Magnetic North

by Linda Gregerson
Houghton Mifflin 2007
Reviewed by Melinda Wilson


Sweeter to be the Possum

gregerson cover

It is sweet to be Linda Gregerson at the moment. Her newest collection of poems, Magnetic North, has been nominated for the National Book Award. If the award were for best opening poem in a collection, or perhaps even best poem in a collection, Gregerson would have my vote.

Expectations are high after reading “Sweet.” In the poem, Gregerson splices the narrator’s mother’s solemn reaction to what the reader can only assume are the events of 9/11 with her narrator’s contemplation of the plight of a possum:

                      Our possum—she must be hungry or
             she wouldn’t venture out in so

             much daylight—has found
                     a way to maneuver on top of the snow.

 A parallel between an animal’s actions when faced with utter desperation and the actions of a human in equally desperate times is inevitable. The narrator of the poem seems to suggest that we humans would rather wait in the dark, in avoidance of problems that we’re met with than travel into the open or face what awaits us. As true as this may be, it is not the most interesting thing to surface in the poem.

It is clear that the possum sees the cover of darkness as a safety zone, and again, it becomes difficult not to compare the possum’s instinct with that of the human. In many instances, we mistake safety for simply not being seen, an interesting instinct that seems to be in place as a subconscious defense mechanism for both humans and possums.

So, if animals and humans react similarly in times of desperation, it is also possible to assume that they would do so in times of devastation. “There are principles at work,” the poet writes. How then is the possum that loses her young different from the human that loses loved ones in a disaster? Gregerson’s answer, though somewhat obvious, is intriguing:

     beholding a world of harm, the mind

 will apprehend some bringer-of-harm,
             some cause, or course,

             that might have been otherwise, had we possessed
                 the wit to see.

 Or ruthlessness. Or what? Or heart.

 Guilt seems the defining factor here. When faced with tragedy, rather than accepting it for what it is, we seem to want to place blame, and when there is no one person to address, we blame ourselves (despite the interminable time it may take for us to rest upon this notion). What does this say about humans? Do we think so much of ourselves that we truly think we have control over everything? It is sweeter to be the possum, I think.

So…why spend so much time on the first poem? Because it’s great, and because few other poems in this collection come close to it. Gregerson’s human mind-probes are consistently fascinating, and she has certainly done her research; her narrator consistently points out various facts that have been picked up from the multitude of books she has read, which, believe it or not, doesn’t become irritating until late in the collection. But once it occurs to the reader that Gregerson, or her narrator, must read (or hear) a lot of books, it becomes difficult to overlook the (forgive the term) snooty tone that develops. In “Over Easy” particularly, I’m having a great time picturing Gregerson as Mother Possum driving her kittens down an Ohio road, but am annoyed rather quickly by the pretentious under(or over)tones:

                  …My darlings don’t want
                 a book on tape. They want

                  a little indie rock, they want to melt
                         the tweeters, they want
                 mama in the trunk so they can have some un-
                                      remarked-on fun.

 Yeah, maybe I would too. Meanwhile, I’d rather not know what the narrator is pondering instead. She tells me anyway:

                  Fine. I’ve got my window, I can contemplate
                            the flatness of Ohio. I can think

                  about the ghastly things we’ve leached into
                                         the topsoil…

Even if her “darlings” never do consider these more philosophical and environmentally conscious subjects, it doesn’t mean they never will, nor does it mean that their indie rock isn’t worthwhile; is our narrator “above” indie rock? Too smart for it? If she chose to side with her naïve little bumpkins and listen to the music, would it make for a more interesting poem?

When Gregerson’s poems work, they are beautifully crafted, forceful, even magnetic (see: “De Magnete”). When they aren’t, they’re frustrating, one-dimensional, or worse, just kind of boring. You might say she accomplishes the former more than half of the time. The rest of the time, you’ll find it sweeter to be in the poem with the possum, I think. As for the National Book Award, well, who the hell knows.