Reinvention in the Work of Ellen Bryant Voigt

March 25, 2014   •   By Benjamin Landry


Ellen Bryant Voigt

Why did you have to go back

to that awful time, upstream, scavenging
the human wreckage, what happened or what we did
or failed to do? Why drag us back to the ditch?
Have you no regard for oblivion?

OVER THE COURSE of her poetic career, Ellen Bryant Voigt has made it clear that if there is a temporal gulf separating the living from the departed, it need not preclude mutual understanding. Indeed, Voigt considers it a poet’s job to test this distance. The passage quoted above is from Voigt’s 1995 persona-driven historical collection, Kyrie, and it serves as an uncanny premonition of her latest and eighth collection, Headwaters. In this new book, one senses Voigt’s desire to recover her origins and to do so with a minimum of equipment, only the most necessary of provisions. Yes, there are family relations and landscapes and a host of animals, both wild and domestic, that will be familiar to Voigt’s readers, but there is also a fresh sense of urgency and stylistic streamlining that makes the excursion’s objective seem more possible than ever, as the paring down enhances Voigt’s sense of conviction. One hears the water rushing through the vegetation.

Anchoring this new collection is Voigt’s longstanding conversation with the past. From her earliest collection — fittingly entitled Claiming Kin — Voigt has been intent on reaffirming her connection to the land and her rightful ancestors:

I have come from a great distance
to find my father asleep in his large brown chair.
Why isn’t he out in the fields, our common passion?
I want to wake him with kisses,
I want to reach out and stroke his hand. (“The Visit”)

What we have is a rather familiar domestic scene troubled by the disjunctions wrought by time. The story will be familiar to anyone who has experienced the sudden caretaking demands of an aging parent, accompanied by the shock of human diminishment. The final two lines complicate the scene and ensure the poem’s success: “But I turn away, without speech or gesture, / having for so long withheld my body from him.” The continuation of estrangement, even in the face of pity (established by implication: the vulnerability of sleep, the rather dumpy “brown chair”), underscores the strength of habit, even if that habit is a miserable withholding that troubles our days.

In Headwaters, “Oak” is also an attempt at claiming the past, although it is again complicated — this time by the fact that the speaker seems to detail her own girlhood in the third person: “she passes the windows half-lidded by half-drawn shades / or framed by curtains and sash she likes / walking alone.” The girl “passes the hardware grocery pharmacy beauty salon every Thursday / you’ve noticed such a child content to be invisible.” The girl is on her way to her weekly private flute recital for an unnamed invalid, and the speaker is relegated to the town’s collective consciousness, signified as the series of proprietors who would notice such an unremarkable pedestrian. Later, the “dark window” is “lit by the silver flute the white ghost hair the brighter / lights is it her mother come to drive her home.” The tenuousness of these connections underscores both the isolating reality of a “solitary girl” and the difficulty of locating oneself in memory, in the absence of strong relationships. The following poem, “My Mother,” also rooted in memory, serves as both a begrudging elegy and — for the poet — a self-rebuke, as she recalls becoming “that awful sort of stubborn broody child who more and more / I was who once had been so sweet so mild staying put / where she put me.” In Headwaters, Voigt recalls the past without embellishment and without absolution.

An undercurrent of discomfort bordering on resentment has long troubled Voigt’s retrospectives. In “Nightshade” (The Lotus Flowers), the speaker’s father is remembered as having unintentionally poisoned the family’s beloved dog, and the speaker “for years would not forgive him,” a forgiveness which itself seems dubious. “High Winds Flare Up and the Old House Shudders” (Shadow of Heaven) gives us a speaker who declares that “The dead themselves are pitiless — / they keen and thrash, or they lodge / in your throat like a stone […]” In Messenger’s “Rubato,” “the past is not a scar but a wound: / I’ve seen it breaking open” — of course, this version wryly glosses over the poet’s complicity in disturbing the injury. In “Privet Hedge,” the generational resentment cuts both ways: “pride greed wrath sloth lust a list compiled by a parent always / needing something to forgive you for […]” It’s an insight informed by the speaker’s own role as parent, and it acknowledges the difficulty of reconciling the person one has been with the person one has become.

The personal histories relayed in Headwaters — as has long been the case with Voigt — engage the past with alternating coolness and sentimentality, espousing the necessity of both distancing oneself and remembering. Voigt seems caught between these poles. In a poem like “My Mother” — with its initial invocation “my mother my mother my mother” — sentimentality gains the upper hand. There are also poems, like “Maestro,” in which the past is described so lovingly, the nostalgia so unalloyed, that the speaker seems to yearn to live there. At other moments, though, nostalgia is exposed as an unproductive trap. One striking example of this occurs in “Sleep,” in which the speaker dwells in the romanticized memory of her father’s, uncles’, and grandfather’s smoking, only to discover how detrimental this memory is to her own efforts to kick the habit. Thankfully, there is enough of the aforementioned resentment (and, more generally, perhaps enough of the modernist) in Voigt to return to a vantage of distance. This distance assumes the guise of metaphor in “Geese”:

there is no cure for temperament it’s how
we recognize ourselves but sometimes within it
a narrowing imprisons or is opened such as when my mother
in her last illness snarled and spat and how this lifted my dour father
into a patient tenderness thereby astounding everyone
but mostly it hardens who we always were

if you’ve been let’s say a glass-half-empty kind of girl
you wake to the chorus of geese overhead
forlorn for something has softened their nasal voices
their ugly aggression on the ground they’re worse than chickens
but flying one leader falling back another moving up to pierce the wind
[…] they negotiate the sky

Voigt’s larger point — that crisis both distills and disrupts our essential natures — would be diminished by a more sentimental narrative elaborating on the manifestations of the father’s “dourness” or “patient tenderness.” Instead, the shift to the animal world removes the speaker’s personal investment and results in a more dispassionate, a more convincing truth.

As the above suggests, Voigt is perhaps most at home in the natural world. In reading her work, I am reminded of another accomplished prose writer-naturalist, Annie Dillard, who, in “Lenses” (Teaching a Stone to Talk), writes,

I lived in that circle of light, in great speed and utter silence. When the swans passed before the sun they were distant — two black threads, two live stitches. But they kept coming, smoothly, and the sky deepened to blue behind them and they took on light. They gathered dimension as they neared, and I could see their ardent, straining eyes. Then I could hear the brittle blur of their wings, the blur which faded as they circled on, and the sky brightened to yellow behind them and the swans flattened and darkened and diminished as they flew. Once I lost them behind the mountain ridge; when they emerged they were flying suddenly very high, and it was like music changing key.

With Voigt as with Dillard, there is undeniable beauty to the natural world, but there is also an austerity that precludes solace. We may take brief delight in watching a particular species, but no gaze is returned, and “[t]he earth does not grieve” (The Forces of Plenty, “Jug Brook”). Like Dillard, Voigt understands the continuity of nature and human nature, but her work is also informed by a legacy of farming and animal husbandry that acknowledges the notion of dominion. In such a practical worldview, there is no use getting attached to one’s source of sustenance. Nature is stirring and yet ultimately inscrutable, as in the final lines of “Fox”:

last year I startled a fox crossing the road the tail
more rust than red the head cranked forward facing me
it stopped stock-still as if deciding whether to hurry forward
or turn back it had a yellow apple in its mouth
and the little ones chew on the bones-o.

The nursery rhyme refrain denotes an attempt to anticipate the fox’s thought process (he returns to his family with a pilfered goose), but the “as if” indicates that in encountering the fox we glimpse a world that resists human projection.

Some of the best poems in Headwaters take advantage of this tension between worlds as a way of exploring complex human relationships from a critical distance. “Owl” is perhaps the most successful example of this approach. The first 24 lines of this 33-line poem are devoted to the owl’s well known hunting habits, described with a naturalist’s attention to detail (“the owl / sets out from the hole in the tree the burrow the eave of the barn / and crosses the field in utter silence wing-feathers overlapped”). Indeed, Voigt fearlessly extends the description for so long that it nearly outpaces its metaphorical power. But in line 24, we have,

[…] I was a grown woman
when my father took the key from under the eave

and unlocked the door to the darkened house he had grown up in
and stepped across the threshold and said as he entered the empty room
hello Miss Sally as though his stepmother dead for weeks
were still in her usual chair

Finally, the preceding description crystallizes into a multifaceted metaphor of both exit/return and the familiar influences of mortality in our lives.

The owl is only one figure in the extensive menagerie that constitutes Headwaters: among others are lizards, bears, snakes, moles, a groundhog, dogs, cows, chickens, and any number of songbirds. Many of these animals are deployed in poems that, like “Owl,” comment on a personal relationship or explore the relationship between human nature and nature at large. Some, however, are fully observational and resist being employed as metaphor. These beautiful poems (“Garter Snake” and “Hog-Nosed Skunk” stand out) are composed with a naturalist’s care, but their stakes seem lower. There is, of course, the argument that the observational stance of the speaker as a sort of witness represents an invitation to political or ecological commentary — on land use, for instance — but this seems a considerable stretch. And Voigt, for all of her prodigious powers and range, does not seem inclined to this degree of subtlety. (In “Cow,” for example, she relishes the idea that what her Zen friend needs is a good steak, “something truly free of mind a slab of earth / by way of cow by way of fire the surface charred the juices / running pink and red on the white plate.”)

In Headwaters as in her earlier work, Voigt adroitly explores the themes that have always been her concern: the individual’s relationship with place, the natural world, the past. But the innovation of Headwaters, the dimension in which it truly shines, may in fact be stylistic. Casting off the conventions of capitalization and punctuation, Voigt has assembled a collection that feels stripped-down and definitive, even oracular. The title poem is perhaps the clearest example of what she gains by this approach:

I made a large mistake I left my house I went into the world it was not
the most perilous hostile part but I couldn’t tell among the people there

who needed what no tracks in the snow no boot pointed toward me or away
no snow as in my dooryard only the many currents of self-doubt I clung

to my own life raft […]

The lack of punctuation forces the reader into a recursive double-reading to simultaneously maintain a train of thought and parse the syntax. In the example above, Voigt further — and masterfully — complicates our reading through her use of enjambment. Is “I clung” associated with the aforementioned “self-doubt”? Does it refer to the unstable chasm of blank space into which the line runs? No, we understand, finally, that the object of the verb is the “life raft” of the ensuing line. But the second- and third-guessing Voigt forces us to do leads us to admit that our vision of the world is as tenuous as the speaker’s. The lack of punctuation — and the double-reading it necessitates — emphasizes the cumulative effect of successive revelation. This works particularly well in a poem like “Stones,” in which the speaker is left to clean out the apartment of her dead friend, a collector of stones:

[…]all the horizontal surfaces were covered

with stones the bureau the cupboards the closets were full of the precious
stones she wore at her throat her ears her fingers her wrists the inlaid

tables held ceramic bowls of polished stones the antique desk a basket
of stones a bushel of stones on the floor on the windowsill more stones […]

In reading, we must supply the missing comma to each clause and item; in doing so, we feel we come to know this room, this departed person, the exact weight of her loss.

Voigt’s syntactical risk pays off. Equally impressive are her lines, which are much longer — and engender much more vulnerability — than in her previous collections. Headwaters contains a number of additional delights, including the beautiful ekphrastic “Milkmaid”: here, the two-parted syntax and content (“I wore his fishing boots rolled at my waist / I waded to the metal box put something in took something out”) is in continual, productive tension with a three-parted rhythm. (The poem is in tercets.) It is this type of generative complexity that James Longenbach refers to as the “simultaneous creation and disruption of pattern” (The Art of the Poetic Line), which characterizes the most successful poetry. Headwaters is a slim collection — I count 43 pages of poetry — but in a very limited space it achieves both breadth and depth. Most importantly, like all memorable works of art, it leaves one wanting more.


Benjamin Landry is the author of Particle and Wave (University of Chicago Press Phoenix Poets Series).