Updated: May 2, 2021
Linda Gregg is one of my closest poetry friends. Yet Linda Gregg died of cancer in March 2019, and I never met her. A great American poet, yet somehow still in the shadow of her former partner and lifelong friend Jack Gilbert, she is barely discussed on this side of the Atlantic. It took me until the first months of lockdown last year to realise that she had died. Feeling rather disembodied myself last March, I had asked a friend, Charles, for poetry podcast recommendations, and he had reminded me about the Poetry Foundation’s, among others. OK, I thought, Of course, and headed straight over. The first thing I found there shocked me: Poets We Lost This Year—among them, Linda Gregg (https://www.poetryfoundation.org/podcasts/151955/poets-we-lost-this-year).
Shock? More like a weirdly strong grief. Weird because I had previously felt nothing for her at all. Sure, I was aware of her as a name in many of Jack Gilbert’s poems, part of his story. But nothing more.
Maybe it was just the intensity of lockdown: my feelings seemed especially strong and vivid around this moment, like the peculiarly emotional colours in a Howard Hodgkin painting. Maybe it was the fact I had been ill for a month or more with something that felt like a rogue, undercover COVID without the headline symptoms—something lingering and debilitating that left me unable to write or really focus on anything much at all.
Whatever it was, I felt I had really lost something in her death. I couldn’t have explained that feeling to you, but it was an absolute. Something deeply instinctual was moving me along towards her. Oddly, I didn’t listen to that podcast first. Instead, I began to scour YouTube for readings and lectures, suddenly hungry for something from her, ravenous in fact. As if I sensed she had a message for me, or something more than a single message. I began to listen. I ordered her last published collection from 2008, All of It Singing, her New and Selected Poems, and began to read. It was April, 2020. My body began to heal at last with the spring, and I began to talk to Linda as she began to speak to me.
To backtrack slightly. I had very much liked the poems of Jack Gilbert for a number of years, though I hadn’t read all of his work. On my writing days, in the shower after my workouts, I would play a YouTube video of Joseph Stroud reading ‘Nights and Four Thousand Mornings’ in a bookshop reading given for Jack when he was very ill with dementia—just a few months before his death in 2012 (https://youtu.be/yjW5o5tiNh8 ). It was part of my starting ritual. I had watched the other videos from the rest of the reading and heard Linda read ‘Looking Away from Longing’ once or twice, but hadn’t paid her much attention. In Jack’s poems, she is a key presence, one of the handful of lovers he mentions by name, and to whom he regarded himself as married for a number of years in the 60s and 70s. What kind of presence is she there?
Distressed, most often, magnificent always. Invoked but not described. Greek goddess (they lived very meagrely on places like Paros together for years). You know when you read that the distress is caused by him: he doesn’t hide that from you. Neither does he hide her power:
Watching my wife out in the full moon,
the sea bright behind her across the field
and through the trees. Eight years
and her love for me quieted away.
How fine she is. How hard we struggle.
‘Trying to Be Married’
Or there’s ‘her blondeness and ivory coming up/out of the blue Aegean;’ Linda as part goddess, part Ursula Andress. Or Linda domestic, in a line I absolutely marvel at: ‘Me cleaning squid. Linda getting up from a chair.’ Gilbert has a way with vocabulary and syntax that makes Linda magic herself into presence from almost nothing. Everything is slow and brutal, painful and luminous. Simplicity is a point of honour, and it seems to make the poems magical. Whenever and however she appears in them—weeping, sexually potent, an immortal—she seems to be a poem within the poem. This goes beyond eros, somehow, beyond being a muse. She is poetry. Now, I somehow think this has little to do with Jack Gilbert and a lot to do with her. But back then, pre-Covid, I wasn’t fully cognisant of this.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. In the series of posts that follow, I want to pay tribute to both her and Gilbert. To her especially. I want to prevent her disappearing. I also want to create a record of that time in the first lockdown that I spent largely in her company, and to think about her importance to me. To that end, I’m aiming to post twice a week on this blog, once with a poetry article that may or may not be about Gregg (there are lots of other things I want to write about) and the second time with one of my ‘6 things’ journal entries.
Gregg’s favourite creative writing exercise that she gave to all her students was to ‘see six things in the world each day’ and plainly write them down. Since I heard about the exercise last April, I have been doing this almost every day, and the effect has been profound. I see better, now. I feel better, somehow, too, as in feel feelings better, and listen to my mind more. More of that in subsequent posts.
‘I could be the ghost of my own life returning/to the places I lived best,’ she writes in ‘Adult.’ More than Hardy or Keats, she was and is both ghost and flesh. I like the emptiness where she is. I’ll show you. Come.