From Kyrie

(New York: W.W. Norton, 1995).

All poems copyright Ellen Bryant Voigt. All rights reserved.

All volumes of Ellen Bryant Voigt's poetry are available at the Tulane University Bookstore in the University Center.

Note: Text enclosed in %% should be read as italic.
Note: The following sonnets are not consecutive in the volume.


Hogs aren't pretty but they're smart
and clean as you let them be -- in a clean pen,
hogs are cleaner than your average cat:
They use their nose to push their shit aside.
And not lazy; if a hog
acts sick, you know it's sick

As long as I've known hogs, I've known sick hogs,
Especially in the fall, the cold and wet.
Before the weather goes, you slaughter hogs
unless you want to find them on their sides,
rheumy eyes, running snout.

It's simple enough arithmetic
so don't you think the Kaiser knew?
Get one hog sick, you get them all.


All day, one room: me, and the cherubim
with their wet kisses. Without quarantines
who knew what was happening at home -- 
was someone but 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.


deep in the lungs a cloudiness not clearing;
vertigo, nausea, slowed heart, thick green catarrh,
nosebleeds spewing blood across the room --
as if it had conscripted all disease.
Once, finding a jug of homemade corn beneath the bed where a whole fevered family
lay head to foot in their own and the other's filth.
I took a draught and spit the rest among them.
even the children -- these very children named for me,
who had pulled them into this world --
it was the fourth day and my bag was empty,
small black bag I carried like a Bible.


How we survived: we locked the doors 
and let nobody in. Each night we sang.
Ate only bread in a bowl of buttermilk.
Boiled the drinking water from the well,
clipped our hair to the scalp, slept in steam.
Rubbed our chests with camphor, backs
with mustard, legs and thighs with fatback
and buried the rind. Since we had no lambs
I cut the cat's throat, Xed the door 
and put the carcass out to draw the flies.
I raised an upstairs window and watched them go --
swollen, shiny, black, green-backed, green-eyed --
fleeing the house, taking the sickness with them.


Sweet are the songs of bitterness and blame
against the stranger spitting on the street.
the neighbor's shared contaminated meal,
the rusted nail, the doctor come too late.

Sweet are the songs of envy and despair.
which count the healthy strangers that we meet
and mark the neighbors' illness mild and brief,
the birds that go on nesting, the brilliant air.

Sweet are the songs of wry exacted praise,
scraped from the grave, shaped in the torn throat
and sung at the helpful stranger on the train,
and at the neighbors misery brought near,
and at the waters parted at our feet,
and to the god who thought to keep us here.


Why did you have to go back, go back
to that awful time, upstream, scavenging
the human wreckage, what happened or what we did
or failed to do? Why drag us back to the ditch?
Have you no regard for oblivion?

History is organic, a great tree.
along the starched corduroy of its bark
the healed scars, the seasonal losses
so asymmetrical, so common --
why should you set out to count?

Don't you people have sufficient woe?


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