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.

Diane Seuss: Frank

FRANK: SONNETS, Diane Seuss. Graywolf Press, 250 Third Avenue North, Suite 600, Minneapolis, MN 55401, 2021, 137 pages, $16.00 paper,

Sometimes I drag my husband to art-house-y films and when someone asks, “Was it good? Should I go see it?” I hesitate. Yes, definitely good. Also, scarred me for life.

That’s how I feel about this amazing, abrasive, challenging, brilliant book of poems by Diane Seuss. It is like nothing I’ve ever read. Your mileage may vary.

From the back cover: “Every poem in frank: sonnets is an example of the incomparable Seussian Sonnet, where elegy and narrative test the boundaries of the conventional form” (Terrance Hayes). “…an ambitious, searing, and capacious life story. The poems themselves use an ecstatic syntax to unite Seuss’s lyric leaps from one wretched sweetness to another….narratives of poverty, death, parenthood, addiction, AIDS, and the ‘dangerous business’ of literature are irreducible” (Traci Brimhall). In short, it was a little like reading a memoir—bizarre, fragmented, mesmerizing. When I first purchased this book and read a poem here and there, I was missing the point.

I’m trying to pluck out a few sentences to illustrate (but some of these untitled poems, always 14-lines but with unbridled-lengthened-lines, are all one sentence). Maybe this one about her son: “I’d authored him in my bones, he was my allegory, analogy, corollary, mirror, I forged / his suffering, his nail, his needle, his thrill” (p. 66). And, often, provocative statements that I don’t quite know what to do with: “All lives have their tropes over which we have minimal control” (p. 83); “I fell in love with death” (p. 80). Or in a poem beginning, “Thirty-nine years ago is nothing, nothing,” this ending:

I was nothing, I knew nothing then of nothing, its shacks shawled

with moss, its bitter curatives and ancient hags redressing my narratives. (p. 60)

Traci Brimhall sums it up brilliantly: “It’s a book to inhabit, to think alongside, to rage and laugh with, to behold the ways beauty is both a weapon and a relief.”

Here’s one sonnet, and I’d say “to let you judge for yourself,” except you can’t really judge this book on one poem. “Mikel” is a recurring character, and the subject of the cover photo.

I have slept in many places, for years on mattresses that entered

my life via nothing but luck, as a child on wet sheets, I could not

contain myself, as a teen on a bed where my father ate his last

pomegranate, among crickets and chicken bones in ditches, in the bare

grass on the lavish grounds of a crumbling castle, in a flapping German

circus tent, in a lean-to, my head on the belly of a sick calf, in a terrible

darkness where a shrew tried to stay afloat in a bucket of well water,

in a blue belfry, on a pink couch being eaten from the inside by field mice,

on bare floorboards by TV light with Mikel on Locust Place, on an amber

throne of cockroach casings, on a carpet of needles from a cemetery pine,

in a clubhouse circled by crabapple trees with high school boys who are

now members of a megachurch, in a hotel bathtub in St. Augustine after

a sip from the Fountain of Youth, cold on a cliff’s edge, passed out cold

on train tracks, in a hospital bed holding my lamb like an army of lilacs.

—Diane Seuss (p. 48)

You can read more about Diane Seuss at Poetry Foundation. This National Book Critics Circle review (which calls it “a memoir in sonnets”) will also be helpful.

On May 15, Seuss is reading her work alongside poet Dorianne Laux — notice that it’s Eastern Standard Time.

Jericho Brown’s “Duplex”

This morning I began reading a poetry book of 140 pages or so, and, about halfway through, decided to give myself two days. Reading all the poems is one thing, but rereading, thumbing back through, making notes, reflecting—those take a little more time.

Rather than skip a day, I’m offering an example of Jericho Brown’s invented form, “the duplex.” It’s been called a combination of sonnet (notice the 14 lines), ghazal, and the blues, but I see in it also the repetitive elements of pantoum and villanelle. Whatever it is, Brown includes several in The Tradition, and in journals I’ve come across other poets trying out the form.


I begin with love, hoping to end there.
I don’t want to leave a messy corpse.

 I don’t want to leave a messy corpse
Full of medicines that turn in the sun.

Some of my medicines turn in the sun.
Some of us don’t need hell to be good.

Those who need most, need hell to be good.
What are the symptoms of your sickness?

Here is one symptom of my sickness:
Men who love me are men who miss me.

Men who leave me are men who miss me
In the dream where I am an island.

In the dream where I am an island,
I grow green with hope. I’d like to end there.

                                —Jericho Brown

Okay, I’m officially frustrated. I can’t get every other couplet to indent, the way they’re supposed to. Here’s a picture of a page:

While looking for a new photograph, I discovered that my favorite podcast, On Being, has several poems recorded by Jericho Brown.

Jericho Brown, The Tradition

THE TRADITION, Jericho Brown. Copper Canyon Press, PO Box 271, Port Townsend, WA 98368, 2019, 80 pages, $17.00 paper,

Recipient of the 2020 Pulitzer Prize, The Tradition is about terrorism and love. It sounds like an unlikely marriage, but Brown makes it work. “Jericho Brown is a poet of eros,” the back cover material proclaims, and—rightly—that he “wields this power…touching the very heart of our cultural crisis.” It’s a moving, painful book. A book of witness. I came to it expecting confrontation. It doesn’t disappoint.


            after The Jerome Project by Titus Kaphar
(oil, gold leaf, and tar on wood panels;
7” X 10 ½“ each)

I am writing to you from the other side
Of my body where I have never been
Shot and no one’s ever cut me.
I had to go back this far in order
To present myself as a whole being
You’d heed and believe in. You can trust me
When I am young. You can know more
When you move your hands over a child,
Swift and without the interruptions
We associate with penetration.
The young are hard for you
To kill. May be harder still to hear a kid cry
Without looking for a sweet
To slip into his mouth. Won’t you hold him?
Won’t you coo toward the years before my story
Is all the fault of our imaginations?
We can make me
Better if you like: write back. Or take the trip.
I’ve dressed my wounds with tar
And straightened a place for you
On the cold side of this twin bed.

—Jericho Brown

In “Second Language,” Brown digs “Behind photographs” of ancestors and beneath the meaning of words. “In that part / Of the country, a knot / Is something you get / After getting knocked  / Down,” and “story means / Lie.” In “Bullet Points” and “Stake,” the reader is cautioned not to believe cultural stories about the speaker: “Someone planted / an idea of me. A lie.”

“A poem is a gesture toward home,” Brown writes in one of his “Duplex” poems (a form he created). In these poems home may be a necessary destination, but it isn’t an easy place to be.

You can find poems, videos, and commentary by and about Jericho Brown all over the web, but you might start by clicking, here.