Poetry May 1992

Song and Story

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Audio: Hear Ellen Bryant Voigt read "Song and Story" (3:39)

The girl strapped in the bare mechanical crib
does not open her eyes, does not cry out.
The glottal tube is taped into her face;
bereft of sound, she seems so far away.
But a box on the stucco wall, wired to her chest,
televises the flutter of her heart—

news from the pit—her pulse rapid and shallow,
a rising line, except when her mother sings,
outside the bars: whenever her mother sings
the line steadies into a row of waves,
song of the sea, song of the scythe

    old woman by the well, picking up stones
    old woman by the well, picking up stones

When Orpheus, beating rhythm with a spear
against the deck of the armed ship, sang
to steady the oars, he borrowed an old measure:
broadax striking oak, oak singing back,
the churn, the pump, the shuttle sweeping the warp
like the waves against the shore they were pulling toward.
The men at the oars saw only the next man's back.
They were living a story—the story of desire,
the rising line of ships at war or trade.
If the sky's dark fabric was pierced by stars,
they didn't see them; if dolphins leapt from the water,
they didn't see them. Sweat bloomed on their backs
like heavy dew. But whether they came to triumph
or defeat, music ferried them out
and brought them back, taking the dead and wounded
back to the wave-licked, smooth initial shore,
song of the locust, song of the broom

    old woman in the field, binding wheat
    old woman by the fire, grinding corn

As evening wind stirred the olive grove,
when Orpheus sang to the overlords of hell
to break the hearts they didn't know they had,
he braided the sturdy rhythms of the earth:
the raven's hinged wings from tree to tree,
whole flocks of geese crossing the ruffled sky,
the sun's repeated arc, moon in its wake—
this wasn't the music of pain, pain has no music,
pain is neither beautiful nor wise,
pain is not a song: it is a story
scratched with a stick in the dust around the well.
It starts, Eurydice was taken from the fields.
She did not sing—you cannot sing in hell—
but in that viscous dark she could hear
her lover singing on the path, the song
flung like a rope into the crater of hell,
song of the sickle, song of the hive

    old woman by the cradle, stringing beads
    old woman by the cradle, stringing beads

The one who can sing sings to the one who can't,
who waits in the pit, like Procne among the slaves,
as the gods decide how all such stories end,
the story woven into the marriage gown,
or scratched with a stick in the dust around the well,
or written in blood in the box on the stucco wall—
look at the wall:
the song, rising and falling, sings in the heartbeat,
sings in the seasons, sings in the daily round—
even at night, deep in the murmuring wood—
listen, one bird, full-throated, calls to another,
little sister, frantic little sparrow under the eaves.

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