The Operating System

4th Annual 30/30/30 :: Day 5 :: Elizabeth Harlan-Ferlo on Linda Gregerson

My transition from “actor” to “writer” turned out to be harder than I thought. I was in my second year at Oberlin and had begun to drift away from the theatre community that had been so much of my self-definition.  Where those folks were interwoven and comfortable with each other to the point of over-intimacy, the writers all seemed locked in their personal visionary quests, each smoking cigarettes alone at the entrance to buildings and greeting my hello with a tight smile. Reticence and disconnection seemed to be the spirit of the art. It was around this time that alumna Linda Gregerson was invited to campus to read from her then two-year-old book, The Woman Who Died in Her Sleep. Ms. Gregerson took the stage in a black dress and bright red tights, and took command of the room like a mother, a General, a diva, and a guru combined. I was electrified.  Not only was her work beautiful to listen to—she read both the tension of the lines and the meaning—but the subject matter was highly specific to historical times, and places, Biblical texts and geographical areas. The details were in service of the poems; not oblique but also not over-explained.  We as the readers were expected to give energy to the poem as she gave energy to the poem.  I thought, ‘Well if she’s a poet, then I can do this.’

Much has been written about Gregerson’s work, especially her use of a blown-open tercet, enjambed and highly indented. This form allows her space on the page to pace the poem, and gives a way for her to lead us along the line of the thinking mind. A teacher once told me that dialogue should be like real life, only better.  Gregerson’s poems follow a mind’s connections in the same way.  Like reading Mark Doty, Jorie Graham, and Virginia Woolf, we are a companion along the line of the thinking, a confidante who has to work to keep up but is amply rewarded. I also appreciate her careful use of parentheticals and dashes; they feel immediate in the midst of something carefully crafted.

From “The Resurrection of the Body

…I couldn’t for the longest time understand
.                        .why the boy
.                .required a helmet so completely fitted

and strong—his legs were unused, his arms
.                       .so thin.
.              .A treadmill, I thought. Or a bicycle maybe, some

bold new stage of therapy anyway, sometimes
.                       .he falls
.              .and, safe in his helmet, can bravely

set to work again. It wasn’t for nothing
.                       .that I was
.             .so slow. Who cannot read these waiting rooms

has so far—exactly so far—been spared.
.                        .It was only
.             .While I was driving home,

my daughter in her car seat with her brand-
.                     .new brace,
.              .that I thought of the boy’s rhythmic rocking

and knew. Green light. Yellow. The tide
.                       .of pedestrians
.            .flush and smooth. And the boy’s

poor head against the wall—how could I miss it?
.                        .and what
.             .does God in his heaven do then?—the boy’s

poor head in its bright red helmet knocking—
.                       .listen—
.             .to be let in.

Gregerson shows a world-cherishing intimacy that carries zero sentimentality.  She takes piercing and whimsical fascinations of the kind you would see in texts by Oliver Sacks (many poems are about the body and the mind) and filters them through the experience of a medieval historian and masterful line-maker. She gives attention to what I find to be a particular experience of womanhood: the constant presence of unspoken intimacies, and ugly ones, and even in them, the persistence of life.

The poem is a challenge, beautifully taut. The poem means it.

I recently put this poem into a similar form, realizing that it was definitely Gregerson-influenced.


The Senior boys love
.                        .to take off their shirts,
.              .their bodies discovering

their power, discovering what changes
.                          .when they do.
.              .The boys sit together

in Ethics class, and listen, precarious,
.                            .distracted
.           .by their own devices. Their hands

are pushing the edge of the table,
.                            .pushing each
.           .chair to its back legs. Bodies

tip toward the windows:
.                      .plate glass
.           .glare.

A girl presents about organ transplants. She proposes
.                         .that people who need them
.              .should pay.

This morning there was a woman
.                          .wide across
.             .the paper’s front page,

her hand on a man’s barrel chest.
.                          .She didn’t
.           .know him, but knew or thought

she knew her husband
.                         .in the pound
.           .beneath his ribs.

I interrupt the girl
.                        .to tell this picture.
.            .I can’t explain the faces right:

the woman’s: bemused
.                          .grief
.            .as she touched him,

the man’s: shy pride.
.                         .When I stop
.            .to let the girl go on,

the row of boys,
.                        .light-soaked
.         .and surreptitious, whispers. One

reaches slowly across
.                        .the chest
.           .of another. They are taking turns,

quiet, touching each tee shirt,
.                       .pressing
.             .to really feel.

 Elizabeth Harlan-Ferlo writes about the intersections of the sacred and the profane. Her poetry has recently been published in Fourteen Hills and Tupelo Quarterly and is forthcoming in Talking Back and Looking Forward: Poetry and Prose for Social Justice in Education. In December 2014, she guest-hosted “Late Night Debut” on the Late Night Library podcast. Elizabeth is a teacher, director, and group facilitator building justice and compassion through creative arts. She now lives in Portland, Oregon…though years ago, once upon a time, she went to high school in New York City, at Friends Seminary, with me (Lynne DeSilva-Johnson), and we ran the literary magazine there together, with Devorah Bondarin, for three years. It pleases me to no end to have had Liz contact us to be part of this series, and to complete the circle, so to speak. It comes as no surprise that her poetry has only continued to blossom, and I’m thrilled to have her here! Read more at

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