Review: The Woman Who Died in Her Sleep by Linda Gregerson

The Woman Who Died in Her Sleep bravely explores the ways in which we encounter mortality: the assaults of disease and bodily harm, the cruel inequities of material and psychic well-being, domestic treachery, self-slaughter, failures of mind. Linda Gregerson’s poems emphasize the resourcefulness of the human spirit, the intelligence of the body, the abundant beauty of the created world. What I did love about these poems — many of them centered on young children — is the way they combine straightforwardness and complexity. Gregerson is not an ordinary believer, but the rhythms and icons of faith pervade her work. I also relish the music of these poems and the remarkable use of line breaks and patterns on the page, which give her poems aesthetic as well as moral authority. These are not light verses, far from it, but they are unashamedly poems of praise. Devotional, even celebratory in their cadence, they move with the gravity of high art.

Linda Gregerson writes with a quiet power and a subtle musicality about perseverance, suffering, grace, and hope in the face of disease and mortality. In The Resurrection of the Body, Gregerson paints a scene of love and determination at her child’s physical therapy clinic. As one mother wipes drool from her daughter’s mouth, Gregerson writes:

The mother would give her soul to see
this child lift her head on her own

These poems conjure such relationships with a balance of the graceful and the elemental. One need only to examine the title of the collection and the titles of the individual poems to know very quickly that the reader had better be prepared to encounter fear and pain and disillusionment: The Bad Physician, Bad Blood, Mother Ruin, Target, Bleedthrough, and on. She has sutured these poems together to yield a whole. Even those titles that appear harmless on the surface are tinged with a terrible irony. Safe, for example, is far from it.

Safe recounts the murder of a friend by a burglar. It is about the young daughter left behind and in the narrator’s care. It is about the inexplicable – tragedy and death without reason – and our utter lack of safety within this world – the world of man and the world of nature (the world of God is in here as well, but I’m not sure where to place it-but it is present on nearly every page).

The poem has three parts and yields to three lasting images: the repair of the woman’s flesh on the operating table (useless, as the poem’s dedication makes clear – there is no salvation in these poems); the child who is left, a baby, juxtaposed to the “child” that commits the murder (“And the nineteen-year-old burglar…he must have been harmless once”); and the house that should be mother and daughter’s protection from the world (from another poem dealing with political ideology – “This isn’t the shelter we thought we’d / bought”). Gregerson’s surgeon stitches in part I and in part II the young girl’s “miraculous breath / moves into her lungs and, stitch / by mortal / stitch, moves out.” And that is beautifully composed, but so heavy with mortality, so heavy with poignancy (the phrase begins with “Friend, her cheek is fresh as hope / of paradise”). That is what you get in all of Gregerson’s poems. The ignorance of youth (paradise) that will be quickly displaced by “real” life.

What is … this human desire
for children? They just make a bigger … target
for the anger of the gods.

Gregerson’s gods are very angry indeed, and vengeful. And, what must be the poet’s nearest truth of the writing self: referring to a child who loves to swing high and dare the devil in every giddy, joyous action,

Some children are like that,
I have one myself …
no wonder we never leave them alone,
we who have no talent for pleasure
nor use
for the body but after the fact.

The even deeper truth we’re forced to see here is that that very child, any child, every child will suffer sexual abuse, chemical death, the murder of a parent, the indifference and abuse by “loved ones”, and birth defects (“God’s wounds”).

The fault’s in nature, who will
without system or explanation
make permanent …
havoc of little mistakes.
… One night a woman came home to her house
and locked its useless … locks, and
buttoned her night dress and read
for a while, and slept till she was wakened.

You wake to death, literally or here, as a reader, become intensely aware of it, or die in your sleep, unaware and “unremarked.”

This book is a mountain over clouds. Linda Gregorson moves deeply into the heart and mind where embrace becomes faith, completely unflinching, but not religious. She’s always very aware of the reader in these poems, to the point of bringing this to the forefront and making you a deeply emotionally connected character, making it clear that you are who she is addressing, not her daughter, in a poem that says

… Have I
told you – do you know for yourself – how the
sweetness
of creation may be summed up by the lightfall
on a young girl’s cheek? …

Throughout the book she gives her thoughts and feelings to the reader as alpine air gives dew to grass. And how she gives the music. These poems resonate with music that is the spine of poetic music, constantly – in the spine of the stanzas, the middle line in stanzas of 3 – reducing themselves to unimeter or sometimes even reducing to a single syllable, as her masterfully, brilliantly crafted free-verse seems to come from a clean foundation of the iamb but more recently the musical independence of the solitary syllable.

This book also holds very powerful themes in the way that one thoughtfully holds one’s robe in pre-dawn mist. Relentless in her messages, Linda Gregerson does not shy from or ever stumble in trying to reach what she has to say, however painful they are to contemplate. She says exactly what she has to say.

I have read the collection twice, have lived within a world of finely wrought language, and I have grown within its boundaries, have grown, I believe, to be sadly wiser.

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