Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Linda Gregg's First Two Books

I came to Linda Gregg’s poetry after reading Jack Gilbert’s work and learning of their marriage. Then I read the superlative comments on her work by some of my favorite poets: Joseph Brodsky, W.S. Merwin, Czeslaw Milosz. I was almost tingling with excitement as I began to read her first two collections: Too Bright To See and Alma, which were printed in a single volume by Knopf in 2002. There were poems along the way, and a few of them, that I found quite interesting, even profound and moving. But there were others that stumbled, tripped on an imprecision here and there, seeming inconsistent with the praise and the deep, underlying insights, so that I wondered if I was being pedantic. But there was a vagueness even about some of those successful poems, as if her ability lie not in precision, but approximating a feeling. An example is something like “Summer in a Small Town.” It’s a small beauty that touches on an amazing subtlety of real love, a love that so completely answers the heart’s needs and desires, so outstrips articulation, it leaves the heart empty. The conclusion reinterprets the beginning where her lovers have left her and in that leaving, have renewed her, so she is “happy alone.”

But then I read a poem like “Not Singing.” The first real issue I had with it was the line “the more it rains the less flowers there are.” The “less” grated on my grammatical nerves. But I’m a poet and willing to forgive such things if the music and insights of a poem really take me in. Also, poets shouldn’t be slaves to grammar. If they need to break a rule, they should, especially when it serves a better end than following rules. There’s even a figure of speech for such things: synesis. That’s when you break a grammatical rule in order to make sense of a statement which correct grammar cannot carry. I looked and looked but found no justification for Gregg’s departure. So I moved on, trying to give her obvious intelligence the benefit of the doubt. Then only two lines later she writes, “Like the branches thrown down before the little donkey feet/of Christ on the way to glory.” Suddenly I had the image of Christ as a satyr with little donkey feet. Again I stopped to consider if she really wanted this image in my head. Nothing in the rest of the poem or other poems indicated she would want to create such an image. Then why the truncated phrasing that led to it? I could only conclude that it was sloppiness, an imprecision that might be more subtly entrenched in the other poems. And to adopt Dickinson’s definition of poetry (my favorite definition), I realized that none of the other poems made me feel as if the top of my head were taken off.

From then on I found myself less tolerant of other imprecisions: line breaks that forced me to reread a sentence to make sense of it, or splitting up a phrasal verb as in “turn on one foot around with my arms lifted,” rather than simply saying “turn around.” In this second example, the phrasal split doesn’t add anything to the poem and, in fact, makes the line feel chopped up, like bits of thought that have been cut up and put in the wrong order. She also uses periods excessively, resulting in sentence fragments. In the same poem with the split phrasal verb, she has the sentence “Between tobacco fields empty in February/except for the wooden stakes and the wires.” This sentence – actually a fragment – modifies the sentence that precedes it but is punctuated to make two separate sentences. She does this often, and it is a common technique among modern poets. In deft hands it works, sounds right, it's a way of controling rhythm. But Gregg’s use of it constantly makes me feel interrupted. I searched for the reason behind such a tactic, but neither her subject matter nor her rhythms necessitate it. She may be trying to convey a sense of hesitancy and doubt in the psyche of someone wounded by divorce, since much of her poetry is about that. But so many of the poems embrace the fragmentation and, in fact, assert the fragmentation as life itself, that the strategy is belied by the themes.

I had every intention of rereading these two collections for the poems I did like, “Goethe’s Death Mask,” “With a Blessing Rather than Love Said Nietzsche,” “Lovers,” “Alma in the Woods,” and “Different Not Less,” but feel in the end glad to put the book down and be done with it. I feel the whole is diminished by the flawed details. There is an imprecision in the poems that leaves me lukewarm, even when they are obviously deeply felt.

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