The Timely Anxiety of Linda Gregerson’s Prodigal

Dizzyingly ambitious and fiercely beautiful, her work forces readers to interrogate their own vulnerabilities and failings.

Claremont Graduate University / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

Linda Gregerson’s new volume of selected poems, Prodigal, gathers work from nearly 40 years of a career as remarkable as any in contemporary American poetry. The pleasures of such a retrospective are the pleasures of long acquaintance, and with Gregerson, those pleasures are both sensual and intellectual. The poems’ gorgeousness of sound and image is checked by a ferocious, sometimes acerbic, always morally demanding intelligence, at once plangent and analytic. Her characteristic poems make use of diverse materials—the story of a current event, a recounting of literary or historical antecedent, the emotional ballast of private life—yoked together through associative leap and juxtaposition. Gregerson’s interests range from Saint Augustine to the genome; she is one of only a few poets working in America today with a genuine interest in science. Rather than strict meter or rhyme, it’s argument—what she calls “the longing-for-shapeliness”—that gives her poems their form.

Gregerson was born in 1950 in Elgin, Illinois, and the landscape of the Midwest and the lives of the farming communities that formed it are constant presences in her work. After graduating from Oberlin College, she spent three years in Herbert Blau’s experimental theater group, Kraken, an experience to which she credits both her desire to accommodate multiple voices in her poems and her eagerness to capture a sense of improvisation—of being “at risk in the present tense”—on the page. After earning an MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she did her doctoral work at Stanford. From 1982 to 1987 she was a staff poetry editor at The Atlantic. She is a respected scholar of Renaissance literature, and her poems are steeped in the sensibility of the great 16th and 17th-century English poets, taking from them both a remarkably elastic sense of the English sentence and a conception of the lyric poem as at once a mode of intimacy and “a form of public speaking” able to address civic concerns.

Gregerson’s first book, Fire in the Conservatory, appeared in 1982; her second, breakthrough collection, The Woman Who Died in Her Sleep, came in 1996. In the interim, she had two children, and she discovered in parenting the dominant theme of her subsequent poetic work. “I knew nothing before those children were in the world to tell me what really matters,” Gregerson has said. From her second collection on, a sense of the vulnerability of children becomes one of her dominant interpretive frames, coloring all of her thinking. “I’d sometimes feel,” she says in “Target,” “with the child in my arms, / as I’ve felt looking down on the live / third rail.”

Her poems are haunted by victimized children. In “Target,” a meditation on Euripedes’s Medea leads to the pronouncement that children “just make a bigger / target / for the anger of the gods.” This is terrifyingly instantiated by the voice with which the poem ends, a Serbian sniper who shoots children to see “something so fantastic on the mother’s face.” In “For the Taking,” she recounts childhood abuse her sister suffered at the hands of a relative; “Pass Over” and “Her Argument for the Existence of God” feature brutally abused children; “Bunting” begins with television footage of Kurdish children killed by a chemical attack.

“The world can be measured by how it treats its children,” Gregerson has said in interviews. “It makes me wild with grief.” But much of the incisiveness, even the severity of Gregerson’s intelligence lies in the speed with which she turns on her own sentiment, especially in her suspicion of the way sympathy is often manufactured and always subject to manipulation. The scene of murdered children in “Bunting” is followed by a condemnation of “what brought them here”—here meaning both the classroom in which they were killed and the living room in which Gregerson and her daughter, Emma, watch the evening news. They were brought, she says,

                                                            by lunatic cal-
                                    or malevolence, which launched the gas,

                        by money, which made it
                                                and made as well
                                    the sumptuous ground rhythm

                        that supplants the children on the screen,
                                                lures Emma
                                   full front now and wants her to want

                        with the whole heart of childhood what
                                    will buy.

To what meaningful use can outrage and grief be put, the poem asks, when both are so tainted by the same capitalist enterprise that enables atrocity, with the “sumptuous ground rhythm” of the news-report soundtrack cutting seamlessly to commercial? In “Font,” one of the best of the 10 new poems included in Prodigal, an online news story about a newborn child rescued from a sewage pipe in China—the mother attempted to flush it down the toilet—is accompanied by an advertisement for a company that offers to “solve my underground drainage woes.” What is the point of the news, except “to pull / the cords of sentiment // and commerce,” Gregerson asks, putting horror and grief to mercantile ends.

One might expect the poem to end here, on this irreproachable and fairly familiar note. Instead, as often happens when these poems reach possible endings, another voice enters the poem. This is Gregerson’s second daughter, Megan, whose disability and medical struggles have been the subject of other poems. “Don’t make the poem / too sad,” she says,

                        thinking at first (we both of us
                                                think) the child
                                    must be a girl or otherwise

                        damaged, thus (this part she doesn’t
                                                say) like her.

The poem’s sudden turn brings suffering home, the passing sentiment orchestrated by for-profit news gaining purchase in the figure of Gregerson’s daughter, whom Gregerson calls “the ground // of all I hope and fear for in the world.” “Font” continues by taking on, just for a moment, the point of view of the rescued infant. For the child, Gregerson writes, “the whole of it—commotion, cameras, / IV needle in the scalp— / is not more strange // than ordinary daylight.” The poem ends as the poet implicates herself in the scene, taking a place among the child’s caregivers, offering it, in the poem’s final line, “a nearly // human hand.”

Since The Woman Who Died in Her Sleep, Gregerson has used a distinctive form for the majority of her poems, a three-line stanza in which two longer lines enclose one very short one. Her rhythms are nearly always iambic, and her phrases often fall into five-beat units that are spread over several lines, line breaks sometimes falling in the middle of a word. Even as they take unconventional shapes, then, the poems are haunted by the cadence of the traditional English line. Gregerson’s line breaks help to parse her extremely complicated syntax, and in many of the poems they create a powerful forward momentum. In interviews, she’s spoken of turning to this form as a way of allowing “air” into the poems, of making them “porous somehow.”

While the poems dip occasionally into contemporary American demotic—from teenage exclamation (“Mom in orbit!”) to California’s “luminous / vernacular”—more often Gregerson’s diction hovers somewhat above everyday speech, often reclaiming words that have fallen out of favor. On a run-down farm, ferns growing over abandoned farm machinery are said to  “euphemize an un- / regenerate / combine”; a cancer medication is an “elixir.” Gregerson frequently interleaves her lines with fragments of other texts—phrases from Shakespeare, Biblical verses—sometimes exactly quoted and sometimes modified.

“Lately, I’ve taken to,” from her most recent collection of new poems, The Selvage, shows Gregerson at her most virtuosic, linking wildly disparate materials as a way of leaping from the domestic to the political. The poem begins again with the news: The poet, who has grown hard of hearing, is sure she’s misheard a terrifying figure about ozone loss above the arctic. (Climate change and environmental degradation loom ever larger in Gregerson’s poems.) But no: It seems,

                        the stratospheric ice
                                               does something
                       with the sunlight that’s inim-
                                    ical. Unfriendly

                        in the long run to the cold.
                                                So cold
                       against itself. Which we
                                    have done.

In the next stanza, the tipping-point mechanics of arctic ice melt are linked—“if // I may compare great things to / small,” the poet apologizes—to the autoimmune disorder destroying the speaker’s hearing. And this is linked in turn to Anders Behring Breivik’s 2012 terrorist attack in Norway, which he claimed was motivated by the need to defend the national body from foreign threat. (Breivik’s attack on the Norwegian Workers’ Youth League, Gregerson reminds us in a note, was motivated by his belief that the party was “too friendly to immigrants.”) “Obsession / at the barricades,” Gregerson writes, “which when / it goes wrong in the body // we label as autoimmune.”

“We badly need an intelligent political poetry in America,” Gregerson declared in 1984, and the poems in this volume have done much to supply it. If T.S. Eliot, quoting the French poet Stéphane Mallarmé, believed the work of poetry was “to purify the language of the tribe,” Gregerson has long contended the opposite. Her language resists any notion of purity, as her roving sympathy calls into question any homogeneous construal of social bodies. In “Good News,” Gregerson calls ideology a “frictionless // story that washes us clean. / Words dis- / encumbered of contingency, // of history, of doubt.”

Gregerson’s language, to the contrary, insists on reminding us of the history through which it has passed. Her poems, with their mixtures of voices, registers, and texts, their wide-ranging juxtapositions, their “difficult conversions of scale,” emphasize impurity and heterogeneity. They work not to suppress but to worry doubt, ever conscious both of the human propensity to harm and of our obligation to implicate ourselves in the suffering of others. They provide us, that is to say, with an example we very much need. “See,” Gregerson writes in “Bicameral,” “the world you have to live in is / the world that you have made.”