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"Information, Thy Nemesis is Reverie"

How Devin Johnston and Linda Gregg chase the Romantic.
"When I reflect that the most contemporary-sounding poems sound the least lonely, I wonder where reverie, as a mode of poetic thinking, is going."
Sources, by Devin Johnston.Turtle Point Press. $15.95.
All of It Singing, by Linda Gregg. Graywolf Press. $24.00.

Just three years ago I was sitting in a room of a Madison Avenue office tower, listening to my boss make a pitch to his boss, a hedge fund manager. Normally, during my spotty career as "content specialist" in various capacities, meetings were an opportunity to get hopped up on coffee and doodle. This was not to happen in front of a man whose day was micro-scheduled in fifteen-minute increments. Instead I listened dutifully to a plan to build a mirror site for the hedge fund's server "outside the blast zone," in the blueberry fields of New Jersey. At least the information would survive, even if we didn't.

Information, thy nemesis is reverie. The reverie I used to fall into, for instance, when I didn't care to listen in meetings. The reverie of great poetry, for another instance. But when I reflect that the most contemporary-sounding poems sound the least lonely, I wonder where reverie, as a mode of poetic thinking, is going. I also wonder if the store of knowledge unique to the poetic tradition of reverie will survive—or if it will morph into something at all recognizable to, say, Sappho:

Some say flashing metal, some say fire,
others call a Sea Harrier
in vertical ascent
the loveliest sight
that dark earth offers. I say
whatever you love most.

Everybody knows—every day
some Helen leaves her husband, home,
and daughter, to board a train that's bound
for Shreveport or Cheyenne

—led astray, I almost said

but that she steps
so lightly down.
Which brings to mind Elena—
she's not here.

I'd rather catch her eye
across the shop
counter than watch
a full squadron rise
by vectored thrust
above the dunes.

Devin Johnston calls his translation "After Sappho," partly to indicate its looseness, but also possibly to suggest that a paradigm shift places us truly "after" Sappho. The original poem is arguably the blueprint for Western lyric poetry: it crystallized a philosophy, a stance. "Whatever you love most" heralded individual autonomy.

"After Sappho" is found in Johnston's new book, Sources. It follows three previous books: two books of poems, Aversions and Telepathy, and a book of prose, Precipitations. Each of these one-word titles has spiritualist associations: "precipitations" from alchemy, "aversions" from Roman religious rituals, "telepathy" from parapsychology, and "sources" was a word Robert Duncan used to refer to the influences (itself a word with astrological glints) that a poet accretes through long study of the art. Of course, sources are also those springs in the mountains from whence rivers flow. In Johnston's poetry they are not only origins, they are destinations; all binaries melt away, as in the Herakleitos epigraph he uses to launch the book: "To live is to die, to be awake is to sleep,/to be young is to be old..."

This, then, is poetry firmly in the grip of reverie. Johnston's sources come from the meshing of things read and things dreamt: the opening poem, "Sleeping In," evokes centuries of English lyric with its hypnopompic narrator and hammering warbler—alloy of Keats and Yeats. "The Golden Hinde" is a surreal odyssey in the English galleon up the California coast; "Names of Birds" lists, Edward Gorey-like, the fanciful demises met by some ornithologists. He can write about the source of a mere door in a way that Hopkins, coiner of "inscape," would recognize, imagining the wood as a tree in a field where ticks "triggered to jump" prefigure the "action of its lock." He also writes about it in a way Christopher Middleton would recognize, bringing the resources of carpenter and freight hauler—the human labor—into poetic play. One of my favorite poems, "The Ghostwriter," is about a magnate who contracts a ghostwriter for a vanity project, then takes credit for the work when it makes his daughter weep. So often, as in life, sources are rendered invisible or obfuscated. "Friends" ends with an anecdote about rail steel cracking in winter, causing a methanol spill:

The rail steel had proved
impure, manufactured
in the last diminished blaze
of Bethlehem, before the mills shut down.

I also hear the mills of Blake and the star that guided the Wise Men in the last two lines; suddenly Yeats is in there too, a nod to "The Second Coming." Johnston also rewrites Yeats in "An Emblem of Byzantium," striking fear into my heart describing electronic warfare aircraft: "Hammers never took your form/from any living thing." In this, as in "After Sappho," Johnston acknowledges the ways in which we live under the shadow of war. Amid his mists and shades, an occasional metallic gleam.

Johnston's care and precision with line and pause (he takes advantage of a range of measures and modes, suggesting now the haiku, now the ballad) bring to mind Bunting's "pens are too light./Take a chisel to write" even when the sightlines sometimes get foggy. Take "Sonogram," an understated addition to a new genre; I am uncertain of what its last line, "imaginary gains," might mean, or what the emotional register actually is. But in his figuration of thought—thoughts as sails, for instance—and in his intuition that the natural world itself thinks, as in "Avec Glacon," Johnston taps into a way of knowing and sensing that is poetry's own:

Among our speculations

the last foliole
of tender leaf

makes so light a point

that even dragonflies
can only hover near,


* * *

It might be too much of a stretch, but I'd like to suggest there is a family resemblance between Linda Gregg and Devin Johnston: Gregg was the student and bride of Jack Gilbert, himself a student in Jack Spicer's "Magic Workshop" in San Francisco in the sixties; Johnston is the scholar of Spicer's friend and rival, Robert Duncan. Both Gregg and Johnston incline to the romantic-visionary strain of poetry which Duncan and Spicer serve as conduits. Both traffic in gleams and glimpses of beauty in reverie, and listen for otherworldly messages. All of It Singing: New and Selected Poems condenses the persona Gregg has crafted over decades, that of the restless beauty, mysteriously without employment, escaping to the Aegean Islands and to the myths of Orpheus and Aphrodite. It serves an indulgent loneliness:

When the men leave me,
they leave me in a beautiful place.
It is always late summer.
When I think of them now,
I think of the place.
And being happy alone afterwards.
This time it's Clinton, New York.
I swim in the public pool
at six when the other people
have gone home.
The sky is grey, the air hot.
I walk back across the mown lawn
loving the smell and the houses
so completely it leaves my heart empty.
Summer in a Small Town

Like Sappho, Gregg thinks the loveliest sight the dark earth offers is whatever you love best, and for her that is not so much a lover or a city as the flow they attain once they've passed into memory. And so with her language: compressed but unadorned, it recedes into the horizon of what can be called prosody. Almost always ending on a fade rather than a bang, her poems insist on tranquility and evanescence, on instinct over intellect. Seldom does a line or image call attention to itself. You could say, in Gregg's aesthetic, the materiality of words is to be resisted. The poem exists in the moment of apprehension, as perfume exists in the moment it's inhaled. That's why she can say, in "The Presence in Absence,"

Poetry is not made of words.
I can say it's January when
it's August. I can say, "The scent
of wisteria on the second floor
of my grandmother's house
with the door open onto the porch
in Petaluma," while I'm living
an hour's drive from the Mexican
border town of Ojinaga.
It is possible to be with someone
who is gone.

That is, poetry cannot be made of words because words falsify; they can say one thing when the reality is altogether something else. But the double life that words allow is exactly where we find our poetry: hence the possibility of being with "someone/who is gone." Gregg seems to want to have it both ways here: a poetry without words, and no words that don't add up to poetry.

Gregg strives for an elegiac aura of timelessness in her images of sun, moon, sea, and peripatetic lovers. "The Weight" may be her very best poem in that mode—a delicate fable. What I most appreciate, though, is how much a woman of her time she was, and how new a thing it was. A worldly wanderer, unfettered by children, is a relatively new species of womanhood—and lonesomeness. (At times I could almost hear these poems as Joni Mitchell lyrics, circa Blue; they were born a year apart.) The facts of Gregg's life are known and unknown—marriage to Jack Gilbert; divorce; sojourns to Greece, Turkey, Mexico, Indonesia; love affairs. An acolyte of beauty, she writes (literally) a killer poem about Brigitte Bardot:

There she was on Entertainment Tonight.
Someone had caught a glimpse of Bardot
after all these years. Brigitte Bardot
running through the trees, across a meadow,
a dog running with her. The hair still long.
Then another part showing her on the patio,
aged. (Sun-damaged, we say.) The violation
of beauty never happens just once.
When my father heard his beloved dog
had chased and killed the rancher's sheep,
he went right out and shot it. Because,
he said, once they ran with the pack
and tasted blood, it would never stop.

This poem about the violation of beauty enacts its own violation. If serenity is one of her criteria for beauty, the image that blazes forth and leaves an indelible impression comes close to symbolic violence, a taste that quickly becomes a craving. In "Alone with the Goddess," young men are:

Sliding on and off
their beautiful horses
on the wet beach at Parangtritis.
And in "Hephaestus Alone" we are ravished by:
the green-fleshed
melons of Lindos, thalo blue of the sea.

The repetition of "alone" in those titles is enough to remind you that the observer is a violator. The Greek gods reserved special punishments for people who violated privacy like Bardot's, who with her dog recalls Artemis caught bathing by the unlucky Actaeon. Gregg withholds—like Bardot, like all proper goddesses. And then she flashes forth, permitting you a glimpse of her in a room with Joseph Brodsky and Mikhail Baryshnikov, from which springs an unexpected intensity, presence, lust for life.

The modesty of Gregg's and Johnston's poems is scaled to their importance in this world preoccupied by information, its value and its loss. It seems to me that the intuitions of reverie—gleams of beauty, portents of inscape—have always been carried into the future by the barest of chances, by a relative handful of devotees. Great wealth doesn't conspire to protect it from bombs. Quantitative algorithms might survive the blast zone, but they won't miss us. The tender intelligence of these books, on the other hand, would mean nothing without us.

More from this issue

This poem originally appeared in the November 2008 issue of Poetry magazine

  • Ange Mlinko was born in Philadelphia and earned her BA from St. John's College and MFA from Brown University. She is the author of four books of poetry: Marvelous Things Overheard (2013), which was selected by both the New Yorker and the Boston Globe as a best book of 2013; Shoulder Season (2010),...

Prose from Poetry Magazine

"Information, Thy Nemesis is Reverie"

How Devin Johnston and Linda Gregg chase the Romantic.
  • Ange Mlinko was born in Philadelphia and earned her BA from St. John's College and MFA from Brown University. She is the author of four books of poetry: Marvelous Things Overheard (2013), which was selected by both the New Yorker and the Boston Globe as a best book of 2013; Shoulder Season (2010),...

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