by Ruth Foley
Ellen Bryant Voigt is one of poetry’s sharpest minds—possibly the sharpest—when it comes to syntax. Her books The Flexible Lyric (2001) and The Art of Syntax: Rhythm of Thought, Rhythm of Song (2009) contain the kinds of essays that can leave your brain feeling too big for your head, discussions that gain resonance with subsequent readings. Much the same can be said of her newest collection of poetry, Headwaters.
Voigt’s mastery of syntax becomes evident with the first poem, the title poem, which, as it begins with “I,” contains one of the few initial capital letters to be found in the book. In fact, none of the poems contain punctuation, and the only white space comes between lines and stanzas, leaving line breaks and syntactical markers as the reader’s only navigational systems. In less-adept hands, this technique could become irritating or even exhausting, but in Voigt’s, it instead opens up vistas of tumble and space, of fluidity and precision, as in the last four lines of “Headwaters”:
no snow as in my dooryard only the many currents of self-doubt I clung
to my own life raft I had room on it for only me you’re not surprised
it grew smaller and smaller or maybe I grew larger and heavier
but don’t you think I’m doing better in this regard I try to do better
One might expect to get lost—perhaps in the enjambment of “I clung / to my own life raft,” or the placement of the prepositional phrase in “I’m doing better in this regard I try to do better,” or even in the aside “you’re not surprised”—but the reader is never left adrift because the syntax sets our course.
It’s also surprising—although it probably shouldn’t be—how well Voigt’s subject matter matches the choices she’s made. Many of the poems center on the natural world. The thoughts in the tree poems branch like perfectly-diagrammed sentences, and the lack of punctuation lends an almost innate logic to the animal poems in particular. After all, what skunk would use a comma? What use does a fox have for periods? Instead of the imposition of a human order, even though the speaker is clearly human, we get what could pass for animal stream of consciousness, where we are led on brief side trips and then returned to the path. Take, for example, the first stanza of “Hound”:
since thought is prayer if hard and true I thought that thought
could lead me to compassion for my fellow creatures
insects excluded contrary to the Buddha the wasps
might show a little compassion too…
And as well-suited as this approach is to the animal world, it’s also extremely appropriate for poems of loss and grief, as in “Sleep”:
but a moral sense
is exhausting I am exhausted a coma looks good to me
if only I could be sure there’d still be dreams it’s what I miss the most
even in terrible dreams at least you feel what you feel not what
you’re supposed to feel…
If I have one piece of advice for you, it’s this: read these poems aloud. Spoken into the air, what might pass as stripped language—after all, even most of the titles are single words—comes fully to life, lush and vibrant, its echoing language and rhythms allowed to inhabit all the space they deserve.
Published in Cider Press Review, Volume 16, Issue 2.
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