From The Forces of Plenty

(Pittsburgh: Carnegie Mellon University Press, 1996 [1983]).

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.


for Tom Moore, M.D.


The body, a resonant bowl:
the irreducible gist of wood,
that memorized the turns
of increase and relinquishing:
the held silence
where formal music will be quarried
by the cry of the strings,
the cry of the mind,
under the rosined bow.


The deaf listen
with compensatory hands,
touching the instrument.
Musicians also
listen, and speak, with their hands.

Such elemental implements.
The eye trains on a grid of ink,
and the fingers quicken,
habitual, learnŽd,
to recover the arterial melody.


%The long habit of living
indisposes us to dying%.
In this measured space,
a drastic weeping.


Music depends
on its own diminishing.
Like the remembered dead,
roused from silence
and duplicated, the song heard
is sound leaving the ear.


Medicine too is a temporal art.
Each day, children
are rendered into your keeping.
And so you take up your instruments
to make whole, to make live,
what others made.


Pure science:
the cello in your lap;
the firm misleading bodies
of your own children
in your brother's room.
His illness is adult, and lethal.
You place the bow
and Beethoven turns again
from the stern physician
to annotate the page;
not birdsong, windsong, 
wind in the flue, bell, branch,
but the human voice,
distinct and perishable.

And you play for him.


I have beaten the blank mat, but the name
that tolls from the wide throat of the crowd
is %Nadia, Nadia%.
Magic is not earned and is not fair.
After repeated labor against
the body's meat and strict bone, still
with each leap or press or stretch or somersault,
my flesh in its new attitude
mourns like a lover for the ground.  And Nadia
balances on the dust beside the beam,
she takes the shapes of a leaf in slow wind.

Others climb after that mark; 
I will settle
for the long hours of practice at her side,
my error reconciled in her correction --
mother and sister, midwife, teacher,
I am earth, earth, from which her body leapt into the air.


Hurt dogs crawl under a bush.
A hurt friend circles the house,
refusing to look in.
He makes a grave commotion in the yard
and the jay elevates the clamor of %betrayal,
betrayal%, flashing its shiny
edges from the pine.

You call through the glass.
No answer.
He's busy with his curses,
scuffing up a froth of dandelions --
isn't this what you wanted,
your own grievance, that sets the table
with one white plate?
Water on stones,
horses dozing upright in their stalls,
the pink of a weak sky -- recalling
the tertiary theme of some great work,
you cross the grass, moving toward him 
the way one greets an animal,
extending the hand.


In San Francisco, spring was not a season
but an interim with rain and a gentle switch
in the wind from the sea.  The bay on one side,
the clean city on the other,
we moved in the clutch of friends
down the steep steps --
                       as I pictured you
standing half in, half out of water,
you glossed the houses, history
fixed in each facade, and we received
a decoupage of gardens, trees of fuchsia,
the queen's erotic earrings, and gardenias,
again in trees, the aisle among them
redolent and bruised.
                       Does it wear well,
that civil promise camouflaging rock?
The sea gives, the sea takes back,
the waves lick the women's bodies on the beach.
What is %human%, and %moral%, if not,
rising out of winter's vast denial,
this other flowering:
a deep release
such as overtakes the cloistered animals
as the last snow shreds
in the dilating pupil of the lake,
and birds return to the dull sky
their nearly legible music.

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