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Magnetic North

Magnetic North

by Linda Gregerson

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This stunning collection from the award-winning poet Linda Gregerson examines the intersections of history, science, and art.
Touching on subjects as diverse as a breakthrough discovery in cell biology and the films of Ingmar Bergman, the anatomy of a possum and the Nazi occupation of Poland, Gregerson seeks to distill “the shape of the question,” the


This stunning collection from the award-winning poet Linda Gregerson examines the intersections of history, science, and art.
Touching on subjects as diverse as a breakthrough discovery in cell biology and the films of Ingmar Bergman, the anatomy of a possum and the Nazi occupation of Poland, Gregerson seeks to distill “the shape of the question,” the tenuous connection between knowing and suffering, between the brightness of the body and the shadows of the mind. “Choose any angle you like,” she writes, “the world is split in two.” Longtime readers of Gregerson’s poetry will be fascinated by her departure from the supple tercets in which she has worked for nearly twenty years: Magnetic North is a bold anthology of formal experiments. It is also a heartening act of sustained attention from one of our most mindful American poets.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

In the searching, extended meditations of her fourth collection, Gregerson (Waterborne) draws relationships between disparate subjects and historical periods with masterful assurance, trying to head off the dizzying sensation of loss or perhaps to prolong its effects. Often, the desire for divine reassurance is tempered by a cerebral wryness in response to witnessing desperation and suffering firsthand. In a poem about September 11, Gregerson writes, "There are/ principles at work, no doubt:/ beholding a world of harm, the mind/ will apprehend some bringer-of-harm"; intellectualization artfully circumvents uncontrolled emotional response. Gregerson's elastic line lengths and flexible stanza structures figure her poetic access to recent and remote events and people, which are interwoven to create a fabric that can withstand the present. Gregerson self-consciously strives toward an understanding of universal order she knows she can never have: "The world so rarely/ let's us in." The poems are strongest when Gregerson's local, natural world becomes a portal to the metaphysical, and poems on mythological subjects and other artists are at times less moving. But at her best, Gregerson's compass points surely through a landscape in which "what was/ the future—cinnabar, saffron, marigold,/ quince—becomes the past." (Mar.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information

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1 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.

2 (Magdalena Abakanowicz)

Because the outer layer (mostly copper with a bit of zinc) is good for speed

but does too little damage (what is cleaner in the muzzle—you’ve begun

to understand—is also cleaner in the flesh), the British at Dum Dum (Calcutta) devised

an “open nose,” through which the leaden core, on impact, greatly

expands (the lead being softer). Hence the name. And common enough in Warsaw

decades later (it was 1943), despite some efforts in The Hague. I don’t

remember all of it, he wasn’t even German, but my mother’s arm—

that capable arm—was severed at the shoulder, made (a single

shot) a strange thing altogether.
Meat. I haven’t been able since

to think the other way is normal, all these arms and legs.

This living-in-the-body-but-not-of-it.

3 Sisal, lambswool, horsehair, hemp.
The weaver and her coat-of-manyharrowings.

If fiber found in situ, in agave, say, the living cells that drink

and turn the sun to exoskeleton, is taken from the body that

in part it constitutes (the succulent or mammal and its ex-

quisite osmotics), is then carded, cut, dissevered

in one fashion or another from the family of origin, and

gathered on a loom, the body it becomes will ever

bind it to the human and a trail of woe. Or so

the garment argues. These were hung as in an abattoir.

Immense (12 feet and more from upper cables to the lowest hem). And vascular,

slit, with labial protrusions, skeins of fabric like

intestines on the gallery floor.
And beautiful, you understand.

As though a tribe of intimates (the coronary plexus, said the weaver) had

been summoned (even such a thing the surgeon sometimes has

to stitch) to tell us, not unkindly, See, the world you have to live in is

the world that you have made.

At the Window

Suppose, we said, that the tumult of the flesh were to cease and all that thoughts can conceive, of earth, of water, and of air, should no longer speak to us; suppose that the heavens and even our own souls were silent, no longer thinking of themselves but passing beyond; suppose that our dreams and the visions of our imagination spoke no more and that every tongue and every sign and all that is transient grew silent—for all these things have the same message to tell, if only we can hear it, and their message is this: We did not make ourselves, but he who abides forever made us. Suppose, we said, that after giving us this message and bidding us listen to him who made them they fell silent and he alone should speak to us, not through them but in his own voice, so that we should hear him speaking, not by any tongue of the flesh or by an angel’s voice, not in the sound of thunder or in some veiled parable but in his own voice, the voice of the one for whose sake we love what he has made; suppose we heard him without these, as we two strained to do . . .

And then my mother said, “I do not know why I am here.” And my brother for her sake wished she might die in her own country and not abroad and she said, “See how he speaks.” And so in the ninth day of her illness, in the fifty-sixth year of her life and the thirty-third of mine, at the mouth of the Tiber

in Ostia . . .


Copper and ginger, the plentiful mass of it bound, half loosed, and bound again in lavish

disregard as though such heaping up were a thing indifferent, surfeit from the table of the gods, who do not give a thought to fairness, no, who throw their bounty in a single lap. The chipped enamel—blue—on her nails.

The lashes sticky with sunlight. You would swear she hadn’t a thought in her head except for her buttermilk waffle and

its just proportion of jam. But while she laughs and chews, half singing withhhhh the lyrics on the radio, half

shrugging out of her bathrobe in the kitchen warmth, she doesn’t quite complete the last part, one of the

sleeves—as though, you’d swear, she couldn’t be bothered—still covers her arm. Which means you do not

see the cuts. Girls of an age— fifteen for example—still bearing the traces of when-they-were-

new, of when-the-breasts-had-not- been-thought-of, when-the-troublesome- cleft-was-smooth, are anchored

on a faultline, it’s a wonder they survive at all. This ginger-haired darling isn’t one of my own, if

own is ever the way to put it, but I’ve known her since her heart could still be seen at work beneath

the fontanelles. Her skin was almost otherworldly, touch so silken it seemed another kind

of sight, a subtler boundary than obtains for all the rest of us, though ordinary

mortals bear some remnant too, consider the loved one’s fine- grained inner arm. And so

it’s there, from wrist to elbow, that she cuts. She takes her scissors to that perfect page, she’s good,

she isn’t stupid, she can see that we who are children of plenty have no excuse for suffering we

should be ashamed and so she is and so she has produced this many- layered hieroglyphic, channels

raw, half healed, reopened before the healing gains momentum, she has taken for her copy-text the very

cogs and wheels of time. And as for her other body, says the plainsong on the morning news, the hole

in the ozone, the fish in the sea, you were thinking what exactly? You were thinking a comfortable

breakfast would help? I think I thought we’d deal with that tomorrow.
Then you’ll have to think again.

Copyright © 2007 by Linda Gregerson. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.

Meet the Author

LINDA GREGERSON is the author of Waterborne, The Woman Who Died in Her Sleep, and Fire in the Conservatory. She teaches Renaissance literature and creative writing at the University of Michigan. Her poems have appeared in The Best American Poetry as well as in the Atlantic, Poetry, Ploughshares, the Yale Review, TriQuarterly, and other publications. Among her many awards and honors are a Guggenheim Fellowship, an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature, four Pushcart Prizes, and a Kingsley Tufts Award.

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