blackbirdonline journalSpring 2018  Vol. 17 No. 1
an online journal of literature and the arts
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What I Want Your Voice to Do
We have been busy accumulating solace.
Make us afraid of how we were.

The voice is an animal’s snort before attack. That is what it sounds like when I read the story this time, that kind of groan and agitation. A guttural hauling up, the voice ricochets in multiplied clamor, saying, “Come forth.” According to second-century rabbis, the soul must now travel a long way back down the southeastern slope of the mountain, a full day gone free. Each morning for three days, the soul returned, from wherever it is souls go, to the tomb in Bethany, obliged to reenter the body if possible; but when it saw the skull finally sink in and face disfigure, jaw held on only by a stubborn strip of linen, the soul finally abandoned the body. Fourth day, though, here it is hooking back because the agitated-animal voice calls Lazarus.

The voice uncrushes the head that was beginning to crush, unblocks the man’s nerves, unstiffens his rigor mortis, and browns the blued skin. This is not the ethereal, misty rise the soul was after—no, it is flaccid cock and coiled chest hair and eyes rewetted, skin smelling like the split, white root of skunk cabbage. The soul is sucked back into the familiar embarrassment of flesh, but, upon reentry, it understands something is indeed different, unfamiliar. The head is wrapped in ratty graveclothes, the man can now sense; he can now fear the feel of suffocation. His hands try to function, to pull off the rags, but he is tightly bound and now feels the binding and the reversed aching: chest getting uncrushed that was just beginning to crush.

Does it hurt worse, I wonder, in the violent undoing? The shock of air in unputrefied lung, the jolt of the blood’s resumed flow zooming with oxygen, (red, blue, red, blue) the vein map lit inside the body’s living night? Nerves first feel sting and sting then coolness and damp. And sound—after the ear drum is resensitized to vibration. That voice is a hail of iron nails. The man rises up, shuffling with bound hands and feet back toward the life and breath that he’d been shed of. And there’s Jesus, his Lord, his friend, groaning for him, in a tremendous voice, “Come forth, Lazarus, come out!” He scuffles blind, toward the demand that seems capricious. Toward a voice like a beast’s before a charge, like a wild horse’s, with a confusing harsh lift. Leave me in peace, Lazarus thinks, rigid with fear, please leave me alone.


Because I am teaching a creative writing course to college freshmen checking off their Aesthetic Expression general-education requirement, I am preparing a lesson on voice. I’m thinking, too, about my patterns in recent marginalia on graduate students’ work this semester: the voice is tinny here, the voice is precious, is tonally off—see how the voice goes a bit flat? What do I mean when I write these things? That the voice does not act on me like a solvent? That it’s inauthentic, or unoriginal? It has no kick, no lilt?

Also on my desk is the Gospel narrative of Lazarus I’m rereading, and the local paper. On the front page of the Post there’s an article about a poetry workshop at a middle school here in West Virginia, about an hour and a half drive from the small college where I teach. A professor from another institution has received a service award for the workshop she gave at West Preston School. How kind, I think, helping them find their voices. To the reporter, she said, “That place is real,” referring to the school, I guess. There’s a nice picture of her, she has nice hair. The paragraphs underneath her photo neighbor yet another story on our region’s opioid epidemic, here in the dismal year of 2017, along with a map showing overdose death rates, and I recognize—because I grew up in the county where West Preston School is—that included in the red crisis map is this school, in which took place this bright little workshop. The stories are juxtaposed above the weather for the week.

Probably Italian shoes, I think, a dress from Anthropologie, perhaps a whole closetful of such outfits. What’s that look in her eye, like a startle? What did she mean, That place is real? Her only comment noted.

It’s easy to picture myself there since I played girls basketball in middle school, against West. I gaze around my memory at the dank gym and think, Hell yes, it’s real. I remember well the girls from West Preston, the meanest in county girls basketball: they threw elbows and yanked hair, fouled out without fail. They could scramble but not dribble worth a damn. Same was true of me. I played for Central, in a scratchy burgundy uniform, our gym condemned now for asbestos. I remember the fumbling sexual release of it, pounding down the court in bodies that couldn’t quite fill themselves or understand the growth of body hair, sprouting out to feel, like antennae. I could rebound, I was good at man–to–man, girl–to–girl, I could make a layup only with wild luck, and in general I shot two-handed bullets. I can see one of those girls sharply in the matchbox gym, a scrapper who drew a technical foul for flipping off the ref and calling him a cocksucker (she’d found her voice, no problem), sitting the bench and picking her face. She was wiry and violent, all elbow, lots of trash talk; she had a real mouth on her and I remember how I marveled. A voice that grabbed you under the ribs and dug its nails in.

Twenty-five years later, sitting here at my desk in my home office, I picture myself in the language arts classroom at West where the beleaguered middle-school teacher catches up on paperwork, relieved that I’ll be taking the room for a while. The classroom is bleak: broken chalk, stale air, inspirational posters with faded mountain climbers on them. My hair is not so nice as the professor’s in the paper, but I bring my worksheets and a sheaf of gel pens as gifts, and small, serious-looking journals.

That place is real. I know what she meant by the declaration. She meant high stakes and thin padding. She meant those kids have it rough; they’re poor with junkie parents and no food except free or reduced lunch. Their poems will unearth sentimental pain, written in colorful ink with hearts dotting i’s and clenched-teeth faces drawn in the margin: this is what Daddy looks like strung out on Oxy, this is our dog Brucey, this is what my mind sees always in dreams even when I sleep in different houses. That place is real, that place, not this one of the cultural commons of those who read hopeful newspaper articles, but that other, that doomed one riding the landslide off the cliff.

In the classroom in which I picture myself, there’s a cross breeze between the open, ancient windows and the door. But the breeze is yellowed, smoky. “Finding your true voice, let’s begin.”


A voice like the shock of snow on the face, ice water or ice wind. In the translation of the Gospel narrative I have, Jesus was deeply moved in spirit when the sisters of Lazarus—Mary and Martha—wailed in grief. Jesus was troubled. But this translation does not do justice to the word embrimaomai, a Greek verb of great agitation, suggesting a beast snorting, an angry horse stomping and ready to rush—it was this disturbance out of which the words came, “Come out, come out,” a voice like rough hands shaking the lifeless body from its rot. Resurging the blood around the grid of bone and sinew. I imagine such a thing would hurt.

Voice says, “Get up.”

Summoned, Lazarus bangs his shins, rubberizes the atrophy of leg muscle. The tomb is darker than dark. It takes a while, this terrorizing of each tendon. The first step of resurrection is being aware of one’s recent death. Smelling one’s own fading decay, feeling the constriction of the graveclothes. The second step is the understanding, like a light switched on: I can no longer be what I was, there is no going back—something somehow tectonic moves inside me with a great scraping.

My mind travels down the long chute of human centuries where I sat as a preschooler for a fifteen–minute lesson on a Sunday school flannel board. Lazarus looks the cheery mummy. His face is clear of wrappings and, chubby and baffled, blinking away a nap. His won–over sisters Mary and Martha are first in sad face, then in happy; it’s a simple replacement on the flannel, the disappeared tears. Jesus, with his white robe and blue sash of solace, is helpful looking, like a crossing guard. And mute. In our small wooden chairs, we can’t see, hear, or touch the coiled–up groan let loose in him, the deep churn of disruption, disorder. We recite our memory verse and receive a star sticker. We can’t feel the harrowing demand, or the flutter of lips mumbling fright through reedy layers of cloth, “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.” Or sense the soul frantic to get back in time, back into time, thinking it had finally gotten free of the befuddlement of living.


In the classroom at West Preston School where I have pictured myself, I imagine how the kids accept my worksheets, which I have decorated with tasteful clip art. I give instructions. They sit at desks engraved with anarchist signs and penises and sunflowers. They hear in their heads a storm brewing. I direct them to the patterned lines, like paint by number, fill-in-the-blanks, based off famous poems, cleverly, like a game of Mad Libs. Their voices roam the room with teeth.

I walk up and down the aisles and take in the adolescent fumes of the boys. Some make spitballs of the worksheets, some give them a try, thoughtfully pulling at their new facial hair. The girls chew the pen caps, nervous, adjust a bra strap. One sleeps, one crosses her arms and checks out. I stop at the desk of a girl in a princess T–shirt, skinny–to–nothing jeans like seal skin, big boots that were once some boy cousin’s. She fumes on the page in purple gel and I read that her name is Mindy. She began by filling in the blanks but soon abandoned them, and she has swirled out into the margin.

“I envy you your voice,” I say to her.

“Whatever,” Mindy says. Tongues her lip ring.

That place is real because the voices are so authentic. (Maybe that’s what the stylish professor meant.) Mindy’s voice, as I imagine it, ranges like a wild dog over the page; it has texture, the girl has material, an authentic—yes, that must be what it is—raw rasp in the throat. A voice enfleshing a family system sociologists study from outside the diorama of Mindy’s life, while the meek school counselor does his best. Mindy’s voice holds a paper plate at reunions, two plates layered together though still drooping under chili dogs. Mindy’s voice has a plainspoken face, defiant eyeliner but hair unmolested by product. It’s part of a clan with houses sloping into one another so that loneliness is not possible, except that it is. The chaos and cacophony lift off in the girl’s poem, the methadone and strychnine, something on fire, everybody’s grandma raising someone else’s stepniece, and Mindy’s mother is a real piece of work, but loved like the one lamb out of the ninety-nine. She has sallow skin tattooed with a horse sagging past recognition, but Mindy always recognizes the horse and she’s writing about it, moving now into the pages of her new journal: from the zodiac, Momma said, born in the Year of the Horse, the Earth Horse which is kind and ready to help and be there for me—here, I’ll draw it for you in purple. I want that ink to stay clear and not fade and fog like her others—the sailboat with Dad’s name on it, the stupid red lotus. This Momma has hopeless, blitzed hair and a rap sheet of poor choices and cheap tops, gifted with the condemnation and love of all. The girl’s poem is called, in all caps at the top, “A PIECE OF WORK,” what her grandmother always calls Momma, though she loves her like the lost lamb. Mindy is tearing through pages, some of the ink trailing off onto the desk. The poem says: The big earth turns in her heart. The poem smells of the Piece of Work’s Listerine coating her nicotine assmouth. Failed Momma. But the Horse is kind hearted and so she’s coming back for me, she’ll come back from Florida any day now, any day.


That place is real, whereas this place is not. (Yes, that is what the pretty professor meant.) This place being the life at this desk I have not quite meant to live. I may have meant to live the one parallel to it—I can almost sense it through the fractures of time, like the labyrinthine time in a Borges story. In my memory, somewhere between my lackluster basketball career and now, I had a voice of storm quivering, didn’t I? I have worked up through tenure, up through a marriage and out, with a few books but no children. Last month, I had a weird experience: I could no longer hear my graduate students read their poems and stories aloud—so strange, as if there was cotton in my ears. I considered getting my hearing checked.

What if I had signed on for an outreach to West Preston the day I stopped hearing my own heartbeat, the thud when you lie on your side? Too nervous to get my heart checked, I wanted to get out of town. To sign on for something real. Lacan’s traumatic real, primordial real, unfissured impossible real outside of language. Žižek’s symbolic real, imaginary real, or real real, the sublime, the Absolute. Shock of the real—that’s it, the shock. I remember back through gauzy folds in my brain, when I once read philosophy and it read like poetry, when I was twenty-one, when I was hungry. When I wrote things in composition books that I thought could literally keep somebody alive, or resuscitate, if it came to that.


Mindy’s voice in that imagined classroom grabs me under the ribs. In the girl’s poem, “A PIECE OF WORK,” the family sets up outdoor propane burners, making apple butter, coring and peeling with the radio on, and suddenly everyone goes quiet. Momma, too tanned from Florida sun, makes an appearance, out of the blue. She walks into the yard all hangdog face, shifts her weight, tugs the short sleeves of her Disney World shirt toward the purple needle marks. There is prodigal-daughter silence, an awkward exchange of looks, then she is handed a paring knife and is reabsorbed into the fold.

On the worksheet, the girl has written all around the fill-in-the-blanks and the clever sentence structures that contain them and onto the wide expanse of the back of the paper, and she has scrawled through the notebook and across most of the surface of the desk—I’m glad the teacher is preoccupied with catch-up. Pink pen storming about, horse snorting, this Mindy who has found her voice or perhaps never lost it, or has never not known it, fire-eyes following the pen tip. She sounds out, clearly, trying to bring her mother back to life that night, because something happened once the apple butter was sealed in pint jars. Pink-pen voice says: “Come out. Get up, get up, goddamnit.” Voice pulls on Momma’s deadweight wrist—maybe Momma hears. In the classroom aisle by Mindy’s desk, I stand there with no other way to describe it except that it’s the feel of graveclothes on my mouth, tight and restrictive, newly sensed linen holding on my jaw. My hands reach up to tear at it. I can see that I can’t see, I can hear multiplied voice against stone. I can’t tell if I’m me, or the better-looking professor, or Momma herself, or somebody else. I think: I haven’t heard a voice in so long. I think: My soul is long gone over the southeastern slope, and what if it’s called it back? What will be different? Everything will be different.

I tell Mindy I’m terrified.

She says, “You should be.”

She says, “The big earth turns in your heart and no longer outside it.”


It occurs to me that the scrapper girl on the basketball court of my middle-school days could have been Mindy’s mother, about my age. The Piece of Work, I mean, the one that drew a technical when she called the ref a cocksucker for blowing the whistle on her charge against the scrawny point guard. Mindy’s mom and I pounding baseline to baseline. I was number twenty-five, teased bangs weighting my head to the left with several grams of Aqua Net, pretty substantial thighs, knockoff black hi-tops. Hers was a throat lined with cut glass, voice scraping its way out, and scraping its way back in when she sucked air. Not me, a mousy voice. I couldn’t trash-talk if my life depended on it. Even then I wanted a voice that could change things, do things—stop pain, stop war, unseat power, disquiet and disturb, fix something broken, break something that needed breaking. Even then I feared the ineffectual voice and struggled against it. On the court, there was effect, she got results—whistle blown, outta here! Benched and grim and glowing.

But, wouldn’t you know it, she got back in. Only because the team was so small and someone turned an ankle and they had to have five on the court for the game to go on. So she went back in, glowered, got the ball, faked left then jagged right, slipped out of my reach. She flew down the court toward the basket, whipping her ratty ponytail, the crowd roaring. What if this was all a few years before she was pregnant by the listless high-school senior with big plans full of furious nothing? And they drifted south to Miami, wanted better things, got into a scene, left her girl since she’d be better off with her grandma anyway, wouldn’t she? This pounding down the court in the matchbox gym would have all been before the dreams soured, before she whispered to her daughter about the Year of the Horse (See?—tiny Mindy tracing the tattoo’s outline and tickling her mom’s skin), and before she forgot about it altogether.


I have likely misimagined. The professor is simply a nice person and the kids probably wrote some nice poems and went home and showed them to their nice mothers whose bodies’ ability to produce their own endorphins never flickered off because the Oxy never took over and made them sweat from lung to vein to pore. The kids were probably a little bored and the professor happy enough with her life.

Could be. I’ve gotten nowhere with my actual lesson planning, my notes a jumble. I think about excerpting works of literature with voices that at one time reached into me, turned me inside out, as models, though it’s not fair to demand such strength of voice of my graduate students just starting out, of my freshmen who are mainly trying to pass chemistry lab and who regret not taking modern dance for their Aesthetic Expression credit.

I think about Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” that last line as the speaker gazes at the sculpture: “You must change your life.” Change as a response, an answer, to that stone torso which bursts before you “like a star.” I always loved the poem’s claim about art’s efficacy. And I always thought it sounded lovely, the end of that poem. But is it really lovely to have to change your life? To have to let go of all you thought you knew, to be so unmoored? Implicit in real change is your hair matted to your face in the rain with no way back inside shelter and solace, with only the unknown way ahead into storm.

I leave the desk for supper and sense that neutral and neutered voices fill my head and clutter my house, not voices that unsettle and range like dogs, rove, ravenous to set change in motion. And my own voice is a squeak. Why is that?

Bothered, I heat up something in the microwave, use the app on my phone to turn on Kai Ryssdal on NPR’s Marketplace to get the financial news, which then blurs into All Things Considered and sound bites of the US president’s voice. Mr. Trump’s voice sounds like a little-lost-boy voice except that he could nuke someone so it’s more like a little-lost-boy voice when the boy is burning field mice in a barrel fire. And then other voices analyze that voice, but, no offense to Kai and the others, they become voices speaking to hear themselves. It feels as though we all speak upward into isolated glass tubes and not to each other.

I listen and listen, eventually take my glowing screen to bed with me, scrolling through voices that reconfirm what everyone already thinks and knows. It’s a whole bright world, there in my smartphone, warming my palm like a live heart except it’s made in China. The A6 chip, the circuit boards, the slick touch screen all manufactured from rare elements from inner Mongolia and cleaned with n-hexane that poisons the bodies of workers—who now have nerve damage, muscle atrophy, and hypersensitivity to cold—so now they wear insulated clothes because of feeling everything too much, every scratchy movement of the world. Maybe they have supersonic hearing, too: hear every voice. What if that were possible? You hear, for instance, all the refugees’ voices from Syria, from Myanmar, from south Sudan, like a bee swarm, fleeing war all over the world, and you hear bits of singing, too, arias like starburst, you hear secret praying, agitated praying, you hear your students take tentative stabs at their assignment before they delete and start over with something safer and duller and more familiar. You hear it all gelled into the incisive voice of an illusory middle schooler’s poem demanding you get up, all the voices like a singular voice multiplied in ricochet against damp stone and you bolt from bed.


Nobody ever talks about what the second day may have been like, or the third, Lazarus having now bathed and dressed in other than linen strips in the land of the living. Little tremor in his hand he can’t quell. Eating a regular meal Martha fixes, on the bland side. Jesus sits there across the table the day after, before leaving town, eyes like wild oceans, and Lazarus looks away and spills stuff, knocks over cups—excuse me, I’m sorry, I’m sorry—and gets up from the table because he can’t swallow because the big earth turns in his heart causing indigestion. There are rumors the chief priests want to kill Lazarus because of the hubbub, and Martha is worried, but that’s not what’s troubling him.

He leaves hurriedly, still a bit weak in his legs from the days in the tomb, goes out to check the sheep. Their little baa–baa voices sound like keening. He remembers what it was like to not remember and then to remember and then to dream forward in time. The wind shifts and, just faintly, he smells his body recomposing. How will he live now? The third step of resurrection—now that you can no longer be what you were—is what? It’s as if a coil of extraordinary metal glows in the middle of his chest and shoots lava spears into his lungs, that’s how it feels. There is no solace in it, but solace is not what he needs—not what most of us need. There is only this love so big and turning, like a great turning and groaning disc, or sphere. The sheep pasture is near the road and in each traveler who passes by, Lazarus can feel the dread, rancor, desire, sadness like a heavy cloak, bits of joy.

“What was it like?” Mary says softly, coming up behind him. “Being dead?”

Lazarus turns so the sun dipping toward the southeastern slope pours onto his face, and he says, “Go back home.” He can reach inside the very caverns of his sister and lift out her trepidation. Like an ox yoked, he can bear it onward with her.

“No. Tell me, should I fear it?”

He can still hear the voice tear at the fabric. He can still feel the shock of air in nonquivery lungs requivered. He will never forget that. But even more alarming is the roiling movement in Lazarus’s heart, a nuzzle of lamb behind his knee and his soul feeling it like a burn, the golden sun on his face.

He says, “I’m not what I was, but what am I?”

Her eyes like the sheep’s. How to begin describing all this to his sister whose heart now thuds in his own?


The lip-ring girl. Mindy. Get up, she writes. Momma trembles, from something other than the stuff she shot into her vein. Shock of light in her eyes so her pupils respond. There’s an awful intake of breath. I tremble, too, I drop things on the classroom floor, the extra pens and worksheets, my bag. Mindy says: Wrestle out of the linen binding, work free the strip that’s tight around your jaw. Change out of the fouled clothes your dead body shat in.

What a jolt this is—resurrection. It hurts only at first, but it hurts like hell.

Grope in the dark to find by feel the tomb’s slit and crawl out.

Once out you think it’s sunlight that pierces you, you who were used to the dark, such a burst of it that you shield your eyes. But whatever it is, it’s not outside you. It’s inside, radiating. It can only be love for the world spinning on its axis behind your ribs, against your kidneys and spleen, the Earth throbbing in the beat of your heart.


The next day of my real life goes by. The boy who lives next door to me, Brady, takes off running as fast as he can down our street for no reason and every reason, yelling like crazy. I sit on my front steps so I can hear his joyous, raucous voice. I take a beer out there, and yesterday’s lesson-plan notebook. Wave to Brady’s mom. In the notebook on my lap I make notes: I want your voice to make me different than how I was. To make a memory of my death. I want mine to do the same for you. To raise the dead. Brady flies, he pumps, his hair doesn’t move, it’s lodged in beautiful scruff-coil. His limbs are lengthening.

“Hey,” I say.

“Hey,” he says. Runs on. Weird woman who lives alone next door.

Then his dad sets up the hoop in the street since traffic has died down, and Brady pounds the basketball, pound pound pound, he dribbles off his toe. He doesn’t pay me much mind on my porch mumbling in my graveclothes, prying them from my face so I can breathe. Kid’s as bad as me at layups. Gasp air, fill lungs, feel the big sphere turn and scrape. I cross the street for a pass, one dribble and a jump shot. A hopeless air ball, and we howl and laugh.  

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