Pushcart 2015: Ellen Bryant Voigt, “Geese” (Poetry) from Granta, #124

there is no cure for temperament it’s how
we recognize ourselves but sometimes within it
a narrowing imprisons or is opened such as when my mother
in her last illness snarled and spat and how this lifted my dour father
into a patient tenderness thereby astounding everyone
but mostly it hardens who we always were

Maybe the most obvious thing about this poem is the best place to start: the lack of punctuation, of capitals, of any notational signal as to where a sentence starts or stops, whether blocks of meaning are separated by brief pauses of commas, longer pauses of semicolons, are parts of lists, are asides within em-dashes, or end with the full stop of a period.

Whereas I, or any reader, really, would be able to notice this, Katy Diddon, in her Kenyon Review piece on Voigt’s book from which this poem comes, relates the technique to mortality through Voigt’s role as an elegist: “I believe that her choice to write without punctuation in this volume changes the argument with mortality; in particular, she puts conclusions into flux, which alters each poem’s trajectory, and therefore transforms the elegy on almost every level.”

Since I, as poetically naïve as I am, was unfamiliar with Voigt and thus had no idea she was known as an elegist, and wasn’t even aware this poem was an elegy (though it does deal with her mother’s death), I’ll have to take Diddon’s word for it. Makes sense: the period as finality, the eschewal of periods and other guiding marks a move towards fluidity, continuation. It makes great sense – if I recall correctly (and verification confirms the basics), the poetic form of elegy moves from mourning a loss to bringing the essence of what was good about the lost one into the present, and projecting that good into the future: sorrow, then hope and strength as a legacy of the beloved.

Voigt herself gives a slightly different take on this punctuation choice in her Granta:

I shouldn’t discount having my sixty-fifth birthday, which causes its own sort of impatience. After several years of idling – either silence, or more-of-the-same – I began a new poem that had a great deal of repetition, a great deal of descriptive excess, and multiple, very fast tonal shifts; somewhere around draft #25, it occurred to me those shifts could happen more easily if I removed the syntactical markers – i.e., the conventional punctuation that helps ‘chunk’ the functional parts of an English sentence. This required me to think more carefully about how those markers might be implied rather than notated, and in turn freed the line to be the sole manager of pace and pause, moments of rest. And I found that very exciting – enough so to make a commitment to the protocol and its possibilities. So there is no punctuation at all in the new book.

I’ve tried to keep that in mind when examining the poem (as opposed to just reading it), looking for ways the rhythm affects pace and even meaning.

In reading the poem out loud, I found some interesting progressions and patterns. The first stanza, quoted above, starts out in perfect iambic pentameter: “There is no cure for temperament it’s how” but that line begs to be continued of course, into the next line which also starts in perfect iambs: “we recognize ourselves but sometimes within it” – oh, a little shuffling at the end there, though it could still be considered pentameter if shift from iamb to anapest, but then it all goes to hell in the center of the stanza, and the next two lines are jumble of everything, until we get to the final line of the stanza and revert back to (nearly) perfect iambic pentameter: “But mostly it hardens who we always were.” Mostly. She could’ve written that to be perfectly regular, but she didn’t; she only wrote in mostly perfect meter. Language rhythm and syntax working together.

And yes, there is a clear break, rhythmically and semantically, as well as visually, between the two stanzas, if the remaining group of lines can appropriately be called a stanza.

if you’ve been let’s say a glass-half-empty kind of girl
you wake to the chorus of geese overhead
forlorn for something has softened their nasal voices
their ugly aggression on the ground they’re worse than chickens
but flying one leader falling back another moving up to pierce the wind
no one in charge or every one in charge in flight each limited goose
adjusts its part in the cluster just under the clouds
do they mean together to duplicate the cloud

And yes, again, we start off with a mostly iambic line again (hexameter this time) and at first it tracks just fine, even without punctuation, but then we’re caught up in the center which gets a little peculiar, rhythmically and even semantically – I gave up trying to “punctuate” it, are the geese forlorn for something, or are they forlorn – because something has softened their nasal voices, and what is the thing with chickens, is that an aside, I’ve put it in em-dashes but I’m something of an em-dash addict. In any case, the poem at that point is describing how a flock of geese moves, one goose leads, then another, “no one in charge or everyone in charge” and yet they all get where they’re going together, just as the poem seems to break up but still gets to the end, where the last five lines again settle down and speak of forcing blooms in winter.

So we have a wife and mother dying, and the normally-dour father finds his gentleness is accentuated by the scene. What about the daughter, the speaker? Is she a glass-half-empty kind of girl, arriving at the conclusion that in geese or families, “there is no end to hierarchy”; or is she a take-charge girl who forces blooms by “a premature and structured dark”? Can she be both? Undecided? Something else: an observer, recorder, an elegist? Is the premature dark a bad thing… can it be a good thing?

It’s a lovely poem to play with. In the end, we have some choice in how we react to our surroundings, whether a death or a flock of geese or winter. The degree of choice we have depends perhaps on something within us, as does the choice we make, and how we view the aftermath. We can let darkness defeat us – or we can use it to help us bloom.

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