MAY 24, 2014
FOR MORE THAN 40 years, Ellen Bryant Voigt has proven herself to be one of poetry’s technical masters. “Most of us who write poems rather than prose,” she writes in The Art of Syntax, “have very high formal appetites.” She should be counted as one of the most significant poets writing today, though she remains slightly under the radar of wide public recognition and the genre’s major awards. Perhaps Headwaters will remedy such oversight.
If she is consistently demanding as a craftsperson, Voigt is equally restless. Book by book, she has evolved through a catalog of formal designs and accomplishments. Her early Claiming Kin and The Forces of Plenty (still one of my favorite Voigt collections) demonstrated her minimalist origins, when her work was most akin to the imagistic precision of Donald Justice or the severe, bitten lyricism of Louise Gluck. This quatrain from “Dialogue: Poetics” in Claiming Kin displays Voigt’s early image-driven style and serves as an ars poetica as well:
Admiring the web, do we
forget the spider? The real
poem is a knife-edge,
quick and clean.
In The Lotus Flowers and Two Trees, Voigt expanded her narrative as she lengthened her line and syntax, perhaps reflecting her admiration for the dramatic aspects of Robert Frost. Kyrie, her book-length sonnet sequence, demonstrated a paradoxical tension. Her impulse to tell a complex story, tracing the influenza epidemic of 1918-’19, showed powerful focus in individual poems, but the larger history felt occasionally reined-in. Perhaps it did not find a sufficient ranginess or development, given Voigt’s formal stipulation. In her subsequent work — Shadow of Heaven and the new poems of Messenger —she synthesized her best capabilities, balancing longer narrative sequences with terse, image-impelled lyrics.
Even with all of these points of growth and evolution, nothing prepared me for the particular innovations of Headwaters. Here is “Moles,” quoted in full. Its quatrains are lush, additive, fluid — especially compared to the “knife-edge” style of “Dialogue: Poetics.” Its voice, its phrasing, and its narrative focus are all equally slippery:
Where is his hat where is his horse where is his harrier my beloved
is distraught he made this yard each blade each stem each stalk except
the mounds of fresh dirt like little graves it’s moles that make the mounds
when they make holes they’re worms with fur the cat
does not do moles she’s stalking rooks and mice beloved
has scattered human hair across the sod it keeps the deer away
he has installed a high-pitched hum in the lily bed it keeps the dogs
out of the yard who might have otherwise unearthed a mole too bad
traps don’t work the way they do for squirrels my father
used to thrust the hose into one hole and flood them out my beloved
does not care what my father did this greensward is his joy his job
my job was children food house the rest of what I did stayed underground
Headwaters is a small book, with 28 poems covering a mere 40 pages. It feels at once packed with drama — life and death in the balance — and yet leisurely in its regional lore, its familial memory, and its bestiary of neighborhood cohabitants. More notably, as with “Moles,” every poem is characterized by very long unmeasured lines, an informal, even talkative voice, and not a single piece of phrasal punctuation. In other words, Voigt has relinquished some of the primary elements of the formal appetite she herself earlier commended, especially her command of meter and her deft calculus of syntax in its relation to a tight poetic line.
The effects of Voigt’s new poetic manner are profound, if paradoxical. It feels casual, at times downright chatty: “my mother my mother my mother she / could do anything so she did everything the world / was an unplowed field.” But it also articulates a number of intensities, especially centered on the “beloved’s” fight with cancer. The scope extends to several other familial crises of affection and loss, and loops back to a surprising impulse toward self-definition and self-exposure (“if you’ve been let’s say a glass-half-empty kind of girl…”).The structures of the poems feel informal, but inside the surface casualness Voigt exercises a radical compression: eliding syntax, leaping from image to image, complicating her narrative sites and occasions. In fact, she’s never been so daring or capable in cutting among subjects and conceits, as evidenced in these opening lines to “Chameleon”:
beside myself in Texas the doctors asking my beloved
to give his pain a number one to ten his answer is always
two I tell them eight the holly bush in the yard is putting out new leaves
which makes its resident lizard bright green also light brown
along its slender spine a plausible twig
except the lining of its mouth is red . . .
Like the lizard, the story here changes color midline, at line three, morphing suddenly from the Texas medical clinic to the holly bush back home, as the clauses spill over and into each other. Is the speaker avoiding a fuller exposure of the beloved’s pain? Is the mind, even in crisis, pulled toward beauty? After several more lines of precise naturalist observation, Voigt strikes with a final, fabulous maneuver:
O exquisite creature . . .
I see you do not move unless you need to eat you almost fool
the mockingbird nearby in a live oak tree flinging out another’s song
which is me which which is me
The speaker’s affiliation with the beloved and his anguish is likened to the mockingbird, whose intricate song — beautiful to us, merely natural to it — takes on the features of “another’s song.” This song (“which is me which which is me”) becomes a realization of every lover’s ironic, echoic identity. Instead of avoiding the beloved’s pain, Voigt’s change of subject is an unrelenting search for accuracy and understanding. Her speaker has in fact taken on that pain as her own, in an act of both personal and aesthetic sympathy. The concurrent peril — for lover and poet alike — is that assuming the beloved’s voice raises the risk of losing one’s own. It’s a circumstance Voigt confronts from the poem’s opening phrase, in noting that she is frantic and fractured at once, “beside [her]self.”
This manner of paradox may be the central critical point of Headwaters: the dire situation of the beloved’s cancer gives occasion to the poems’ sense of hurry, even on the level of
syntax and punctuation. Yet Voigt has never seemed more patient, observant, or bemused. Her palette of tones has never been richer, more personable, or more connective. These connections abide equally among the people and the population of animals that characterize Headwaters, as even her titles indicate. For every human portrait (“My Mother,” “Milkmaid,” “Lost Boy”), Voigt gives us a parallel bestiary: in “Owl,” “Yearling,” “Garter Snake,” and a dozen more. Her relationship with the book’s many animals is both studious and affiliative. She seeks neither the consuming mastery of Galway Kinnell, as in his famous poem “The Bear,” nor the erotic awe of James Wright among the horses and deer. Instead these are the animal-neighbors that those who live in rural communities recognize in their daily habitats.
In fact, as I turn back to “Moles,” I notice not the differences but the connections that Voigt makes — the animal to the human, as the past to the present. The mole may very well be Voigt’s totem in Headwaters. In this poem’s final line, in its biggest revelation, the speaker clearly identifies herself: “my job was children food house.” The men are free to undertake their phallic warfare with the pesky creatures, “thrusting [their] hose into one hole.” But Voigt finds for herself, at least for now, a maternal, perhaps proto-feminist — and generally hidden — devotion, as she finds common cause with the hunted, hidden, earth-bound animal: the semi-comic yet clearly sexualized mole.
And this is still only part of the poem’s artful delight. Voigt is holding onto one more subterranean and crafty secret. As it is throughout the book, the voice and rhetoric in “Moles” is unmeasured, unmetered, and uncounted. It feels colloquial and spoken. But when she finishes her blunt self-identification in the poem’s last line (“the rest of what I did stayed underground”) she does so with clarifying certainty. This abrupt statement cuts in, halfway through the line, yet it also stands as a complete syntactic clause. Its impact derives not just from Voigt’s sudden narrative and grammatical shift but also from her dramatic metrical recalibration: this last independent clause is written in perfect iambic pentameter. “Formal appetite” indeed. Voigt’s surprising flourish underscores the importance of the revelation, completing the poem — in essence signing it — with accomplished, formalizing insistence.
Headwaters is a powerful book of poems, full of Voigt’s new innovations in syntax, form, and style. It is a life list and a bestiary, a personal journal and a family album. Through it, the author negotiates between animal and human, lover and beloved. By doing so, she also negotiates between her own two homes — her background in rural North Carolina and her life in rural Vermont where she has worked for most of her writing life. The ultimate paradox resides in the relationship of Voigt’s innovations with her identity. As she steers away from many of the formal attributes she has lauded in the past — sustained iambic rhythm, measured lines, deliberate and precise syntax — as she writes less “like” herself, she begins to sound more like herself. She is more colloquial, more spoken, more familiar and expansive, and more capably narrative. This last observation might itself seem paradoxical, given the lyric fluidity of Voigt’s new style. But lyric and narrative are not oppositional or dichotomous forces. They enable each other in the hands of real poets, and can deepen each other. In Voigt’s case, her slippery and powerful lyrical qualities have opened a door for her narrative imagination. Hers is now a voice for whom narration and meditation are harmonic components of a most distinguished song.