Linda Gregerson

Michigan Writers on the Air: Commentaries on Poetry

Linda Gregerson
January 2011

Hello again, Aaron. I want to take us this time only a little way down the road to the University of Michigan, to introduce our audience—those who don’t know her work already—to Linda Gregerson, who directs the creative writing program there.

You know, since I’m a poet, I’m reading other poets’ work as an ordinary reader, the way most people who love poetry do; and then I’m reading as a writer, looking for what I can steal from other writers.

What I want to steal from Gregerson’s poems is the way she can work both my brain and my emotions simultaneously, and almost equally. Either extreme is easier to do. I’ve read many poems that go for the quick emotional whammy where the brain’s pretty much disengaged—like when E.T. takes off into the sky at the end of that movie—oh dear, that dates me, doesn’t it?

And then there’s the poem that gets trapped in the cerebral cortex and never manages to find its way into the nervous system so I can feel anything. That kind of poem is mostly a clever play of words and ideas. So what do I mean by “equally” in Gregerson’s poems? Take this one as an example, that I’m going to read for you. The poet puts herself, and her mother, sort of, in the poem. Her mother’s responding to what happened on 9/11. And then there’s a response by someone from another country. The poem could have stayed in this world of argument and abstraction, but then it takes a sudden shift, to a raccoon.

And even when the raccoon appears, it’s described in scientific language—its name is didelphus virginiana—yet we also feel it as a real, breathing, furry mother. And who knows what the causes are, or how to properly respond to the losses on 9/11 or any other pain and loss? When the poem’s over, we still don’t know, but we’re somehow more human for having stayed with this poem. Okay, here’s the poem: (The mother speaks in italics—I hope you can hear them as I read).

SWEET

Linda,
said my mother when the buildings fell,

before, you understand, we knew a thing
about the reasons or the ways

and means,
while we were still dumbfounded, still

bereft of likely narratives, We cannot
continue to live in a world where we

have so much
and other people have so little.

Sweet, he said.
Your mother’s wrong but sweet, the world

has never self-corrected,
you Americans break my heart.

Our possum – she must be hungry or
she wouldn’t venture out in so

much daylight – has found
a way to maneuver on top of the snow.

Thin crust. Sometimes her foot breaks through.
The edge

of the woods for safety or
for safety’s hopeful lookalike. Di-

delphus, “double-wombed,” which is
to say, our one marsupial:

the shelter then
the early birth, then shelter perforce again.

Virginiana for the place. The place
for a queen

supposed to have her maidenhead.
He was clever.

He had moved among the powerful.
Our possum – possessed

of thirteen teats, or so
my book informs me, quite a ready-made

republic – guides
her blind and all-but-embryonic

young to their pouch
by licking a path from the birth canal.

Resourceful, no? Requiring
commendable limberness, as does

the part I’ve seen, the part
where she ferries the juveniles on her back.

Another pair of eyes above
her shoulder. Sweet. The place

construed as yet-to-be-written-upon-
by-us.

And many lost. As when
their numbers exceed the sources of milk

or when the weaker ones fall
by the wayside. There are

principles at work, no doubt:
beholding a world of harm, the mind

will apprehend some bringer-of-harm,
some cause, or course,

that might have been otherwise, had we possessed
the wit to see.

Or ruthlessness. Or what? Or heart.
My mother’s mistake, if that’s

the best the world-as-we’ve-made-it
can make of her, hasn’t

much altered with better advice. It’s
wholly premise, rather like the crusted snow.

Now if I hadn’t talked to you a bit before you heard that poem, you would have struggled to keep up with it, wouldn’t you? You need the talk ahead of time, or you need to re-read it, or re-hear it, to follow its moves. That’s what I mean by poetry that’s exercise for the mind as well as the emotions. When we can get them working together, we have us at our highest functioning, as humans.

Linda Gregerson has an M.F.A. from the Iowa Writers Workshop and a Ph.D. from Stanford. She’s a Renaissance scholar as well as a poet. She’s written four books of poems; the most recent is Magnetic North (2007) from Houghton Mifflin. Her work has won a Guggenheim Fellowship, three Pushcart Prizes, plus a bundle of other awards.

That poem I read has the real Linda in it, and the real mother. In a good interview with her on a blog called “How a Poem Happens” by Brian Brodeur, he asked Linda about a poet’s using real people and real experiences in a poem. I’m interested in this question—I’ve been asked the same thing—Here’s what Linda responds:

“If I introduce persons or circumstances in a poem that are meant to signal the speaker’s emotional or intellectual investment—if I say “my mother believes this,” or “my sister was harmed when she was a child,” [and so on]—I take it as a point of conscience to be telling the truth. One is making a particular claim on the reader’s attention in these instances; one is signaling that the stakes are personal, and high.”

This is the first time I’ve heard a poet be so clear about why we often insist on the truth of the poem outside the scope of the poem, you know—how we want to know that the stakes are high, that the speaker in the poem is deeply engaged in it.

In the second poem of Linda’s that I want to read for you, there’s a 15-year-old girl who appears to be perfect in her youth and beauty. Until we see what the others who have their eyes on her can’t see, what the poet tells us is there. It starts with a description of her hair.

PRODIGAL

Copper and ginger, the plentiful
mass of it bound, half loosed, and
bound again in lavish

disregard as though such heaping up
were a thing indifferent, surfeit from
the table of the gods, who do

not give a thought to fairness, no,
who throw their bounty in a single
lap. The chipped enamel – blue – on her nails.

The lashes sticky with sunlight. You would
swear she hadn’t a thought in her head
except for her buttermilk waffle and

its just proportion of jam. But while
she laughs and chews, half singing
with the lyrics on the radio, half

shrugging out of her bathrobe in the
kitchen warmth, she doesn’t quite
complete the last part, one of the

sleeves, as though, you’d swear, she
couldn’t be bothered, still covers
her arm. Which means you do not

see the cuts. Girls of an age –
fifteen for example – still bearing
the traces of when-they-were-

new, of when-the-breasts-had-not-
been-thought-of, when-the-troublesome-
cleft-was-smooth, are anchored

on a faultline, it’s a wonder they
survive at all. This ginger-haired
darling isn’t one of my own, if

own is ever the way to put it, but
I’ve known her since her heart could still
be seen at work beneath

the fontanelles. Her skin
was almost other-worldly, touch
so silken it seemed another kind

of sight, a subtler
boundary than obtains for all
the rest of us, though ordinary

mortals bear some remnant too,
consider the loved one’s fine-
grained inner arm. And so

it’s there, from wrist to
elbow, that she cuts. She takes
her scissors to that perfect page, she’s good,

she isn’t stupid, she can see that we
who are children of plenty have no
excuse for suffering we

should be ashamed and so she is
and so she has produced this many-
layered hieroglyphic, channels

raw, half-healed, reopened
before the healing gains momentum, she
has taken for her copy-text the very

cogs and wheels of time. And as for
her other body,
 says the plainsong
on the morning news, the hole

in the ozone, the fish in the sea,
you were thinking what exactly? You
were thinking a comfortable

breakfast would help? I think
I thought we’d deal with that tomorrow.
Then you’ll have to think again.

The speaker has known this girl all her life. That’s why it’s so painful for her and for us. And then she broadens the issue of vulnerability and pain to include the whole ecology—the poem calls it “her other body.”

How does Linda Gregerson do this? I ask as a writer. Okay, I go back and look at the transition: it’s here, at the end of the poem. The girl has taken as her copy-text—that is, the text she’s copying from—all of history! I’ll read that again.

she
has taken for her copy-text the very

cogs and wheels of time. And as for
her other body,
 says the plainsong
on the morning news, the hole

in the ozone, the fish in the sea,
you were thinking what exactly? You
were thinking a comfortable

breakfast would help? I think
I thought we’d deal with that tomorrow.
Then you’ll have to think again.

That is so intelligently hard-hitting. Anyone can move us with the picture of a young girl cutting herself. But to bring us all the way out into the larger world, how one mirrors the other, that subtly and that precisely—that’s a very good poet for you.