The new book, How to Be Perfect, is Padgett’s fullest and his best. Everything is a mystery, it says, from the toothbrush one uses to the surprise that one is getting old. Padgett includes an eleven-page didactic poem, “The Absolutely Huge and Incredible Injustice in the World,” which asks the question, What makes us so mean as a species? and then provides a series of witty answers. The title poem, too, is made up of prose fragments. On one level, it is a series of recommendations on how to conduct one’s life and a portrait of a man profoundly troubled by the world he lives in. The admonitions range from banal to wise, but their cumulative effect is moving. There are in addition a dozen or so wonderful short poems on such unlikely subjects as watching a bad Charlie Chan film or worrying about how people in ancient times trimmed their nails. The zaniness is still there, and so is the invention, but there’s an additional darker note, a political and moral indignation that was not present in the earlier poetry. As is often the case, leave it to the comic writer to best convey our tragic predicament:
WHY GOD DID WHAT HE DID
God hates you
which is why he created the world
and put you in it
and gave you the power to realize
that you’re here
for a while
and then poof
and while you’re here
you come to see
that the world too will be
by a fiery bowling ball,
ten thousand times the size of the earth,
hurtling through space
at this very moment
so that nothing absolutely
because that’s what God wants
and he wants you to know it
because he really hates you
and he wants you to know that too
And then there is this movingly understated elegy for his mother:
When my mother died
she left very little: old clothes,
modest furniture, dishes, some
change, and that was about it.
Except for the stapler. I found it
in a drawer stuffed with old bills
and bank statements. Right off
I noticed how easily it penetrated
stacks of paper, leaving no bruise
on the heel of my hand.
It worked so well I brought it home,
along with a box of staples, from
which only a few of the original 5000
were missing. The trick is remembering
how to load it—it takes me several minutes
to figure it out each time, but I persist until
Oh yes, that’s it! Somewhere in all this
my mother is spread out and floating
like a mist so fine it can’t be seen,
an idea of wafting, the opposite of stapler.
In a poem called “Mad Scientist,” which reads like another self-portrait, Padgett imagines the madman in a tower “where his instruments gleam in half-light…/and sparks are fizzing in the thought balloon/above his head, for yes,” Padgett adds, “he is a cartoon scientist,”
just as everything I think about is a cartoon something
because anything cartoon is immortal
in its own funny little way.
After reading his many wonderful and original poems, I believe he is right about that.
Ellen Bryant Voigt was born in 1943 and raised on a farm in south-central Virginia. As a child she showed talent for music and started taking piano lessons when she was four because her older sister did. As she grew older, she got to be so good that she played in her church and for her father’s barbershop quartet. What appealed to her, she said later, was the discipline. In a poem called “At the Piano” she describes a girl practicing and says of her:
She knows nothing, but Bach knows everything.
Outside, in the vast disordered world,
the calves have been taken from their mothers;
both groups bawled and hooted all night long….
“I’m a formalist; that’s part of my makeup,” Voigt says, adding that she doesn’t have much tolerance for disorder. With that in mind, it is not surprising that her poems, regardless of whether they are written in strict forms or in free verse, are all well made.
Becoming a poet, as is often the case, was almost an accident for her. Voigt attended Converse College, an all-women’s school in South Carolina, for its music conservatory, but eventually changed her major to literature and poetry. In an interview with Monica Mankin, she describes playing the piano at the age of nineteen at a resort with singing waiters and waitresses, where one of the tenors who loved poetry showed her poems by Rilke and E.E. Cummings. She thought they were cool. Voigt did her graduate work at the University of Iowa where she studied with the poet Donald Justice and received an MFA. Since 1969 she has been living in Vermont. Her first book, Claiming Kin, came out in 1976. Since then there have been five others, and two of them, Shadow of Heaven in 2002 and her new one, were finalists for the National Book Award. If nothing else, these nominations show the high esteem in which she is held by her fellow poets and critics.
Messenger: New and Selected Poems, 1976–2006 is a deeply satisfying collection. Ranging from short lyrics to long poetic sequences and ambitious historical narratives, the poems are about rural life, Voigt’s memories of growing up on a farm, and stories about family, children, and animals. “The real poem is a knife-edge,/quick and clean,” Voigt writes. Though many of her poems tell stories, their economy is striking. She favors a language that is both precise and lush, and a narrative that is both immediately accessible and richly layered with meaning for the attentive reader. Here’s such a poem:
Something was killing sheep
but it was sheep this dog attended on the farm—
a black-and-white border collie, patrolling his fold
like a parish priest. The second time the neighbor came,
claiming to have spotted the dog at night, a crouched figure
slithering toward the pen on the far side of the county,
the farmer let him witness how the dog,
alert and steady, mended the frayed
edge of the flock, the clumped sheep calm
as they drifted together along the stony hill.
But still more sheep across the glen were slaughtered,
and the man returned more confident. This time,
the master called his dog forward,
and stroking the eager head, prized open the mouth to find,
wound around the base of the back teeth—squat molars
the paws can’t reach to clean—small coils of wool,
fine and stiff, like threads from his own jacket.
So he took down the rifle from the rack
and shot the dog and buried him,
his best companion in the field for seven years.
Once satisfied, the appetite is never dulled again.
Night after night, its sweet insistent promise
drives the animal under the rail fence and miles away
for a fresh kill; and with guilty cunning brings him back
to his familiar charges, just now stirring in the early light,
brings him home to his proud husbandry.
Voigt at times reminds me of Robert Frost. There is that poem of his called “Out, Out—,” about a young boy who at the end of a long day cutting wood is left in charge of the buzz saw, which suddenly “leaps” and cuts off his hand. Since they are too far from a hospital, the boy dies in the arms of his parents, after which, Frost concludes, those who are not dead go back to their affairs. The harsh truth of these words is shocking, as is often the case in Voigt’s poems. Those who know little about rural life tend to ignore its grim realities, the endless round of hard work in the fields with or without animals that are always hungry, sick, lost, calving, farrowing, or waiting for slaughter.
In the poem “Bright Leaf,” Voigt describes workers sitting in the pickup truck at the end of a long day, much too tired to even speak, brush at flies, or hush a baby with a sugartit. “Did you think they were singing?” she asks ironically. Of course not. Farmers’ wives tend to be lonely. They live with men who know how to speak only of what is practical. There’s a horrifying poem in the book about Voigt’s grandfather killing a mule with a hammer because it wouldn’t budge. In poetry, we are prepared to hear about violence and suffering in full expectation that they will lead to some uplifting message. There is none here. “Nothing is learned by turning away,” Voigt writes. People die, animals die. The earth doesn’t grieve. The flocks of birds come to feed,
the cat dispatches
another expendable animal from the field.
Soon she will go inside to cull her litter,
addressing each with a diagnostic tongue.
“A bleak energy of mourning permeates her work,” Edward Hirsch said in a review. This is true. The longest section in Messenger consists of a book-length sequence of sonnets, Kyrie, that deals with World War I and the 1918–1919 influenza epidemic that killed worldwide more than double the number killed in that war. The thirty-two poems are written in several voices: those of boys sent over to Europe to fight and of the folks left at home, worrying about them and coping with the epidemic. These are “the little people” official history has no time for, caught in events beyond their comprehension, watching tragedies multiply and their loved ones come home either “wrapped in the flag or waving it.” Only their presidents and kings are happy. As Voigt tells it,
Once the world had had its fill of war,
in a secret wood, as the countryside lay stunned,
at the hour of the wolf and the vole, in a railroad car,
the generals met and put their weapons down.
Like spring it was, a word passed over all
the pocked and riven ground, and underground;
now the nations sat in a gilded hall,
dividing what they’d keep of what they’d won.
And so the armies could be done with war,
and soldiers trickled home to study peace.
But the old gardens grew a tough new weed,
and the old lives didn’t fit as they had before,
and where there’d been the dream, a stranger’s face,
and where there’d been the war, an empty sleeve.
One would think that such sympathy for the suffering of others would be fairly commonplace in contemporary American poetry, but that’s not really the case. We have become a nation of self-absorbed individuals who care little about the lives of the underprivileged, and that attitude has even affected our literature. Voigt doesn’t have trouble putting herself in other people’s shoes. Her poems are pleadings that others’ histories and hard-earned wisdoms be remembered. She writes about herself, of course, but that’s not her main subject. It’s the wonder of lives little noticed and little remembered that is the theme and the emotion behind many of her poems. I read somewhere that in old Spanish the word for “to remember” also meant “to wake up.” What is an instant compared to a lifetime? And yet there are instants of blazing consciousness when we come close to understanding our lives. This appropriately titled poem “Largesse” has that quality of seeing the world as if for the first time:
Banging the blue shutters—night-rain;
and a deep gash opened in the yard.
By noon, the usual unstinting sun
but also wind, the olive trees gone silver,
inside out, and the slender cypresses,
like women in fringed shawls, hugging themselves,
and over the rosemary hedge the pocked fig
giving its purple scrota to the ground.
What was it had made me sad? At the market,
stall after noisy stall, melons, olives,
more fresh herbs than I could name, tomatoes
still stitched to the cut vine, the soft
transparent squid shelved on ice; also,
hanging there beside the garlic braids,
meek as the sausages: plucked fowl with feet.
Under a goose-wing, I had a violent dream.
I was carrying a baby and was blind,
or blinded on and off, the ledge I walked
blanking out long minutes at a time.
He’d flung a confident arm around my neck.
A spidery crack traversed his china skull.
Then it was not a ledge but a bridge, like a tongue.
From the window over my desk, I could look down
at the rain-ruined nest the sangliers
had scrabbled in the thyme, or up, to the bald
mountain in all the paintings. I looked up.
That’s where one looks in the grip of a dream.
In the poem “The Last Class,” Voigt says that she is driven by
an old compulsion to record,
something from my life, to fix
some truth beyond all change….
I don’t believe Padgett would put it that way, but he too shares the same impulses. And so did Whitman! And so did Dickinson! Poets are many things, but they are also witnesses.
Some keep their eyes open; some keep their eyes closed so they may see better. No matter how you look at it, the world is a strange place.