blackbirdonline journalSpring 2014  Vol. 13  No. 1
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Review | Headwaters: Poems, by Ellen Bryant Voigt
W.W. Norton & Company, 2013

spacer Headwaters

What should we, as readers, make of a poet at her peak, established not only as a master of her craft but as a teacher and arbiter of that craft, when she abruptly changes her voice? Well, perhaps not so much the poet, whom we’re unlikely to know, as her work—what should we make of that? Note: I’m using “voice” loosely here for both the non-literary concept of an individual’s recognizably characteristic speech and as the literary intelligence behind the language of the poems. Voice does sometimes change from one collection to the next, but, as with adolescent boys, the change more often occurs in early works, say, from first to second or second to third books. Then the poet settles into a voice that serves her purposes comfortably and generally stays with it, or close to it, for books to come.

Ellen Bryant Voigt actually found her voice early. Even the poems in her first book assert themselves with a mature confidence; you can’t dismiss them as juvenilia. From Claiming Kin in 1976 through Messenger: New and Selected Poems, 1976–2006, she has crafted work and collections of work simultaneously elegant and compelling, nearly always in complete, beautifully parsed whole sentences. (She did, after all, also write The Art of Syntax: Rhythm of Thought, Rhythm of Song; and, in the case of Voigt, who is an accomplished musician, voice and song have an intimate connection.) I’ve long admired her gift for achieving spectacular effects without bangs and whistles. But here, with her eighth collection, she has left her familiar path. And hooray for her! Hooray for Headwaters!

This new collection reveals a different Ellen Bryant Voigt, long concealed. As she says in a different context, “what happened / must have been the bushel I was hiding in.” Here, she banishes punctuation, relying instead on an urgent, sometimes almost incantatory rhythm and insistent repetition, partly stream of consciousness, partly a sort of verbal cataract, like the waters of her title.

Here too, her wit, which I might previously have characterized as “wry,” bursts its bounds. I’ve attended several readings by Voigt over the years; all rank high on my personal list of Best Poetry Readings. I’ve sometimes smiled, along with the rest of the audience, at an apt line, but never until her reading from Headwaters at the Library of Virginia in October of 2013 have I heard her provoke belly laugh after belly laugh. A random example, from “Cow,” which describes a neighbor’s animal that has “breached the fence” and will not respond to the girl who tries to lure it back with “a handful of grass”: The speaker takes over and “burst[s]

from the house with an ax
I held it by the blade I tapped with the handle where the steaks come from

like the one I serve my friend a water sign who likes to lurk
in the plural solitude of Zen retreat to calm his mind but when it’s done
what he needs I think is 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.

Similarly, when her frail (“only one good lung”) “beloved”—“this man so moderate so genial so unlike me”—charges half-dressed to confront a bear at the kitchen door, the speaker wonders: “where was my sister / with her gun or would she be praying since she prays routinely / for a parking spot and there it is or would she be speechless for once / . . . or would she be saying you my dear are the person who married him.”

The collection works best if we assume a single speaker and unitary set of relationships throughout. Poems about family—not just the sister and the “beloved,” but also mother and father and, less frequently, a younger brother, children and a grandchild—appear through the course of Headwaters, with details that mesh and gain force from repetition, especially in Voigt’s examination of the relationships between parents and children.

The powerful “My Mother” (“my mother my mother my mother she / could do anything so she did everything”) introduces a formidable character ready to take charge and make up for others’ deficits (“they would be nice they would // apologize they would be grateful whenever / they had forgotten what to pack she never did”) and also establishes the basis of ongoing resentments between mother and daughter and between sisters, played out both here and in other poems in the book. Through her mother’s eyes, the speaker sees herself as “that awful sort of stubborn broody child who more and more I was” and remarks later: “I never did apologize / I let my sister succor those in need and suffer / the little children my mother // knew we are self-canceling she gave herself / a lifetime C an average grade”; the speaker is clearly the one who brings down her mother’s average. (Note, by the way, the delicious triple ambiguity in the word “suffer,” which would probably evaporate with the intrusion of punctuation: I let her suffer. I let her suffer the little children. I let her suffer my mother.)

Another poem, “Fox,” sheds more light on the mother-daughter relationship: this second child’s broodiness and need to stand apart apparently began early, when “my mother had another child sick unto death / she needed me to fall in love with solitude I fell in love.” The inadvertent gift has passed down through generations; in the same poem, the speaker contrasts her grandchild—an “odd happy child” who entertains herself contentedly—with “the child of my friends / [who] is never ever left alone asleep awake / . . . poor happy child.”

Elsewhere, a next-door neighbor’s hound “moans all day all night” because it has been supplanted by a new human child. She compares the dog’s self-pity with the self-sufficiency of a litter of kittens (“they’re interchangeable . . . / no first no last”) and suggests the consolation that “at least with only two / both can be a kind of favorite it’s better than three / I ought to know my sister and I each had one parent to herself,” then continues: “you’re thinking one is best / one open mouth no first no last but isn’t it / then the parents who compete.”

The mother’s view of her younger daughter’s shortcomings (“a parent always / needing something to forgive you for”) also probably plays a role in the speaker’s occasional and startling moments of insecurity. In the title poem, which begins with the adult child’s admission, “I made a large mistake I left my house,” goes on to locate the speaker clinging to “my own life raft,” floating on “the many currents of self-doubt,” but the raft “grew smaller and smaller or maybe I grew larger and heavier // but don’t you think I’m doing better in this regard I try to do better.” At the end, the adult speaker has not successfully banished the child’s fear and earnest efforts to “do better.”

In “Sleep” she scolds herself for obsessing over a bout of insomnia:

I’m thinking
a lot about sleep translation I’m not sleeping much
who used to be a champion of sleep
ex-champions are pathetic my inner parent says the world
is full of evil death cruelty degradation not sleeping
scores only 2 out of 10

Sleep also figures indirectly in “Spring,” where she considers the practicalities of death and burial in the context of a long marriage: “for texts // Ecclesiastes so the bereaved / can choose whether to believe // that death is a kind of hibernation,” a meditation that leads Voigt, as so many of these poems do, to animals—in this case, a newly awakened groundhog, who may or may not be the same groundhog her speaker had seen the year before (“a strange // perpendicular crimp in its tail which proved / to the rational mind it was a different creature” but then “by late summer . . . how its coat now gleams how / when frightened it also hurries into the barn”). Does the groundhog then represent rebirth or does it merely give the comfortable illusion of rebirth?

Considering how many of the poems in this collection deal with animals—thirteen of the twenty-eight poems have an animal or bird in the title and many others feature animals and birds prominently in the body of these typically short poems—and considering how much wit seasons Headwaters, I first thought of locating the book in the tradition of the so-called “beast epic,” through which writers from Aesop to Orwell have used animals to illuminate and satirize human failures. After several readings, however, I realized that Voigt doesn’t really follow in this particular tradition.

Rather, she writes about real, hairy, noisy creatures who sometimes pose alone for their portraits, sometimes interact with humans with comic results; but a pig, for example, never stands in for human greed or filth. “I like swine,” she asserts, noting they “are smart and prefer to be clean using their snouts / to push their excrement to the side of the pen.” The “beloved’s” confrontation with the bear leads not to a comparison between them but to a tender, if exasperated, meditation on the married state, with the bear as a distant observer after the couple have installed a “vertical electric fence” over the damaged door:

one of us thinks
the bear can hear it hum from the edge of the woods
watching us like a child sent to his room as we grill the salmon
we spiked with juniper berries the other one thinks
the plural pronoun is a dangerous fiction the source
of so much unexpected loneliness

Headwaters contains only a few more than forty pages of poetry, but, like a magician’s hat, it manages to contain more than the sum of those few pages in its broad humor, its elements of the bestiary, its acid sketches of family dynamics and, underlying all, its awareness of change, slow and fast, of the certainty of death, and the almost equal, and perhaps more painful, certainty of bereavement. I can’t say whether this abrupt shift makes Headwaters better than Ellen Bryant Voigt’s previous work or whether she should continue in this direction. Perhaps Voigt herself sees this book as a scherzo, a lively, playful movement, “commonly in quick triple time,” as Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed., observes, with a subsequent return to a slower tempo. Regardless of what comes next, this new, galloping voice furnishes its own pleasures and deserves close and joyful reading.  end  

Ellen Bryant Voigt is the author of several collections of poetry, including Headwaters: Poems (W.W. Norton & Company, 2013); Messenger: New and Selected Poems 1976–2006 (2007), a finalist for the 2007 National Book Award; Shadow of Heaven: Poems (2002), a finalist for the 2002 National Book Award; Kyrie (1996), winner of the Sara Teasdale Award and finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award; Two Trees (1992); The Lotus Flowers (1987); The Forces of Plenty (1983); and Claiming Kin (Wesleyan University Press, 1976).

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