Ellen Bryant Voigt’s Kyrie (1996)
Edited by Shara Lessley
What does a global pandemic sound like? What are the intonations of fear, astonishment, isolation, and grief? Ellen Bryant Voigt’s Kyrie, a book-length sonnet sequence set amid the 1918 flu outbreak, is a requiem of sorts: a concert of voices that, as per the title’s nod to the Catholic eleison, both acknowledges and calls out for mercy. Less documentary than invented, Kyrie draws readers into a rural community of sisters, sons, soldiers, orphans, teachers, coroners, the abandoned and betrothed—all of whom are at once preoccupied and present and bereaved. Culling individual perspectives from the often impersonal records of time, Voigt renders bodies in conflict with the virus, countries in conflict with each other. Yet, for a collection that takes place during a period of unprecedented calamity—Kyrie’s casualties amass not only via the flu epidemic, but also the horrors of World War I—the book’s tonal register is surprisingly modest as it dramatizes private moments that occur in kitchens, parlors, attics, barns, gardens, and sprawling acres of farmland. Moving house to house, as would a rural physician, what readers encounter throughout Kyrie are compressed scenes of domestic realism that reveal uncertainty and compassion, as well as the quiet dignity of restraint. “Down on his knee at the edge of all that white / [a] father puts a penny” in a bride’s shoe for luck. Having “planned his own service, the pine box, / the open lid, which hymns, chapter and verse …” another man defiantly waits out the epidemic “… handrolling cigarettes / three at a time, licking down both ends …” Elsewhere, an orphaned boy pulls weeds with his aunt. A girl finds occasion to wear her new blue suit. The “opening bars of ‛A Mighty Fortress’” stirs “a bird from the [organ] pipes” offering funeral-goers a welcome source of distraction. Even as “deep in the lungs a cloudiness” decimates whole swathes of the populous, throughout the collection there remains evidence of perseverance, fortitude, and endurance.
Kyrie’s sonnets aren’t only in conversation with historical events, however, but with the history of verse itself. After all, two of the form’s best-known practitioners likewise loved and wrote through periods of deadly contagion. Petrarch endured the fourteenth century’s Black Death while worrying for his brother—the sole survivor among thirty-five residents with whom he resided at a monastery. And though the phrase doesn’t appear in one of his “little songs” or sonnetti (as derived from the original Italian), who can forget Shakespeare’s Lear cursing “the plagues that hang in this pendulous air”? That the sonnet was born at the intersection of science and eros, and evolved to take on the subjects of spiritual conflict and suffering, only enhances the contemporary shape Voigt gives to the twentieth century’s crisis of illness and loss. “Who said the worst was past, who knew / such a thing?” laments one of Kyrie’s grief-stricken speakers, who then goes on to speculate “… Someone writing history, / someone looking down on us / from the clouds.” Perhaps that “someone” is the spirit of Victorian poet-priest Gerard Manley Hopkins whose own sonnet on sorrow, “No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,” seems to inform Voigt’s lines. If the buried slant rhyme worst and past in the opening sentences of both poems isn’t enough to convincingly link the sonnets, consider the layered concession with which Voigt closes: “… it was true: at the window, / every afternoon, toward the horizon, / a little more light before the darkness fell.” On first reading, the lines appear merely descriptive—a gesture acknowledging the incrementally later sunset following winter solstice. Still, it’s unclear whether lengthier days suggest a fresh sense of optimism or the opportunity for further exhaustion. Even as the seasonal shift seems hopeful—who doesn’t feel a natural boost as winter brightens to spring?—embedded within Voigt’s phrase “more light before the darkness fell” are faint traces of yet another sonnet by Hopkins: “I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.” Whether Kyrie is directly indebted to “The Desolate Sonnets” is uncertain. However, both poets convey similar episodes of spiritual anxiety and daily repetition that reflect well the sonnet’s long inclination toward contemplation, contradiction, and human transience.
Yet, as much as Kyrie bears kinship with the sonnet’s past, Voigt’s sequence isn’t wholly traditional. Adopting various personas and multiple points of view, Kyrie is at times epistolary, lyric, fragmented. Several entries mimic nursery rhymes; others, incantations. With the exception of “Prologue” and “Epilogue,” the poems, like time-worn graves, go without titles. What’s more, because there is no rebuttal to death, Voigt’s plain-spoken sestets don’t always answer their octaves. Instead, the sonnets’ divisions more often resist closure, reflecting the ongoing struggle of those in mourning. Though rooted in form, in other words, Kyrie is largely restless: its poems continue to mutate as the collection’s dramatic arc builds momentum. As in a choir, the sequence’s individual voices surge forward ultimately fading and blending into a collective body that sings of the living and the dead. Over time, this accumulation enacts the virus as it morphs, replicates, and binds the afflicted families grappling with its aftermath. Weirdly, while Kyrie is clearly tethered to a particular history, the collection feels equally outside it. Although Kyrie’s tonal register and syntax ring true as representative of 1918, experiencing the poems within the context of COVID-19 adds additional power and resonance. In fact, many of Voigt’s observations seem to describe the current pandemic with eerie precision. Excerpted from four sonnets that span the book, the following passages describe the all-too-familiar experiences of lockdown, infectious waves, medical care, as well as pangs of communal fear and judgment:
That the present is like the past is no surprise: we love and weep, survive and die. “[The face I know, that little ghost Time,” writes Voigt, “isn’t a straight line, it’s a scummy pond / our minds fish in …”
Our reading lives, likewise, often haunt us as they continue to resurface in surprising and mysterious ways. After devouring Voigt’s Shadow of Heaven and The Flexible Lyric in the early 2000s, I picked up Kyrie on the recommendation of a friend who praised the collection’s use of metaphor as a means of linking the rural with history and fatality. Mapping Voigt’s cultivation of the natural world—her exacting observations of snow and wind, whistling reeds, insects and “beasts in their holes,” the temperament of hogs—I was startled, gladly so, by Kyrie’s matter-of-factness. I was taken, too, by Voigt’s formal dexterity as evident in the truncated sonnet “After I’d seen my children truly ill,” which features thirteen perfect or slant rhymes binding ill with imperiled, well, rolls, meanwhile, girl, dolls, fingernails, still, enthralled, real, and whole. As much as I admired the poems imagery and metrical precision, however, the period in which they resided seemed far off. Trying to picture Kyrie’s henhouses and sickrooms, the clamor of children improvising recess games of prepping for heaven the “chosen” who “died, in fits and twitches,” I found myself thinking mostly of my grandmother—born in a remote area of Searcy County, Arkansas, in 1919 during the flu’s devastating third wave. While I accepted Voigt’s argument that “Science says there is no moral lesson,” it’s only now that I see clearly the extent to which her sequence models formally and thematically the consolation of looking back while moving forward. Kyrie is, after all, not only generative but generational: from its initial publication in 1995, the collection speaks of and across multiple periods of time, and serves as a stark reminder that “History is organic, a great tree” whose “starched corduroy of […] bark” holds “the healed scars, the seasonal losses …” For its integrity, grit, musicality, and companionship, I am more grateful than ever for Kyrie. And, too, for the following essays by Rachel Richardson, Molly McCully Brown, C.T. Salazar, and Molly Spencer. Written in California, Virginia, Mississippi, and Michigan, each makes plain—as does Voigt’s book-length sequence—that, though we may not see them, during years of hardship throughout the world there are rooms in which grief and tenderness, sickness and tempered humility continue to coexist.
—Shara Lessley, Editor-at-Large
Dubai, December 2021
“That Has No Meaning, Just a Shape”: Re-reading Kyrie in Another Pandemic Winter
As the virus finally waned, after its two long winters, children played games in which they’d fall down dead. This is what Ellen Bryant Voigt dramatizes in the final poems of Kyrie—the struggle to make sense of what’s happened replayed in the body, in dramatic retellings, in metaphor. The struggle to make sense of what’s left—and of who’s left—has to find a way to manifest itself in the world before we can believe it.
When I came upon Kyrie in graduate school, in 2003, I was looking for that kind of narrative cohesion. I was electrified by the idea of project books, and the overarching structural elegance of their scope. Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology had imprinted on me the idea of the collective history that could be told in a repeated form; for Masters the form was the epitaph and the town was his own, in Illinois, around the turn of the twentieth century. Kyrie seemed to be a contemporary poet’s answer to his invention.
Kyrie’s being made of sonnets appealed to my sense of history’s formality, and of the mounting losses. The poems, like caskets, were all closed boxes, carefully arranged. I read the book hungrily, admiring the precision of Voigt’s lines, the clipped poignancy of the statements she puts in the mouths and minds of her characters. So many passages took me by the throat, with voices beseeching in their earnest documentation of the ravages befalling them:
But now what startles me in the re-reading of Kyrie is the cracks that appear in the townspeople’s routines, and then in their belief: the virus brings the beginnings of doubt. In Voigt’s telling, as time progresses and the sick and dead are accounted for, first one by one and then in cascades, nature falls out of balance with their lives. As people are consumed with worry, with illness, with the exhaustion of care and loss, they begin to question the reliability of the world around them.
And God is oblivious to their plight. In another poem, a boy’s funeral is interrupted by a bird “flushed from the pipes” of the church organ during the song, “A Mighty Fortress.” Voigt’s speaker says, “It’s hard to cry if your head / is swiveled up, / much less with bird manure / dropping ‘like the gentle rain’ / on empty polished pews, plush carpet, / shut casket.” During the song that affirms that God is a mighty fortress, “a bulwark never failing,” a bird poops on the congregants. We understand that the speaker’s sarcasm about godly bird shit is the numbness that comes from grief. Nature’s power no longer seems aligned with meaning, or at least not with the goodness and prosperity that they thought their work had earned.
A war ravages the natural landscape, but a virus lets it grow and go wild: the farmer, sick in bed, can’t plow his fields. The greenness of the world outside as spring dares to return the first year, and then the second year, is wearying, as everything has become wearying. The world doesn’t reflect the sorrows of those who work its soil; one day it may make their lives harder by dumping miserable conditions on top of the already ill; another day it shows up, sunny and unaware of the death in its midst. The voices of Kyrie begin to ask why the world goes on, why God persists. As Voigt’s poems progress, there is a subtle shift away from metaphor.
This feels to me the most devastating effect of Kyrie as the poems and losses accumulate—the utter despair of a people as they feel, for the first time, divorced from meaning and from their physical belonging on earth. In a way it seems prescient, like Voigt is offering an origin story for the beginning of our modern era and our own sense of placelessness and detachment.
In my own pandemic story, I retreated from my shared office space and classroom to set up my desk and computer in the garage in the far corner of my backyard. For the last two years, I’ve been sitting at a table in the middle of this little room—my miniature house, with electric light but no plumbing or insulation—staring out the glass door at the yard. During the winter I was wrapped in a blanket for warmth; during summer heat I sat with doors flung open and a little desk fan whirring. On smoky days I lugged a purifier into the room and sealed myself inside so that I could avoid breathing the ambient air.
I watched codling moths flirt around my baby apple tree, finally realizing, too late, that their larvae were the cause of every hole in my kale. I hardly fed my family from our garden—a few salads and a dozen apples, much-touted, were the main harvests of the seasons. Mostly I shopped for groceries in a mask, or through Whole Foods delivery. But I spent the year observing the natural world I live within, all the things I had never noticed in front of my eyes. And I wondered about metaphor, the human urge to bind our experiences to the land.
When the smoke comes and all day the sky is sick orange with no sun, or when on a blue morning monarch butterflies flutter into my yard the year after we read their colonies had collapsed—well, I am overcome. I am a vessel. I am tempted to write poems full of pathetic fallacy on those days to ask to be returned to an unselfconscious unity with our fragile world. To say, Look around. Isn’t this who we are?
How We Survived
Molly McCully Brown
Over the course of this pandemic, I’ve burned scores of candles down to their dregs. Beeswax tapers, peony-suede candles in immaculate glass jars, anonymous white pillars, dollar-store votives pulled from the back of my family’s old sideboard, candles scented like spruce trees and sandalwood, fig and cardamom, amber and oakmoss, blackberry, lemongrass, flowers I can’t name. Partly, I am drawn to the neat comfort in the coin of brightness a candleflame makes, the way it gathers you to it like a hearth and promises: just here there’s safety, there’s sweetness, we’ve driven out the dark. But I think, too, there’s been something like a prayer in the act, a cleansing, an offering. Even when I don’t have language for what I’m reading in the news, seeing, or facing, or fearing in the world—even when I don’t have faith in much of anything—I can strike a match and there’s fire. Little altar, little monument, little pyre: “it was an angel singing—don’t you see: / it might as well have been a bush on fire.”
“Kyrie” is a transliteration of the Greek word for “Lord,” and almost always part of an invocation. Kyrie, eleison: Lord have mercy. As the title of Ellen Bryant Voigt’s slim sonnet sequence on the 1918 Influenza epidemic, the word is an encapsulation of loss and anguish, supplication and survival. But it belongs not in the mouths of priests or the rafters of grand churches. It’s a teacher’s whispered prayer, a grieving mother’s howl, a doctor’s low sigh of disbelief, a soldier’s final breath. It lives in the hog pen and the vegetable garden, “on the hard plank seat of the buggy” in attic rooms and out between “the cottonwoods and sycamores and popples.” Rereading Voigt’s collection in the intractable midst of our own contemporary pandemic, I’ve been most struck by its humility, its knowledge of the way extremity exists within the fabric of the daily, and its awareness of what a poem cannot do.
In the wake of its publication, reviews of Kyrie praised Voigt for “recreating voices lost in the pandemic.” But, as a poet who often works in the realm of persona, I’ve never liked this conception of its purpose or impact. Persona doesn’t recreate. It shouldn’t, and it can’t, stand in for actual lived experiences. It doesn’t reproduce lives, or voices, or the exact, miraculous totality of the child someone loved. But what it can do, in the careful, empathetic leap from research to imagination, is offer a particular vision of a moment time and distance have anonymized. Trouble the way the historical record converts families, and faces, and pain to statistics. Memorialize the acuteness of the ordinary. Become the force that tells us, as Voigt writes in Kyrie’s “Prologue” poem “where there was an orchard, / where a swing, where the smokehouse stood.”
Whether orchard, swing, and smokehouse, apple, lightwood, linen and featherbed, or bowl of buttermilk and boiled drinking water, Voigt’s sonnets are full of domestic litany. The trinities that animate the world she conjures are as much camphor and mustard and fatback as father, son, and holy ghost. Inside the concision inherent in the sonnet form these secular refrains do double duty: rendering both the profoundly circumscribed nature of life in quarantine, and the way faith, care, and survival become more a matter of small, daily action than anything else. “Since we had no lambs”, one speaker tells us “I cut the cat’s throat, Xed the door.” The gesture is, of course, part improvised holy sacrifice: blood on the doorpost to alert the angels and avoid the plague. But it’s pragmatic, too. She “put the carcass out to draw the flies” and didn’t wait for some sign of celestial blessing. Instead, she says:
The winged things with most power, here, are not seraphim but houseflies, and the form of this imagining is not an epic, or a novel, or even a psalm. In this poem—as in several throughout the collection—Voigt stops short of even a complete sonnet, at thirteen lines, and I’m struck by the number of ways you can read that absence, that restraint. The missing fourteenth line is someone loved and lost; an acknowledgment of suffering beyond language; a testament to what the poet can’t know of what was, the limits of imagination. But I’m moved to read it too, as space for possibility: what comes after the sickness departs, what’s left after loss, what we can’t know yet about the wildness of living on. After all, Voigt writes: “How we survived: we locked the doors / and let nobody in.” And yet, when she envisions survival, she also writes “Each night we sang.”
None of this is to say that Kyrie is just a book attuned to survival. People die throughout the collection: soldiers on the battlefield an ocean away from home, infants before they even leave their mothers’ wombs, those same mothers while their living children watch. People die young and old, astonishingly quickly, before relationships can be repaired. They die so frequently that death itself becomes a question of pragmatics: “He planned his own service, the pine box, / the open lid, which hymns, chapter and verse.” Reading Voigt’s account of closed schools and churches “stacks like pulpwood filling the morgue,” it is impossible not to imagine trucks full of freezers stacked with bodies in the parking lots of hospitals, gurneys with corpses crowding hallways, all the death the past twenty months has held. And, at least for me, the experience of returning to Kyrie was as brutal as it was beautiful. In some essential sense, we’re still as fragile, still as mortal as we were a century ago. And Voigt knows—and I know—that poetry cannot correct this fact, any more than it can stop contagion or resurrect the dead. Attention, imagination in and of itself, is not a cure.
But neither is it nothing. “What was it like?” One of Voigt’s speakers echoes a question “I was small, I was sick, / I can’t remember much—go study the graves.” In Kyrie we have more than graves to study, we have love letters, and prayers, and all the food stores jarred to last the winter “greens, reds, yellows / blanched in the steaming kitchen, vats of brine.” We have a devotional, to the living and the lost. One day, someone we love will turn to us and ask about this season. What was it like? And we will have to tell them about the bodies, about fear, and death, and rage. After all, “such is the world our world is nestled in,” but it holds too, “fruit up from dirt” and Queen Anne’s Lace and tenderness and song. And all of it is worth remembering, imagining, preserving as particular and urgent and worthy of attention.
I’ve burned scores of candles down to their dregs. I light another in the window and it smells like snow. And, just for a moment, it’s true, just as it was in 1919: “every afternoon, toward the horizon, / a little more light before the darkness fell.”
This Too Shall Pass: Sheltering-in-Place in Mississippi
Since so much of the sonnet is music, I include from a 2013 interview in Granta Ellen Bryant Voigt’s own idea of music in poetry:
I don’t think of music and narrative as being mutually exclusive—some of my poems ARE narrative, and are as ‘sound-driven’ as the lyrics, at least in the making of them. With a few experimental exceptions, almost every poem in the language contains, importantly, aural properties, whether or not these are overt, foregrounded. There is, for instance, the rhythm of the line working with or against the rhythm of the sentence, an inherent music that reminds us of poetry’s beginnings as an art that was danced or sung or spoken.
The sonnet as a form marked a departure from performed poetry, and Voigt’s aural and syntactic singing and dancing in Kyrie are nothing short of incredible. Kyrie gives us a sonnet somewhat defiant against its own circumstances, theatrically performative in a way that builds enough momentum to break through the expectations of its form.
Voigt’s sonnet sequence attends to the most elemental part of a poem—its language, its sound. Often Voigt’s sound effects help embody a tone that a reader can follow discursively, syllable by syllable. A sonnet is a kind of aperture, widening like a hawk’s eye. I want to focus on a single sonnet from Kyrie. One, like the rest, without title:
I gravitate to this sonnet because of its stark Petrarchan moment, the sestet that breaks from the singsong litany. Of Voigt’s many moments of genius, I’m most fond of the O here,—the single letter standing in for the world—how “world” itself is a synecdoche already and O becomes a pictogram rendering it even simpler. But there are two O’s here: O, O, the world. What are these two worlds? The world of the pandemic and the world of the language used to describe it? Are there three worlds here?—O, O, the world. Voigt’s rhythm of thought breaks the world into multiples. Like so many of Kyrie’s poems, I want more than to just read this sonnet. Maybe the ideal medium in which to encounter it would a voicemail from a voice I recognize.
Another reason I love it when Voigt’s sonnets take on the Petrarchan tradition is that Petrarch himself lived through a pandemic. That we are all (all of us past, present, and future) entangled in an uncanny ecology is enough to terrify anyone. The knowledge that Francisco Petrarch lived through a thirty-year plague makes me read his cycle of sonnets a little differently. Through words and poetry I can understand how proximal I am to the suffering of someone I do not know. When Ellen Bryant Voigt published Kyrie in 1995, the 1918 Influenza Pandemic was already a long-ago event. Now I am reading the sonnets that make up Kyrie as our new pandemic takes its place among our war-riddled and fossil-fuel-burning ecosystem. Voigt inhabited an archive in our collective memory that our current experience now echoes. So much of Kyrie is familiar in our current moment, like a hymn from a faith I grew with but don’t practice. In the thick of our shutdowns, the historic movie theater in my hometown spelled on its marquee “THIS TOO SHALL PASS.” Everything that passes takes some of us with it. We are privileged if it’s no one we love.
I don’t think I have anything in common with the personas that inhabit and speak through Kyrie. Maybe that’s a mercy I’m claiming for myself. I did fall in love with the soldier, who writes to his beloved:
I know he’s probably a little younger than I am. I wonder what he thought of his pandemic, in those slow months when one wonders if it might last years. I wonder what he thought of his life, if his country’s war stifled the possibility of his wonder. In another sonnet where he is writing his beloved, I think he knows the war makes his own life comparably small:
That’s the beauty of inhabiting the sonnet. Even in such a small space, an “I” takes up almost no room compared to the wars and pandemics we can easily fit inside it. There’s no terror in this—the sonnet lets us be safe in our smallness. I began writing sonnets as a kind of panic closet, even though I didn’t realize that at first. Looking back to the times I was engaged in writing sequences, I was not so much in need of creating order, but of creating, a small space I could control and simultaneously be controlled by.
This is the moment when our lives seem so close to those in Kyrie that the sonnet seems to slip realities, trespass even. Or perhaps I’m the trespasser, inhabiting a psychological landscape that seems so similar to mine I walk into it forgetting it’s not mine. Like the speaker of Voigt’s sonnet says, there’s no “moral lesson.” But maybe there’s at least an understanding of consequence, from which an accountability can grow. My life as I know it being the possibility of countless American acts of recklessness and harm, I can take the time I need to grapple with this and also participate in the revolutionary acts of tending to my neighbor. If this too passes, our responsibility to our vulnerable present and future will be ongoing. Time is a Möbius strip, and our ecology is so informed with the past that the notion of a past alone is almost unreasonable.
“A Privilege, That Conversation”: On the Overheard in Kyrie
For many years, I’ve thought of poetry in terms of a binary: speech or silence, utterance or not. But having recently returned to Ellen Bryant Voigt’s Kyrie, I am mulling over a third—and liminal—territory: the overheard. It’s not that Kyrie doesn’t negotiate with silence at all. There are silences all around and through it: the silences of history, the silences of the war-dead and the pandemic-dead, of an absent god, the silences of one small life against the backdrop of all existence and the towering inevitability of suffering. And there is, too, plenty in this collection that’s said out loud: Kyrie contains epistolary poems, excerpted Psalms, and collective speech that clangs like nursery rhymes gone terribly wrong—all of which echo, disconcertingly, the public discourse of the current pandemic.
It is the space adjacent those silences and miles from out loud, however—the space of the overheard—that I believe is the most compelling territory of this book, and we enter that space in Kyrie’s dramatic monologues. In them, we hear from a cast of everyday people: a doctor, a teacher, an undertaker, a little boy whose mother died in childbirth, a mother whose infant—“kept … in a shoebox / on the cookstove, like a kitten”—died, and others. In these poems, the reader gets a feeling of speech barely escaping silence but not quite said out loud—grief murmured under a speaker’s breath, sound trailing from around the corner or the next room, phrases dissolving down the stairwell as their speaker ascends, scarcely spoken, scarcely heard. Language, but barely. Utterance, but only because the speaker thinks no one is listening. Not-quite-speech and not-quite-silence: “Have you ever heard a dead man sigh?” one of these speakers asks, “A privilege, that conversation.”
I am writing almost two years into our pandemic: mine and yours. The one we knew, theoretically, would happen at some point. The one which, nonetheless, blindsided us. And despite effective vaccines and measures known to mitigate the spread of this virus, it is spreading more aggressively than ever. Over five million people worldwide have died from COVID-19, over 800,000 of them Americans, and yesterday my home state of Michigan set an all-time record for COVID-19 hospitalizations. As I am predisposed to do, I am trying to find meaning in this devastation. A fool’s errand, perhaps, but I’d like to think that a life committed to meaning-making is a life deeply lived, and, given the alternating horror and beauty of the world we live in, I would rather live deeply than not.
And so, I’m asking myself and asking these poems: What can the realm of the overheard—a space, it seems to me, we are more likely to enter in times of hardship—teach us? By ”us” I mean those of us who are students, teachers, and makers of poetry, but I also mean all of us: humankind, this ragged throng of eating sleeping thinking loving bumbling laughing soaring grieving working resting creatures that unaccountably find ourselves alive on the Earth together. What is it we say to ourselves alone in a room that we’d never say out loud? What can we learn if we listen for what people say when they think no one can hear them? Can it teach us anything about how to make sense of the world’s beauty and afflictions? Can it teach us to be more fully human?
In Kyrie, we overhear things we wish we hadn’t, wincing as suffering and desperation stagger across its pages. A grieving father confesses to loving his dead soldier son more than his living family: “I know I am / the luckiest of men—my wife, my sons—/ but the tongue goes to where the tooth had been.” “Oh yes, I used to pray,” the bereaved mother who kept her baby girl warm in a shoebox on the stove tells us: “I prayed for my mortal soul as it contracted, / I prayed a gun would happen into my hand.” This unnerving honesty—conveyed, it’s worth noting, primarily in blank verse lines in the very rhythm of our beating hearts—forges a tight intimacy between speaker and reader and invites us into an honesty with ourselves, a space where our own unsettling confessions hum and loiter.
But the intimacy of the overheard is not just about such admissions: Voigt also conjures intimacy with astonishingly precise images. The things these speakers notice break our hearts, and by things, I do mean things—the nouns of the world: buttons, colorful jars of preserves, a sprig of meadow rue. That father grieving his favorite son ends his murmuring with “we stayed at a little inn, they gave us Tea, / served the English way, with clotted cream.” How vividly we see that clotted cream, and, in the context of the flu’s terrifying global spread, how breathtakingly it becomes the pestilence clogging the son’s lungs, killing him.
In another poem, arriving at a house overtaken by death, a speaker notices, of all things, “a single jay … fretting in the bush, / quick blue smudge in the laden spikes of lilac …” To attend to nature’s beauty when one’s task is to retrieve the dead may feel irreverent, but the things we notice of the world when averting our eyes from its horrors reveal us to ourselves. Later, we overhear a man whose wife has died, and who has been saving up for a gravestone: “I always thought she ought to have an angel” … “smooth, white, / the wings like bolts of silk… .” But the deceased’s family preempts him, placing a wooden cross atop the grave, which a clergyman declares a symbol of hope. “I guess he had forgot about the nails,” the husband murmurs to no one, and there the poem ends.
These intensely focused images contract the world, making it small and, therefore, momentarily manageable: If I keep my eye on the jay in the hedge, I don’t have to reckon with the knowledge that “a mailbox left unshoveled can be a sign” of a household where all have perished. Those tiny spikes of metal in the cross call to mind the things we inexplicably recall from the sites of our own pain and trauma. By murmuring about the things they notice of the material world, Voigt’s speakers reveal themselves to us and invite us into the images of our own lives and the contours of our own consciousness.
What do we gain from the intimacy a speaker creates with themselves and the world when they think no one is listening? What I’ve come to believe is that the space of the overheard, and the things we notice and give voice to in that tender locale, is born from an honesty—an intimacy with oneself—so buried by our busy, noisy, modern lives that we seldom access it. And it is born of the quietude that accompanies attending—attend from the Latin for “to stretch toward”—to the astonishingly common things of this world. The power of this intimacy with self and world is that, in this realm of private honesty and noticing, we unearth what Seamus Heaney in a 1996 commencement address called our “own secret knowledge,” which, he says, “oddly enough … links us most vitally and keeps us most reliably connected to one another.”
I would like to suggest, then, that the intimacy of the overheard calls us into a particular kind of care—care, a word which I always thought must be related to words for love or affection, but which in fact is from the Proto-Indo-European root *gar-: “cry out, call, scream.” In other words: care is language, language is care. For the working poet, the necessity and enactment of such care is obvious enough: by painstakingly putting language to subject matter, the poet cares for that language and subject matter. Perhaps more urgently, though, Kyrie’s intimate, overheard language suggests to me that poetry can be an instrument of care, not only for language and subject matter, but for ourselves and each other. Care in the embrace of the unguarded truths of our lives. Care in a cultivated unselfconsciousness about the pathways of our minds, our noticings. A willingness to stand—figuratively speaking—around the corner, out of sight, attending to the truths and minds and lives of others.
In the final moment of Kyrie, we are witnesses. As sleet blurs windbreak and horizon, we look out a window at an old dray horse afield:
The poem continues, “Such is the world our world is nestled in.” World of overgrown fields where time will smother any human mark on the Earth. Where harsh weather sets in and our swaybacked bodies tire and slump toward the grave. But the next line, italicized as if spoken aloud, asks: “And what if the horse were installed in the barn with a bucket of oats?”
In Kyrie, that impulse toward care—putting on one’s coat and boots, walking out into the foul weather, clicking one’s tongue, Come on, boy, leading the horse into the barn, dark by now, to be sheltered and fed, is cut short: “Shush, says winter, blown against the window,” and the book ends, slamming into a grim silence, a fitting gesture for a book so full of unanswered and unanswerable suffering.
But Kyrie’s dramatic monologues remind us that in poetry and our lives, when faced with loss and suffering, we can either turn away from the delicate territory of the overheard or we can step into it with care. Ultimately, this is what Kyrie asks us as poets, readers, and human beings: Will we throw on our jackets and boots and walk the horse into the barn? Rather than sidestepping our truest truths, our most idiosyncratic noticings, will we embrace them to find what Heaney calls our “own secret knowledge?” Will we undertake to attend to and honor other people’s suffering and humanity in seasons of grave hardship? Will we let the intimacy of the overheard bind us to the world and to one another? A privilege, that conversation.
Molly McCully Brown is the author of the essay collection Places I’ve Taken My Body and the poetry collection The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded. She teaches at Old Dominion University in Norfolk VA.
Rachel Richardson is the author of two collections of poetry, Hundred-Year Wave and Copperhead, both from Carnegie Mellon University Press. A former Stegner and NEA Fellow, she co-directs the writing center Left Margin LIT and lives in Berkeley, CA.
C.T. Salazar is a Latinx poet and librarian from Mississippi and the author of Headless John the Baptist Hitchhiking, out now from Acre Books. His poems appear in The Rumpus, Cincinnati Review, Gulf Coast, Denver Quarterly, Beloit Poetry Journal, and elsewhere.
Molly Spencer is a poet, critic, and editor, and the author of two poetry collections, If the House (University of Wisconsin Press, 2019) and Hinge (SIU Press, 2020). Her poetry and critical writing have appeared widely, and she is an editor for The Rumpus.