In the Middle Distance

In the Middle Distance, which received the 2006 PEN/Voelker Award in poetry, is about the relationship between love and painlove in this case meaning all kinds of attachment, any attraction that draws the mind out from itself. The appropriately chosen cover art displays a sixteenth century painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder, known for his moralist art, of Venus and Cupid stealing honey. Both subjects are naked. Their bower is full of angry bees, and Cupid winces with pain as he holds the hive. Venus seems distant, almost disinterested in his pain. The fable was that Cupid, having stolen honey, complained how much pain the tiny bees produced, and Venus, his mother, told him that he was small, too, and that his arrows caused hurt more intense than that of the bees. The quatrain giving the Latin moral of the fable is part of the painting and translates to something like: “When Cupid stole the honey from the hive/ A bee stung the thief on the finger./ And if we also seek pleasures brief and dangerous/ Sadness will mix in with them and bring us pain.” There is an interesting contrast between the paintingthe nude mother and son, the beehive in his hands, the mother’s apparent lack of concern with the son’s painand the moral, which makes of the scene a lesson. There is something of this combination in the poemspain, wisdom, a learned detachment that provides another way of seeing.

The poems are about love and solitude, and about what each costs. The connection between pleasure and pain, and how they depend upon each other, is explored in a number of scenes of memory and longing. What comes through most strongly in this collection is a sense of achieved solitudebeing alone is a state desired by the speaker for contemplation and inspiration, yet the heightened sense of awareness that comes with solitude brings pain also. Past passions are looked at from a distance; the present is a lucent time of meditation.

Gregg’s poems have always gracefully expressed loss and sorrow; this collection marks a kind of reconciliation with loss and a resignation to its inevitability. The title may suggest middle-aged reflections, and the work has a midlife mixture of elegy and promise. What does pain teach? the poems sometimes ask, in many ways, and they provide a variety of answers which all add up to the conclusion that pain teaches wisdom. The persona is generally a woman in her middle life, taking stock. There is sadness and pleasure related to the past. The question of romance, always present in Gregg’s workwhat is romance, what does it take and give?is found here, too, but more through memory, more quietly suggested. Romance becomes largely a matter of the mind. Eros is present but veiled. The poems have a dignity of carriage. They invite the reader to accompany the speaker through the late summer garden.

Gregg writes in free verse. The poems in In the Middle Distance are mostly short; they are in traditional left-justified free verse style, with no postmodernist typographical play. The poems have true density. Every word counts, and the premise or observation that underlies each work is developed seriously, indirectly, and without evasion. Strongly present in the book is the idea of guilt and punishment, delight and the aftermath of its opposite, that is represented on the book’s cover.

Appropriate to the verse is the lack of gimmickry: The poems are not in any edgy format or arrangement, they are not heavy with epigraphs, and there are no notes to them. There is no grand narrative that controls them, except for that of the individual sentience in the indifferent universe and the tales one tells oneself to keep alive. Nevertheless, some of the work leans toward transcendence. The final desire is for a metaphysical, not a physicalor not only a physicalcompanion. The desire in some of these poems diffuses into such a longing. W. S. Merwin comments, “They are inseparable from the surprising, unrolling, eventful, pure current of their language, and they convey at once the pain of individual loss, a steady and utterly...

(The entire section is 1664 words.)