“Stubborn in matters of joy,” the voice that speaks in Linda Gregerson’s newest book of poems gives up neither craft nor a sense of the moment. The result is a steady brilliance we’ve come to expect from one of the great living poets writing in English. Canopy is her seventh collection, and what’s new here is an especially elemental quality, accentuated by the way the lines blur, using less punctuation than is typical of this poet’s work. The book begins in couplets, with a conversation between the seasons and a deciduous tree. Gregerson, who is also a scholar of the Renaissance, turns the poem in the final couplet on an etymology. “De + cidere, say the maples, has another face. / It also means decide.” What’s to be decided? Whether or not human beings will descend further into collapse. Whether or not we’ll act—the solutions are there, but not yet the coordinated will—in time to stave off total ecological ruin. It’s a staggering question for staggering times, and Gregerson is a poet of conscience. The next poem in the book is “Love Poem,” and it’s addressed, like another later on, to “my very best darling,” maybe a child, maybe the human future generally. Both poems, in any case, are examples of Gregerson’s skill at creating a direct, non-disjunctive language for the communal, a voice that can speak from the intimacy of the self but outward, toward the world. A voice in that ephemeral symbiosis we call dialogue, like a tree speaking back to the seasons.
And though the poet is “here to praise,” that praise emerges in tandem with—maybe only narrowly avoids being totally crushed by—all that there is to grieve. The poet, who grew up in small town Illinois with close ties to her extended family of Wisconsin farmers, asks at one point, “What is it about the likes of us?” Painfully aware of the “moment before the moment when nothing / is ever the same again,” the moment, say, “the leg / of my uncle’s overalls got caught in the baler pick-up” or “the moment you decided”—there’s that deciduousness again—“to tell your lover / the truth,” or “before the acid splashed” or “the driver got distracted by his GPS.” She harnesses lamentation, implicit and explicit, to her signature tercets—the lines indented substantially—but also varies this widely, giving us quatrains, couplets, and other more organic, shapeshifting stanzas. The poet is unafraid of the one-word line—“wonder,” for instance, or even “get”—directly preceded or followed by long, loping Whitmanic banners of line. This fastidious liberality highlights syntax. And what, the poet’s work seems to ask, is syntax for? Gregerson’s poems are not transcripts of a voice, though they are wonderful to read aloud. Rather they are transcripts of a mind pushing and pulling at the structure of language, and the poet understands that structure—which is to say, the order of the words—as a way to regulate, to speed up a thought when necessary, to slow it down, or to modulate a sudden change in pitch. To make possible, in other words, a language of the mind, a feeling language that represents, with the ferocity and clarity of John Donne, the very feeling of thought, and the dance of it.
JESSE NATHAN: You mentioned to me the other day that there are periods in which you aren’t really writing poems. And you also talked about tending to need the stanzaic shape fairly clarified before the writing can really get going. I’m curious, how do poems tend to emerge for you, these days? Does that process vary pretty wildly from poem to poem? How—or when in the process—do you know what you’re writing “about”?
LINDA GREGERSON: Once I learned how to write at all, rather than merely floundering, I found that a poem can start virtually anywhere: with a fragment of overheard speech, a headline in the local newspaper, the sight of a child being carried on her father’s shoulders, a fragment of guilt I’ve tried for years to bury. Sometimes I long to capture something I’ve encountered in that gorgeous, ephemeral present-tense of the theater—the turn of an actor’s head, an ingenious use of stage prop, etc. And like so many writers, I find that photographs can be powerful incitements.
For the most part, I try to hold off on the “about” part for as long as I can. Attending to syntax and stanza form is one of the ways I try to do that. No one needs to hear me ruminate (or worse, hold forth) on something I already think I know. In one of her very early poems, Brenda Hillman wrote something like “the jetty of my ignorance” (I’m sure I’m getting that wrong: I seem to remember a walkway of some sort and a large body of water). Jetty, or footbridge, or causeway, the point is this: a certain kind of ignorance is good, even necessary, for the making of a poem. I’m not talking about willful mystification or atmospherics, God forbid, but rather about the momentum of good-faith wanting-to-discover-something. Deferring the “about” part is rather like deferring the main clause of a sentence: it stores up energy.
All of us carry around enormous repositories of grief and longing and wonder and memory, and these will always make their way into poems. Frontal attack, I’ve found, is rarely the way to unlock them.
But while we’re on (or only beginning to drift away from) the question of prompts-to-poetry, I should say that the most profound and durable source of wonder for me is my “thrownness” into the biological world. I am perpetually astonished by the mystery of living in a body that, whatever its limitations, is so much smarter than I am. A body that handles more things, is infinitely more complex than what I think of as my “self,” a body that does things I could not possibly do on purpose, and which I inhabit as a kind of guest. And, of course, this body is the smallest fragment of the great, ingenious, endlessly resourceful natural world. So perforce and by extension, I’m enraptured by what I understand of the biological sciences and biological research. I once wrote a praise poem to C. elegans, the marvelous little nematode that has played a starring role in so many laboratory breakthroughs. I’m currently writing, or trying to write, a poem about slime mold.
I guess what moves me most about scientific inquiry is the gap between what we have by way of cognitive equipment, and what it is that our gaze is directed toward. This of course has been discussed in religious terms as well, the distance between divine transcendence and limited human apprehension, but I don’t think we need to go there to encounter that incredible disproportion in scale. Poetry, in its own way, is after the ineffable, or the difficult-to-grasp-by-other-means, that which does not readily lend itself to discursive explanation. I don’t think poetry is antithetical to reasoned thought. But I do think the experience of standing before the world in wonder and wanting to come to what mindfulness we can is a very important stance. In my experience, it’s our common stance, common to poets and scientists alike. I have been the beneficiary of instruction, or let’s just call it patient explanation, from people who are exquisitely trained in neurophysiological research, my late sister chief among them. The magic of that research is the combination of aptitudes it requires: capacities for abstract inquiry, tolerance of provisional thinking, and a daunting array of practical skills. The scientist needs to posit a hypothesis in order to formulate her question, and then to design an experiment that might help her refine the question, and she has to be prepared to jettison that hypothesis if her experimental results tell her it’s insufficient. You have to be invested in order to pursue the question, in other words, but you also have to be prepared to be corrected. I think that’s also a moral stance. You can’t be not-committed, you must be strongly committed and yet prepared to be corrected.