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March 30, 2016 at 10:40 am

Lit Fest | The Transcendent Poetry of Ellen Bryant Voigt

The 2016 Spring Literary Festival welcomes author Ellen Bryant Voigt for a lecture on Thursday, April 7, at 11:00 a.m., in Baker Ballroom, and for a reading at on Friday, April 8, at 8:30 p.m., in Baker Ballroom.

By Christine Adams
Graduate student pursuing a Ph.D. in Poetry

If you squint into the distance you might spot a neighbor beheading a chicken in one swift motion, the soft outline of the Blue Ridge Mountains, or an owl alighting on a pine branch. Or so the poetry of Ellen Bryant Voigt will lead you to believe. It is verse that immerses its reader in tender and complicated family relationships, in small towns and landscape, in the world of both wild and farm animals alike. Voigt’s ability to render brutality as transcendent is a distinctive feature of her poetry, but what is perhaps more notable is that Voigt gets us to look at these quiet, small cruelties at all. This ability has carried her through a distinguished career that has spanned decades, punctuated by her eight collections of poems, two of which were finalists for the National Book Award; her two craft books; and her selection as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. More recently, she was appointed as a MacArthur Foundation Fellow.

Ellen Bryant Voigt

Ellen Bryant Voigt

In Voigt’s elegiac yet realistic poetry, larger losses reside alongside smaller losses, leading always to meditations on fate and human nature. With just as much care, she’ll show the death of a father, two middle-aged not-quite-friends-not-quite-lovers who simply “watch youth from a great distance,” and an internal debate on the merits and pitfalls of knowledge. As one moves through Voigt’s collections we see that to be human is to bear these cruelties, and to write is to mine these moments for the glimmers of under-standing they might contain. In one of my favorite poems, “The Photograph,” Voigt writes about finding a photo of her mother at age seventeen. She describes her mother’s hair as “a spill of ink below the white beret / a swell of dark water.” She then compresses her mother’s life into only a few lines, writing:

still a shadow in my father’s longing—nothing
the camera could record foretold
her restlessness, the years of shrill
unspecified despair, the clear reproach
of my life, just beginning.

The horseshoe hung in the neck of the tree sinks
deeper into heartwood every season.
Sometimes I hear the past
hum in my ear, its cruel perfected music,
as I turn from the stove
or stop to braid my daughter’s thick black hair.

Note the way Voigt warps time, touching on her mother’s bitterness and sadness, before coming to rest in the present. Yet, while the poem’s final image soothes, it simultaneously suggests that these losses are passed from mother to daughter and onward. What is striking about Voigt’s poetry is the tension between the discomforting way the past leaches into the present, and her gift for imagery. This tension is embodied in her linebreaks, which fragment her narrative and allow time periods to blend. Of course, losses, both large and small, and the cruelties of living are what have long captivated poets. Yet, Voigt’s work is distinctive in that it does not yearn for reconciliation or release. Voigt lingers on the bent and broken events of a life, and rather than lament the sadness they contain, she teases loose all they might offer a reader with her keen eye. Take, for example, the first poem from a sequence titled “The Art of Distance.” The poem is a recollection of when the speaker’s dog snapped a snake in its jaws, throwing it in the air, leaving the snake half-paralyzed but living. Here are the final two stanzas:

My strict father
would have been appalled: not to dispatch
a uselessly suffering thing made me the same, he’d say,
as the man who, seeing a toad,
catatonic Buddha in its niche, wedged
within the vise of a snake’s efficient mouth
clamped open for, then closing slowly down and
over it, bludgeoned them both with the flat side of a hoe.

For once I will accept my father’s judgment.
But this had been my yard, my snake, old enemy
resident at the back side of the house. For hours,
the pent dog panting and begging, I watched
from the window, as from a tower wall,
until it vanished: reluctant arrow
aimed at where the berries
ripened and fell.

In this moment, Voigt’s speaker does not wish she acted differently. Instead, she accepts her own inability to act. She draws out the moment of the snake struggling to continue on, forcing her reader to watch as her speaker watches. The moments when other writers might begin to flinch and slip into “I should have” are the moments Voigt offers most honestly to her readers.

Yet what allows Ellen Bryant Voigt’s verse to transcend the discomfort of her chosen subjects is her atten-tion to the musicality of language. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Voigt was trained as a pianist, and music both inspires and appears as subject matter in her work. When I read her poems I give my attention to the intricate aural qualities of her lines, and I most deeply experience what Philip Levine called her “unerring craft.” In an interview with Maria Hummel for The Rumpus, Voigt spoke about the way that rhythms and music appear in the poetic line. She said, “What I have always loved about poetry is its two rhythmic systems—the rhythm of the sentence, which is a given, how we think, how we make meaning; and the rhythm of the poetic line, which is wholly artifice, made by the poet, every time, in every poem, in every line—and the relationship between them.” This interplay between the bluntness of her telling and the music in her lines characterizes Voigt’s best work.

It is in Voigt’s most recent collection Headwaters that a reader might find the most profound examples of the poet’s rhythmic ability. In this collection she forgoes all punctuation, allowing her lines and linebreaks to more deeply control the rhythms of her poems. She shifts her tone rapidly, as she lets the narrative threads snarl and untangle to varying degrees. Her poem “Owl” is emblematic of the intensity of Voigt’s sound, and the shift in style that characterizes this collection. She writes:

and [he] 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
in the Medicine Wheel
the emblem for wisdom is the same for gratitude at
dusk at dark
the farsighted owl strikes in utter silence when we
hear it
from the tree of the barn what it announces
is already finished.

Many readers point to Headwaters as a stylistic shift for the poet, and, indeed, one can easily spot the differences between this poem and the ones quoted earlier. Once we spend time with this poem, however, we see that what Voigt is asking is no different than what she has been asking all along. Here, she draws a comparison between her father calling out for his step-mother and the owl, and the erosion of life remains her consistent theme. Voigt asks only that we watch these two moments with her.

Voigt’s voice—intelligent, genuine, humble—seems to flow backwards and forwards as the reader moves through the poems in Headwaters. These poems do not allow us to catch our breath in the pause of a period or to luxuriate in narrative. They mirror the messy and imperfect way that knowledge and instinct and impression bleed into the personal. Perhaps, most refreshingly, the tonal shifts of the poems leave questions unanswered, but, again, we feel secure in Voigt’s impeccable rhythmic control. As she directs her poetic gaze at the facts of illness, death, and loss, she resists the urge to neaten or tidy with her gift for image and sound. Instead, Ellen Bryant Voigt observes creatively, squinting into the past and present, composing not only the beautiful notes, but the bent and the crooked ones, too.

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