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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.

W. S. Merwin

March 15, 2019

William Merwin was one of my first poetry heroes. I loved his poems and he seemed to me a model of a life devoted to poetry. I also admired the fact that half of his published work is translation of other poets into English–an invaluable gift. He had the equivalent of perfect pitch for language, so that when he began to write unpunctuated poems, and then poems with caesuras, they weren’t hard to follow. The absence of visual clues simply means you have to lean in and listen more closely. One of my favorites is “Strawberries,” in which the speaker describes a vision after his father’s death, one that includes a boy driving a wagon loaded with strawberries, and then a dream when he finally falls asleep. Near the end of the poem he wakes from the dream:

up in the morning       I stopped on the stairs
my mother was awake     already and asked me
if I wanted a shower       before breakfast
and for breakfast she said        we have strawberries

And this opening of the poem “Yesterday,” a dialogue between two men talking about their fathers that could be an opera duet, music made of words and white space:

My friend says I was not a good son
you understand
I say yes I understand

he says I did not go
to see my parents very often you know
and I say yes I know

even when I was living in the same city he says
maybe I would go there once
a month or maybe even less
I say oh yes

he says the last time I went to see my father
I say the last time I saw my father….

Another favorite is “Fly,” featured on this blog June 21, 2018.

I was lucky enough to know Merwin a little. I first met him in the early seventies when he came to Boulder, Colorado, to stay with the poet Bill Matthews. I opened the door one day, and there he was standing on the step, smiling, his face surrounded by dark curls. He had a small cloth bag slung over his shoulder, everything he’d brought with him. He was smart, kind, funny, supportive. Over the years we had some lovely conversations. I was delighted when I met Paula, who was a loving companion but didn’t take any guff. I’m glad they had so many years together.

He had a beautiful reading voice, hypnotic. I have it on vinyl, tape, and cd, and I’m sure you can find it all over youtube. I’m going to be going back to favorites, and to poems I haven’t read (I joked that he could write faster than I could read), but right now I’m inevitably hearing his beautiful poem “For the Anniversary of my Death.” The first time I read it I thought, “Oh! Why did I never think of that?” Because I’m not W. S. Merwin. Please share your memories and favorite poems here.

FOR THE ANNIVERSARY OF MY DEATH

Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Tireless traveler
Like the beam of a lightless star

Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what

Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic

March 10, 2019

That Republic? It’s ours. And his. And so many others. Kaminsky’s stunning follow-up to Dancing in Odessa, consists of a two-act play in poems set in another country, framed by a first and last poem set in this one. I believe great art changes us–not by comforting us, but by challenging us, and sometimes by devastating us. When I sat down with Deaf Republic last weekend I read it cover to cover, though I hadn’t intended to. I couldn’t stop, despite how painful it was. And once I’d finished I didn’t know what to do with myself. I couldn’t sit still, couldn’t sleep. I thought of Beckett: “…you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on. You’re on earth. There’s no cure for that.” I felt utterly changed, and yet I knew at the same time that nothing would change, that we humans don’t much, that I don’t. Even so, I think everyone should read this book. I’m not going to quote any of it here. Don’t read reviews first, or read about it. Just get it and sit down alone in a quiet room and open it to the first page, then let me know your thoughts and feelings when you come out.

Poems about Music

January 2, 2019

I think that poetry aspires to the power of music: the ability to convey thoughts and emotions directly, head to head and especially heart to heart: wordlessly. And yet poets love words and language, so we make our music out of those. Out of those and lines and white space. It’s very difficult, and almost paradoxical, to write poems about music, when music speaks so beautifully for itself, but I can think of a few poems that manage it. Here’s a favorite of mine, by the Swedish poety Tomas Transtromer (translated by Robert Bly). I hope you’ll post your own favorites, with some commentary about why you chose them.

ALLEGRO

After a black day, I play Haydn,
and feel a little warmth in my hands.

The keys are ready. Kind hammers fall.
The sound is spirited, green, and full of silence.

The sound says that freedom exists
and someone pays no tax to Caesar.

I shove my hands in my haydnpockets
and act like a man who is calm about it all.

I raise my haydnflag. The signal is:
“We do not surrender. But want peace.”

The music is a house of glass standing on a slope;
rocks are flying, rocks are rolling.

The rocks roll straight through the house
but every pane of glass is still whole.

For the New Year

December 31, 2018

Amidst all the noise, this quiet welcome.

TO THE NEW YEAR
W. S. Merwin

With what stillness at last
you appear in the valley
your first sunlight reaching down
to touch the tips of a few
high leaves that do not stir
as though they had not noticed
and did not know you at all
then the voice of a dove calls
from far away in itself
to the hush of the morning

so this is the sound of you
here and now whether or not
anyone hears it this is
where we have come with our age
our knowledge such as it is
and our hopes such as they are
invisible before us
untouched and still possible