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About this poet

Born on August 16, 1949, in Walsenburg, Colorado, Debora Greger spent her childhood in Richland, Washington, the eldest of seven children. Her town bordered the Hanford Site, a plutonium production facility constructed as part of the Manhattan Project in 1943. The plutonium produced at the site was used in both the first nuclear bomb tested and the bomb detonated over Nagasaki. This was where her father, along with many other Richland fathers, worked.

She attended the University of Washington and graduated with a BA in 1971. She continued on to the Iowa Writers' Workshop, received her MFA in 1974, and, in the same year, was awarded the Grolier Prize in Poetry.

Her first poetry collection, Movable Islands (Princeton University Press), was published in 1980. Five years later, she published her second book, And  (Princeton University Press). Notably, her 1996 collection, Desert Fathers, Uranium Daughters, revolves around her father's work environment at the Hanford Site and the impact it had on her childhood.

Greger is also a visual artist. Her collages have appeared in several magazines and book covers, including Intention & Interpretation, edited by Gary I. Seminger, and William Logan's Desperate Measures. Her work has been exhibited in venues across the country.

Greger’s numerous awards and honors include grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Ingram Merrill Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts; the Academy of American Poets' Peter I. B. Lavan Younger Poets Award, selected by John Hollander; the “Discovery”/The Nation Poetry Prize; and an Amy Lowell Poetry Traveling Scholarship.

Greger has taught at George Mason University and California State University, Chico. In 1988, she joined the English department at the University of Florida, where she currently teaches. She lives in Gainesville, Florida, and Cambridge, England ,with her longtime partner, the poet William Logan.

Selected Bibliography

In Darwin's Room (Penguin, 2017)
By Herself (Penguin, 2012)
Men, Women, and Ghosts (Penguin, 2008)
Western Art (Penguin, 2004)
God (Penguin, 2001)
Desert Fathers, Uranium Daughters (Penguin, 1996)
Off-Season at the Edge of the World (University of Illinois Press, 1994)
The 1002nd Night (Princeton University Press, 1990)
And (Princeton University Press, 1985)
Movable Islands (Princeton University Press, 1980)


The Vacant Lot at the End of the Street

                     in memory of Margaret Greger, 1923-2009

I.  Death Takes a Holiday

Battleships melted down into clouds:
first the empire died, then the shipbuilding,

but cloud formations of gun-metal gray
ruled over the sea that was England in June. 

A scarecrow treaded water instead of barley,  
gulls set sail across a cricket ground.  

In a suit woven of the finest mist,
Death took the last seat on the train, 

the one next to me.  He loosened his tie.
His cellphone had nothing to say to him

as he gazed out the window, ignoring us all.
Had the country changed since he was last 

on holiday here, a hundred years ago?  
Like family, rather than look at each other, 

we watched the remains of empire smear the glass.  
Had we met somewhere?  “Out West last week, 

I passed your parent's house,” he said. 
“I waved but your mother didn't notice.

Your father must have turned off his hearing aid,
in that way he has.”  In the rack overhead, 

a net, a jar, a box, a pin: Death had come 
for another of Britain's butterflies.  
He rose, unwrinkled.  “I'll see you later,” he said.

II.  Demeter in Winter

Earlier and earlier, the dark 
comes to the door, but no one knocks.  

No, the wind scratches at the window.
Clouds skate the ice of your old room, 

Daughter, a cloud falls to the floor 
and can't get up—

or are you my sister?  Remember the rope 
tied from schoolhouse to home, 

so the blizzard could find its way to us? 
It climbed into the attic, 

spread a white sheet and ay down in the dust. 
Who left behind the army greatcoat 

into whose cave we crawled that night?
Lie down beside me.  Under a blanket of snow, 

something freezes: the mind's gray rag, 
caught on a rusty nail.  Come closer. 

Say I am not the woman I used to be,
just bones turned to sand in a sack of skin.

Daughter, if this page isn't blank, turn to the next  
and read me the part where you disappear.

III.  Persephone on the Way to Hell

Over there, beside the road—  
is that the letter I should have left you, Mother?  
The shade of a scarecrow waves a blank page 
as big as he is.  

Blond waves of winter wheat roll up 
to the knees he'll never have,  
tempting his shirt to set sail 
for some other myth.  

He's a white plastic bag 
tied to a stake and stuck in a field
at the end of summer.  What's left of a river 
lies in a bed grown too big for it, 

surrounded by rocks it carried this far. 
Mother seems smaller, too.  
I saw you, my lord of the dark, 
take her hand as it were just a child's. 

The door of a room had closed in her mind.  
“Where am I?” she wanted to know, 
reigning from her old recliner.  You knelt
and tenderly took off her shoes.

IV.  The River of Forgetting
Why aren’t you packed to leave town? 
my mother asked.  Why was I holding a rock 
worn down until smooth, 
gone dull when it dried? 

Where was she, who prided herself 
on being born with no sense of direction?
Where were the fifty years 
of maps my father drew for her?

Did she remember her own name by the end? 
Remember for her, you modest houses,
so alike that only those who die there 
can tell them apart.  

Cottonwoods crowding the driveway,
did your leaves whisper which turn 
the dead should to take to the water?
The ferry that hasn't run for fifty years

leaves for the river of forgetting tonight. 

V.  The Azalea Justifies Its Existence

Dream of yourself or stay awake, 
Martial says, and the azalea agrees: 
fifty weeks it dreams,

not the greater green of Florida 
the rest of us do, but a pink almost red, 
a shade I'd forgotten for thirty years: 

a coat marked down and down again,
coat in a color not from the desert 
of subtleties my mother favored

but somewhere between magenta and mauve— 
but coat in her size, and so she bought it.  
Finding her in a crowd, you found yourself

facing spring come before its time.  
Yesterday she died.  
She couldn't lift a spoon to the watery winter light

of eastern Washington.  Azalea, 
if only she could see you now,
the pink of your magnificence 

like some ruffled thing thrown on 
in your rush to extend a sympathy  
so far beyond the pink of flushed and fevered, 

it’s—what is the word for such ragged,
joy-riddled gauds of grief?

VI.  The Death of Demeter

From a distance, a woman's life is nothing
a glass of ice water losing its edge.

I should know, Daughter.  I spent the night 
in a graveyard, behind a tombstone,

trying to stay cold.  The trees 
that wouldn’t stop whispering—

they're nothing but chairs and tables 
dying not to become tables and chairs.

A tree cries out to be covered with leaves?
A deep breath of dirt fills the lungs.

Permit me to propose a few things.  
I don't want my soul to find its body. 

VII.  The School for the Dead

The blackboard's endless night,
a constellation of chalk dust unnamed— 

through the classroom window, I saw a map
pulled down like a window shade: 

continents pushed apart, an ocean 
blotting out names with tears.  

South America and Africa no longer nestled
like spoons in a silver drawer.  

The lost mitten of Greenland froze 
to the Arctic Circle, the empty space 

called Canada yawned.  The new pupil, 
my mother, hunched in a desk too small, 

waiting for her daughter the professor
to begin the obedience lesson:

how to lie down.  How to roll over
in the grave.  How to play dead.

VIII.  Nocturne for Female Voice

I walk the old street at night, the way I always did,
I heard my dead mother say.  
Why didn’t you come?  I had to talk to a tree.  
I talked to dogs—they bark at anything, 

even a ghost.   You shiver, Daughter, 
but know nothing of the cold. 
Tumbleweeds roll into town as if they owned it, 
night shrouds me in darkness, wind wraps me in dust—

where's your coat?   You've been to Rome 
with a man you weren't married to, 
and now you know ruins?  If the body is a temple, 
as the nuns tried to teach you long ago, 

it collapses on itself, bringing down the mind.
The vacant lot at the end of your childhood—
which of us rules it now?  I lower myself 
to the puncture-vine, the weed I warned you 

never to step on.  I prostrate myself 
the way you coax something to grow 
in the desert of the past.  Its pale star
blooms a week and then bears fruit.

It survives by causing pain.
I walk our street at night, the way I always did.
Why didn't you come?  I had to bark at a tree.  
I howled like a dog.

IX.  The Library of the Dead

Deep in the shelves of shadows, 
I closed the book I hadn't read.  
Who wanted for food

when you could smuggle something 
snatched from the jaws of the vending machine
into the library of the dead?  

Down on my shoulder came a hand:
my late mother's, turned to ash.
In the house where she died,

we would sit, not speaking, 
even in eternity: she had her book
and pressed one upon me, companionably.  

Everything had shrunk 
to fit in a suitcase when I left.  
The past had been ironed flat, 

a thousand leaves starched and pinned 
to a cottonwood just a shade of its former self,  
the only sound its rustle, industrious, 

leaves turning waxen, unread— 
though no shelf lay empty
in the library of the dead. 

Copyright © 2010 by Debora Greger. Reprinted by permission of the author. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2010 by Debora Greger. Reprinted by permission of the author. All rights reserved.

Debora Greger

Debora Greger

Born in 1949, Debora Greger is a poet and visual artist, who currently teaches at the University of Florida.

by this poet


                     for Greg Greger


Where were the neighbors? Out of town?
In my pajamas, I sat at my father's feet
in front of their squat, myopic television, 
the first in our neighborhood.

On a screen the size of a salad plate,
toy airplanes droned over quilted fields.
Bouquets of

What is sky but water, more water,
crossed by eight bridges?
Is the ancient poet in a rush to reach land?

No, he’s already one of the Six Immortals.
How long before the papery iris-petals
he admires wrinkle? They barely grow beards.

In a thousand years, pilgrims will come.