A hilariously smug Christian poses this question to Jack Gladney in White Noise, as they contemplate the aftermath of what everyone’s euphemistically calling the ‘airborne toxic event.’ In its end-time confidence, it’s sort of the ultimate anti-poetic question. Poets – poets of our time – tend to be present-moment mavens, anxiously, ecstatically, completely committed to intensity of earthbound experience. Linda Gregg, who died this week, was prominent among them.

For years she lived on Greek islands with Jack Gilbert (she dedicated one of her books to him, with the epigraph It was like being alive twice.), himself a quintessential greed of being poet:

Using up what
little time we have, relishing our mortality,
waltzing slowly without purpose. Neglecting
the future. Content to let the garden fail
and the house continue on in its usual disorder […]
Hesitant occasions of pride, feeling himself feeling.
Waking in the night and lying there. Discovering
the past in wonderful stillness. […] Above all,
his greed. Greed of time, of being. 

A friend once mentioned to Gregg the name of a painting by Paul Thek – While there’s still time, let’s go out and feel everything – and she loved it and said Jack would have loved it.

One form of poetry you get with this disposition – and both Gilbert and Gregg wrote this way – is a seemingly dashed-off-from-this-moment’s-feelings, impressionistic set of tenuously connected statements and images, inside of which lies the somewhat hidden, somewhat obliquely referenced, tragic nature of life. Because there’s obviously a price to be paid for this seriously committed ecstatically open presentness – Gilbert talks about the price explicitly in this poem – and because, as some sage put it, Wherever you go, there you are. Which is to say, let’s not pretend that while you’re getting a major bang out of a Milos sunset, you’re not a neurotic like everyone else, with an inescapable personal history.

So… a poem of Gregg’s to remember her by. I’ll interrupt it with commentary. Go here for the uninterrupted poem.

Looking for Each of Us

[The title I think contains a double meaning: She’s looking for the meaning of her past, and the past of her now-departed lover Gilbert, in a bunch of postcards she saved from those years. She’s also doing the work of looking for both of them, in the sense of her having taken on an obligation.]

I open the box of my favorite postcards   
and turn them over looking for de Chirico   
because I remember seeing you standing   
facing a wall no wider than a column where   
to your left was a hall going straight back
into darkness, the floor a ramp sloping down  

[de Chirico because his surrealistic paintings often feature weird mysterious interiors/architectures with lots of open spaces and ancient statuary – all of this richly suggestive material for a woman trying to fill in the gaps of her romantic past in Greece.]

to where you stood alone and where the room   
opened out on your right to an auditorium   
full of people who had just heard you read   
and were now listening to the other poet.   

[She recalls maybe their first encounter at one of his readings; his partial emergence behind partial walls, columns, in the dark… A figure for her never quite getting him, or never quite getting his vacant, open, shadowy, setting – his existential location – clearly looked at.]

I was looking for the de Chirico because of   
the places, the empty places. The word   
“boulevard” came to mind.

[Came to mind, perhaps, because the world she’s remembering was broadly open – as broad as a Parisian boulevard … And while all that openness was then, let’s say, beckoning and sexy, in retrospect, having been in various ways wounded in their relationship, it now has a more de Chirico feel – ominous, even threatening.]

Standing on the side   
of the fountains in Paris where the water   
blew onto me when I was fifteen. It was night.   

[Again an image of her peripherality to, partial understanding of, a scene – as she was peripheral to Gilbert at the reading. She recalls being at the “side” of the fountain, aware of it mainly because of the water it blew onto her, and of her being in the dark. There’s visceral experience when you’re young – the water – and there’s detached retrospection when you’re older.]

It was dark then too and I was alone.   
Why didn’t you find me? Why didn’t   
somebody find me all those years?

[Here I think she’s back to the scene at the poetry reading – another dark shadowy setting of insufficient knowledge. She recalls her lonely youth, as she went “undiscovered” for so long by people like Gilbert, who should have recognized right away the love she had to give.]

The form  of love was purity. An art. An architecture.   
Maybe a train. Maybe the shadow of a statue   
and the statue with its front turned away   
from me. Maybe one young girl playing alone,   
hearing even small sounds ring off cobblestones   
and the stone walls.

[Her engagement with de Chirico’s visual world continues as she recalls her pre-sexual world of aesthetic feeling. Each of her maybes describes an image in a de Chirico painting, with the sense of her own peripherality and insufficient understanding implicit in his scenes: the statue’s front is turned away from her; the avidly sensitive, avidly feeling, young girl is desperate to hear even the smallest meaningful sounds from the world around her… In a way she’s returned to that world now.]

I turn the cards looking   
for the one and come to Giacometti’s eyes   
full of caring and something remote.
His eyes are loving and empty, but not with   
nothingness, not for the usual reasons, but because   
he is working.

[Still not finding the de Chirico, the poet finds a photograph of another artist, Giacometti, whose love, like her earlier, pre-sexual love, expresses something purely aesthetic and has nothing for her emotionally – and the implicit comparison here is with her poet/lover, whose love for her similarly turned out to be, let’s say, more about being engrossed in aesthetic “work” than about human caring.]

The Rothko Chapel empty. A cheap   
statue of Sappho in the modern city of Mytilene   
and ancient sunlight. David Park’s four men   
with smudges for mouths, backed by water,   
each held still by the impossibility of what   
art can accomplish.
A broken river god,
only the body. A girl playing with her rabbit in bed.   
The postcard of a summer lightning storm over Iowa.

The poem concludes with a cascade of images – one postcard after another glanced at on the way to the de Chirico she’s still after and won’t find – so she won’t find the clarity she seeks. She finds instead art’s oblique truths, with plenty of emptiness: Giacometti’s empty eyes; the empty Rothko Chapel; vast ancient sunlight in a cheapened world. And then there’s a precise description of the Park painting, a painting which accomplishes perhaps exactly what Gilbert and Gregg were ultimately, with all their intensity of movement, after: being “held” in the moment of fullness and intensity forever. Which is what powerful poems do: They elaborate such moments so strongly as to arrest them.

But now? The men’s godlike reality in their generative hyper-present moment, captured by the artist, is only painted body now – cheapened, broken. And the next image – the girl playing with the rabbit on her bed – is not I think a postcard, but a personal memory stirred by all of the images she has seen. It’s a kind of sudden reversion to the real – not passion, not art, but plain old autobiography — her own inescapable personal history.

By the time we get to her final postcard, we’ve transcended even personal history: The summer lightning storm over Iowa zooms everything out to nature as its blind tragic force crashes over the best-laid passionate intensities and geographical exoticisms. We end in Iowa.

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