This shaking keeps me steady / I should know. ~Roethke, “The Waking”
In this harsh light, in this siren-light, these panics, this pandemic, the air heavy with gloom, with violence—the news hard to bear, sleep broken into nightly by that assailant Terror, I keep writing, hanging on to the words that since I was a young and very shy child have kept me alive.
Where are the words for this?
Who has the voice?
I’m four years old, walking down the gravel driveway, bordered by poplars, black-eyed Susan, rhododendron, gravel cold and sharp on my feet. Behind me, my childhood house is bleak with lamentation and fury, when of a sudden a word forms in my mouth. I say it aloud, then repeat it several times till the word lengthens into a phrase I also repeat; soon other phrases find their way out of my sad child-mouth and into the cool summer air. I walk further down the driveway, away from that house, and into the woods, moving faster, saying the words over and over, part song, part incantation. This becomes my secret, sacred game—thrilling, urgent. The warmth, power, and intense surprise in my young body are still palpable. I feel gathered then, I feel held.
Thirty years later, I’m in Pittsburgh, watching Beckett’s one-act play of three voices: “That Time.” One disembodied head, spot-lit, floating over the stage, appears in a flood of darkness, begins to speak. Is it the timbre of the voice, the poetry of the words? Tears streak down my face—was it the word “ruins”—or that hour of my life in deep conversation with Beckett’s spell, the spotlight moving from one disembodied head to the next, the words incantatory, interweaving, the pale stricken faces, absolutely still but for their moving mouths, those heads floating in the dark space of the theater, the repetitions, longings, remembrances and rhythms, their voices transfixing me…
Last night, sitting on the rough wood floor of my shed, I return to “That Time” and read the whole text aloud, shifting from voice to voice, feeling the subtle difference from one to the other
like a piece of music shifting from one key to the next, then back again.
How beautifully these Voices—whether performed by several or read alone—gather and hold me.
And always there are other voices, shatteringly real and shocking. I share with my students a recording of Robert Hayden reading “Middle Passage”: Hayden’s voice, grave and grievous, capturing the captain’s voice, the slave trader’s voice—their irrefutable cruelties—
while the voices of the enslaved, unheard, are the chilling undercurrent of this devastating poem.
In 2016, my office fills with the darkening gold of late summer and flashing shadows. I read Alice Notley’s Benediction aloud with a friend. Our voices move back and forth, intertwining with the voices in her pieces of the crystal city. We each star and dog-ear and underline hundreds of lines and sections in this book—reading it aloud together helps us hear more clearly the cadence, tenor, tone of these voices. In turn, we can hear our own. The passages make us feel she has known us since we were born. Hers an extraordinary vision, a panoply of voices.
“The lyric baskets (voices) are my eyes / and my skin and my nourishment.” (Notley, Benediction, 30).
We move from Benediction to the canonical Descent of Alette, which we read over the course of two nights for an audience of only one or two, sometimes three people. As we read, we listen not only to Notley’s poem, but to each other’s voices, and to the unvoiced voices of the listeners.
Recently we finished reading Notley’s latest book For the Ride—even more starkly written through voices and thereby essential to read aloud –. “Oh but one must talk to oneself. That could be the new language—exists not to communicate. Exists to incorporate—” (Notley, For the Ride, 97).
It’s hard to describe a voice. I wish I could describe my friend Lucy Grealy’s voice when, eyes shining, she’d exclaim: Read this, read this! You have to read this. It will change your life.
In Marilynne Robinsons’ new novel Jack the reader is privy to the tender exchange of two voices in a cemetery at night. As I read, I am eavesdropping on an intimate conversation while the tombs breathe around them.
Maybe poetry is just that: an intimate exchange while the tombs breathe around us.
These last four months, two voices have floated down onto the page of my notebook—just voices—scarce of image—in conversations that carry a strange new music for me—a bit startling. Are these really poems? I find myself wondering.
I’m listening and following these voices, their mysterious trains of talk. This listening has become a crucial act—more unbidden and accessible than my former process.
In my book, Daylily Called It a Dangerous Moment, I couldn’t “find the body that belongs to my voice / or my voice that belongs to the harm.” And in Pretty Tripwire: “What good was all that seeing / when she had no way / to tell it.” In “Forest,” a poem that hasn’t made it into any book, the speaker finds “no shame in being / lost here or wordless. Here your breath is green, / unbidden, and out of hiding for no / one is here and you are ready to speak—.”
How my words were edging toward this moment. These newest voices are hypnotic, urgent. Sometimes one questions the other or finishes the other’s sentence, sometimes one repeats what the other has said or gets pulled into another realm of thought or feeling, insight or image—
two voices coming to me in these times of profound loneliness and disconnection.
Voices of the world—streaming through screen or speaker, down the hall, from the streets—slip into my writings. Many voices
drowned out, ignored, displaced, unheeded—those of brothers, sisters, cousins, mothers, fathers, and children—
cutting into the heart.
Voice, come out of the silence. / Say something. (Roethke)
The memory of voices. My grandmother’s voice chocolate and caramel. The neighbor’s voice vibrant, chirping, lifting in exclamation. First grade librarian Mrs. LaTronica’s earthen voice rumbling “Dewey Decimal system.” The therapist’s voice—calm as a sunlit pond. A friend’s voice on the phone low enough to nest in when she speaks. Keep talking, I silently wish, stay awake when after several hours, her voice blurs and drifts, but it is no less loving, no less a nest. It’s rich in shadow and light; it feels contralto, her listening so deep I hear it in her speaking.
Small Sample of the Two Voices That Have Floated Down:
—what is at stake for us?
I don’t know should we travel back?
—in time do you mean or away from this garden?
This garden’s the only plot we’ve got
—I am losing sensation in my feet
Too much material between your skin and the dirt
—oh, we are recounting that ancient story?
Not so long ago we were stones
—speak for yourself I was a root—
Well then we’d better start there
At the quick I mean. I don’t mean to startle you—
—who is that sound?
What is the wound?
—a lake in Roethke’s poem
Roethke was a lake—a shudder, a swell
—how he rose trembling to meet the storm!
Can we take one glinting hurt at a time
—before we’re swarmed…