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BOOK REVIEW

To absent men

All of It Singing; New and Selected Poems; Linda Gregg; Graywolf Press: 214 pp., $24

September 14, 2008|Dana Goodyear | Dana Goodyear is a staff writer at the New Yorker. She is the author of the book of poems "Honey and Junk."

SEVERAL years ago, I took a workshop from a poet in Upper Manhattan. The idea was that students would pay to have their poems scissored up and rearranged. The teacher had a captivating, witchy style, but all the poems came out sounding like hers. No matter -- she had interesting poet friends, and she'd bring them in from time to time.

One evening, a woman with short gray hair and a radiant face, dressed like a nun in loose black cotton, was sitting on the couch: Linda Gregg. I've often thought about her writing advice: Buy a pack of Tarot cards, and when you're stuck, draw one and write a poem based on its symbolic story.

The deck of cards Gregg plays with in "All of It Singing: New and Selected Poems" is more Edith Hamilton than Rider-Waite. The imagery is Aegean, the legacy of five years Gregg spent in Greece. She punctuates the poems with sea-gazing, descriptive gaps that force blankness on the mind; her oceans are as simple and numinous as Rothko's black paintings, "light by the shore, then dark farther out."

Many of these poems find the poet alone in a landscape that has been recently deserted by a man, but where you might expect to find howling lamentation, Gregg is contemplative and wry -- perhaps even a little relieved. "When the men leave me, / they leave me in a beautiful place," she writes. "When I think of them now, / I think of the place. / And being happy alone afterwards." When she writes, in a poem that numbly invites death to come and get her, "My love got on a boat / and it went away. I stayed," I don't hear resignation so much as willfulness. (Cf. the voicey "No More Marriages": "Well there ain't going to be no more marriages. / And no goddam honeymoons. Not if I can help it.") In later poems, the solitude has a more elemental quality. Parting no longer fresh, the poet has refined the emptiness: "Left alone in the stillness / in that pure silence married / to the stillness of nature."

But although Gregg documents the ravishments of love, I don't think of her as a love poet. These are allegories draped in the vestments of contemporary lyric love poems, where gone men serve as a metaphor for the lost divine. In "The Bounty After the Bounty" -- a syncretic poem that, in a few deft strokes, reconciles the impulses of Greco-Roman and chthonic spiritual traditions, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity -- Gregg pushes the conceit. She begins in pilgrimage to a sacred site, "A mountain of three goddesses / without goddesses. Where they had been. / Gone, but truer therefore," only to realize that "The statue is / camouflage for emptiness left behind." This leads her to conclude that "Our failure was thinking Christ / was His presence. / We were blinded by the actual body / of Jesus." Christian religious practice, then, is based on a misreading. Christ -- the ultimate abandoner -- is not God but a reminder of "the intensity," a living metaphor.

God and goddesses aside, the dominant mythic figure of Gregg's poems is a much less commanding character, poor mortal Eurydice. The Orpheus story is a touchstone for Gregg. In brief: Orpheus, a poet so gifted he moves nature with his song, marries Eurydice. Immediately after the wedding, she is bitten by a snake and dies. Grieving Orpheus charms his way down to the Underworld to collect her, and she is allowed to follow him back to life so long as he doesn't turn around to look at her. But he does, just a moment too soon. Eurydice dissolves into smoke and shadow, and Orpheus wanders the world mourning her until he's torn limb from limb by Maenads, still saying her name.

Eurydice is a figure of indeterminacy and in-betweenness, and her lighting cues -- dimness, "nearly night," violet-colored dark -- dramatize Gregg's poems. Like Eurydice, Gregg was married to a poet, Jack Gilbert; his first book, published in 1962, included a poem called "Orpheus in Greenwich Village." Gregg and Gilbert also share a tendency to run a poem just to the length of the page, and fill this accommodating frame with short declarative sentences, alternating between enjambed and end-stopped lines. In both poets' work, you can see and hear the texture, almost woven.

"Eurydice," a beautiful early poem, portrays the young woman, all-knowing, at the moment she and Orpheus are about to leave what she describes as "the strange world where I live." She understands already that she won't go back to the real world and says, "I did not cry as much in the darkness / as I will when we part in the dimness / near the opening which is the way in for you / and was the way out for me, my love."

We pity Eurydice with her callous, experience-hungry lover, who will scavenge their tragedy for material. But it is helpful to keep the plot of the myth in mind. Orpheus, leaving his lover, dies of torturous grief. Eurydice is just fine.

--

BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX

The Small Thing Love Is

My body is filled by a summer of lust

and I can't tell the difference between desire,

longing, and all the sweet speeches

love hoards. Something deeper grinds its teeth

on metal, mocks and preens in cold rooms

where a glass breaks and women wear

rich gowns that weigh more than they do.

Death mating with Beauty. Night roaring

and the cathedral holding its ground

against the strength and purring

of the wet couple undone

by a power only the earth could love.

-- Linda Gregg

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