A child of the upper Midwest, and descendent of Norwegian farming stock, Linda Gregerson is a poet of winter, able to bring snow, and the lives shaped by its rigours, to the page. She is also a poet of time – and of the bodily selves in which our identities are vested. Awarded fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, amongst other distinguished accolades, she came to writing poetry through renaissance studies, and theatre making. We met last summer, under the plane trees of Russell Square in Bloomsbury, to discuss Prodigal, her collection of new and selected poems from 1976 to 2014. Gregerson was over from University of Michigan where she teaches, and has previously directed the MFA Program. Our conversation explored how Gregerson came to enter the worlds of ‘high’ culture, and academia, and claim herself creatively, while also remaining connected with the more visceral and direct voices of her upbringing. I asked her about the challenges of giving witness to the violent murder of a close friend, and exploring the sustained childhood sexual abuse of her own sister – without exploiting or diminishing these two women. We discussed how her poems work with contemporary scientific research, and what it can mean, as a woman, to write about blood. We also talked about writing towards lost fathers. Overall, it was one of the most deeply nourishing conversations I had in 2019, and one which has stayed with me. We opened with the multiple registers which her poems contain, and the gifts of open-ness, and possibility, which writing in ‘American English’ can confer. Please note that the poems quoted are in a different font, as it was the only way to preserve the formatting.
AH: Can we begin with how you work with words, Linda Gregerson? You write of our “fractious, healing, double-dealing on-the-make vernacular” in your review of John Ashbery and Heather McHugh. Within your own work as a poet, and a critic, language is capable of sliding between registers with muscled suppleness, but also of breaking down into a naked vulnerability. Would you say something about this?
LG: Thank you for the question. When I was writing about Ashbery and Heather McHugh, I was talking specifically about American English and the way these poets ride and celebrate it. I write like neither of them, but I think of myself as a very American poet too. I want American English, American idiom, American momentums – and stalled momentums – to be a legible part of the music. I commute among registers. Syntax is also really important to me. I want the poems to be hospitable to multiple voices. I want them to be porous – a kind of listening device, as well as a speaking device.
AH: As a reader, your poetry has the quality of a fairground ride. We plunge. We judder. It’s really visceral. And startling. I never see it coming. The syntax and variations keep me on the edge of my seat.
LG: I take that as a high compliment.
AH: It is. The saltiness of everyday language is also arresting.
LG: It would be affectation for me not to have that. I need that everyday register, I love it, it’s an essential part of the music available all around me. Also, some of the people I love and have loved most deeply in my life, spoke and speak a very particular idiomatic English, they’re upper Midwestern country people. My father never finished high school. He didn’t use what we would call standard grammar – and his voice was very important to me. I didn’t find enough space for it in my world when he was alive, so I need some space for it now.
AH: Only time lets us see some relationships more clearly. Turning to your career, you have won numerous distinguished awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship. I wondered if you would say something about how, where and why you got started with poetry? I know you were part of the Iowa Writers Workshop for your MFA. What got you to that point?
LG: A very specific gift from a very specific friend. I did not write poetry when I was young. I still shudder at the memory of a poem I had to write for school when I was eleven years old. An impossible time of life in any case, and a dreadful poem. I spent each and every minute of each and every day trying not to be stupid, and here was a thing that made me stupider than I actually was. So I fled. The other arts were safer: visual arts and theatre, I had some wherewithal.
Years later, a poet friend and I had offices across the hall from one another, and we would simply talk. He’d say: These are poems. You’ve got to write them down. And me: You don’t understand. I have no idea how to make a poem. I have no idea how to read contemporary poetry. I can read Donne. I can read Shakespeare. I can read parts of Eliot – but I don’t have a clue when I open a journal of contemporary poetry. But he insisted; it was his way of making friends, and it wound up changing my life. So I staggered around trying to make poems of my own for a while, and it was a great piece of good luck that I was admitted to the workshop at all. They gave me financial aid! I was stunned. And the time there was transformative. I learned to read work in progress; I learned to read more broadly in contemporary poetry. The learning to write came in fits and starts, but the reading could be steady. It was like learning to breathe.
AH: And they are languages, they are specific languages – that cannot in general simply be walked into.
LG: I made all the mistakes one makes. At first I thought Ah – the key to this is compression. So it got over-elliptical. I made all the mistakes.
AH: But that’s the only way that any of us learn to write – by getting it wrong so thoroughly that only the ‘right’ path is left.
LG: Maybe it’s about exhausting all of the possibilities of wrongness.
AH Very often you don’t like how you write. Your own voice is something that you resist. When you find that place of fit with your voice, it can feel dangerous. It can feel exposing. There is a lot of resistance to inhabiting your voice – as well as a sense of relief at finally getting there.
LG: For me, the key was finding that syntax was my real vehicle for thought.
AH: For me it was imagery, and sound play. Once you have got your tools, the process feels slightly less dangerous.
LG: I knew what would tell me how to go forward.
AH: Were there any particular poets, on the page, or in person, who spoke to you, or helped you when you were setting out?
LG: That’s hard to say. The aesthetic that was dominant in the 70’s at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop was of the school of James Wright. I adore James Wright, but I couldn’t pretend to the coherent voice I heard in him – which might well be a misreading, by the way. I had to learn to allow for interruptions and shifts of gear. And in terms of individual poets – Stanley Plumly and Bill [William] Matthews, Sandra McPherson, Louise Glück and Donald Justice were on the faculty when I was there. I learned from all of them, but as to “voice,” I’m afraid it was rather clumsily patched together.
AH: A voice has to be. Elizabeth Bishop resonates with me, but I could never write like her. I read a lot of different materials right across the board, outside of poetry. I read fiction. I read non-fiction. You read science.
LG: Yes, I far as I can – or I try to persuade scientists to talk to me. There is a great kinship between what we do as poets, and what my friends the research physiologists do. There are the combinations you were describing earlier of intuition and pragmatics and technique – and being open to being discovered by one’s own mistakes. This is what experimental models do. The object of study is this exquisite, complex, brilliant language of the body, which constitutes us but is also beyond us. The devotion to something that is already articulate, that we are simply trying to catch on to, that’s what joins the two enterprises. I worship the laboratory scientists.
AH: I’m interested in writing on the brain and the brain/body interaction. It’s something I am trying to read more about. I feel that poetry is also writing about this in another language.
LG: We know better than to talk about inside and out, or body and mind, yet there’s a reason we default to such dualisms. All we can hope to access are these small portals. The sixteenth and seventeenth century poets I study believed that both science and poetry were acts of praise. A tribute to creation.
AH: In a wonderful way, that leads into ‘And Sometimes’ which is the opening poem in Prodigal, the selection you have made of your own poems from 1976-2014 which will be the focus of this conversation. Many of the poems we’ll be talking about walk with darkness. I’ll begin, though, with one of the poems from the ‘New Poems’ section at the front of the book. ‘And Sometimes’ continues right after this title
thank heaven, the question includes a layer of real delight.
The poem contrasts a chimp, who goes straight for the solution within an experiment, with a human child who continues to follow a more ritualized, multi-stage taught route to “this happy accession of/ able-to-make-the-whole-thing-work”, ignoring the shortcut. You go to asking how we find meaning in our lives, and suggest that it derives from different ways of “letting the outside in” – which may include the forms, and rituals, of poetry, and art. You end:
Not a single path but many, the forms of devotion, I mean. The part that makes us human more elusive than we'd thought.
Could you say something about ‘And Sometimes’?
LG: Certainly! For context, let me say that I have two very good friends and readers. One is the poet David Baker. One is my husband Steven. David had kindly looked at the manuscript of the new poems section in Prodigal and he said Linda, could we have something a little happier? And Steven said Could there be a little light? It was also Steven who told me about that particular experiment. It just seemed to me so joyfully to put us in our place.
AH: Yes, the chimp could just take the lid off!
LG: So much for the superiority of human cognition, right? There is a fabulous poem in Christian Wiman’s most recent book. ‘From a Window’ is actually written from a very bleak place within his own cancer diagnosis, “Incurable and unbelieving/ in any truth but the truth of grieving.” It begins with a visual misperception, and finds its way to a renewed embrace of the life that’s behind that misperception. In the end, this releases the self from the self: “that life is not the life of men./ And that is where the joy came in.” It’s a ravishing moment; it makes me weep. We are not the measure of the universe.
AH: I practice Buddhist meditation, which is about dissolving the self. It brings relief to let go of who you are, and step beyond this narrow prism into the light which passes through it – as happens also at the end of ‘And Sometimes’.
LG: It’s also about affection for our limits, true affection. Mastery is an insufficient value.
AH: When we were talking about limits, and Christian Wiman, I thought how, when my first husband was dying of cancer, in some ways, paradoxically, as a couple we were happier then we had ever been. Obviously not when he was in acute pain. But simply, because we knew his illness was terminal, without discussing it, we got down to just enjoying being together in the day, in the moment, in the time that was good. There was this extraordinary happiness. Falcon had a metatastic adenocarcinoma spreading everywhere – and yet a friend of mine said, I saw you two driving in the car and you looked like a pair of 20 year olds. We were let go from all the complex life structures that we built around ourselves – and into simply being.
LG: Oh that makes sense – it sounds like a great blessing.
AH: It was. The strangest thing is that life, when it takes most away, sometimes also gives most back. Art can be a form of algebra that expresses that equation – because it’s unquantifiable in more straightforward terms.
LG: I think that is very wise. It says a lot about this whole dilemma of how can we find consolation, or how does poetry provide consolation in the midst of darkness. It’s not by euphemizing or evading. On the contrary, it’s by engaging in such a way that somehow it won’t have been lost on us – and so much is lost on us.
AH: The earliest poems in Prodigal are from Fire in the Conservatory, published in 1982. The first poem ‘How Love, When It Has Been Acquired/ May Be Kept’, alludes to The Art of Courtly Love – De Arte Honeste Amandi – by Andreas Capellanus. It begins:
That was when the war was on, the one we felt good to hate, so of course I thought he’d come from there. It was June. The light grown long again. She’d roll his chair to the window and back. But no, you said, it was love. They were getting it wrong. A leg. A leg. An arm to the elbow. Like the man who burned his daughter to get good winds.
I know you are also a Renaissance scholar. Could you say something about the energy your work derives from refracting between past and present times, and in conversation with works made by other artists, often in visual media. It seems to me that this can form a means of gaining a purchase – a kind of coming in close, through coming in slant?
LG: So if I follow the gist of your question, you’re asking about the route that takes me from a medieval handbook to a Vietnam era clinic to Agamemnon and Iphigenia? This is always a bit of a conundrum. If I let myself, I’d be constantly trailing tag lines of Shakespeare and Milton, and this has nothing to do with systematic thought or “bookishness” in the narrow sense. Quite the opposite. A chunk of something stuck in my heart or head insists on being allowed into the poem; it might as well be a stone through the window. It’s very like the ambush to my senses when I’m walking past the linden trees just east of SOAS: suddenly they’re in blossom, and that scent! That’s how bits of these poets and writers and painters and theatre-makers, who mean so much to me, it’s how they enter– it’s that quotidian. It’s like the smell of bread baking. It’s just another thing.
AH: Like a kind of loop that plays in your head almost. It’s not a matter of I’m going to sit myself in front of this picture and write something.
LG: Now I’m going to be allusive. God forbid! But then, the question is to make sure there is enough of a talking voice around it that it’s convincing. That it feels ordinary, and everyday, instead of deliberately . . .
LG: Exactly. “The man who burned his daughter” is Agamemnon, but that particular section of the poem was based on something quite immediate. I was 21, my then partner had had back surgery, and I was visiting him in hospital. And in the hallway I passed a young couple: the man in wheelchair had lost an arm and both of his legs. All I could imagine, because we were in the midst of that horrible war, was that he had been terribly wounded in Vietnam. But no. He had metastatic cancer; the couple were newly married; they kept cutting off parts of his body in an effort to keep him alive. It broke my heart, and made me know my own utter incapacity. What would it mean to do things right in such circumstances? How do you love wisely when you’re terrified and very young? I started thinking about the bargains we try to make with fate. The trivial: I’ve lost my keys, please please please let me find them before I’m late for work. And the not trivial: I make the same panicked begging sounds when I’m praying for the well-being of one of my daughters. What am I thinking? Maybe if I offer the right thing in exchange, I can have some leverage here? It’s a human instinct, I suppose, when something of utmost importance is utterly beyond our control.
AH: It’s a sort of gaining of imaginative agency.
LG: The foundational human dynamics are not new. Others have known them before. Which gives us, well, not consolation exactly, but some small shelter against the descent into chaos – others have been here before.
AH: And we can find our way through somehow. ‘Geometry’ is another of your earliest poems – spoken in the voice of a snowplow driver, which seems to enact a process of creative making, through its making visible of a specific, cold, snowy terrain, to which many of your poems about your family return. It begins:
What I like best about the snowplow is morning then night, but anyway without sun. I drive from town to old 16 and back again, wider. The sound I make’s all mine, like the tunnel from the headlamps, mine. First I plow with light and then with the plow The best part closes up behind. I could tell you but I won’t how the farms separate, each one parked around a single light for prowlers or company. The light that’s modern and blue stops further out and sharper than the yellow kind.
Would you say something about ‘Geometry’ and its landscape?
LG: Sure. The landscape is a very particular one in central Wisconsin. I wasn’t doing many persona poems at that point, but I guess I have always been attracted to what Stevens calls a mind of winter – that wanting to be rid of the clutter and noise of life with other humans. I am not particularly proud of that impulse, but it’s one I have felt. It’s one I saw quite often in my father.
AH: It seemed to me it was also an artist’s poem. It’s talking about an artist taking a space in which to be alone and carve shapes.
LG: There’s the snow’s cleanliness – the white canvas.
AH: And the making lines in geometry. It is poem about form and beauty. It really seemed to be an artist’s manifesto.
LG: It also winds up being a kind of love letter to that landscape – the upper midwest in America. Settlement pattern there is very different than in Europe. The particular beauty of European settlement is village life with its intricate patterns and then the fields beyond. In vast stretches of America, white settlement followed the logic of government survey: square-mile sections carved out, north, south, east, west. As a child, of course, I had no sense of political geography. I chiefly remember being driven through darkness when we went to see my grandparents. My father’s notion of travel was: if we can’t get there by breakfast time, it’s not worth going, so we’d leave at four in the morning. Wisconsin farms in the darkness: a single yard light, and clustered around it the house, the barn, some animal sheds, a silo, and then the unpaved turnaround for tractors and cars. There is a rhythm to that visually, when you are driving on a country road. Darkness and then this gathering of light, and darkness within the gathering. That did seem to me really beautiful. So I suppose the poem is not entirely antisocial: it’s about that space where, family by family, people would make a light.
AH: It’s also about separation and relationship – because the seeing eye needs the separation to function. When you are in a farm, you can’t see the rhythm, the visual music of the passing in and out of light. It’s only when you are alone and separate that you can see.
LG: Yes, thank you! And it’s distance that allows us to see pattern, to take it in somatically.
AH: I love that poem.
LG: I’m so glad! I have ambivalent feelings about that book. I mean – it was my first. I hadn’t found a way of lineating my poems. I hadn’t found a way of generating something whose rhythms, the rhythms I intended, were accessible to a reader. The subjects of those poems are still my subjects, but the prosody wasn’t there yet so I am of two minds, two hearts.
AH: I’m glad you put the early poems in. Your second collection, The Woman Who Died in Her Sleep, from 1996, makes extensive use of the off-set tercets in which much of your work is realized, including ‘And Sometimes’. Among other things, it’s a collection about families, and a collection about harm. They sometimes join together – within the same family, and the same poem. The first poem, ‘For My Father, Who Would Rather Stay Home’, suggests a man who comes from, and is himself, a hard place. The three line form makes the relationship of the father to his surroundings, and the speaker’s relationship to him, appear to be both holding together, and coming apart. It begins:
No deadfall in these woods of yours. No hollowed-out trunks. No needy, unseemly hanging on, as puts a man with a chainsaw to shame.
Could you say something about how you came to use this three-line form within the poem, and more generally?
LG: Absolutely. The tercet felt like a lifeline to me. I wasn’t imitating anything. I don’t know how much I had even read of William Carlos Williams at that point. His tercets are extremely different. I just basically messed around the way we play with clay, or in a sandbox. I messed around, and messed around, and then finally I thought, Oh this really helps. The tercets with their indents gave me a way to register syncopation, and the multiple tracks that I think consciousness is always going on. It was also a way of launching a sweeping trajectory of syntax without allowing it to look or feel like prose. It literally has to do with letting in light and air – white space – and also allows for the stop, and start, and stumble that seems to me to constitute consciousness.
AH: When I was looking at the construction of your work, I saw these long shapes, but I didn’t feel crushed or oppressed by them. They were giving me space to take them in, and sort of live with them, and sit with them, and then move on a little bit, and it was really wonderful.
LG: One thing that I love about long, dependent clauses is that I don’t really know where I am going when I’m inside them. I need to be rescued. I’m walking in the dark, or I’m running forward in the dark, and I find that very very helpful – because then I am required to discover something, rather than paraphrasing something I think I already understand, or formulating some deliberate image, or analogy, which is deadly for me.
AH: ‘For My Father, Who Would Rather Stay Home’, is seen from the point of view of the
beggarly daughters, who haven’t struck your bargain with the pure hard edge of luck.
Would you like to say something about choosing to identify this perspective, and also the larger concept of “luck”, which is something many of your poems investigate?
LG: I think that is a very good question. It’s not something I have thought of from that angle. My first impulse is to say well, it’s hard luck that I mostly mean to be trying to accommodate in my vision of the world – and the profound injustice of it all, the arbitrariness: Why is one child born deprived of oxygen? Why is one child born to a mother who is starving or drug-addicted, while someone else sails through with every advantage in the world? Why is someone who works hard all his life suddenly deprived of a pension because some business goes bust? And this is not to mention the spectacles of larger violence on every side. This is the problem that all theologies have tried to manage – to build into some form of meaning. ‘Luck’ is a shorthand, of course. Its very insufficiency as a shorthand is part of the point.
AH: It’s such a scary word. You can be lucky at the game tables – or you might lose everything. ‘Luck’ is the knife-edge word. It can tip you into desolation. It has this bright sparkle of hope. This my lucky token. This is my lucky Shamrock. It’s very a plain word, – but it holds both sides the coin.
LG: Even the brighter side is one that seems actually rather dark to me because of the helplessness it proposes – the disconnect between one thing and another is really hard to bear as we make our way through the world.
AH: Some people have had a relatively protected experience of life. It doesn’t occur to them what it might be like for everybody else. If you are not of that protected group, you have a clear idea of what goes wrong. Right now, some children are dying of dirty water, of malaria, while other children are buying drinks from vending machines. How do we square that?
Another kind of desperately hard ‘luck’ is witnessed in ‘Safe’ dedicated to “K.M.S. 1948-1986”. ‘Safe’ addresses the larger topic of violence through the specific example of a friend, who died after an intruder broke into her house and attacked her murderously. You have previously written “When poetry taps and exploits the charged realms of human extremity and public opinion, without taking on the real burden of history and choice, it willy-nilly evolves a politics of its own, and one that can only be called exploitative.” It seems to me that you not only avoided that danger here, but also managed to make a form of language which can hold deep horror – in a way that enables the reader to see it, without flinching away. You write about the hurt, by imagining undoing it:
The broken point of the kitchen knife – and here let the surgeon be gentle – removed and the skull knit closed and the blood lifted out of the carpet and washed from the stairs. And the nineteen-year-old burglar returned to the cradle
The long, almost languorous sentence structure, the ‘rests’ generated by the line-breaks, and repeated use of “and’, brings a quality of ceremony and graciousness to the devastating depiction, that enables us absorb it, in a way which a more violent wording might not have. Your words are also suffused with evident love for the attacked woman – which only makes her fate more personal, as each act of violence is to those impacted by it. Could you say something about how you came to write ‘Safe’?
LG: First of all – let me say a little more about that danger, the danger of exploiting tragedy, and harm that comes to others especially – however close we may be to them. I think it is very important to write with a continual awareness of that danger. Especially when I am writing about such subjects, I am walking a razor’s edge. If I go an inch in either direction, I am trespassing. I came to write ‘Safe’ because a friend of mine was murdered. We had been in graduate school together. The house in which she was attacked was one she was living in alone because her marriage had recently ended. To her a house meant a lot by way of psychological safety – to own one, to have it painted, to put her things in it, to cook there. Horribly ironically – to invest in good kitchenware, including a good set of knives. I mean it’s just unbearable, and this was a complex poem to write. I didn’t deliberately plan, I will go in and reverse time here, but I didn’t want simply to narrate the story – what would be the point? The point isn’t the story. One has to feel first and foremost the voice telling it – and the voice’s need to say these words, to speak these words, to write these words. That kind of wish – contrary to fact – to be able to undo the harm was a way forward. It also then enabled me to select certain details and to leave out many, many others. The leaving out was the crucial part. So I had that first section – the essence gives the basics of my friend’s death. But that wasn’t the poem. I think this was one of the earliest poems I wrote in sections, of the sort where the sections are not schematic. They are actually ways of trying to continue to feel my way through the challenge.
AH: As a reader, the great gift was the humanity. You dis-assembled her – and she re-emerged whole. That was the achievement of ‘Safe’ – that you witnessed to what your friend had been through and what came back was her whole self, her humanity, her life. By acknowledging her death, you could lay it on the page, and let her rise up.
LG: It so happened that my first child was very young at the time, and my friend Karin had sent her a gift of a silver spoon – a highly symbolic gift. Karin did not have it easy in life. It was hard for her to afford such a gift – which it made it all the more meaningful. The side that actually had to remain unspoken in this poem is that the young man who knifed her to death had been apparently stalking her. I fibbed. He wasn’t there to steal anything, he just wanted to cut her apart. I know nothing about him. I never knew his name. I didn’t go to the trial, none of that. But it made me think about that razor edge of luck — and I don’t want to trivialise it in some awful platitudinous way – the sort of ‘there but for the grace of God go I.’ The woman in the bedroom, the boy on the stairs. There are imbedded, complex, heart-breaking stories that are part of this event that I will never know anything about.
AH: We were talking about people who had more straightforward lives and people who have less straightforward lives. As poets, we have to narrate the whole spectrum. We can’t say we will leave this difficult area in prison, or bury it underneath the earth with a nice gravestone. We can’t do that. We need to draw it into the whole story – because if we are also talking about a more equal distribution of resources, we have to know there is a kind of payback. If you withhold mental health care, if you withhold education, if you withhold adequate housing, if you withhold adequate employment opportunities to generations of people – it will produce casualties.
LG: I was thinking a lot about such things. Nobody wants to hear a sermon, and I don’t know the solutions, I have nothing more than common wisdom and common feeling to offer.
AH: I think by witnessing to the murder, saying this spiritually beautiful person was alive, and then ceased to be alive, through a violent act, you did your work. You showed what lies under the ‘woman murdered’ headline with a blurry picture and one paragraph of story. That’s the work the poem performs. It’s an almost impossible subject to write about – to tread the line, to find the line – and it seemed to me you did it.
LG: It was as important to me to convey the part where she actually didn’t die immediately. I wanted to convey what the paramedics reported to her family, that when they arrived, she couldn’t remember the attack but was worried about the blood on the stairs, was trying to clean it – and herself all covered in blood. That sense that the decencies of housekeeping were somehow something to hold onto.
AH: That was her identity. It was her sense of self. She was claiming herself notwithstanding her injury. I think in extreme trauma the brain can sometimes misinform the individual about what has happened – whether it is on the battlefield or in a traffic accident. It’s only after that connections get made again. There is a sort of mercy there. The subject of the next poem I wanted to ask you about is no less essential. This same collection also contains ‘For the Taking’. “Luck” is again at issue in this poem about the sexual abuse of a young child. You describe your sister’s “damp blond curls”, and her “o-/bedience”, and then, with a shimmer of a nod to Nabokov’s Lolita, continue to:
the peeling brown shoulders– she was always a child of the sun. . .This was his sweet piece of luck, his find, his renewable turn-on, and my brown and golden sister and eight and a half took to hating her body and cried in her bath, and this was years, my bad uncle did it for years, in the back of the car, in the basement where he kept his guns, and we who could have saved her, who knew what it was in the best of time to cross the bridge of shame, from the body un- encumbered to the body on the block, we would be somewhere mowing the lawn or basting the spareribs right outside, and – how many times have you heard this? – we were deaf and blind and have ever since required of her that she take care of us, and she has, and here’s the worst, she does it for love.
In the UK at least, the widespread nature of the sexual abuse of children was only beginning to be known during the 1990s. You were giving witness to a very difficult, and tragic, family experience, relatively early on in your career as a poet. I wondered if this was an important thing for you to do creatively, as well as politically, and personally?
LG: This was a poem that truly ambushed me. I sincerely thought I was simply writing about my sister and how lovely she was as a child. It’s a subject I’ve returned to recently. My sister died five years ago and the poem you have seen recently (‘Love Poem’ in The New Yorker) returns to those curls. The reason I must have been writing it in the first instance, that poem I thought I was writing so long ago, is because I’d failed to see it at the time, her loveliness. She was my little sister. She didn’t sit up straight. She was messy. I couldn’t stand it. So at first the poem was an attempt to recover joy in her loveliness – to properly take it in for the first time in my life – but very very quickly the act of describing began to feel predatory. There’s a dangerous terrain between appreciating the particular beauty of children and preying upon it. And for all our talk, all our efforts at enforcement, I don’t believe we have ever come fully to terms with this. We speak as though there were two worlds: the world of paedophiles and the world of others, the good people, utterly distinct. In fact, I think one of the things that humans find so lovely about young children is precisely their ignorance of their own beauty: a sort of inadvertency, the not-yet-risen-to-consciousness aspect. It’s enchanting, and not just to villains. And it is flatly not to be messed with.
When I wrote “For the Taking,” feminist film criticism had begun to establish a vocabulary about the violence of the male gaze, but the poem didn’t come to me through that lens. It didn’t live in the realm of ideology, or intellection. It hit me from behind, or within, the subject of my sister’s sexual abuse. I asked her permission before I published the poem, but what was she supposed to say? Silence – the enforced silence and the protecting everybody’s feelings – is part of the vicious damage that child abuse visits upon humans. It’s part of the cycle. Speaking out was important, is important, as you know in your own work. And still. To ask her permission was another way of making my sister responsible. More of the dreadful cycle. What the poem tries to acknowledge is the alchemy with which that beautiful child, and that beautiful woman, turned suffering into an aptitude for love. The fact that the poem could find its way to become tribute to her – that’s what finally allows me to tell myself it was ok to write it.
AH: As someone who was sexually abused in childhood, when the crime is witnessed in words, it becomes more possible for other people to acknowledge what has happened to them. Witness confers on the child who was subjected to the abuse, a kind of retrospective, and self-redemptive, agency. The patterns of grooming, and the abuses of power, implicit in facilitating the abuse – like your uncle taking your sister down to the basement where he kept his guns – become apparent. When the mechanisms by which the child was coerced and controlled are evident, then the impossibility of the child resisting become comprehensible. I resist ever using the word “victim” in that context – because that is actually a victimising act. I also resist “survivor” – because again that implies that you are always living in the aftermath of that experience, and whereas actually it is only one of the many events of your life.
LG: It implies a tidiness and a wrapping up to the narrative.
AH: Every life has many defining actions, and experiences. For me, aside from the sexual abuse in childhood, they include being able to love, being able to be intellectually interested and committed, being able to form relationships. Those were some of your sister’s other defining experiences, too. It seems to me that when we ‘say the difficult thing’, we can also then begin to say the whole thing. ‘For the Taking’ is a stunning poem. It works because it gives witness – but it also gives agency. And it doesn’t skimp on the crime. The physical actions of the mowing and the basting, cited earlier, carry the searing repetitions of sustained sexual abuse in childhood, without giving any details that would arouse a paedophile. As someone with this history, this reticence is crucial. Was this something to which you also gave consideration?
LG: Thank you for that reading — the “mowing the lawn//or basting the spareribs” – I hadn’t thought about their power to suggest somatic intrusion, to tell the truth. Certainly the need for reticence-with-clarity was something I felt throughout. But that pairing, well, it’s an example of how poems stumble toward themselves. Because the abuse was so dreadfully prolonged – it was years and years – and would happen most often when the family was together for holidays, I had inadvertently conflated seasons: at one point I had us mowing the lawn and basting the turkey, which would have made it another season altogether. So I had to do a little fixing. That’s the scotch-tape-and-scissors part of making poems.
AH: Also, just organising your materials – so they can move in a clear stream towards your reader. All the rape in is there. It suggested to me an almost somatic transfer of knowledge between your sister and yourself – an unspoken somatic transfer – which I think can happen. Like how trees communicate by their roots, I think sometimes in families, people who are close to each other almost can absorb understanding from each other, without having to get out the pencil and draw the diagram. You empathetically absorb it – and that also acts as a tempering device for how you write about it. It gives you an unconscious frame of protecting the person you absorb the information from. That was how it came to me anyway.
LG: I love that reading.
AH: You write about your sister again in ‘Salt’, which starts out with your father sending her to bed with a broken collar bone, but then moves into the harshness of his own childhood, and specifically when he was taken, aged 6, by his tough, Norwegian father “Ole (like ‘holy’// without the h)”, in Ole’s capacity as JP, to cut down a body after a botched suicide.
Rather in the way that water condenses on a colder surface, you precipitate the mental pain leading to the suicide, and refracting out from it, into the description of how the subject “thrashed// for a while, and the northeast wall of the barn –/ the near wall –/ was everywhere harrows and scythes.” As before, the language is mellifluous and decorous, addressing the reader in the second person, in long, carefully punctuated sentences, and using predominantly formal language, but then just occasionally dropping us down a mineshaft into the every day, to evoke the enduring impact of the scene on your father aged 6:
It wasn’t – I hope you can understand – the blood or the blackening face, as fearful as those were to a boy, that, forty years later, had drowned our days in whiskey and dis- gust; it was just that the world had no savor left once life with the old man was gone. It’s common as dirt, the story of expulsion: once in the father’s fair lost field, even the cycles of darkness cohered. Arvid swinging in the granular light, Ole as solid as heartwood, and tall...
Could you say something about the thought behind this poem – relative to the long burn of trauma?
LG: I suppose it is also about, once again, the long burn of love. My father was a difficult man. He was an alcoholic. Nowadays we would say he clearly suffered from chemical depression. His anger was frightening. He was also marvellous. He was a real presence, as his father had been. That was true for a whole extended family. My sister and I went off to University, had our families late – but the other side of the family did things properly. They got married early, had children and grandchildren, lots of boys. I have seen those sons of cousins worship at my father’s feet. There was an energy there when he was around. He had wherewithal. He had a shop full of lathes and drills and table saws and tools of every imaginable sort, some of them homemade. With the boys, he had a lot of patience. They would come with whatever needed fixing: their trucks, their chainsaws, a part for the sink. But this was all after he’d retired. Before that was really a life in exile from the life he loved – which was his life on the farm. There were six children…
AH: Not enough farm to go around?
LG: Exactly. He was born in 1912. During the depression, when the entire world seemed to be falling apart, that farm sustained a lot of people. My grandfather was formidable – I think he seemed to anchor the world. Even taking a child to see this aftermath of suicide – which was worse than my grandfather, to be fair, had expected – the sense was ‘better for him to see the world as it is early’.
AH: There is a truthfulness to it.
LG: We might call it trauma, but that’s never a word my father would have used. He was actually proud of his father for doing that. He was proud of himself for having taken it.
AH: He stepped up to the mark, even if the mark marked him.
LG: My mother suffered because of the drink and the anger – but not because he was ever vicious to her or us. He never harmed us ever. What has come to define him for me is the love he felt for his parents, and their way of life. It wasn’t that he was indifferent to us. I think his afterlife was just that. It was a kind of afterlife – it was a slightly lesser life.
AH: If you are out in the elements, there is almost a benediction – if you are someone who enjoys that expansive life, that very acute link to the changing seasons –
LG: And physical work.
AH: That sense of potency. You put crops into the land and – weather permitting – they come up and become food. We were wired to do that. Admittedly, many of us have no desire to now. I think for some, though, it’s a calling. Why do people keep farming with very poor returns? With the isolation, all those things? It answers to a deep need.
LG: In the part of the country where members of my family still farm, if a family does farm, it has to be way we write poetry. They have to have day jobs. They plow at night. You see the tractors with their headlights in the field. And no health benefits unless they come with the day job.
AH: With the National Health in the UK, we forget how exposed life can be.
LG: Farming that way is what one does for love now.
AH: What you do for love is what keeps your spirit alight. I think lots of people have that double-self. Better to have a double self than an extinguished self.
LG: And here’s that word again, lucky – we are the blessed of the earth to have leeway for such a thing.
AH: I was talking to a tuk-tuk driver in India around 2000. There were women outside our hotel, all day in the pre-monsoon sun, breaking stones that go on railroads. I said This really makes me feel sad. He said it shouldn’t. That was how he afforded his tuk- tuk. He said Those women are buying their children food and education. For them it’s a really good thing.
For all this darkness, you are also a poet of light. ‘Salt’ records your sister’s pleasure in using the hammock as a swing, before she broke her collar bone. ‘Bleedthrough’, takes as its starting point a Helen Frankenthaler’s painting (‘Sunset Corner’), with its layered and saturated cohesion of reds, within a framing of black. The poem responds in waves to an explicitly female sense of self – that “world of women with its four fleshed walls/ of love” – and questions how it speaks through and into art, but also how it makes art of the lived female life. Honouring your mother’s ability to “turn the most unlikely// raw materials to gladness”, you also acknowledge the fierce energy of fertility and menstruation – “the body/ in even its / flourishing seethes and cramps” – from which you move to the “labor-in-the-flesh” of painting – “the wash/ of acrylic, / the retinal flare”.
The closing image in ‘Bleedthrough’ is of a “just pubescent” girl washing out cloth stained with what appears to be blood, and suggests that our ability to see, to make art, to have a sense of identity, all derive from the totality of our life-experiences:
The fretted cloth on the third or fourth rinsing goes yellow, goes brown, the young girl’s hands – she’s just pubescent – ache with cold. Some parts – the red’s bare memory now – were never bad. The sound of the water, for instance, the smell, the rim of the stain that’s last to go.
Although it’s a homely image, I wondered whether it might be fair to understand within this a refraction of your own transmuting of life into art, and a reflection of the way that working with even the most difficult materials, and making them over into a secondary medium, can contain its own healing and reconciliation? I’m thinking again of your recent ‘Love Poem’, in The New Yorker.
LG: I’m not from that generation of women poets who found it inherently compelling to write about menstruation But the beautifully saturated colours in the Helen Frankenthaler painting did make me think about my mother when she was growing up: there were no such things as disposable sanitary products; they used cloth which had to be washed. There is a way in which the body comes, the senses come, to claim things.
AH: Every woman has had to wash stained underwear.
LG: And deal with the sanitary pads.
AH: Yes! The giant, bulky things.
LG: I didn’t dislike that smell. I was in horror at the thought that someone else might smell it of course, but I rather liked it. I guess it’s just the blessing of the physical. When you are trying to wash blood out of things, you have to use very, very cold water lest you set the stain, and the coldness hurts your hands. It’s not about anything else. It’s just itself.
AH: It’s wonderful.
LG: At some point in my life I’m going to write an ode to lochia.
AH: That would be a really strong project. I think also, in a way blood is our ink, the ink our bodies make. It’s what literally connects all our parts. It’s the liquid in which we write the experience of our lives internally, but is made manifest externally – either through trauma, or through this natural process of menstruation. It can feel very delicate to approach – trying to reclaim a bodily part of ourselves, that is symbolic of our fertility – of our still livingness – of our aliveness, so we can write into our larger place of being. It’s a mysterious poem – but it’s also an anchored poem, in the physical self.
LG: And maybe it’s just that very particular combination of centring experiences.
AH: Also, as you say, just thinking about that sense that when you wash something – whatever the cause of the stain – you are transposing it, you are creating a ritual of transformation to arrive in another place. In the same way, when we make art, we are also engaging in a sustained ritual of transformation that takes us to another place, that engages this other material – but also in some ways releases us from it so we get that distance which allows us to make and to invent rather than just be a kind of straight newspaper reporter.
LG: That is very well put.
AH: Thank you. ‘Still Life’ closes Prodigal. Structured as couplets, the poem moves through deaths further afield – photographed in Qaa, and in Krakow during World War II – to a father dying from cancer. You allude in the final section to images derived from still lives, known in French as ‘nature morte’, whereby the marks of beginning death – “The lemon,/ for example, where the knife has been;” are what enable us paradoxically to recognize the “luminescent heart” of life. The poem, and the collection, end:
I see you in the mirror every morning where you wait for me. The linen, Father, lemon, knife, the pewter with its lovely reluctance to shine. As though the given world had given us a second chance.
Would you like to say something about this ending?
LG: I come back again and again to writing to and about my father – when he was alive, we didn’t have a sufficient language together. I was more or less useless in his world. He never gave me that impression, never said such a thing, but all the things he did in the world, I just no good at. I was sickly. I was bookish. If I ventured into the garden, I succumbed to hay fever. Useless. And later, I was simply flailing about, trying to find a life of my own –
AH: That was so different from anyone your family had yet made?
LG: Different, yes. I never had the wherewithal or the presence of mind to ask him more about his life. When my father was older we – my husband and I and our two children – would visit my parents twice a year. Once in the summer, and once at Christmas. Each time we left — car packed to the gills, kids in their car seats, a mountain of snow on either side of the drive at Christmas time or summer heat and the corn getting high — I remember looking back, my parents on the porch outside the kitchen waving goodbye to us, and I would be seized with grief. We never found a way of being together, my father and I, so every time I left and knew it was that much closer to the end, I was simply seized with grief. I haven’t felt that way about any other loss. I suppose I keep trying to find my way to him by writing.
AH: He lives through your words, for us. He is a very powerful presence. While you don’t deny his complexity – you allow it with a sort of generosity. You allow it its strength, through your own tenderness and compassion. Your father’s seems to be a life that is very valuable to be able to speak of at firsthand. These complex male lives, which are not spoken by themselves beyond their circle, can be otherwise lives that people don’t have imaginative access to, even though they are lived by millions of people. I think it’s a really meaningful project, and a deep creative spur. It is a wonderful place to end the collection – with that sense of him appearing to you in the mirror. That sense of his presence, which is present in your own reflection. Thank you so much Linda Gregerson.
Photograph of Linda Gregerson by Nina Subin
Prodigal: New and Selected Poems, 1976-2014 (Mariner Books, 2015)
The Selvage (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012)
Magnetic North (Houghton Mifflin, 2007)
Waterborne (Houghton Mifflin, 2002)
The Woman Who Died in Her Sleep (Houghton Mifflin, 1996)
Fire in the Conservatory (Dragon Gate Press, 1982)
Negative Capability: Contemporary American Poetry (University of Michigan Press, 2001)
The Reformation of the Subject: Spenser, Milton and the English Protestant Epic (Cambridge University Press, 1995)