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Poet's Choice

By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, January 21, 2007

Sometimes one moment of experience, one memory, can epitomize something central about a life. More than a metaphor or an image, not figurative but literal, the flash of a recalled minute tells the essential story. These "spots of time," as William Wordsworth called them, nourish the mind by embodying and recalling a step in its development. One example is Wordsworth's ice-skating scene from "The Prelude," Book I:

So through the darkness and the cold we flew,

And not a voice was idle; with the din

Smitten, the precipices rang aloud;

The leafless trees and every icy crag

Tinkled like iron; while far distant hills

Into the tumult sent an alien sound

Of melancholy not unnoticed, while the stars

Eastward were sparkling clear, and in the west

The orange sky of evening died away.

Wordsworth's genius inheres exactly in the invisible vibrations between people and landscape, and in the exciting distance between the two. This moment is a defining instance of perception.

A new collection spanning 30 years of work by Ellen Bryant Voigt begins with a memorable, eloquent poem of this kind:

THE HEN

The neck lodged under a stick,

the stick under her foot,

she held the full white breast

with both hands, yanked up and out,

and the head was delivered of the body.

Brain stuck like a lens; the profile

fringed with red feathers.

Deposed, abstracted,

the head lay on the ground like a coin.

But the rest, released into the yard,

language and direction wrung from it,

flapped the insufficient wings

and staggered forward, convulsed, instinctive --

I thought it was sobbing to see it hump the dust,

pulsing out those muddy juices,

as if something, deep in the gizzard,

in the sack of soft nuggets,

drove it toward the amputated member.

Even then, watching it litter the ground

with snowy refusals, I knew it was this

that held life, gave life,

and not the head with its hard contemplative eye.

Well before the words "I thought," the poet is present here: in the vividly accurate description, in the peculiar simile for the brain ("like a lens"), in the cool, distancing intelligence of calling the head "abstracted" (Latin for "dragged off").

Contrasting verbs at the end dramatize a crucial moment of understanding: "I thought" introduces a kind of impression or illusion, projecting conscious grief onto the "convulsed, instinctive" staggering movement. In the next, climactic sentence, the verb is different: "I knew" introduces the distinct, unflinching awareness that the conscious mind is bound to, and limited by, its mortal host, the body. "Hard" and "contemplative" apply to the adamant and reflective nature of Voigt's own genius. She is a poet of knowledge, and knowledge in the living, messy world. This poem provides a suitable opening to her book.

(Ellen Bryant Voigt's poem "The Hen" is from her book "Messenger: New and Selected Poems 1976-2006." Norton. Copyright 2007 by Ellen Bryant Voigt.)

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Robert Pinsky's most recent book of poetry is "Jersey Rain."

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