Mass abductions of women and girls. The refugee crisis. The Paris attacks…. If you are looking for an anchor in this stormy world, then Linda Gregerson’s work, Prodigal, New and Selected Poems: 1976-2014, can offer a framework for navigating disaster. Prodigal can become your sage and tender guide.
Who in the literary world usually addresses human disaster? At center stage on the poetry scene we have Spoken Word poets and their ancestors; writers formerly marginalized as “ethnic poets”; and contemporary Confessional School poets. These artists grapple with, rape, the environment, violence, slavery and social inequity. Look at the work of Cornelius Eady, of the Cave Canem movement of African American writers. Read the work of Juan Felipe Hererra, the current U.S. poet laureate, who narrates the Chicano experience. And think of Sharon Olds, who, for decades, has spoken what had been unspeakable. Shoulder to shoulder with these writers, and sharing the Zeitgeist, stands the Academic poet, Linda Gregerson.
To understand the poems in Gregerson’s Prodigal, we jog our memories of things mythological or discover myths for the first time. In this sixth collection of poetry, Gregerson evokes stories—familiar and obscure—from the ancient literary past. She reminds us of lovers’ quarrels on the cosmic scale as well as myriad punishments meted out by everyone: in Prodigal, individuals, gods and goddesses all behave badly. As tragedy continues to unfold in the world around us, the very act of reading this work feels oddly stabilizing; Gregerson’s plots are often familiar, which means they have always been with us—and people have survived them before.
Throughout Prodigal, Gregerson interpolates the agonies and pleasures of the ancients; she finds the paradigms of their world in the current day. In this carefully formalized collection, Gregerson juxtaposes her intellectual exegesis with the vernacular of our time. “Ceres Lamenting, ” for example, parallels the Persephone story— an age-old tale that fuses the plunder of the land and the rape of women, in this case, Persephone—with an abduction recently in the news. I feel a sense of bitterness and irony while reading Gregerson’s recasting of these learned texts —these Ur stories of Greek and Roman mythology. How can it be that such unconscionable behaviors of the gods and goddesses are so well understood as wrong— yet they are perpetuated in the sallow light of our contemporary world?
From the wrack and ruin played out by the Roman gods, one thinks we’d have evolved somehow. We have not, however, and Gregerson, in writing of Ceres’ lament, also writes a contemporary lament. This is a mandate of her poetry. Referring to the political content of her work during an interview, Gregerson tells us that while it “behooves us to approach any social or political realm, especially the realm of other people’s suffering, with a great deal of scrutiny…it’s [nevertheless] what we need to be doing.”
The cold hand of this dark subject matter grips us, though Gregerson allows that grip to soften by giving us artful descriptions imbued with poignant imagery. We see this in the book’s title poem, “Prodigal,” which uses loving memories and a caring tone to embrace the subject, who feels compelled to cut herself. Throughout the book, Gregerson answers violence with softness, an approach that, for me, evokes empathy and the need for further exploration—rather than revulsion. Gregerson’s work climbs another rung of the ladder in my heart as she elevates these stories of human suffering using patterned line breaks and exquisitely crafted stanzas. Hers is a unique armature, a formal structure that creates distance from the pain it embodies. She plots her tragedies with impeccable care, never allowing the information in a single line to overwhelm the reader.
More bite- sized than the usual boxy poetry, with its margins justified on the left, Gregerson’s poems take the form of couplets, tercets and quatrains; lines with varied indentation and of unequal length allow space and movement through a free-flow of the words on the page. Gregerson has spoken of the great care required when deciding how to “break up an iamb and introduce a triple foot.” The resulting shape of the poem offers an invitation to pause, perhaps to consider a story’s relationship to its classical or contemporary reference, or to simply enjoy the stunning imagery and rhythmic, lyric voice. Again, “Ceres Lamenting” provides a good example of this, as it tells a complex story of a mother’s grief over the abduction of her child; a mother’s vengeance; and the childlike tendency, even of survivors, to try and make things better again:
Linda Gregerson earned her BA from Oberlin College in 1971 and, like many graduates from that samll, liberal arts school, she has gone on to lead a socially conscious life and to earn many higher degrees. Gregerson advanced her education all the way from her bachelor’s and masters degrees to an MFA and Ph.D., the latter from Stanford. She is a professor of Creative Writing and Renaissance Literature at University of Michigan. She is also on the Board of Chancellors of The Academy of American Poets; she teaches at Breadloaf and at Warren Wilson College, too. For a number of years, she read poems as an editor for The Atlantic, and she alludes to her generosity towards the thousands of poets who submitted work by citing the opportunity to “lavish time on” the many wonderful poems she reviewed. Apparently, she finds juggling her own writing and the writing of others to be a privilege, and not a chore. Hearing about this is a rare pleasure in the literary world, which of course, has its share of narcissists.
Evidence of Gregerson’s empathy and compassion pervades Prodigal. As in real life, the tragedies that befall the characters in this collection are sometimes political and at other times, the result of an aberration of fate. In the back of Prodigal, the author’s notes reveal the poems’ continual interplay of literary and philosophical writing, the interweaving of art and current events. The poet affirms the ekphrastic nature of some poems in the collection when she references the work of visual artists and composers as inspiration.
In every poem in this collection, and at every turn, Gregerson orchestrates our triumphs and our failings, then and now, in a continued crescendo and decrescendo of human emotion.