Etan Kerr-Finell on “Linda Gregg and the Mid-course Turn”

10 03 2023

I’m always heartened to be reminded that Structure & Surprise is out there in the world, doing its work of introducing readers to the poetic turn and, so, deepening and enlivening their engagements with poems. So I was very pleased when Etan Kerr-Finell reached out to me with a note of appreciation for the insights Structure & Surprise offered. In the course of our exchange, Etan mentioned that he had written an analysis of Linda Gregg’s use of the mid-course turn in her poem “I Thought on His Desire for Three Days” in response to an assignment he was given. Of course, I had to read it. I asked Etan to send it. He did. I read it, and I loved it. I asked Etan if I could publish his work, and he gave me permission. So, I’m happy to offer Etan’s analysis below, an excellent example of the kind of thoughtful work that is possible through attention to a poem’s dynamics of turning.

Etan Kerr-Finell lives in Kingston, New York. He is currently pursuing an MFA through the Bennington Writing Seminars and his writing and other projects can be found at


Linda Gregg and the Mid-course Turn

Linda Gregg’s poem “I Thought on His Desire for Three Days” powerfully utilizes the structure of “the mid-course turn” as presented in an essay by Jerry Harp in Michael Theune’s Structure and Surprise. In his essay, Jerry Harp quotes Carl Dennis who refers to this type of turn as a “mid-course correction.” The kind of shift that Dennis focuses on is radical because it constitutes, as he puts it, “a shift in genre.” This shift is one strong enough to suggest that the poem’s speaker has in the course of the poem changed her or his mind about what kind of poem is underway.” This kind of turn can be so fundamentally destabilizing because it often sets you up to think you know what the poem is about, and just then, along with the author, everything changes. A poem that changes as we read it is exactly what we are shown in this poem by Gregg. In its simplest form, it is a summary of the relationship that Gregg had with a married man and its dissolution. The poem takes place in the context of a larger book about the relationship, Chosen by the Lion. It can be read as a final note to him, her summary of the relationship. She describes the beginning of the relationship and declares with full agency:

I chose this man, consciously, deliberately.
I thought on his desire for three days
and then said yes. In return, it was summer.

In return for her choosing the relationship, her life was summer and “Every single thing was joyous.” In reading this section I was swept up in the feeling of falling in love. Indeed, though the book this poem is situated in is largely about love, loss and heartbreak if read on its own, at first there is almost no indication that you are not reading a poem of a couple falling in love and nothing more. Even the storms and the sounds of Chicago traffic are described as joyous. Time passes by swiftly, seasons pass and take us, for a moment out of time in the way that new experiences allow: “shadows moved over the floor/ as the sun went across the sky.” At the end of the time-passing sequence, there is the turn where she reveals that her lover is married. “ I was a secret/ there because you were married. I am here/ to tell you I did not mind.” The revelation that he was married while they were in a relationship, and that despite that, Gregg had no regrets, was unexpected. 

Harp gives examples of what he calls “borderline cases;” “a poem whose turn comes close to shifting genre without quite fully doing so.” “I Thought on His Desire for Three Days” is a borderline case in some ways as it remains, after the turn, part celebratory elegy for a relationship that is no more and part a love poem. The tone changes substantially when we find out the man is married. We can sense that there is almost a genre change, but Gregg pulls back from that and keeps the poem in (for lack of a better name) the celebratory love poem genre. However, she does this despite the fact of the conditions we now know of her relationship. So while the genre doesn’t change, the fact that it remains a love poem despite the new information of her lover’s marriage is remarkable and feels very much like a turn. The poem comes to a crescendo when she gets a call from his wife:

…I was strong. I know where
I was. I knew what I had achieved. When the wife
called and said I was a whore, I was quiet,
but inside I said, “perhaps.” It has been raining
all night. Summer rain. The liveliness of it keeps
me awake. I am so happy to have lived.

We would expect that after this call, something would change for her, that there would be a blow-up, a change of some kind, that she would realize the harm she had participated in causing.  Gregg seems to know that this is how the reader might respond and she cues us up for the rise and fall of that anticipation. She leaves us instead with a declarative celebration, without any apology. She is quiet on the phone, and quiet with herself. There is no defense of her actions. She makes no moves to justify them in the context of a larger morality. At every step of the poem she has taken full responsibility for herself, “I chose this man, consciously, deliberately.” There is no defense made but instead, she simply states that she needed to do this to exist and is happy to have done so. In short, she is at peace but still the reader may ask, how can she be at peace with this? We are not given too much of an explanation but in another poem in the book, “Asking for Directions” she describes the final moment that she and her lover spend together: “That moment is what I will tell of as proof/ that you loved me permanently.” She does not apologize because she experienced love:

…I was a secret
there because you were married. I am here
to tell you I did not mind. Existence
was more valuable than that.

The line, “Existence was more valuable than that” implies that she feels as though she had to be in this relationship to exist. But we are left with the question, her life is more valuable than what? What is the ‘that’ she is referring to? She is saying that her life (which she is “so happy to have lived”) was more important than being kept a secret. There is also the unspoken implication that her existence was more important than the promise he made in marrying his wife.

In the final lines, Gregg returns to the rain and the weather:

…It has been raining
all night. Summer rain. The liveliness of it keeps
me awake. I am so happy to have lived.

The weather goes on around her, and though there were moments time seemed to slow down, it continues to move forward. She seems to be saying that she did what she thought was best and has no regrets about how she lived.

There are two unexpected turns. The first is that the man she is in a relationship with is married and that she doesn’t regret her relationship with him. But then we are gifted with the second turn. Here, the Dennis description fits and it seems that “in the course of the poem changed her mind about what kind of poem is underway.” It is as if she started the poem as a loving tribute and summary and ended with a fierce, declarative poem. In the version she ended up with, she stands tall in her decisions despite what anybody, the wife of her lover or the reader, might think.