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On March 5, 2013, poet Ellen Bryant Voigt appeared in the Plutzik Reading Series at the University of Rochester. Below, Kelsey Burritt, a UR senior, shares her reflections on the reading.
I say “recuperate” not to suggest that her poems eviscerate, but rather to say that they exercise. I jotted down, after listening to “Noble Dog,” that processing these poems was an endurance workout for the imagination. In his introduction to Voigt, Longenbach said these poems produced the effect of “a mind thrillingly in motion.” The collection they are a part of, Headwaters, is not due out until later this year, although a handful of these poems have made appearances in publications over the last few years. They represent a sharp turn from her earlier poetry, namely in their complete lack of punctuation. As Longenbach said, she does not stand upon her prior accomplishment. She blazes fearlessly onward, and that brazen impetus is heard in every line.
The mind does not utilize punctuation; that, of course, is a system necessitated by the written word. We may begin to shape our thoughts with punctuation, although that influence would only take shape after we have been introduced to and familiarized with grammatical structures. It’s clear in these poems that the thoughts and the words come before the ability to organize them and make them “reader-friendly.” However, even more curiously, the poems are not lost on us. They do not descend into a muddle of incogitant images strung together without order or sense. The paradox of Voigt’s writing, and an ingenious one, is that such meticulously detailed construction of thought unravels with the hurdling momentum of impulse.
There was a breathless tension in the room as she read her poems, perhaps explained in part by the rush the language created over the line, with a release of air, sometimes audible ooh’s and aah’s, sometimes laughter, at their ends. Often the poems would feature some kind of turn—like a sonnet, but obviously less expected by way of form—that the assertive muscle of the language would render purposeful, as opposed to hollowly clever or downright baffling. Poems like “Bear” and “Groundhog,” which begin with imagery corresponding to their titles, would arrive at statements like “the plural pronoun is a dangerous fiction” and “it matters / what we’re called words shape the thought.”
Perhaps the greatest moment Voigt shared with her audience was in reading her poem “My Mother.” After announcing the title, she quipped that we all have a poem like this inside of us. Then, as she began reciting it—”my mother my mother my mother she”—Voigt stopped and said that we could use that opening line for our poems too.
The poem continued with a smattering of delightful intimations about her mother’s purse, her sayings, her mannerisms, enlisting repetition of words like lipstick, spit, bushel, packed, and lacked. We may not have emerged from the poem with a holistic understanding of her mother, but we did land with a clear understanding of the mother within the speaker’s reflection, the isolated images and memories sharpened and filled out like pictures in a projector wheel.
Indeed, Voigt’s reading was punctuated by her raising her eyebrows, her sustained eye contact with her audience, the contortions her mouth made with the spirited lilt of her delivery. What her presence brought to the poetry, however, was already latent inside it. Voigt only gave voice to the phrases that shape it, the words that “shape the thought.”