Poetry Centered

Michelle Whittaker: Sound and Story

December 02, 2020 University of Arizona Poetry Center Season 2 Episode 3
Poetry Centered
Michelle Whittaker: Sound and Story
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Michelle Whittaker presents recordings of poems that display their writers’ skill with both narrative and sound as they each consider the body as a site of conflict and grace. Whittaker considers the way Robert Hass employs sound to communicate strong emotion (“A Story About the Body”), connects with Ellen Bryant Voigt’s memories of seeing a family member’s scars (“Lesson”), and celebrates Michael S. Harper’s reflective pairing of narrative tension and cycling sounds (“The Borning Room”). To close, Whittaker reads her poem “In the Afterlight,” itself a complexly layered composition of sound and image. 

Listen to the full recordings of Hass, Voigt, and Harper reading for the Poetry Center on Voca:
Robert Hass (1984)
Ellen Bryant Voigt (2003)
Michael S. Harper (1973)

[00:00:00.00] [MUSIC PLAYING] 

Julie Swarstad Johnson:
[00:00:02.94] Welcome back to Poetry Centered, where we bring you guest curated recordings from Voca, the University of Arizona Poetry Center's online audiovisual archive of poetry readings. Our guest poet selects and shares three recordings, and then wraps up the episode with a poem of their own. Our guest host today is Michelle Whittaker, a West Indian American poet, pianist, and university instructor. She's the author of the poetry collection Surge. In today's episode, Michelle shares poems by Robert Hass, Ellen Bryant Voigt, and Michael Harper that each unite dramatic tension with virtuoso musicality, sound and storytelling working together to immerse the listener in moments of conflict and moments of grace. 

Michelle Whittaker:
[00:00:56.54] Hi, I'm Michelle Whittaker recording from the Paumanok, also known as Long Island, in Stony Brook, New York. A Story About the Body by Robert Hass was recorded on a Wednesday, September 12, 1984. But it was actually in the late '90s when I stumbled onto this poem while thumbing through my most favorite Poulin's contemporary American poetry anthology. And since I was a young classical composer at the time, the first few words of this prose poem about a young composer working at an artist colony was enough to hook me into the plot. 

[00:01:39.84] What sounded like a possible parable set within these lush green pines with two main characters lightly flirting with each other eventually strolls into conflict as one of them reveals, in a brave and bold statement, that she had a double mastectomy. Let me say that word again, mastectomy. It's a complicated mouthful, and the only four syllable word in the poem whose visceral quality borderlines on violence. There is no escaping its agogic tone or glaring accents, even as we hear the staccato subdivision of T and Cs cutting through. This word choice not only forces the young composer to slow down, take caution, and walk away, but it also pulls many of us out of the couple's romanticism. 

[00:02:36.38] My students have enjoyed investigating this poem over the years. And most of them at first, engage with the poems narrative about the young composer's romantic ideals, infatuations, and even awkwardness. However, there is usually a few students in the mix who want to recycle back to the title. They ask, how does this story express a journey about the body or about illness or resilience? I think this dynamic between the poems content and how its title elucidates it represents an intriguing interplay between how the mind rationalizes conflict and how the heart gets swept away. 

[00:03:19.70] And speaking of, then there is this last image in the poem-- the vision of the painter sweeping the corners of her studio, collecting dead bees. Most of my students ever so slightly gasp at the last lines, as if Haas placed an invisible new seed onto their tongues. The poem leaves them in an afterglow of intrigue. And I don't blame them, for I love a poem that glances back at the reader with a mysterious wink before walking away. All we can really do is reward the poem by rereading through the story's clues again and again. So, here is Robert Hass reading A Story About the Body. 

Robert Hass:
[00:04:06.22] This is A Story About the Body. The young composer, working that summer at an artist's colony, had watched her for a week. She was Japanese, a painter, almost 60. And he thought he was in love with her. He loved her work. And her work was like the way she moved her body, used her hands, looked at him directly when she made amused and considered answers to these questions. One night, walking back from the concert, they came to her door. And she turned to him and said, I think you would like to have me. I would like that too. But I must tell you that I've had a double mastectomy. And when he didn't understand, I've lost both my breasts. 

[00:04:56.92] The radiance that he had carried around in his belly and chest cavity like music withered very quickly. And he made himself look at her when he said, I'm sorry. I don't think I could. He walked back to his own cabin through the pines. And in the morning, he found a small, blue ball on the porch outside his house. It looked to be full of rose petals but he found, when he picked it up, that the rose petals were on top. The rest of the ball, she must have swept them from the corners of her studio, was full of dead bees. 

[00:05:33.95] [MUSIC PLAYING] 

Michelle Whittaker:
[00:05:41.17] The next poem called Lesson by Ellen Bryant Voigt was recorded Wednesday, January 29, 2003. In recent years, I had the pleasure to hear Ellen Bryant Voigt share her craft lectures and poems at Middlebury's Bread Loaf writing conference. But it was back in my college days when I was first introduced to her work, because my professor mentioned Voigt had an extensive musical background. And since then, I have truly been a fan, particularly of Messengers and Had Water being my favorite collections. 

[00:06:26.16] So, I picked her poem because it pushed me right back into a memory of seeing my grandmother's breast cancer for the first time. We were both in Allentown. My grandmother and I were both in Allentown, Pennsylvania, sharing a lopsided bed in the cellar of my aunt's house readying for the night when she disrobed. And in my case, unlike Voigt's poem, my grandmother didn't ask me if I wanted to see her scar. She must have caught me trying to respect her privacy because she said to me in her very cute, Jamaican accent, you mustn't feel sad. 

[00:07:10.31] But it did take a lot of internal strength and pressure for me not to cry as I forced myself to face her, witnessing what she would see every day. In Voigt's poem, I do appreciate the subject's directness. It is compact, yet leaves room to breathe and enough space to travel through time. My favorite part of this poem is when we arrive with the speaker in the last stanza with the limited image of a stitch mastectomy after punctuated by silent pauses. Voigt chooses not to describe witnessing her mother's incision as a traumatic event. 

[00:07:56.57] Instead, the speaker's facial expression, kind like a whitewashed wall, conveys a fast transition from an overwhelming emotion into a silence absorbed by a moment of grace. And in this erasure of judgment, we are invited to share in this private intimacy and respect. However, we are aware of the undercurrent of discomfort and grief. We know that this mother, who has tirelessly given of herself, needs not to be reminded of the oncoming truth. Still, her memory, her openness, her charm and resilience-- very much alive-- lives on in this poem. So, here is Ellen Bryant Voigt reading The Lesson. 

Ellen Bryant Voigt:
[00:08:50.59] OK. One more, just a little short lines. This one is called Lesson. Three strokes. Lesson. Whenever my mother, who taught small children 40 years, ask a question, she already knew the answer. Would you like to, meant, you would. Shall we was, another. And don't you think as in, don't you think it's time you cut your hair? So, when in the bedroom, in the strict bed, she said, you want to see? Her hands were busy at her neckline untying the robe, not looking down at it. Stitches, bristling where the breast had been, but straight at me. I did what I always did-- not weep. She never wept. I made my face a kindly whitewashed wall so she could write again whatever she wanted there. 

[00:10:00.89] [MUSIC PLAYING] 

Michelle Whittaker:
[00:10:08.64] The last poem called The Borning Room by Michael S. Harper was recorded on Wednesday, April 4, 1973. Believe it or not, Harper's poetry had an unmistakable stamp on my coming-of-age story as a young, black composer. In my sophomore year of college, some of us new composers were finally instructed by our director to write our very first chamber composition using voice. I was so excited and overwhelmed by the number of poetry choices that I just ran to the library and started searching through the card catalog. By accident, I came across Michael S. Harper on the library shelf, whose work seemed to have connections to jazz, myth, and African folklore. Immediately, I felt united to his writing, threaded with familial narratives and lyricisms. Still, I had to narrow down my choices between two of his poems-- The Borning Room and the other called New Season. 

[00:11:15.62] Eventually due to the time constraints of working as a piano accompanist, I grew intimidated by the writing process by finding the right musicians and by scheduling rehearsals for the upcoming public concert. So, I chose his poem New Season, the shorter of the two. And I read it repeatedly until the words and melody had each other memorized. But honestly, I feel a lot of his poems would be perfect for a song cycle. And although I didn't select the Borning Room that day, I still savor how this poem naturally forces the mouth to wheel over and over through the welcoming vowel sounds. I still love the subtle drama and cinematic framework, how meditative Harper remains in the moonlight of the dim, closeted room as he looks over at his pregnant wife's contour. 

[00:12:15.54] All these years later I could still visualize a tenor or a baritone standing in the spotlight as if the moon shimmered on the concert stage, singing this haunting aria as if it were a spiritual or a lullaby. On the archive recording, you will hear how, I believe in a way, he dedicated this poem to his child, who, at the time, was not yet born. So, I hope you enjoy the internal night music of Michael S. Harper reading The Borning Room. 

Michael S. Harper:
[00:12:51.62] Since I've been living in New England, I've begun to make some studies of things. And I lived in Massachusetts last year. And I lived in a house which was 200 years old. My wife was pregnant. And of course, we faced that pregnancy with great trepidation. And I used to wake up at night with nightmares, and I would take a walk. This house, which is 200 years old, has a kind of organization to it. And the structure was such that everybody was supposed to sleep on the second floor because the first floor had a lot of fireplaces on it-- the first floor. And there was only one really solid bedroom, which was very small and compact and was for the infirm and the newborn. 

[00:13:37.78] The man who owned this house, who was a banker, had tried to restore it in what he thought to be its original design. In the process, he had plugged up this doorway to this room and made it a closet because it didn't have enough space. And as a matter of fact, had ruined the entire rationale for the house. And I found this out. And it's affected me deeply because my wife is going to have a baby. And this section is called the borning room. 

[00:14:10.01] I stand in moonlight in our borning room, now a room of closets changed by the owners. Once only, the old and newborn slept on this first floor, this boarded door closed now to the hearth of our wood burning. I look over the large bed at the shape of my woman. There is no image for her, no place for the spring child. Her corner-shaped dreams, a green-robed daughter warmed in a bent room close to fireplace oven warmed by an apple tree. The old tried to make it new, the new, old, who will not die here. 

[00:14:52.00] [MUSIC PLAYING] 

Michelle Whittaker:
[00:14:59.92] The poem I decided to share with you is from my collection called Surge. It's dedicated to Jordan Davis. In the afterlight, what is the speed of dark? Sounds like, what is the speed of a black boy, or the speed of a stallion beauty turning corners? What about wild horses barreling down a Moroccan beach? What about a boy, not foreign to me, who sleeps in their path? What is the speed of dilations, nervous systems, involuntary, hard wired, and on the fritz? 

[00:15:51.25] What is the speed of forcible suspension, or the permanency of no return, of saying no, and meaning no? Is it like the speed of being chased down, or the speed of light with a sly of a streaming bullet? Is it like ripping through cells? I wish I understood the physics, for it sounds like a bull ramming into a windowless matter, almost like the speed of a power outage, almost like the seed of powerless and under age-- for what is the speed of returning to a dark or closing and opening a wound? 

[00:16:43.19] Is it like bagging a body? I wonder, what is the sound of the emergent spirit? Does it sing like a lark or spike like a nightingale? 

[00:17:00.22] [MUSIC PLAYING] 

Julie Swarstad Johnson:
[00:17:07.14] Thank you so much for being our guide today, Michelle. And thank you, listeners, for sharing your time with us. Join us again in two weeks for more great recordings from Voca. Poetry Centered is a project of the University of Arizona Poetry Center, home to a world-class library collection of more than 80,000 items related to contemporary poetry in English and English translation. Located on the campus of the University of Arizona in Tucson, the Poetry Center Library and buildings are housed on the indigenous homelands of the Tohono O'odham people. Poetry Centered is supported by the work of 

Diana Marie Delgado:
[00:17:46.17] Diana Marie Delgado, 

Tyler Meier:
[00:17:47.91] Tyler Meier, 

Julie Swarstad Johnson:
[00:17:49.30] And I'm your producer, Julie Swarstad Johnson. Explore Voca, the Poetry Center's audiovisual archive online at voca.arizona.edu. 

Robert Hass' "A Story About the Body"
Ellen Bryant Voigt's "Lesson"
Michael S. Harper's "The Borning Room"
Michelle Whittaker reads "In the Afterlight"