Saturday, March 03, 2007

The Word, the Image, the Knife: Ellen Bryant Voigt, MESSENGER: New and Selected Poems 1976-2006

I've watched Ellen Bryant Voigt confront a group of teachers who had forgotten how to listen, how to see, most importantly, how to think. In some ways she resembles her own description of her mother at such moments:


Whenever my mother, who taught
small children forty years,
asked a question, she
already knew the answer.
"Would you like to" meant
you would. "Shall we"
was another, and "Don't you think."
As in, "Don't you think
it's time you cut your hair."

Though the poem concludes with Voigt shielding her emotions and visible self from her mother -- knowing that the outward result was foreordained -- it presents also the formal relationship of teacher to student. In Voigt's case, the relationship is professorial (Harvard, as well as Warren Wilson College), and the expectation of learning is fierce.

Voigt's newly released collection, MESSENGER, received a warm review in The New York Times from Sven Birkerts, author (most notably) of THE GUTENBERG ELEGIES. Birkerts sees Voigt's poems as framed in garden, farm, nature -- and calls her extension to larger topics "uncharacteristically big" in effect.

I couldn't disagree more. I assert that Voigt's work, from the start, has grappled with the Big Issues: truth, violence, the links among love and death and grief. And her poetry also carries the voice of the insistent teacher, as in "The Last Class": "Put this in your notebooks: / All verse is occasional verse." Her field of images carries the teachings, as paper carries words. Knifelike in her choices of how to pack and enjamb both words and issues, she demands attention.

Please see our web site,, for a longer review.

No comments: