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May 2020

Ellen Bryant Voigt’s Kyrie

May 15, 2020

Hello there. The Poetry Conversation has been taking a long break, but it’s back now. This post is about a gorgeous book of poems, Ellen Bryan Voigt’s Kyrie, published by Norton in 1995. I went back to it recently because the poems are set during the 1918-19 influenza epidemic, which killed 50 million people worldwide and 675,000 in this country–more than the number killed in the Civil War. Its deadliness was intensified by the fact that it began during WW I, so soldiers spread it worldwide and also brought it back home with them. The poems in the book, all untitled sonnet variations, are spoken by a cast of characters affected by the pandemic, with a few spoken by a third person narrator. Many of the characters are connected–family and neighbors–and there’s also a soldier writing to his schoolteacher fiancée, who speaks this poem:

All day, one room: me, and the cherubim
with their wet kisses. Without quarantines,
who knew what was happening at home—
was someone put to bed, had someone died?
The paper said how dangerous, they coughed
and snuffed in their double desks, facing me—
they sneezed and spit on books we passed around
and on the boots I tied, retied, barely
out of school myself, Price at the front—
they smeared their lunch, they had no handkerchiefs,
no fresh water to wash my hands—when the youngest
started to cry, flushed and scared,
I just couldn’t touch her, I let her cry.
Their teacher, and I let them cry.

The book is heartbreaking, beautiful, frightening, completely unsentimental. The germ for it began with stories told by Voigt’s father, whose own mother died during the pandemic when he was just eight years old. You can watch her describe that and other details about how the book was shaped in a terrific presentation in a Voices in Remembrance Series on the 1918 epidemic, held in 2018 at the UVA Medical Center. The presentation is led by poet Marianne Boruch, who introduces the poems and provides a context. The sound quality is poor for her part–just turn on the captions.