Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Ellen Bryant Voigt's Headwaters

Exciting and even a bit strange to see Ellen Bryant Voigt, the paragon of formal control, symmetry, and the tight metrical line, produce a book of poems that eschews much of that tradition: no punctuation, sentence beginnings upcapitalized, no blank verse. Yet her mastery of syntax imposes its own strict order. Here is "Chameleon:"

beside myself in Texas the doctors asking my beloved
to give his pain a number one to ten his answer is always
two I tell them eight the holly bush in the yard is putting out new leaves
which makes its resident lizard bright green also light brown
along its slender spine a plausible twig
except the lining of its mouth is red as it puts away
in three quick bites some kind of fly and then at its throat
a rosy translucent sac swells and subsides maybe peristaltic
pushing its meal forward or maybe preening for a mate or maybe
residual from the blooming hibiscus shrub or maybe learned from frogs
that also live in a tree but singing is dangerous if you mean
to replicate vegetation
                                     O exquisite creature
whose dull cousin back in Vermont the brown lizard
navigates our dooryard by alternating pairs of elbows like oars
determined and clumsy moving across the gravel yet moving forward
I see you do not move unless you need to eat you almost fool
the mockingbird nearby in a live oak tree flinging out another's song
which is me which which is me

Yes, there's the challenge here inherent in reading any unpunctuated poem--how is the syntax structured. On first reading, some inevitable stumbles will occur. That obstacle is easily overcome.  But the voice and tone are pure Voigt--incisive observations, just the facts, the cool and penetrating intelligence that guides the endeavor.

Voigt has always, like Bishop, been fascinated by animals; they show up in so many poems. And like Bishop's methods of observation, over and over in this book the poems dramatize seeing. More than description is taking place because the act of observing is the focus of the poem. We see and hear a mind at work, moving from the lush description of the lizard to meditation on how and why it moves and acts as it does. Within that string of "maybes" an act of deduction is taking place. The poems move as the mind does; usually rationally, with the occasional leap in subject matter (from worry about the husband's health to the lizard in front of the speaker in Texas to the lizard back home in Vermont to the question posed by the bird that might also be heard as devolving on the speaker's concerns), which ends up feeling like a rational progression after all.

In an essay titled "Moving Means, Meaning Moves: Notes on Lyric Destination," Heather McHugh asserts that "a poem is a vehicle," and the work in Headwaters beautifully illustrates that notion. There's a kind of courage in the act of writing poems that move intuitively as these do, sans punctuation or the other road signs that usually nail readers to the page. The quiet drama of the movement is provided by the speaker's unwavering gaze, and the poems ask the reader's implicit participation in feeling out the syntax as the poem progresses.

I have long admired Voigt's work and it is wonderful to see her taking new risks and finding new shapes and methods for her work. This book is a keeper that I will keep returning to.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Frost's "Mowing"

Robert Frost's sonnet "Mowing," from his first collection, A Boy's Will, is one of a subset of his poems that focuses on the act of physical labor:


There was never a sound beside the wood but one,
And that was my long scythe whispering to the ground.
What was it it whispered? I knew not well myself;
Perhaps it was something about the heat of the sun,
Something, perhaps, about the lack of sound—
And that was why it whispered and did not speak.
It was no dream of the gift of idle hours,
Or easy gold at the hand of fay or elf:
Anything more than the truth would have seemed too weak
To the earnest love that laid the swale in rows,
Not without feeble-pointed spikes of flowers
(Pale orchises), and scared a bright green snake.
The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.
My long scythe whispered and left the hay to make.
Among the many things to admire here is the genius of the third line--the fact that, having acknowledged the silence of the setting, the poem puts that quietness to further use.  The silence invites the speaker to listen to what the scythe's passes through the grass are "saying," equivocal though that whisper might be--"perhaps," "perhaps." In the long tradition of the sonnet as rhetorical argument with self, the poem turns inward in that third line; even as the subtle rhythm of the scythe continues in the background, the poem generates another rhythm, that of introspection about why the speaker finds the work so satisfying. "The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows," and yet it is not just the "mowing" that is being accomplished; the last line reminds us that the byproduct of the labor will be used--it is not just grass that the speaker is cutting, but hay that will be consumed by domestic animals.
And as is so often the case with Frost's sonnets, this poem might at first be all but unrecognizable as one.  It is not until the fourth line that we have a repeated end rhyme, and all the way through the poem the rhymes seem to appear almost randomly--we go five lines before "myself" is enchoed by "elf." The piece rejects the notion of the sonnet as conventional form, finding its own way to braid the various strands into a cohesive whole.
Surely it is intentional that "long scythe" shows up twice, each time "whispering," first "to the ground," and at the end, merely whispering. "Long scythe," long sigh--the sounds are interchangeable, again framing the poem with the ryhthms of work and of pleasure in the labor.