All of It Singing
by Linda Gregg
Graywolf Press, 2008
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When a reviewer bubbled that Linda Gregg's poems were "luscious," I knew what he
meant: the romantic woundedness, the stoicism and mythic air, the terra cotta simplicity, the mannered quietism
embodied in shards of participial fragments. There was also the impulse toward utterance released from any
obligation to circumspection. For example, in "The Chorus Speaks Her Words as She Dances," we hear
such apparently artless outbursts as this: "I adore you. I take you seriously, even if I am alone in
this," and in "The Beckett Kit," the poet proclaims, "Ah world, I love you with all my
heart," to which it would be churlish to add the exclamation point, though one is added in the mind
nonetheless. The last poet to accomplish this feat, so resistant to the knowing protocols of contemporary poetry, was Randall Jarrell. It wasn't that Jarrell had a penchant for cheesy lines; rather it was how well the cheesy lines from life bled through the usually protective shell of art and so seemed impervious to art's protection. A male poet I admire once told me that he would never write the word "heart" in a poem. I dare say there are many who would march to the same drum. So Gregg's poems, with their spectrum strung between imploring and withstanding, invite partisanship at the moment the voice sounds.
Most of the poet's work from five previous volumes finds its way into
All of It Singing,
as well as important new poems. While the issue of the voice, like Ariadne's thread,
leads readers again and again to something additional the poet wishes to saysomething about where she's
coming from and how hard or soft, or again something about the creation of presence, that most kicked around of
essential qualitieswhat I have found most interesting in Gregg's poems is their relation to the life of
poetry as such and to myth, and believe me when I say that I'm aware that they can be construed as the same.
Now, a life in poetry is no mean thing. Today the expectation is that the poet's reduced fate leaves her compact
with the life of academia, so that the rewards of the poetic life are likewise consistent with the rewards of
academic life. Were it not for the academic bailout, it's doubtful I would have thought the life of poetry an
issue. But it also breeds, as everybody and his chimp knows, the faults that belong to academe. Be that as it
may, the life of the poet in the life of poetry is a distinct thing, university or no. Linda Gregg has shown one
plausibleand commendable, if austereform of what that life might be like in her career of nearly four
decades. She has built a body of work that is formally rigorous and thematically recursive, and her work has
remained for me as compelling today as when I first read it back in 1976. That year I was editing an anthology of
new American poets, and Joseph Brodsky called me up to lay down the law: "David, if you want your anthology
to be a book, it will have to have some poems by Linda Gregg in it." Already Gregg had attained a certain
celebrity without having published a book, owing to a rumor that, returning from Greece where she lived with Jack
Gilbert, she had submitted her first seven poems to the likes of The Atlantic, Antaeus, The
New Yorker, The Nation, and so forth, and all had been accepted. For her fans, this winning luster
has not diminished in the course of five collections, and as her base has grown, so has her official recognition,
culminating in the PEN/Volker award for 2007.
Which is not to say her poems are not without their detractors. Some have mentioned a certain portentous and
emotionally monotonous air surrounding the lyrics. Also to be heard have been the usual objections that accompany
first-person free verse: sentimentality, über-subjectivity, and the ongoing attributions that may be laid at
the altar of self: self-sacrifice, loneliness, a late willingness toward anonymity, paradoxically combined with
the exceptionalism of destiny. Then there is the matter of the poet’s stylistic manner: all those
conspicuous sentence fragments and participial phrases, a method used extensively by Gilbert beginning his first
book Views of Jeopardy (1960). I concede a measure of truth to all these charges, but let's get
them out of the way. To become distracted by such things in the presence of a talent this original is equivalent
to having been thrown off by Berryman's syntax or the scything sweeps of Lowell's assertiveness. It is to miss an
experience of the devotion of the other, indeed, to the Other. That there are solemn, even sacerdotal aspects to
Gregg's poems is not to be denied, and these aspects, which are inclinationsat once psychological, emotional,
and religiousfind their source in Greek sensibility.
The mystery that we understand as metamorphosis comes down to the mystery of deciding how we encounter and bear
discontinuity. It is the mystery that lies between Ovid and Rilke in their competing accounts of the myth of
Orpheus. That myth first and foremost centers not merely on the bard's ability to conjure with his song, but
on Eurydice's agreement (or reluctance) to allow herself to be turned back from death. It must be said at once
that in the classical, "pious" version of this myth, Eurydice is given by Pluto to the poet as a
consequence of the power of his song which, in Milton's phrase, "drew iron tears down Pluto's cheek."
Moreover, in this version, she has not been dead long enough to turn her allegiance toward the mere materials out
of which she is composed, and yet death, which renders her inertial, also allows her to harken toward a living,
intrusive, mission-bound Orpheus. In Rilke's version, however, the cream has turned, and like any of the shades
in Hades, she is more like a wisp of memory than a willful revenant. She is disoriented, easily led, clueless.
This Eurydice adds a note of poignance to Orpheus' song because he must have been forced to undertake a private
risk-benefit analysis in order to decide whether such a person was worth the extravagant audacity of his lyric at
the epicenter of his harrowing.
The figure of Eurydice is central to Gregg's poetry because it includes the problematic of the return from death,
which also includes the journey to the apogee of being, the border with its constantly pesky opposite, non-being;
the decision to return, contra naturam toward life; the harnessing of death to love; the ne plus
ultra of sacrifice, and other such questions worthy of mythic figures. Linda Gregg's Eurydice is a figure
poised on the verge of metamorphosis but complicit with her return. She (somehow) manages it again and again, so
that self-sacrifice becomes a mode of control. Here it might be instructive to remember Sylvia Plath's "I
have done it again":
I was bred for slaughter, like the other
animals. To suffer exactly at the center
where there are no clues, except pleasure.
("Whole and Without Blessing")
All of her best poems raise similar questions. For example, what does it mean for one to be a
sacrifice? What is at stake, and what has she sacrificed in order to become herself? With what gods presiding?
In Gregg's poems, not to make a sacrifice but to be one ups the ante because you are the thing you desireor
rather, because you want to sacrifice what you are in order to become who you are as an image. Thus self-sacrifice
yields an excellent benefit: you gain a new identity. The opposite is also true:
What if the world is taken from me?
If there is no recognition? My words unheard?
("What If the World Stays Always Far Off")
Reading the poems in chronological succession, one feels that, except for several forays into
failed romancethemselves psychologically and spiritually resonantand a few that meet and largely skirt
the violence of politics, the succession of poems makes up a series of emanations from an original big bang. And
what a bang it was. Consider the incandescence of "The Girl I Call Alma" from her first book,
Too Bright to See:
The girl I call Alma who is so white
is good, isn't she? Even though she does not speak,
you can tell by her distress that she is
just like the breach and the sea, isn't she?
The sleeve-pulling urgency of these questions, these bits of reality-testing, hop up the poem to
the point that its discontinuities and non-sequiturs become blurred out, leaving the crash that seems to have been
the point all along:
And the white curtain, and the secret smile
are just her way with lies, aren't they?
And the we are not alone, ever.
And that everything is backwards
And that inside the no is the yes. Isn't it?
If Too Bright to See
announced a poet observing alarming quiddities from the middle of her life, her second book,
sees from the sidelines: the poet has become her token, has incarnated her own projection. Never was Blake's
dictum,"they became what they beheld," truer than in the difference between these books.
Gregg has not followed colloquial fashions, but aimed at a more neutral expressiveness, one capable of classically
restrained (and yet passionate) utterance. How else, if passion, when all is dead and done, is your thing? Such
an instrument is also capable of consorting with silence. Mediating the distance between that passionate utterance
and the silence that is the context of any utterance is the figure of Alma, Gregg's avatar doll, double, and
household goddess, a wounded but somehow transfigured female spirit whose shifting identity makes her nevertheless
Gregg's foil through many of her early poems. This displaced subjectivity has its rewards. It takes the spotlight
off the first person; it redistributes the ego's mission to a flatter, more mysterious bearer, one that comes with
a whole different set of premises. We say, a doll? Is she serious? And she isthat is, the poet is serious
enough to create a parallel world in which the scars, amputations, outrages, and worship opportunities become staged
enactments, allowing expression that threatens to become too emotionally burdensome, otherwise:
When I go into the garden, there she is.
The specter holds up her arms to show
that her hands are eaten off.
She is silent because of the agony.
There is blood on her face.
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.
("There She Is")
This is an address to a doll that takes place in a world where the gods too have shrunk to
dolls, and she is their votaress. Originally appearing in Antaeus, this is one of the key poems
that helped establish Gregg as a poet to watch. It had it all: pathos, the sway of authority, the feel of
mystery, American passion and violence held in place by classical and modernist stanchions.
Taking seriously the contrast in figure-ground relationships is what enables Gregg to nail the early poems in
Too Bright to See
to the back wall of the reader's brain, where the work is weirdly reminiscent of Heidegger's discussions of being
as a rising into the light in pre-Socratic philosophy. Sometimes, such constructions turn out to be all-too-literal,
as in "The Beckett Kit," with its play of matchbox figures and the question of their placing and spatial
I finally found a way of using the tree.
If the man is lying down with the sheep
while the dog stands, then the wooden tree
can also stand, in the back, next to the dog.
The poem will remind readers of the trapped obsessive young wife of Gilman's "The Yellow
Wall-Paper," where the created thing remonstrates against the oppression of the given. Here the poet contrasts
a controlled environment of arranged toys with the dangers of the city and by extension, with the fate of sincerity
in the face of personal and historical violence, of hostility and cynicism:
The blacks probably do rape the whites in jail
as Bill said in the coffee shop watching the game
between Oakland and Cincinnati. And no doubt
Karl was right that we should have volunteered
as victims under the bombing of Hanoi.
A guy said to Mishkin, "If you've seen all that,
how can you go on saying you're happy?"
"A guy said to Mishkin . . ." is the kind of risky diction-mixing that, in the right
hands, can raise the classical out of its grave and present it to consciousness as new, or it can merely indicate
a failure of ear and control of verbal means. Gregg learned the difference.
Her early sublimity ironically derives from smallness rather than vastness, just as her later work derives power
from self-sacrifice and acceptance, rather than emotional ostentation. Never was Carolyn Kizer's quip that
"classicism is just romanticism without all the excess" more true and in evidence than in the work of
Linda Gregg. Partly, the power of these early poems comes from the intuition that her first words are delivered
in their final vocabulary formi.e., there is no gainsaying the terms: meaning stops where the periods do
and only silence trails its comet-tail after. She is a senex puella, for whom California and Mediterranean
sun are one in the moment and the mile.
In "The Defeated," she writes, "It was like being alive twice." This declaration, the
epigraph to two books (including the present one), is both apt and mysterious, even as praise. Eurydice of all
people has to justify why it would be appropriate to be alive twice in a world that scarcely allows for being
alive once. In "The Gods Must Not Know Us," she fears that "part of myself will get lost/ and I
will not be a fitting gift." As for the worthiness of self-sacrifice: we start with the sacred, with
respect. And yet, this poet's large ambition runs into difficulty, as she acknowledges in "What If the World
Stays Always Far Off":
What if the world is taken from me?
If there is no recognition? My words unheard?
. . . .
What if I continue unnoticed
Invisibility is the subtext here, although virtue follows, as Whitman knew. But how can you
reconcile, on one level, the wish to be invisiblethe self-sacrificeeven if it is Whitmanian with
the wishthe driveto be visible and audible, indeed, to be Keats' nightingale singing "higher
and higher to a screech"? In Eurydice's terms, how indeed to come back into "the world" becomes
the question, always problematic, always minus the unconditioned embrace. The status of the pure and the
unconditioned continues to exercise Gregg, for whom this impulse is subject to compromises both temporal and
transcendent. In "Oedipus Exceeding," we find,
I have returned to mix my blood with our
earth. Mix myself with what we are not.
Something happened. Everything
Does self-sacrifice (added to sacrifice) also help to establish what we experience as the
sacred? It seems as if we are being nudged toward affirmation, and yet, we have to consider that mixing "with
what we are not" belies purity. It is as if Oedipus wants us to know that the pure and the sacred don't go
together. But the self-exiled King of Thebes continues to signify because he takes that step that proffers the
mixed as a catalyst toward the sacred. In the myth the gods, sure enough, recognize his sacred status. Our
status, though supremely mixed, even divinely miscegenistic, is less clear. At the same time, we cannot deny
that we are in the know about things. In "The Copperhead," Gregg addresses the issue of knowing versus
being, which is central to whether we can ever be sacred:
Almost blind he takes the soft dying
into the muscle-hole of his haunting.
The huge jaws eyeing, the raised head sliding
back and forth, judging the exact place of his killing.
Those gerunds and participles here cycle the mindlessness of nature's red tooth. But they
also show the world they describe with an equanimity that is as much the result of mind's removal as of its
application and stabilization.
He takes the soft thing and coaxes it
away from his small knowing. He would turn in and
hunt it deep within the dark hall of his fading
but he cannot. He knows that.
That he cannot go deep within his body for the
of the knowing. So he slows and lets go. And finds
with his eyes a moving. A small moving that he
Are words themselves (and grammar) epistemological agents? How would one know? And yet there
must be something that it is like to be a snake hunting and swallowing prey. And words get us plausibly within
reach of what that is likein the fallingwhich we can appreciate and in the "knowing," which
is much more problematic. For what is it for a snake to know anything? And how does that knowledge relate to
ours? The language of the poem has to be conducted quite differently to "fit" the snake and the knowing.
One of the dangers of dealing with this kind of material is that it often seems like all-or-nothing choices only
work. No alternatives. That limiting is both a strength and a narrowing. It's similar to the distinction between
poet and bard, or the German distinction between Dichter and poet. George Steiner makes much of this distinction in discussing the difference between Continental and American notions of the poet. For one thing, the Dichter, like the snake, "object knows" what it knows aboriginally, without escalating, focus-dissolving abstractions.
In succeeding collections (The Sacraments of Desire,
Chosen by the Lion, Things and Flesh and
In the Middle Distance)
Gregg turns to the darkness of the partisan and the national will, in war and the shadows of recent history, as much
as to the Mediterranean light (from which she never really turns). She also records a doomed affair in her most
personally freighted poems. We don't need to reread Freud to be reminded that the prerogatives of history are at
odds with the prerogatives of the heart. Remembering her Akhmatova (she writes about her in a later poem), Gregg
knows that insistence on prerogatives of the heart, often met with resistance and even disbelief, are one way for
poetry to remind us that helplessless in the face of love is one of the sad proofs of our common bond. Yet like
all great paradoxes, helplessness may be turned to account as a kind of strength. We find her aware of soldiers,
marching to the center of historical events from which the poet is moving to the periphery, peripheries which, we
suspect, will become new centers in their turn:
Maybe morality does change,
I was thinking, but suffering does not.
Are the claims of love the ultimate claims a person can make? Gregg asks the question in light
of recent history: you are aware of the non-simpatico types lining the streets where you wander forlorn, both of
you exilic: the one interior, one other, exterior. Their exile is the only thing you have common between you.
"The War," "Night Music," "The Foreign language of the Heart" also contain images of
people either looking the other way, or simply not acknowledging presence, as if humanity consisted of layers of
incommensurable people who only share a common fealty in that they are on their way to becoming "[t]he dead in
In "The Ninth Dawn," which opens
Chosen by the Lion,
Gregg steps back and considers her themes from the perspective, the "place to stand," as Jack Gilbert has
it, of a life lived under the sky of classical austerities:
It is not for nothing we notice a wider theme
in Virgil's Georgics when he speaks about
the passion of Orpheus and Eurydice. The gods
want the honey in the hive, are willing to have
the lovers destroyed.
I am haunted by Eurydice
who merely went too far into the wood and after
lived with the darkness around her forever.
The gods instruct us to cut
the throats of eight beasts, throw in poppies,
kill the jet-black ewe in the beautiful Italian
light so the bees, who have been the real business
all along, will swarm out again under the pliant
In this signal poem, not only the bees are pure Virgilian: so is the form. Everything about
this poem looks backward to that symbol of our cultural continuity and forward to our diminishment. Just so, the
bees are 'the business all along," the vibrant and constant process that uses and justifies (if justification
were ever needed) of light. When lovers heat up, they disturb this business, which is not a social or cultural
business, but a "natural" one (i.e, and unthinking one, one conducted regardless). It is this move
toward naturalism that is at the heart of her later poems. In these poems, self-sacrifice goes by another name,
one denuded of the prefix "self." You can sense the iciness of acceptance, but the reward no longer
belongs to (or is withheld from) the poet, but belongs to the poem and to the art.
All of It Singing is a
beautiful and substantial book that sings of a fruitful life with a sustained degree of ardor and courage not
usually on show. There are at least ten poems here I know by heart, and others I will remember as long as I
live. They are a part of me, and I would hope they could be a part of anyone who has followed me this far. Can
I break into more unguarded praise?