SUSAN SETTLEMYRE WILLIAMS
Review | Messenger: New and Selected Poems 1976-2006
What joys we anticipate from a new and selected collection by a long-established poet—favorite poems brought together in one volume, new poems we’ve been waiting to see, and a sense of the poet’s trajectory, how she has evolved and improved over a substantial career. Ellen Bryant Voigt’s Messenger both fulfills and confounds those expectations. True, the book includes some of her best-known poems, although it is both too cohesive and too intelligently arranged to be mistaken for a Greatest Hits album. True, the new work will blow you away—it’s that good. But don’t try to work out Voigt’s learning curve: She started at the top of her game and has continued with gratifying consistency ever since. None of the poems included here, from 1976’s Claiming Kin on, can be considered beginner’s work. The changes in Voigt’s writing have been much subtler.
Even in terms of style, subject matter, and those hard-to-define qualities that we usually call “voice,” Voigt has remained true to the self of the earliest poems. The poems in Messenger do not lurch from one section to the next. The young woman writing of farms, family, birds some thirty years ago has seen more of life by now, but she’s recognizably the same woman, grown mature. Titles like “The Feeder” and “Harvesting the Cows” indicate the same preoccupations in her new work. “Rubato” and “Prayer,” as well as the title poem, continue to explore relationships between generations of kin.
Voigt also found early that her own version of the “plain style” of her mentor Donald Justice served her project well, and it continues to do so. In “The Hen,” the first poem of the collection, a child watching a decapitated chicken as it “flapped the insufficient wings / and staggered forward, convulsed, instinctive,” reflects, “I knew it was this / that held life, gave life, / and not the head with its hard contemplative eye.” The same unadorned and dead-on accuracy nails wild turkeys in “The Feeder,” one of the new poems: “They also fly / improbably and brutally efficient, low to the ground; // and the tree they roost in / trembles.”
In lesser hands, of course, such consistency could easily become repetitive and predictable. But Voigt’s hands and mind could never be called “lesser.” Instead, one has the sense throughout the collection of a demanding and luminous intelligence at work, understanding that her seemingly few subjects contain the universe, carefully considering what the poem needs to say to reveal this universe, willing to wait for the exactly necessary phrasing to emerge. In this patient and almost modest precision, Voigt most resembles Elizabeth Bishop. Both poets serve to remind us that you can have fireworks without flourish and fragmentation (it just isn’t easy).
Perhaps from her other love, music, Ellen Bryant Voigt has learned how to ring the changes and find the inherent variations in her style and themes. Music, for her, is far more than a useful metaphor, something to throw in to add a little class to a poem. Instead, it provides an overarching structure for her oeuvre. A reader more musically sophisticated than (alas) I am will undoubtedly find joys I can’t imagine in Voigt’s work. Nevertheless, even my tin ear can recognize that the musical influences operating in Messenger give the poems exceptional resonance.
Voigt’s book-length poem Kyrie, for example, constitutes a sort of oratorio, employing informal sonnets as short solos, in various voices, to describe the effects of the influenza pandemic of 1918 on a soldier and members of his rural Southern community. Read in its entirety, the book has the effect of a novel, so choosing individual sonnets from it for Messenger must have been a daunting task. Nevertheless, the selections manage to convey the flavor of the whole, along with the musical signature of each speaker/singer.
Voigt’s ongoing interest in the multi-part poem also draws on her training in music, each section of the poem a variation, sometimes explicitly a musical variation, on a theme. Two of the selections from Two Trees are titled “variations” on the preceding poem; an even earlier poem is called “A Fugue,” which begins with a physical description of a violin:
The pattern of theme and variations continues in new work like the amazing “Rubato,” which uses a grand piano (including, again, its physical construction) to convey, among other things, the life and character of the narrator’s mother-in-law
from Papa’s purchase of the Bechstein for her as a young girl in the 1920’s, “in her sailor dress and straight blunt-cut black hair” through her flight from the Nazis and into unhappy maturity, “her first language bitter on her tongue, / her marriage growing decadent, remote.…” The poem also manages to touch on (and contrast) the courtship of the narrator’s own parents, the night they met and, afterwards, the mother playing
A girl or woman at the piano is one of Voigt’s most characteristic images. “At the Piano” and “Variations: At the Piano” (from Two Trees) present a young girl practicing triplets “against the duple meter,” “as if rowing upstream,” while the work of the farm goes on around her. “The almost visible wall … of sound /… keeps the girl apart / as she prefers.” This strategy enables the poet to have it both ways—to describe the farm and the music and the girl’s awareness of both simultaneously. The girl (along with the other female pianists in Messenger) is both observer and artist, and her relationship with her instrument and her environment creates an ongoing ars poetica.
Besides music, Voigt also has a lot to tell us about gardening and bird-watching and cows and snakes; but it would be a mistake to characterize her as a nature poet, a term that inevitably suggests either ladylike sensibilities or New Age meditations on the Oneness of Life. Voigt’s animals squawk and bleed. Heifers left to range on a New England hillside are “stringy, skittery, thistle-burred, rib-etched, / … like a pack of wolves lacking a sheep / but also lacking the speed, the teeth, the wits.” Even a contemplation of the herb wormwood or Artemisia, named for the virgin goddess of the hunt, evokes the myth of “the avid mortal” torn to pieces by his own hounds for watching Artemis as she bathed. As Voigt says, “the body is first and last an animal, / it eats, shits, fucks, expels the fetus—or doesn’t.” These are dangerous poems.
In “Messenger,” the stunning title poem and the final poem in the collection, the danger begins in a “cardio-thoracic post-surgical” unit where “your father” lies near death, and the narrator perceives (“though ground-fog makes an airless, formless room”) a tall, otherworldly creature, perhaps only the shadow of an IV stand, which morphs into a heron-like angel of death. “One doesn’t notice wings when they’re at rest. / One doesn’t notice the scythe of the beak at rest,” she observes, reflecting that, in Renaissance paintings, the angel’s face is “meant to comfort—see, they’re just like us,” and then rejects that comfort:
Although, at the end of the poem, the man has survived, the angel has followed the couple home and waits:
In short, there’s nothing genteel and bloodless about Voigt’s poetry. Her tough-minded refusal to write pretty poems has also stayed with her throughout her career. Perhaps more than any other quality, this readiness to face what’s ugly and painful and real elevates Ellen Bryant Voigt’s oeuvre from competence and craft to mastery. Messenger is a lesson in how to write poetry that will last.
Ellen Bryant Voigt is the author of seven books of poetry, the most recent of which is Messenger: New and Selected Poems 1976-2006 (W.W. Norton, 2007), which is currently a finalist for the National Book Award. Her essays on writing have been collected in The Flexible Lyric (University of Georgia, 1999). She has received numerous grants and awards, including a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship, a Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Writing Fellowship, a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, a James Merrill Fellowship from the Academy of American Poets, and the O. B. Hardison, Jr. Poetry Prize from the Folger Shakespeare Library. She is a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and was inducted into the Fellowship of Southern Writers. She also recently completed a term as the Vermont State Poet.