(This review ran in March in the Vermont Review of Books. I'm printing it here for convenience for blog readers; it will also be in the Poetry Reviews section of our web site, www.kingdombks.com, later this week.)
The Word, the Knife, the Poem: Ellen Bryant Voigt, MESSENGER
by Beth Kanell
There are only ten new poems in Ellen Bryant Voigt’s MESSENGER: NEW AND SELECTED POEMS 1976-2006. I wish there were more, because for me, each time Voigt releases a new group of poems, I realize there’s a new principle she’s putting into effect. And ten poems is a bit of a short run for me to grasp and grapple with her latest.
In fact, I have to look words up (like Rubato, which is the title of her second new poem here: Italian in origin, a musical term for fluctuation of speed within a musical phrase – which alerts me to listen to the changes within the poem’s meter more intensely and actively), recollect the classics and biology, reach for visions of birds whose forms and colors I may not yet be aware of.
The book’s final poem is both fierce and frightening: the messenger is not a kind one, and the Annunciation (Mary hearing the angel announce her future), swept into the poem, contrasts its assumed comfort to the danger of the messenger Voigt has witnessed. “One doesn’t notice wings when they’re at rest. / One doesn’t notice the scythe of the beak at rest: // opaque, like horn, or bone, knobbed at the base / but tapering, proportional to the head.” Grasp at the heron mentioned soon, but there’s little doubt that this is a more dangerous, more threatening messenger. It doesn’t leave for the winter; it stays, “camouflaged /among the gaunt gray alders along the brook, / still as a stalk beside the water’s edge-- // of course it’s there.”
Like a student voluntarily accepting the leadership and carving knife of a skilled teacher, the reader of these poems – by choice – may bare the throat to this power. But despite my choice here of “starting at the end of the book,” it makes sense instead to follow the path Voigt lays out in her sequence from earliest published poems to current ones.
In the poems from her 1976 collection Claiming Kin, Voigt writes from a looser, more rural stance, framed in the Southern farmland of her youth. Yet the first piece opens with the hands-on killing of a chicken, and two poems later, in “Dialogue: Poetics,” I find the voice of the poet who demands that every word be selected for significance and resonance:
Admiring the web, do we
forget the spider? The real
poem is a knife-edge,
quick and clean.
Here are the terse, enjambed lines that become Voigt’s hallmark. Her second collection, The Forces of Plenty, exhumes and examines grief and loss that are never fully explained; whatever postmortem the poet has conducted is distilled instead into something less skeletal (if equally bloody). We peer into a life, then see the curtain sharply drawn across the window. In “Year’s End,” there’s a flash of family that quickly ascends into complication, multiple threats to children’s lives:
We sat together in the little room,
the walls blotched with steam,
holding the baby as if the two of us
could breathe for him and were not helpless.
In “Jug Brook” the deaths of wildlife (deer, fish, even mosquitoes) rise into a personal lament: “Have I learned nothing? God, / into whose deep pockets our cries are swept, / it is you I look for / in the slate face of the water.”
So the selected poems move onward, as we and Voigt, with 30 years to collapse into a single book, struggle for vision and perspective. I find her choices from The Lotus Flowers reflective of the increasingly specific professorial position she undertakes, as she tells “The Last Class,” “Put this in your notebooks: / All verse is occasional verse.” And then she instructs, “The man is not a symbol,” and pounds forth, “I wanted to salvage / something from my life, to fix / some truth beyond all change,” as she pushes from the poem’s premise like a climber’s stretch toward the intended goal, the goal that was always the reason for the toehold chosen. Later she names a “cruel perfected music.”
Two Trees offers variations, as if in music, upon both Eden and the intertwining of song and story. And then the work takes a powerful side journey, away from the terse and pruned earlier lines, into a longer, looser structure of a sequence of sonnets that evoke a community suffering the influenza epidemic of 1918, at the end of World War I. Voigt created the transition of form as a discipline for herself; the selection of 32 of the sonnets here conveys the passionate liturgy of the full book.
Voigt’s 2002 collection, Shadow of Heaven, is so much less interlinked that it almost moves beyond the spider at the center of the web that she posited in 1976. Grappling with both the deaths and the lives of her parents, and the rhythms of her marriage to Francis Voigt, she announces in “Long Marriage”:
More than a lucky fit—
not planks planed from the same
oak trunk but mortise and tenon—
it is the yoke that makes
the pair, that binds them to
their blind resolve …
Through a conversation with the poet Aga Shahid Ali, a sequence of sonnets redolent of Virginia (her sister’s home; Voigt has chosen Vermont for her own since 1969), and a long intense series (“The Art of Distance”) that narrates stories of her father and grandparents, Voigt names the ways in which she has chosen to resemble her parents, even as she continues to argue with their voices. Her meter insists on the import of each word: “My strict father,” she pounds, “would have been appalled” at the way she watches an injured snake struggle toward its own death. She yields to the judgment of the voice, then piles story upon story until finally, like Penelope in Odysseus’ absence, asserting the feminine: “but like loom’s ratcheting shuttle, weaving / first a net, then a veil, and then shroud.”
And that, of course, brings us to the finale of MESSENGER – circle back to the start.