(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Linda Gregerson is an Illinois-born poet and Renaissance literature scholar who teaches at the University of Michigan; she has both an M.F.A. from the University of Iowa and a Ph.D. from Stanford University. Gregerson’s poetry in this collection has some similarity to that of Anne Carson, classics scholar and poet, in that it expresses and reflects the writer’s scholarly interests yet remains powerfully expressive poetry with a distinctive style and voice. Gregerson’s earlier collections, Fire in the Conservatory (1982) and The Woman Who Died in Her Sleep (1996), were informed by her interest in history, but Waterborne brings history to the forefront, shifting from well-known and little-known historical figures and events to personal experience in such a way as to illuminate both. Midwestern realism and an understanding of the European Renaissance mind-set prove an unusual combination. The central presence of the river pulls all the poet’s other concerns together. The details of landscape, the personal losses and gains, the well-known and obscure historical people and events that infiltrate the poet’s mind form currents and countercurrents.

“The river is largely implicit here,” Gregerson begins her title poem, and the rivers of this book, stated and implied, appear as metaphors for the interconnectedness of all life and the weblike interdependency of individuals and nature. The poetry has a characteristic form that underscores the theme of interdependency. Ordinarily, though not invariably, the poems are organized into three-line stanzas which create elliptical narratives and that violate syntax to suggest quirky echoes and conjunctions. The tercets are flexible and rangy, usually consisting of two longer lines with a short line, sometimes a single word, sandwiched between them. The first line is left- justified. The short middle line catches the focus and paces the tercet, which sometimes seems to want to jump out of the form and sprawl over the page, emphasizing its connections with the others. The closing line is indented, pulling eye and mind toward the next tercet. The form is attractive, providing minimal but definite control; the tercet is the dominant pattern in her previous book as well.

The poems are followed by a few notes; inclusion of such notes seems to be the trend in the many current poetry collections that focus flashlights on obscure corners of history. The notes identify events and works, mostly from the fifteenth through seventeenth centuries, that appear in the poems and fill in some background, though most of the meaning can be gleaned from the poems themselves. Other sources besides these early modern works include the Bible, classical materials, and current events. The simpler poems are transparent and the layered ones translucent; no gloss is really necessary. However, the factual material is sometimes surprisingly interesting in its own right, and the reader may find it interesting to read the notes alone.

The title poem is more like Gregerson’s earlier work, that is, more personal and less historically grounded, but it serves to introduce some of her most prominent motifs and images. The river’s ambiguities, its threats and gifts, are explored as they impact the lives of the speaker and her family and friends; there is a drowning, the inevitable pollution, the struggle of an uncle with confining regulations that interfere with his enjoyment of nature. The conclusion seems to suggest that living and writing the river become one. The river carries all the metaphorical freight that rivers always carry and more and may make the reader think of Robert Frost’s “West-Running Brook” which turns the brook into, among many other things, a physics principle. However, Gregerson’s river remains a real place, surrounded by particular plants and animals, causing local joys and griefs. The third section of the poem ends with an image of morning:

and look: the river lifts to its lover the sun in eddying layers of mist as though we hadn’t irreparably fouled the planet after all.

The neighbor’s favorite fishing place is by the sign prohibiting fishing:

you might almost say the sign is half the point. The vapors draft their languorous excurses on a liquid page. Better than the moment is the one it has in mind.

The physical seems charged with the metaphysical in this probing conclusion.

One of the most appealing poems is a simple elegy “Cord.” Dedicated to “O. T. G. 1912- 1994,” it describes the family’s use of the...

(The entire section is 1873 words.)