Sunday, May 9, 2010

Linda Gregg’s “A Thirst Against”

I received the latest issue of Poetry Northwest last week which to my delight had three new poems by Linda Gregg nestled amidst its table of contents. This was fortuitous as I had already been thinking about writing a blog post about her poems for the last several months. My favorite poem from the new issue is about the poet Jack Gilbert and I have copied it out in full below:

Love Song

Jack is weakening day by day.
I saw him on the other side
of a river climbing out.
Almost naked. His underpants
stuck to his body.
Doing this by himself.
I carried his once perfect
body up the bank
to a new kind of safety.
He was cold. He was alive
by will and passion.
And the intelligent animal
he is. Light overhead.
Not our favorite kind.
I thought at the end of his list
of reasons was wanting
not to leave me alone, knowing
the not being here anymore.


Everything that matters in Linda Gregg’s poetry—the ecstatic beauty, the dramatic loss, and quiet restrained language–all are found in these lines. I remember having a discussion with another poet friend in Waterloo several years ago about Linda Gregg. I was of the mind that she was a tremendous poet while my friend was skeptical about her overall worth as if her poems were “all singing but no song”.

I imagine Gregg’s poetry has inspired this kind of debate throughout her long career: on the one hand there are those who champion her personal poems interwoven with Greek and Classical references as large-minded inquiries into the nature of experience, while on the other side there are those who put forward the counter claim that such stripped-down language, personal revelations and literary allusions are the stock and trade of a poet who is simply affecting a voice. A sort of poetic ventriloquism.

For myself, I think her poetry, the way it sets its own philosophical demands in relief against the simple diction of its highly compressed sentences, some of them no more than mere fragments or phrases, courts such debate purposefully. Take for instance, her well known poem "A Thirst Against" which can be found in All of It Singing: New and Selected Poems published by Graywolf Press in 2008.

A Thirst Against

There is a hunger for order,
but a thirst against. What if
every time a flower forms in the mind,
something gives it away to time?
Leaf by petal, by leaf. As if the soul
were a blotter of this world—
of the greater, the wetter, the more
tired, the more torn. All singing,
but no song. Hamlet darker than night.
And poor Ophelia less than the flowers
she wore. Both lost. One dead,
the other to follow soon.
One too heavy, one too frail.
Both finding themselves among the fallen.
Each time I think, it is here
that God lives. Right around here,
in this terrible, ruined place
with streets made desolate by neon,
in midwinter and freezing winds.
In these Chicago avenues.

To my mind, this is a poem that carefully demonstrates the large ambition and enigmatic qualities found in all of Gregg’s best poems. In the opening lines, the poet acknowledges the self seeks connection with the world but, at the same time, is deeply suspicious of order because the countervailing tension that arises between these two modes of thinking creates spaces within a poem, and by extension our lives, where one may find transcendence amid the ordinary.

In her essay, Staying News: A Defense of the Lyric, Joan Aleshire mentions how the Greek lyric poet Pindar prized a quality called Kairos in poetry, or the ability to set “opposite points of view against one another before making a summation or resolution” (37). Gregg’s attempts at reconciling opposites places her in this same tradition which gives her poem its authority and propulsive force.

The poem as I see it becomes a justification for the way we live and experience our lives. We seek connections with the world, with something larger than ourselves, even when it seems futile to do so, for Gregg seems to be asking what other choice are we given? She proposes at the beginning of the poem:


What if
every time a flower forms in the mind,
something gives it away to time?
Leaf by petal, by leaf. As if the soul
were a blotter of this world—
of the greater, the wetter, the more
tired, the more torn. All singing,
but no song.

Here, the question posed is what if we are simply the sum of our thoughts and there is no higher purpose to our lives? What if our life’s experience is in fact “all singing, / but no song”? The next section of the poem answers this question by darkly alluding to Hamlet and Ophelia, two beloved characters who came to the conclusion that life was essentially for naught and their oppressive thoughts led to much personal suffering and tragic consequences for both of them.

Hamlet darker than night.
And poor Ophelia less than the flowers
she wore. Both lost. One dead,
the other to follow soon.
One too heavy, one too frail.
Both finding themselves among the fallen.

If we are not to find ourselves among the fallen, we need to believe in or serve some higher purpose within our lives, even if that means the great looming despair that surrounds our certain extinction and likely insignificance meets us at every turn. The ending of Gregg’s poem seems to underscore this idea for the reader:

Each time I think, it is here
that God lives. Right around here,
in this terrible, ruined place
with streets made desolate by neon,
in midwinter and freezing winds.
In these Chicago avenues.

It seems, for Gregg, God is in the details but so too is the awful insufferable fear none of us will be redeemed. If you like Linda Gregg’s poem "A Thirst Against", you can find it in her book All of It Singing: New and Selected poems published by Graywolf Press.

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