Shocking Intimacies – A Correspondence in Poetry between Jack Gilbert and Linda Gregg-

In 1981 the American poet Linda Gregg published her first poetry collection, Too Bright To See – a remarkable debut in its own right. But it was made even more memorable by the raw and forthright poems directly and indirectly referencing her eight year marriage/relationship with poet Jack Gilbert and his infidelities.(See previous blogs dated Dec. 4th, 2012 and Nov. 30th, 2012.) The book has many surprises but one stands out the most. In spite of not pulling her punches in her poems about Jack she dedicated her book to him: For Jack Gilbert. It Was Like Being Alive Twice.

That phrase It was like being alive twice, which I believe is originally from Li Po, the Chinese Tang Dynasty poet, shows up twice in the book, most notably, in light of the dedication, in this excerpt from the poem The Defeated.

I had warm pumpernickel bread, cheese and chicken.
It wa sunny outside. I miss you. My head is tired.
John was nice this morning. Already what I remember
most of the happiness of seeing you. Having tea.
Falling asleep. Waking up with you there awake
in the kitchen. It was like being alive twice.
I’ll try to tell you better when I am stronger.

What does the moth think when the skin begins to split?
Is the air an astonishing pain? I keep seeing the arms
bent. The legs smashed up against the breasts,
with her sex showing. The weak hands clenched.
I see the sad, unused face. The she starts to stand up
in the opening out. I know ground and trees.
I know air. But then everything else stops
because I don’t know what happened after that.

Linda Gregg from The Defeated in Too Bright To See, Graywolf Press, 1981

Ouch! Ouch! How she captures the “isness” of the shock, the moment. And the poem ends, as if at a cliff’s edge. Everyone, including the reader, swaying at that edge.

And another. Her emotion again palpable. And again the stopped time at the end. The emotional vertigo. The stark shock of the first line. The unsettling strangeness of the last line. Its irony. To grow specific without being specific!

The Wife

My husband sucks her tits.
He walks into the night, her Roma, his being alive.
Toward that outer love. I wait in the hotel
until four. I lurch from the bed
talking to myself, watch my face in the mirror.
I change my eyes, making them darker.
Take it easy, I say. It is a long time to wait in,
this order of reality. My presence stings.
I grow specific without consequence.

Linda Gregg,  ibid

Coincidence? In 1982 Gilbert published Monolithos, just his second book after a twenty year gap. It was dedicated To Linda Gregg with admiration and love. It in no way tried to rebut Gregg. Quite the contrary. While he doesn’t explicitly own up to the infidelities Gregg charges him with (that comes later in other books) he also documents the end of their marriage but the tone is so different, more distant, measured. It begins an extraordinary published poetic correspondence between them that goes on for another twenty plus years. And in spite or because of it they remained devoted friends to the end of Gilbert’s life in late 2012.

Here is an excerpt from Gilbert’s poem All the Way from There to Here:

What I remember best of the four years of watching
in Greece and Denmark and London and Greece is Linda
making lunch. Her blondness and ivory coming up
out of the blue Aegean. Linda walking with me daily
across the island from Monolithos to Thira and back.
That’s what I remember most of death:
the gentleness of us in that bare Greek Eden,
the beauty as the marriage steadily failed.

Jack Gilbert from Monolithos, Alfred A. Knopf, 1982

And here is another poem, more explicit but still without Gregg’s startling explicit declarations.

Walking Home Across the Island

Walking home across the plain in the dark.
And Linda crying. Again we have come
to a place where I rail and she suffers and the moon
does not rise. We have only each other,
but I am shouting inside the rain
and she is crying like a wounded animal,
knowing there is no place to turn. It is hard
to understand how we could be brought here by love.

Jack Gilbert, ibid

But no matter the difference between the two descriptions these poets give of their failing marriage the intimacy they share with their readers is astonishing in its directness. I have experienced two marriages that ended and I consider these poems a gift. Their insights from a dying marriage with little or no rancor or judgement – something more like bewilderment. Yes, I say. It is so difficult at a marriage’s end to understand how we could be brought there by love.

This next poem, its simple direct statements,its use of one and two word sentences, creates a tension made from the heart-breaking simplicity of the images and, for me, from the terrifying matter-of-factness of the last two lines.

A Kind of World

Things that are themselves. Waves water, the rocks
stone. The smell of her arms. Stillness. Windstorms.
The long silence again. The well. The rabbit. Heat.
Nipples and long thighs. Her heavy bright mane.
Plunging water flashing as she washes her body in the sun.
‘Perfect in whiteness.’ Light going away every evening
like some great importance. Grapes outside the windows,
Linda talking less and less. Going down to the sea
while she sleeps. Standing in the cold water to my mouth
just before morning. Linda saying late in the day
we should eat now or it would be too late to wash the dishes.
She going out quietly afterward to scream in into the wind
from the ocean. Coming in. Lighting the lamps.

Could I ever imagine a metaphor of divorce as bright moonlight on concrete? Something that stark and unyielding? After this small poem I could.

Divorce

Woke up suddenly thinking I heard crying.
Rushed through the dark house.
Stopped, remembering. Stood looking
out at the bright moonlight on concrete.

Rarely are we shown glimpses this real inside the mysteriousness of marriage.

While Gilbert’s poems in Monolithos reveal intimate moments in the coming apart of his marriage to Gregg he ups the ante dramatically tens years later in his next book The Great Fires. It is here that he documents in vivid and shocking detail his affair with Anna in Demark when he was married to Gregg. These poems startle me each time I read them again. Especially Moment of Grace and Trying To Have Something Left Over. But the poem that sears me most with its openess is Infidelity. Here is an excerpt from the poem’s last part.

…………….Now it is the last time ever.
He finally knocks. Her eyes widen when she opens
the door. She looks to indicate her husband is home
as she unbuttons her dress. He whispers that his hands
are too cold. It will make me remember better,
she says, and puts them on her nakesness, wincing,
eyes wild with love. It is snowing when he leaves,
the narrow street lit here and there by shop windows.
Tomorrow he will be on the train with his wife, watching
the shadows on the snow. Going south to live silently
with perfect summer skies and the brilliant Aegean.

It seems only fitting to end this blog with Gilbert’s poem from The Great Fires dedicated to Gregg.

A Year Later
(for Linda Gregg)

From this distance they are unimportant
standing by the sea. She is weeping, wearing
a white dress, and the marriage is almost over,
after eight years. All around is the flat
uninhabited side of the island. The water
is blue in the morning air. They did not know
this would happen when they came, just the two
of them and the silence.  A purity that looked
like beauty and was too difficult for people.

One Comment

  1. Liz
    Posted February 9, 2013 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    Richard,
    Thank you for this. You navigate this journey of love, intimacies and loss so beautifully. I so appreciate your own vulnerability in this and most of all the insights you provide to Gilbert and Gregg; and to our ourselves.
    Liz

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