Among the many virtues of U-M professor Linda Gregerson's poetry are its extraordinary sentences. Long and richly textured, they often start with precise observation, detour down the byways and digressions of thought, and end somewhere totally unexpected. For instance, in her new book, Magnetic North, she begins her poem "The Turning" with these lines, where sentence fights against line, and in the battle language gets intensely charged:

Just then, when already he's trying
to leave, improbably

young and fair-
complected, the absence of pigment a kind

of disease — he's come as a last
concession and the church

is cold, the other,
the pastor, so palpably wedded to grief he

looks with envy at the fair one, grief's
addictive, it will hitch

a ride on anything —

And the sentence is only half over!

This complexity is not just a kind of game. In Winter Light, the Bergman film on which "The Turning" is based, a young man on the brink of suicide comes to the church in a last effort to find hope, and the pastor fails him. But Gregerson recognizes the generosity in the suicide, who turns away rather than force the man of God to confront his own iniquities: "The turning/is a kind of tact."

The seriousness of this poem is typical of this book, the poet's fourth and an indication of the central position she has reached in contemporary American poetry. In many ways Magnetic North can be read as an extended meditation on mortality and the ways we come to terms with it. In this exploration Gregerson moves easily across the cultural map. The book begins with the image that dominates our decade — the collapse of the towers — and along the way incorporates words from a medieval text on falconry, an extended riff on St. Augustine, television evangelists, children's art created in German concentration camps, and several poems that engage the visual arts.

The collection ends with "Elegant," perhaps the best poem about science I have read in a long time. "Elegant" is hard to quote here because it moves all over the page, showing a new formal restlessness in a poet who has long been praised for her formal mastery. The poem's subject is the work done on a roundworm (C. elegans) that earned the Nobel Prize for three scientists in 2002; the Nobel Committee summarized their work as a discovery of "the genetic regulation of organ development and programmed cell death." As the poet tells us, "The world so rarely does." The poem becomes a meditation on the meaning of this work, how it connects us — through our mortality — to the world around us. Our very end becomes the "mother of beauty." Few poets are willing to make this kind of demand on their readers. Linda Gregerson does it magnificently.

Linda Gregerson reads from Magnetic North at Shaman Drum Bookshop on Wednesday, March 7.

[Review published March 2007]