‘Headwaters’ by Ellen Bryan Voigt

  • COLDFRONT RATING: three-half
  • PUBLISHED BY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2013
  • REVIEW BY: Joelle Mann


“a fox is in my yard-o my yard-o / plenty of songs in my head”

headwaters.inddAt fist glance, Ellen Bryant Voigt’s Headwaters highlights images imbued with the physicality of the natural world, the kinds of images readers have come to know from Voigt.  Some of her previous books of poetry, such as The Lotus Flowers (1987), Two Trees (1992), and the National Book Award-nominated Shadow of Heaven, reinforce the ways that the natural world espouses a lyrical sensibility.  However, though Headwaters does indeed capture the essence of the natural world, Voigt’s enjambment and disjunctive poetic structures also emphasize a speaker who surrenders to what she calls her “many currents of self-doubt.”

“Headwaters,” the book’s title poem, acknowledges how Voigt’s poetry finds “no tracks in the snow” and “no boot pointed towards [her] or away”; instead, Voigt’s poetic feet leave open universal questions that flow the farthest from where the river ends, leaving open possibilities to her readers. Voigt’s lack of punctuation and free-flow of words and images create a streamlining effect, a current of language. Amorphous words show how meaning and form collide, yet somehow lead back to the source.

In Headwaters, many of Voigt’s poems split at an apogee of borders: between life and death, between present and past, between material and natural, between child and adult, and between human and animal.  Her poem “Privet Hedge” highlights the ways in which Voigt “prefers the cusps,” because as her speaker says, “they focus the mind.”  In “Privet Hedge” Voigt’s form breaks with her meaning, illuminating a world where knowledge is irresolute:

even the death of vegetation should never be
so beautiful it is unseemly I prefer the cusps
they focus the mind
which otherwise stays
distracted knowing things when my friend said
knowledge does nothing for him I felt at once superior
and chastised

Here, the line break indicates how the mind actually stays “distracted knowing things.”  This begs the question then, what does it mean to know? And, what if anything, is the purpose in knowing? Voigt never seeks to answer these questions, but only focuses on her subject who must “study the graveyard behind the privet hedge / their markers all alike as on a battlefield immense and calm.” The implication of death, “immense and calm,” opens up an interpretation of life.  The gravestones are marked “beneath an open midwestern sky” that leaves “nothing between / the pilgrim and the scoured horizon.”  This image disregards death as illustrating the end of something, and, once again, Voigt explores the junctures between earth and sky, between life and death. As the speaker claims, there is “nothing between.”

In contrast to the death imagery in “Privet Hedge,” Voigt’s amalgamation of natural elements also cultivates the narrative storytelling of human life. Some of her poems become momentous snapshots of imagery: readers hear a farsighted owl shrieking what “is already finished” and a noble dog protecting the speaker’s 13-year old daughter from fear in the backyard.  One motif of the book emphasizes the human-like traits of animals;  Voigt reinforces the ways in which animal instincts become analogous to the workings of the human mind.  Voigt’s subtle interplay of the tension between instinct and reason personify the animal-subjects of her poems while simultaneously bringing to light the animalistic tendencies of people.

For example, in “Lost Boy,” the speaker begins by saying, “who says we aren’t primarily animals for instance.” The poem then combines the pronouns “I,” “you,” and “he” to characterize a boy whose life exposes what the speaker calls “the chronic contagious sickness of our times.”   The boy’s story becomes synonymous with you, the reader’s, who also recognizes the “smell of doom” from the “pheromones like a soldier ant.” The instinctual smell of doom that both attracts and repulses is what denies the boy, or “soldier ant,” from finding solace in a society which fosters feelings of self-doubt: “he was himself disgusted self-despising snarling sick.” The alliterative language here highlights the spreading “rash” the boy contracts from a society, which is “disgusted by the queer parts of him.” Voigt focuses on the lost boy who becomes a scapegoat to society and its problems, while seemingly he is blamed for “making something out of nothing.”

Similarly, “Moles” depicts the life of a woman speaker whose job of “children food house,” parallels the life of a pesky mole that creates “mounds of fresh dirt like little graves.” The underground holes of the mole become an extended metaphor for the continuous work of the speaker who is unappreciated by her beloved other.  This other seeks to extract the moles from his yard, and Voigt’s use of asyndeton emphasizes how his questioning of the speaker becomes similar to his views of the marred perfection of his yard: “where is his hat where is his horse where is his harrier.”  Because she is unable to answer to his demands, her work as a wife parallels the blighted yard where her beloved has attempted to perfect “each blade each stem each stalk.”  The holes in the yard become a metaphor for the work and life of the speaker who realizes that “the rest of what [she] did stayed underground.”

The poems of Voigt’s Headwaters paradoxically emphasize both futility and meaning within our lives by correlating the human and natural worlds. Though each poem is connected by a common theme of nature, there are many tributaries that veer from her headwater, and Voigt leaves readers room for interpretation and imagination.  Each poem is a discovery of the natural world; it is that discovery that incites the knowledge of life and our changeable journeys. As Ralph Waldo Emerson states in “The Over-soul,” “Man is a stream whose source is hidden.  Always our being is descending into us from we know not whence.” In Headwaters, Voigt attempts to uncover her hidden source by writing poetry that seeks to create the universal questions of the journeys of our lives.