(New York: W.W. Norton, 1987)
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.
THE LAST CLASS Put this in your notebooks: All verse is occasional verse. In March, trying to get home, distracted and impatient at Gate 5 in the Greyhound station, I saw a drunk man bothering a woman. A poem depends on its detail but the woman had her back to me, and the man was just another drunk, black in this case, familiar, dirty. I moved past them both, got on the bus. There is no further action to report. The man is not a symbol. If what he said to her touches us, we are touched by a narrative we supply. What he said was, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, " over and over, "I'm sorry," but you must understand he frightened the woman, he meant to rob her of those few quiet solitary moments stting down, waiting for the bus, before she headed home and probably got supper for her family, perhaps in a room in Framingham, perhaps her child was sick. My bus pulled out, made its usual turns and parted the formal gardens from the Common, both of them camouflaged by snow. And as it threaded its way to open road, leaving the city, leaving our sullen classroom, I postponed my satchel of your poems and wondered who I am to teach the young, having come so far from honest love of the world; I tried to recall how it felt to live without grief; and then I wrote down a few tentative lines about the drunk, because of an old compulsion to record, or sudden resolve not to be self-absorbed and full of dread -- I wanted to salvage something from my life, to fix some truth beyond all change, the way photographers of war, miles from the front, lift print after print into the light, each one further cropped and amplified, pruning whatever baffles or obscures, until the small figures are restored as young men sleeping.
SHORT STORY My grandfather killed a mule with a hammer, or maybe with a plank, or a stick, maybe it was a horse -- the story varied in the telling. If he was planting corn when it happened, it was a mule, and he was plowing the upper slope, west of the house, his overalls stiff to the knees with red dirt, the lines draped behind his neck. He must have been glad to rest when the mule first stopped mid-furrow; looked back at where he'd come, then down to the brush along the creek he meant to clear. No doubt he noticed the hawk's great leisure over the field, the crows lumped in the biggest elm on the opposite hill. After he'd wiped his hatbrim with his sleeve, he called to the mule as he slapped the line along its rump, clicked and whistled. My grandfather was a slight, quiet man, smaller than most women, smaller than his wife. Had she been in the yard, seen him heading toward the pump now, she'd pump for him a dipper of cold water. Walking back to the field, past the corncrib, he took an ear of corn to start the mule, but the mule was planted. He never cursed or shouted, only whipped it, the mule rippling its backside each time the switch fell, and when that didn't work whipped it low on its side, where it's tender, then cross-hatched the welts he'd made already. The mule went down on one knee, and that was when he reached for the blown limb, or walked to the pile of seasoning lumber; or else, unhooked the plow and took his own time to the shed to get the hammer. By the time I was born, he couldn't even lift a stick. He lived another fifteen years in a chair, but now he's dead, and so is his son, who never meant to speak a word against him, and whom I never asked what his father was planting and in which field, and whether it happened before he married, before his children came in quick succession, before his wife died of the last one. And only a few of us are left who ever heard that story.
THE WIDE AND VARIED WORLD %Women, women, what do they want?% The first ones in the door of the plant-filled office were the twins, fresh from the upper grades, their matched coats dangling open. and then their more compliant brother, leading the dear stuffed tottering creature -- amazing that she could lift her leg high enough to cross the threshold to the waiting roon. Then the woman, the patient, carrying the baby in an infant seat, his every inch of flesh swaddled against the vicious weather. Once inside, how skillfully the mother unwound the many layers -- and now so quickly must restore them: news from the lab has passed through the nurse's sliding window. The youngest, strapped again into his shell, fusses for the breast, the twins tease their sister, the eight-year-old looks almost wise as his mother struggles into her coat with one hand and with the other pinches his sweaty neck, her hissed threats swarming his face like flies. Now she's gone. The women who remain don't need to speak. Outside, snow falls in the streets and quiet hills, and seems, in the window, framed by the room's continuous greenery, to obliterate the wide and varied world. We half-smile, half-nod to one another. One returns to her magazine. One shifts gently to the right arm her sleeping newborn, unfurls the bud of its hand. One of us takes her turn in the inner office where she submits to the steel table and removes from her body its stubborn wish. We want what you want, only we have to want it more.
AT THE MOVIE: VIRGINIA, 1956 This is how it was: they had their own churches, their own schools, schoolbuses, football teams, bands and majorettes, separate restaurants, in all the public places their own bathrooms, at the doctor's their own waiting room, in the %Tribune% a column for their news, in the village a neighborhood called Sugar Hill, uneven rows of unresponsive houses that took the maids back in each afternoon -- in our homes used the designated door, on Trailways sat in the back, and at the movie paid at a separate entrance, stayed upstairs. Saturdays, a double feature drew the local kids as the town bulged, families surfacing for groceries, medicine and wine, the black barber, white clerks in the stores -- crowds lined the sidewalks, swirled through the courthouse yard, around the stone soldier and the flag. and still I never %saw% them on the street. It seemed a chivalric code laced the milk: you'd try not to look invisible. Once, on my way to the creek, I went without permission to the tenants' log cabin near the barns, and when Aunt Susie opened the door, a cave yawned, and beyond her square, leonine, freckled face, in the hushed interior, Joe White lumbered up from the table, six unfolding feet of him, dark as a gun-barrel, his head bent to clear the chinked rafters, and I caught the terrifying smell of sweat and grease, smell of the woodstove, nightjar, straw mattress -- This was rural Piedmont, upper south; we lived on a farm but not in poverty. When finally we got our own TV, the evening news with its hooded figures of the Ku Klux Klan seemed like another movie -- %King Solomon's Mines%, the serial of Atlantis in the sea. By then I was thirteen, and no longer went to movies to see movies. The downstairs forged its attentions forward, toward the lit horizon, but leaning a little to one side or the other, arranging the pairs that would own the county, stores and farms, everything but easy passage out of there -- and through my wing-tipped glasses the balcony took on a sudden glamour: whenever the film sputtered on the reel, when the music died and the lights came on, I swiveled my face up to where they whooped and swore, to the smoky blue haze and that tribe of black and brown, licorice, coffee, taffy, red oak, sweet tea -- wanting to look, not knowing how to see, I thought it was a special privilege to enter the side door, climb the stairs and scan the even rows below -- trained bears in a pit, herded by the stringent rule, while they were free, lounging above us, their laughter pelting down on us like trash.
THE WISH My daughter comes to me with her sorrow. She is not yet ten, not yet insistent for her father. As if waiting out a sentence, she sits at the round table, her long black shawl of hair framing high cheekbones. She thinks she is ugly, thinks she has no friends. How can I comfort, what should I try to tell this radiant coincidence of genes? That children can be beasts to one another? That envy eats us from the inside? "All great beauties doubted their beauty," I tell her. but why should she believe me: I am her mother, and asked repeatedly for beauty, meaning happiness.
DANCING WITH POETS "The accident" is what he calls the time he threw himself from a window four floors up, breaking his back and both ankles, so that walking became the direst labor for this man who takes my hand, invites me to the empty strip of floor that fronts the instruments, a length of polished wood the shape of a grave. %Unsuited for this world% -- his body bears the marks of it, his hand is tense with effort and with shame, and I shy away from any audience, but I love to dance, and soon we find a way to move, drifting apart as each effects a different ripple across the floor, a plaid and a stripe to match the solid navy of the band. And suddenly the band is getting better, so pleased to have this pair of dancers, since we make evident the music in the noise -- and the dull pulse leaps with unexpected riffs and turns, we can hear how good the keyboard really is, the bright cresting of another major key as others join us: a strict block of a man, a formidable cliff of mind, dancing as if melted, as if unhinged; his partner a gift of brave elegance to those who watch her dance; and at her elbow, Berryman back from the bridge, and Frost, relieved of grievances, Dickinson waltzing there with lavish Keats, who coughs into a borrowed handkerchief -- all the poets of exile and despair, unfit for this life, all those who cannot speak but only sing, all those who cannot walk who strut and spin until the waiting citizens at the bar, aloof, judgmental, begin to sway or drum their straws or hum, leave their seats to crowd the narrow floor and now we are one body, sweating and foolish, one body with its clear pathetic grace, not lifted out of grief but dancing it, transforming for one night this local bar, before we're turned back out to our separate selves, to the dangerous streets and houses, to the overwhelming drone of the living world.
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