Linda Gregg was late to her poetry reading at Butler University last Tuesday because she stopped to call an ambulance when she saw a man collapse in the street on the way to the pre-reading dinner. She is committed to poetry, but more committed to life, a quality that comes through strongly in her work. Known for a sharp eye, she allows the beauty and terror of the world to quicken through language rather than force it into cumbersome metaphors. Hers is a figure of quiet might in the poetry world. Her most recent book, All of it Singing is a collection of new and selected poems that spans her thirty-year career. She read from the collection at Butler University on March 27 as part of the University's Vivian S. Delbrook Visiting Writers Series.
When she entered the room, Linda Gregg had the look of a creature that has spent much of its life underground. She is a self-proclaimed country girl who famously lived in a remote area of Greece for eight years with little more than three oil lamps and a mattress. Her life has been devoted to teaching and writing poetry, an occupational focus that lends itself more to meditative introspection than extroverted socializing. She spoke haltingly after being introduced by an undergraduate, her voice was quiet and almost breaking, which is startling for someone who is so direct and plain on the page. She opened with "The Girl I Call Alma," a poem from her first collection, Too Bright to See. Her voice husky, her pace slow. The word "fuck" falls easily from her lips. As she leans into the final lines, the breathiness clears from her voice. She finishes with emphasis, looking the audience squarely in the eyes.
Many of her poems follow this vocal pattern as she moved through six of her eight collections. Her work is deeply rooted in the ancient and the natural, is expressed in unornamented but beautiful language with careful attention to sound and lineation, and often contains moments of surprising humor, seen in pieces like "Alone with the Goddess." In it, an old woman tells the speaker that the sea pushing her offering back means that the goddess does not accept her gift. The speaker replies "... perhaps she likes me / and we are playing a game."
Other poems she read were more tragic, such as "The Poet Goes About Her Business," about a friend's young daughter who died of leukemia. It contains lots of sonic echo and gentle gutturals, giving the impression of stones being massaged in the back of the throat. "Lies and Longing" explores the women in a cityscape of the homeless who possess items like "... a rock that means honor / and a piece of fur." Those sorts of single syllable words with deep associations are common in Gregg's poetry. "The Weight," details the relationship of two horses through tender images of their life together with a calm focus on their physical forms and movement. She closes with "Let Birds," which originally appeared in Chosen by the Lion, a book written after the ending of her illustrious relationship with poet Jack Gilbert. It is a powerful piece invoking the joy of simple objects such as "leaf," "jaw," and "teeth," and was the perfect closing to a set of poems with such strong devotion to the natural world.