poet attempting to set forth a path for readers, and is there any way to know if the best choice has been made?
The first poem in Linda Gregg’s first book, Too Bright To See, is “We Manage Most When We Manage Small”:
What things are steadfast? Not the birds.
Not the bride and groom who hurry
in their brevity to reach one another.
The stars do not blow away as we do.
The heavenly things ignite and freeze.
But not as my hair falls before you.
Fragile and momentary, we continue.
Fearing madness in all things huge
and their requiring. Managing as thin light
on water. Managing only greetings
and farewells. We love a little, as the mice
huddle, as the goat leans against my hand.
As the lovers quickening, riding time.
Making safety in the moment. This touching
home goes far. This fishing in the air.
Since this poem begins her first book, we can say that this poem begins this poet’s public
career. I say “public” since, like any poet, she published numerous poems in journals, possibly over several years, before this book was accepted for publication, and this particular poem was
certainly not her first published poem in a journal. It was therefore chosen, selected, arranged, to be the first poem encountered, thus accomplishing something that other choices presumably do not. Therefore, it becomes the first experience many readers (and critics) have with her work. Again, why this poem and not another? Does this poem shape how we read and continue to read this particular poet? What if she had begun, for instance, with “Sun Moon Kelp Flower or Goat,”
an equally intriguing poem, among many, from this collection?
“We Manage Most When We Manage Small,” though, is the poem we have—the alpha, the note struck and held, the lens through which we look upon what follows. In the case of this poem, though, we don’t just encounter the poem first; we encounter the title—a full sentence that sounds aphoristic, authoritative, and definitive. How much, then, does this title affect what we perceive as authority in this poet’s voice? Then we encounter that strange and ever-deepening opening question: “What things are steadfast?” Is the unlikely (and unusual) word choice of “steadfast,” with its Biblical echoes, the reason we are drawn in? Is the choice to begin with a question—and not an assertion, description, simile, or speculation—part of what endears us to this opening? Is Gregg’s position as a poet now somehow tied to this idea of what is steadfast, to the quest for what is steadfast, to the questioning that seeks what is steadfast, to the enumeration of what is and is not steadfast?
In essence, first poems offer a kind of syntax, an arrangement of how to think about and to understand a poet’s work. They serve as first impressions, of course, but they also serve to shape how we encounter and interpret what follows. In that sense they are metaphors, establishing vehicle and tenor. We read the next poem based on the experience of the first poem and interpret through its ideas. In the case of Gregg’s first book, one can imagine other poems creating other tones, other insistences, other conceptual agonies through which we inhabit her stance. For instance, what if she had begun with “What If the World Stays Always Far Off,” with its first two lines: “What if the world is taken from me?/If there is no recognition? My words unheard?” Or what if she had begun with “The Apparent” and its assertion, “When I say transparency, I don’t mean seeing through”?
Hopefully it’s clear that I’m not trying to second guess Linda Gregg’s choice for beginning her first book but, instead, am trying to make a case that first poems set forth a world that we, as readers and critics, inhabit, and that the choice of first poem could have easily gone in so many other equally valid and interesting directions. If anything, I’d like to imagine all the possibilities available to any poet, all the still-possible ways that we might find value in a poet’s work, thereby adding dimension to what we think we know of any given poet. If anything, I’d like to retain the unlikely and impossible feeling that each poem—even with a poet long admired—can still be the first poem encountered, setting forth new arguments, new arrangements, new facets of how to read and to understand what has always been only a partial view anyway.