Ellen Bryant Voigt: Kyrie

KYRIE: POEMS, Ellen Bryant Voigt. W. W. Norton, 500 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10110, 1995, 80 pages, $15.95 paper,

This one really took me down the rabbit hole. By complete coincidence, it is another book of untitled sonnets, though it couldn’t differ more from Seuss’s Frank. Well, maybe there’s a correlation in that both collections tell a dark story. Voigt is telling, however, not a personal story, but one set during the flu pandemic of 1918-1919.

If you’ve heard a choir present “Kyrie Elieson,” you know that the Greek words, translated to English, mean “Lord have mercy.” In Voigt’s merciless progression of poems we hear the voices of rural characters affected by WWI and influenza. A doctor speaks of his patients. A soldier writes home. A sister buries a sister. A mother loses a child. Whole families are wiped out. This book has been compared to Spoon River Anthology, but Voigt’s theme is the singular, unifying catastrophe of an epidemic.

And this is why Kyrie, first published in 1995, has been reclaimed by a new generation of readers. “After they closed the schools the churches closed, / stacks like pulpwood filling the morgue” begins one sonnet. Kyrie took me only an hour or so to read; perhaps you can imagine why it’s taken me most of the day to find the energy to blog about it.

Thought at first that grief had brought him down.
His wife dead, his own hand dug the grave
under a willow oak, in family ground—
he got home sick, was dead when morning came.

By week’s end, his cousin who worked in town
was seized at once by fever and by chill,
left his office, walked back home at noon,
death ripening in him like a boil.

Soon it was a farmer in the field—
someone’s brother, someone’s father—
left the mule in its traces and went home.
Then the mason, the miller at his wheel,
from deep in the forest, the hunter, the logger,

and the sun still up everywhere in the kingdom.

—Ellen Bryant Voigt

In a Los Angeles Times review toward the end of 2020, poet Sarah Carey recounts her own discovery of and journey with these poems:

… as the United States alone approaches 400,000 projected coronavirus deaths at the end of 2020, I found myself reading Ellen Bryant Voigt’s Kyrie, her 1995 collection of sonnets that summon life during the 1918 flu pandemic. I was seeking, perhaps, a window into how others experienced an event of such life-changing proportions, and what might be learned from their stories.

Toward the end of the same review. Carey writes: “To enter the lives of the people who experienced the 1918 pandemic through the personas Voigt creates in Kyrie is to glimpse the power of collective loss and all its reverberating impacts.” Amen.

I’ll leave you with one more sonnet. Voigt is often remarked on for her musicality, but also on the simplicity and starkness of her poems, present here in both style and subject:

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.

—Ellen Bryant Voigt

The prose afterword to this book (a scant 2 pages) is also worth reading. In the final paragraph, drawing from Alfred Crosby’s America’s Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918, Voigt writes: “In one year, one quarter of the total U. S. population contracted influenza; one out of five never recovered. Nevertheless, the national memory bears little trace.” These poems insist: remember.

Searching for the exact version of “Kyrie Eliesen” my daughters sang in high school choir (I couldn’t find it, but there are many), I discovered that the composer Stanley Grill has set selections from Voigt’s Kyrie to music. No Youtube samples (alas), but you can attempt your own Google search for the score.

To learn more about Ellen Bryant Voigt, visit The Poetry Foundation, or see the video at this site.

Your Poetry Assignment for the Week

Every Wednesday afternoon I meet—either on Zoom or in person, if our outdoor cafe is a safe bet—with several other writers. We have two dedicated novelists, but the rest of us write mostly poetry. All of us, I should add, write poetry sometimes.

We’ve been meeting for 11 years. I think of myself as the facilitator of this group; they think of me as their fearless leader. Every Tuesday I email them a reminder and a poem (or, I send them a poem if I’m not too lazy and don’t forget) that they are welcome to think of as a prompt. I usually add a few sentences commenting on the poem. There are no rules in our group, but usually one or two writers end up bouncing off some idea this process has introduced. A while back we played around with a triolet by Barbara Crooker and I was tickled to see people still wrestling with the form last week.

Sometimes I send a poem, or a poet, that I’ve blogged about. Lately I’ve been telling myself that I really ought to blog once a week, and what if I married these two tasks together? This is my attempt to make it so.

I’ve been reading Ellen Bryant Voigt’s 1995 book Kyrie, a series of poems set in 1918—during the (yep) flu epidemic. One poem begins “How we survived…” that is a perfect prompt, but it has an image in it that so freaked me out I don’t want to share it. I cast around, reading poem after poem: “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.”

And there’s this poem, the first in the collection, which seems to predict the future of that survival:


After the first year, weeds and scrub;
after five, juniper and birch,
alders filling in among the briars;
ten more years, maples rise and thicken;
forty years, the birches crowded out,
a new world swarms on the floor of the hardwood forest.
And who can tell us where there was an orchard,
where a swing, where the smokehouse stood?

—Ellen Bryant Voigt

My interest in Voigt’s book is personal, something to do with a novella I’d like to write; something to do with working on a manuscript of poems about a farm.

I am also compelled to tell you that I’m nearly all the way through a riveting memoir, House Lessons: Renovating a Life, by local author Erica Bauermeister. When her children were young, Bauermeister and her husband had the crazy idea to rescue a derelict house in Port Townsend and—well, you just have to read it to believe it.

My husband was, once upon a time, a building contractor, so, reading, I think: “Why didn’t we ever do something like this?” And then, reading on, I’m amazed at the work—when did she ever get any writing done? When 9 / 11 interrupts their progress, I found myself wanting to pick up the Voigt poems again. There’s a resonance between the two narratives that I wish I were more equal to describing. It has something to do with putting notes inside walls for future owners to find.

We create stories with beginnings, middles, and ends, and then cast them out into the world, talismans against the reality that life does not always tie up neatly, that it can come at you sideways, take away your breath, your life, your sustaining belief that everything will end up okay. We write our stories on paper, like wishes on New Year’s, and send them out into the world.

—Erica Bauermeister

In a summer when I’ve been feverishly reading doomsday accounts of what will happen to our planet because of climate change, it’s nice to imagine rescuing one house; it’s comforting to imagine how a family comes out the other end of a devastating world war and a pandemic; it’s even weirdly satisfying to imagine smashing down a wall with a sledgehammer.

So that’s your prompt this week. Cast yourself into the future and, looking back from that vantage, tell us, How did you survive?