You wiped a fever-brow, you burned the cloth.
You scrubbed a sickroom floor, you burned the mop.
What wouldn't burn you boiled like applesauce
out beside the shed in the copper pot.
Apple, lightwood, linen, feather-bed—
it was the smell of that time, that neighborhood.
All night the pyre smouldered in the yard.
Your job: to obliterate what had been soiled.
But the bitten heart no longer cares for risk.
The orthodox still passed from lip to lip
the blessed relic and the ritual cup.
To see in the pile the delicate pillowslip
she'd worked by hand, roses and bluets—as if
hope could be fed by giving up—
Sweet are the songs of bitterness and blame,
against the stranger spitting on the street,
the neighbor's shared contaminated meal,
the rusted nail, the doctor come too late.
Sweet are the songs of envy and despair,
which count the healthy strangers that we meet
and mark the neighbors' illness mild and brief,
the birds that go on nesting, the brilliant air.
Sweet are the songs of wry exacted praise,
scraped from the grave, shaped in the torn throat
and sung at the helpful stranger on the train,
and at the neighbors misery brought near,
and at the waters parted at our feet,
and to the god who thought to keep us here.
Who said the worst was past, who knew
such a thing? Someone writing history,
someone looking down on us
from the clouds. Down here, snow and wind:
cold blew through the clapboards,
our spring was frozen in the frozen ground.
Like the beasts in their holes,
no one stirred—if not sick
exhausted or afraid. In the village,
the doctor's own wife died in the night
of the nineteenth, 1919.
But it was true: at the window,
every afternoon, toward the horizon,
a little more light before the darkness fell.
Until further notice, we will devote Wednesdays to posting poems that sustain and uplift through trying times. Each poem is accompanied with an image by author-illustrator Juana Medina http://www.juanamedina.com. We thank you for reading and hope that you will share poems with your friends and neighbors. Please be well.
“You wiped a fever-brow, you burned the cloth” (35); “Sweet are the songs of bitterness and blame” (45); “Who said the worst was past, who knew” (55) reprinted from Kyrie: Poems by Ellen Bryant Voigt (c) 1995, 1996 by Ellen Bryant Voigt.
Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Ellen Bryant Voigt is the author of volumes of poetry, including Shadow of Heaven, a finalist for the National Book Award, and Messenger, a finalist for the National Book Award and for the Pulitzer Prize. Voigt was awarded the O. B. Hardison, Jr. Prize from the Folger Shakespeare Library, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the Merrill Fellowship from the Academy of American Poets, where she was subsequently elected a chancellor. Her poems have appeared in an array of national journals and anthologies, including The Pushcart Prize and Best American Poetry. She lives in Vermont and teaches in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.
In this mosaic of sonnets, her fifth collection, Ellen Bryant Voigt takes on a monumental challenge: to conjure up the influenza pandemic of 1918-19, a little-recorded event that killed 25 million worldwide, half a million in America alone. The Nation calls Kyrie "an astonishing collection . . . so spare and tightly woven, yet so mindful of the cadences of the speaking voice, that the poems read like verse drama."
Starting with the family, Voigt creates voices that gather into one vast community story, a "true tour de force" (Boston Sunday Globe) that speaks to our own time of plague.
"Voigt's language dares to stir the dead, to remind us that we are temporary survivors."