, / we who reel at the taste of sap,” she writes in “Surrounded by Sheep and Low Ground.” At times, her study of love intersects with this study of nature, but Gregg’s own use of the word “love” is a bit of a misnomer. Her most striking poems, as McClatchy observed in his review of Alma, are more concerned with desire than with love, with the violence and lust intertwined with longing. Her first collection, Too Bright to See, centers on the dissolution of her relationship with Gilbert, and later collections like Chosen by the Lion contemplate her affair with, eventual marriage to, and divorce from John Brentlinger.
The poems in these collections are anguished, exultant, and damning. When I first read Too Bright to See, I felt slightly embarrassed by my adulation of Gilbert, whom she so incisively lays bare. Take these lines from “The Defeated”:
Waking up with you there awake
in the kitchen. It was like being alive twice.
I’ll try to tell you better when I am stronger.
What does the moth think when the skin begins to split?
Is the air an astonishing pain? I keep seeing the arms
bent. The legs smashed up against the breasts,
with her sex showing.
The poem oscillates from poignant nostalgia to a disturbing rumination on sexualized mutilation, intensifying the implications of the enigmatic line, “It was like being alive twice” (which also serves as the book’s epigraph). Tucked in between these lines is the rapturous image of a moth rent by hands or by flame, further complicating the stanza with a mysterious violence. Or consider the tamer closing to “Eurydice,” perhaps the most lyrical addition to the long line of feminist revisions of the Greek myth:
Now you whistle, putting together
the new words, learning the songs
to tell the others how far you traveled for me.
Singing of my desire to live. […]
I did not cry as much in the darkness
as I will when we part in the dimness,
near the opening which is the way in for you
and was the way out for me, my love.
The poem is devastating in a far different way than “The Defeated.” Eurydice’s voice is somber, almost demurely restrained, like the speaker in Li Bai’s “The River Merchant’s Wife.” But there is a tragic foreknowledge, an understanding that Eurydice will be left behind, that reveals the hypocrisies of the Orpheus figure. “I know you will not take me back,” she writes. “Will take me almost to the world, / but not out to house, color, leaves.” His efforts to retrieve her are not heroic but selfish, his songs are not charms but appropriations of her misery. By losing her, he gains a story to “tell the others” at the expense of her suffering. “Eurydice” indicts not only masculinity but also sentimental or exploitative art.
Sight is always central to such examinations, as Gregg strives to perceive desire as a whole, neither purely love and pleasure nor lust and betrayal. In “Chosen by the Lion,” she writes, “I am the one chosen by the lion at sundown / […] Yanked back to bushes and torn open […] / Taken as meat. Devoured as spirit by spirit / […] for me now there is only faith.” Desire is at once ravishing and sacred, corporeal and ethereal. Violence is desire’s secret, Gregg implies, and in particular violence perpetrated against women. And yet somewhere in that cruelty is a seed of faith, the possibility of something more beautiful, more like love.
There is a moment early in Too Bright to See when Gregg articulates the poetics that would define her career. Or, more in line with her own lexicon, she makes it visible. In “There She Is,” a speaker encounters a “specter” whose “hands are eaten off.” The haunting image of a handless, bloodied woman evokes Lavinia of Titus Andronicus. But while the Shakespearean character was violated by Tamora’s sons, in Gregg’s scene the woman is the agent of her own harm, eating herself to avoid the insidious “other pain” of consciousness. At first, the speaker resists confronting the mutilated woman, yearning for forgetfulness, but ultimately realizes,
I am supposed to look. I am not supposed
to turn away. I am supposed to see each detail
and all expression gone. My God, I think,
if paradise is to be here
it will have to include her.
In these final lines, Gregg enunciates her doctrine: the poet “is supposed to look” not just at the beautiful but also at the awful. It’s a strange vision of paradise, a beauty that encompasses ugliness — not pleasant but rather a state of pure consciousness. In paradise, you are wholly awake to the world, to the real. You can see it.