In the postwar era, the lyric poem became the special property of the confessional poets and, in turn, became the vehicle of self-expression in which solitary poets often dismissed even the most sympathetic readers as intrusive. However, Linda Gregerson perceives lyric poetry as a social contract in which the poet invites readers into the rhetorical environment of the lyric text. Whatever the autobiographical prompt, whatever the poet’s emotional investment, the poem is ultimately a collaborative effort (much like the theater work that shaped Gregerson’s collegiate experience), a rhetorical contract between two isolated individuals, the reader and the poet. Thus, whatever allusions or historic references Gregerson brings to her lyric verse (and they are considerable—indeed, she is often criticized for poetry that works too keenly, too deliberately with her scholarly interests), she strives for transparency. She often includes helpful footnotes to explicate her references.
In bringing the lyric poem into a contemporary culture, Gregerson contributed to that form, traditionally defined by excessive emotionalism, a spare, haiku-like sensibility. This structured feel (she is particularly enamored with the airy lightness of the tercet form) is infused with feeling—most often the sorrows and joys of being time-bound—and is subtly pressured into the reader’s experience through the manipulation of diction and syntax, syllables and pauses, and lines sculpted with cool concision that reveal their densities only in rereadings.
The Woman Who Died in Her Sleep
Although Gregerson had published a limited edition collection more than a decade earlier, The Woman Who Died in Her Sleep largely introduced Gregerson to a national audience. If the collection of lyric poems can be said to have a theme, it is the confrontation with the stark evidence of mortality, specifically the graceless havoc wrought on the body. These are harrowing poems about sudden traumatic accidents, long-term sicknesses, incontrovertible cancer diagnoses, the atrocities of civilian casualties in a brutal civil war, the grim reality of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), and the genetic catastrophes that result in long-term institutionalization. These are poems about surgeons, X-ray technicians, and paramedics, each compelled to do what the poet is doing: confront the suffering that the flesh must endure and the vulnerability of those who must live within time’s unyielding rush. Gregerson investigates nature itself as a cycle of growth and inevitable decay and places the human...
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