Untamed Elegy: A Review of Ellen Bryant Voigt’s Headwaters

Katy Didden

W. W. Norton & Company, 2014. 64 pages, $14.95.
(Click on cover image to purchase)

Nearly every poem in Ellen Bryant Voigt’s earlier collections has something in common: it ends with a period. For a poet hailed as a quintessential American elegist, periods are a particular rhetorical challenge. They are gestures of finality; they reinforce the parameters of linear time—they mark the tempo, and since we read sequentially, the temporality in a poem. By extension, periods are like micro-capitulations to mortality. At the end of the poem in particular, they signal the point beyond which is silence, the unarticulated blank.

It is not that elegists don’t rage against dying. The final period in a poem is a sign not just of conclusion, but of resolution (or at least resignation). Finding that resolution in an elegy is a kind of triumph, especially when the line resolves itself assertively into the cadence of the heartbeat, as Voigt’s earlier iambic elegies have done so beautifully. Putting the experience of loss into language, “refashioning grief” as Peter Sacks might say, affirms the survivor’s vitality[1]. It also points to the poet’s faith, even in anti-elegy, that the poem will connect with readers, which is another form of consolation.

All of this is certainly true for Voigt’s Headwaters. Nevertheless, I believe that her choice to write without punctuation in this volume changes the argument with mortality; in particular, she puts conclusions into flux, which alters each poem’s trajectory, and therefore transforms the elegy on almost every level.

For starters, these poems resist grand moments of catharsis, and instead re-create an experience of disorientation (a common grief response). In fact, a great deal of this book concerns the speaker’s work to discern directions, and the difficulty of naming what she sees, as in the title poem “Headwaters”:

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 I had room on it for only me . . . (1-5)

Here the instigating impulse of the entire book, the rhetorical headwaters, is a confession that the speaker has made a mistake. Both the failure and the confession launch the speaker forward into unknown territory and self-doubt.

The landscape in this first poem is dream-like; it is mostly articulated via negativa (“it was not the most perilous hostile part”; there are “no tracks” there). While the speaker ventures into this dreamscape, readers must also use a different kind of orienteering to read the poem, drawing on our own experience of punctuation from our history of reading (a “reliance on deeply learned patterns,” as Voigt discusses in The Art of Syntax). Voigt’s virtuosic measuring of rhythms and pacing makes most of the sentences unmistakable, but she conducts the flux as well, letting phrases move both ways. She retains the line break and stanza break, and these are guides, but she also uses them to confound our expectations. In this poem, for example, depending on how you read the last two lines I’ve quoted above, the speaker clings both to self-doubt, and to the life-raft that saves her from it, which is of course, closer to the paradoxical truth.

W.S. Merwin once discussed how his decision to write without punctuation was influenced by oral traditions in poetry.[2] While Voigt’s use of this unpunctuated form could not be more different from Merwin’s—he uses line breaks more consistently with the regular pauses in a sentence, and his technique seems more geared to foregrounding image and description—I think his insight about this technique names what I’m hearing in Voigt’s book. This method makes the poems somehow more audible in your head when you read them, as if you need to sound them out to make sense of them. But where his incantations break into haiku-like solemnity, Voigt’s summon associations at lightning speed.

At times, this creates a stream-of-conscious spontaneity that destabilizes the elegist’s public role—that is, if traditionally we look to the elegist for a public expression of private grief, in this case, she invites us into the conundrums and uncertainties of her private thoughts. One example of this occurs in what is perhaps my favorite poem in the book, “Stones,” a memorial for a close friend who loved collecting stones:

she never said she was leaving me in charge she wasn’t my mother why
put me in charge I put the jewels on other throats and wrists I threw
   away

the bushels of cosmetics […]
                                                                                 but who
will save the living stones she loved I have so many already

in my yard half-in half-out of the earth immovable
she’d seen my yard she’d seen those heavy stones (25-27; 29-32)

In this poem, the final line is not a traditional conclusion, but more like an argument doomed to replay in the speaker’s mind. Above all, in a way that feels innovative, the poem exposes Voigt’s uneasiness not only with managing this woman’s estate, but in a broader sense with the public task of elegy.

Voigt captures the mind in the process of associating in the poem “Fox” also, as folksong plays in and out of her thoughts: “rangy loping swiveling left then right I’m thinking / nonchalant but the doves flutter up to the roof of the barn the crickets / leap from the grass like fleas a fox is in my yard-o my yard-o” (1-3). The folksong returns as the conclusion of the poem: “it had a yellow apple in its mouth / and the little ones chew on the bones-o”(23-24). Again, the speaker seems to step back from the elegist’s podium, disappearing into this more collective voice.

As with “Fox,” if you were to read the titles of the poems in this book, you might expect a set of fables: “Cow,” “Yearling,” “Garter Snake,” “Milkmaid.” But the named figures shape-shift, and while they often serve as objective correlatives (think of “Stones”), they feel less allegorical than archetypal. Above all, they mark intrusions of the wild into the domestic sphere, threatening the containment of human relationships and civilization, as in the poem “Bear,” when the speaker’s husband tries to shoo a bear off their screen porch:

                                                                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
that this man so moderate so genial so unlike me
had put himself one body-length away from a full-grown bear
or would she be saying you my dear are the person who married him
which of course I did I did and I stood behind him
as he stood his ground on the ground that is our porch (9-16)

Like muses, the uncomfortable fact of animal otherness is exactly what alerts the poem-making attention, transforming what should be familiar into something alien. Again, she situates the poem in uncertainty, in self-argument, in the moment before finding words to define these relationships. If the task of the elegist has always been, in some sense, to civilize death, in these poems—again because of the lack of punctuation—Voigt de-centers the human and tends to equalize human and animal. This happens again in “Geese,” for example, when she recounts a profound moment in her mother’s final hours:

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 (1-6)

If Voigt is willing to portray our snarling animality in the face of death, she seems to argue that it is exactly the way we address this wildness, open-eyed, that is the surest sign of our civility. Still, the lack of punctuation loosens the boundaries so that the external, its threats, and mirrorings, and strangeness, moves in and out of the speaker’s interior world in a way that is fully persuasive, and even ecopoetic. She lets death be dark and animal.

How, then, does a poem without periods conclude? While the concluding cadences in these poems feel deliberately less certain than those in her earlier collections, the lines still scan as iambs. What the lack of punctuation points to is less a shift in meter so much as in tone or attitude. These poems are not chiseled memorials so much as channels of energy—like cups of water lifted from a river then poured back again. As Marianne Moore would say of the sea in a chasm “in its surrendering, [it] finds it continuing,” and the elegy that surrenders is self-elegy.[3] What this form ultimately evokes is a disarming self-awareness in Headwaters, and a self-deprecating humor that is, for the elegy, yet another new territory.

Few poets have written as eloquently about syntax as Ellen Bryant Voigt; these poems model just what’s at stake—her innovations with sentence and sound patterns actually create new modes of thinking. I admire the skill with which she writes these gorgeous lyrics, and I admire also her ambition to take risks, and to reinvent herself. In the hands of another poet, a book-long experiment with unpunctuated poems might have felt gimmicky. Instead, these poems are masterful.


Notes

[1] Sacks, Peter. The English Elegy: Studies in the Genre from Spenser to Yeats. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1985.

[2] Hirsch, Edward. “The Art of Poetry No. 38: An Interview with W.S. Merwin.” The Paris Review: No. 102. Spring 1987.

[3] Moore, Marianne. “What are Years?” The Complete Poems of Marianne Moore. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. Penguin Books, 1982.

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