Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Ellen Bryant Voigt's LessonI(s)

In the community library presentations I’ve been giving since my appointment as state poet, I’m frequently asked which contemporary poets I like to read. It’s a funny thing how that question –obliquely akin, say, to what is my favorite Robert Frost or Elizabeth Bishop or Emily Dickinson poem– seems to tie my tongue. Garrulous by nature, I get over that quickly enough to rattle off a half-dozen names. The program over, I hop into my car and, within seconds of leaving this or that library, I begin to wonder why on earth I didn’t also mention X or Y or Z?

I don’t really have any especial interest, though, in choosing up an A team. My tastes are eclectic enough, for instance, as to let me savor the best of Allen Ginsberg and the best of Donald Justice. I have noted, however, that a name I tend to mention belongs to one of my predecessors as Vermont poet laureate: Ellen Bryant Voigt. Many readers of this blog will know, or at least know of, her superb work. This is meant to remind them of what a local treasure she is, but even more to urge those to whom she remains unknown to dig into that treasure.

Ms. Voigt’s newest collection, just out in October, is Headwaters. Run. Yet I mean to consider an earlier poem here, for no particular reason save that it so lodged itself in my mind when I first came upon it. This was owing in part, no doubt, to the fact that a good friend was just then recovering –successfully, I’m delighted to say– from a full mastectomy. Like the speaker here too, I’m the child of a strongly authoritative female parent.

But the poem, on its intrinsic strengths, would have stuck with me even in the absence of all that:


            Whenever my mother, who taught
            small children forty years,
            already knew the answer.
            "Would you like to" meant
            you would. "Shall we" was
            another, and "Don't you think."
            As in "Don't you think
            it's time you cut your hair."

            So when, in the bare room,
            in the strict bed, she said,
            "You want to see?" her hands
            were busy at her neckline,
            untying the robe, not looking
            down at it, stitches
            bristling where the breast
            had been, but straight at me.

            I did what I always did:
            not weep --she never wept--
            and made my face a kindly
            whitewashed wall, so she
            could write, again, whatever
            she wanted there.

When I talk about poetry in my visits (and have talked in these posts now and then), I contend that what lyric can accomplish – in a way perhaps other modes of discourse ordinarily cannot– is the simultaneous dramatization of a number of emotions, thoughts, and impulses, in one frame, no matter some are flatly contradictory of one another. To that extent, though of course as a practitioner I am biased, the lyric poem seems to me our most effective mode of demonstrating how the mind actually works.

That mind, after all, does not always operate in an entirely consecutive manner. Logic and ratiocination are cultivated skills, and although they do serve us well in many instances, they are helpless, I think, to render that simultaneity and often that contradictoriness in deep human response. Note in “Lesson,” for example, the inevitably mixed feelings one might harbor with respect to so strong a mother as the one in “Lesson.” Again the feelings are contemporaneous.

In Voigt’s account, I’d suggest, we are called upon to admire the sturdiness and lack of self-pity on the part of the recuperating parent, even as we may feel the degree to which those very qualities might have constituted longtime burdens for her child to bear. In our age, when the forthright expression of feeling seems to be all but sacred, the woman in the “strict bed” (how deftly Voigt chooses that figure!) appears to dissuade the speaker from it. And yet is not the mother’s undauntedness at least an equally important value to her daughter’s self-voicing? And mustn’t we, like the writer, acknowledge authority in a woman who “taught small children/forty years” even as one can feel the discomfiture here in the poet’s continuing to be treated in some respects as a small child herself? There may be a degree of condescension in the lesson the older woman passes on, but I sense something exemplary in it too.

Further: when Voigt refers to her mother’s “strict bed,” can’t we recognize that that mother is now enduring her own set of strictures, her disease being no respecter of personality or accomplishment and old habits of mind dying hard in any event? These things alone should allow us to cut her some slack, as the saying goes. Don’t we likewise have more than one understanding of the speaker’s face when she describes it as “a kindly/whitewashed wall...”? We may regret that the speaker feels the need to put on a mask, to be less than “genuine”; on the other hand. there is genuine kindness in her very act of self-disguise.

Needless to say, as in all my commentaries, I here share only my own responses and values. I don’t presume to speak for others, nor to tell them how to read this or any other poetic utterance, all poems of quality being open-ended ones. I mean only to demonstrate how one person’s mind may be moved in that direction of multivalence upon encountering so good a piece of writing as this.

The first Vermont poet laureate once answered a question concerning the "message" of one of his poems rather wryly: “If you’re looking for a message, call Western Union.” Another great American poet of the twentieth century, Wallace Stevens, described the modern poem as one of “the mind in the act of finding/ what will suffice.” In our searches for sufficiency, for what may sustain us, even, say, when facing dreadful disease, I submit that we rarely resort to dialectical thought or settle for simplistic message. No, our paths meander, are omni-inclusive, resist reduction to anything so simple as what we call “meaning.” They are, exactly, acts of the back-and-forthing mind, not essays in disguise. “Lesson” strikes me as making all this clear– marvelously, movingly.