A Review of Linda Gregg’s Things and Flesh
Graywolf Press, 1999
In her most recent book of poems, Things and Flesh, Linda Gregg struggles to find a voice for the bathos of her subjective soul. While suffering and spiritual longings are the key themes in the collection, Gregg short-circuits any possibility of reaching anything that resembles universals by imposing an overly arch-poetic, yet prosaic stance, which comes across as flat. She mistakes her plainly spoken voice for lyricism, which is a form of aural narcissism. While she seems glibly satisfied with her voice, she also seems dispossessed by it, as if voice is a mere surface. The result demonstrates vanity at work, where rich inner things and acts of Grace are not real until a tired tongue filters them down.
For example, her retelling of the Philomel myth strips the mythic rebirth from the story and leaves the reader with a one-dimensional, sociological view of the story. The angry tone and clipped phrases echo the static hyper-sense of faux witness the poet aims for. The piece is too melodramatic to be considered tragic. Here’s the entire poem:
Not a Pretty Bird
She was not a nightingale
The end result leaves a “so what”, a flatness of vision and substance, in this reader’s mind. The problem is that this piece looks like a contemporary free-verse poem and is set up like one with such rhetorical devices as using the repeating not as a refrain, but is not a poem. Instead of being surprised and finding pleasure (arguably, the two criteria for successful art), we have to settle for weak commentary in overly sensational imagery. Is Gregg becoming the shock-jock of contemporary poetry?
Sadly, when Gregg sets her sights on the mystical heart of existence, the poems are equally dull and surface ridden. In The Center of Intent, after asking some pretty cliched spiritual questions, she throws in a few sentences that try to guess what God is up to: “Maybe love is the Lord’s trap.” Then ends “Perhaps He can’t experience the difference between/our pain, our loneliness, and the heron flying/through the special silence at evening.”
If wisdom is her target, Gregg is playing on the wrong field, shooting irreverent arrows of half-perceptions on her audience as if she had the Beatitudes for ammunition.Such insincere speculation into the nature of things, reminds this reviewer of the times when musician friends would smoke too much pot to complete a sentence, then try to talk about God. Even more sadly, Gregg ends with similar pronouncements as stoned philosophers . . . with a self-absorbed sense of pain rife with natural pathetic fallacy (i.e. the heron) sailing through a land that could only be described with the most abused word in the language, a word that’s so filled with ego and self-judgment that one who uses the word most assuredly is not having an awakening—the word is “special.”
Most of the poems in this collection are in this "gee-whiz” New Age pseudo deep category. With landscapes in Asia, Greece, Arkansas, and other places, none of the poems transcends the burdened expressions of their author. Rilke, Rumi, Yeats--she ain’t! Despite what the book jacket promises “All the poems . . . carry our grief across boundaries, over time, and perhaps even beyond, into what used to be called ‘salvation’” these poems, despite a few good lines, were not made in the forge that Blake termed “Poetic Genius.” In fact, there’s more passion and innovation in traditional Church liturgy than here. If salvation is real, these poems run from it and entrench themselves with grandiose pronouncements lacking the main ingredient of the prayerful life, humility. These ramblings may be of personal value to Gregg, but offer nothing to the reader. If she is seriously considering a theological position, may I humbly recommend a vow of silence.