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Magnetic North, by Linda Gregerson

Magnetic North, the collection from award-winning poet Linda Gregerson, offers reflections on a variety of subjects, from religion to nature to cultural events.  Gregerson uses scientific language and unexpected images to talk about larger themes like 9/11 and adolescent self-injury.  In “Bicameral,” for example, she uses the terminology of embryology to examine the divide between Western civilization and Third World countries.

The poem opens with the following excerpt:

Choose any angle you like, she said,

the world is split in two. On one side, health

and dumb good luck (or money, which can pass

for both), and elsewhere… well,

they’re eight days from the nearest town,

the parents are frightened, they think it’s their fault,

the child isn’t able to suck. A thing

so easily mended, provided

you have the means. I’ve always thought it was

odd, this part (my nursing school

embryology), this cleft in the world

that has to happen and has to heal. At first

the first division, then the flood of them, then

the migratory plates that make a palate when

they meet (and meeting, divide

the chambers, food

from air). The suture through which (the upper

lip) we face the world.

Her meticulous attention to detail attributes to the well-crafted quality of her work.  She masterfully incorporates hard facts in ways that enhance the poems’ lyricism, thus expanding the scope and meaning of poetry.  In “Make-Falcon,” for example, Gregerson examines the falcon through the perspective of Frederick II of Hohenstaufen, Holy Roman Emperor during the 13th century, in a way that compels us to see art in anatomy and the natural world, beyond the conventional designations of art.  An excerpt:

You must open

the breast and extract the organ that moves

by itself, which is to say, the heart,

and let the falcon feed.

The sultan

has sent me a fine machine combining

the motions of sun and moon,

and Giacomo makes a poem of fourteen

lines. The music is very good,

I think. (Of those who refuse to come to the lure… Of

shirkers… Of bating…)

But give me the falcon for art.

Despite the elevated language in her poetry, Gregerson maintains an observational first-person presence that sometimes interacts with other voices as well, thus balancing the highly intellectual quality of her work with a conversational tone.  Many of the poems feature formal experimentations Gregerson has not attempted until this collection, according to the back of the book.  In “Dido in Darkness,” for example, she uses the space of the entire page and gives the impression of erratic thought by having single lines stick out by themselves, by trailing off with ellipses and asking fragmented questions, and by using enjambment on unlikely words.

This work was admittedly difficult to begin, given its demand for “muscular reading,” but upon further exploration, Magnetic North is a fascinating patchwork of culture and science and moments both personal and international that pushes us to consider the innate relationship of seemingly diverse elements in our world.

Reviewed by Courtney Woodburn.