Poet's Choice

By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, March 4, 2007

Mastering complexity is beautiful, a great human pleasure. Music or dance executed well, scientific discoveries, athletic records exceeded -- in addition to their principal meanings and satisfactions, those accomplishments also fill our hunger for the elegance of difficulty well engaged.

The final poem in Linda Gregerson's new book is an extended meditation on a Nobel-winning discovery about cell death and regeneration in the common roundworm C. Elegans. The poem, "Elegant," ponders a scientific vision of death's relation to life. Its pages also contemplate intellectual beauty.

A stupid idea about art, or about poetry, is that it is too difficult. Gregerson's attractive work demonstrates that muscular thinking is not only desirable but needed, giving weight and meaning to emotion. Thinking gives us reality. Here is the first part of "Bicameral," a poem in three parts:

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. It falls

a little short sometimes, as courage does.

Bolivia once, in May (I'd volunteer

on my vacations), and the boy was nine.

I know the world has harsher

things, there wasn't a war, there wasn't

malice, I know, but this one

broke me down. They brought him in

with a bag on his head. It was

burlap, I think, or sisal. Jute.

They hadn't so much as cut eyeholes.

Without the thinking about clefts and divisions, the vocabulary of "burlap," "sisal" and "jute," the self-critical reflection on "harsher things," the poem would be merely anecdotal or even voyeuristic. It is the mind holding various things together, or bringing them together, that generates the emotion. Significant subjects are demanding -- urgently difficult. Thought is the suture that keeps the world in mind.

Robert Pinsky was Poet Laureate of the United States

from 1997 through 2000.

(Linda Gregerson's poem "Bicameral" is from her book "Magnetic North." Houghton Mifflin. Copyright 2007 by Linda Gregerson.)

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