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the sign for making the most of what you have
on the human hand is a thumb at full right angle to the palm
for the owl it’s two talons forward two back a flexible foot
that crushes the prey and lifts it to the beak to the eyes
which are legally blind this is why the owl

hunts in the dark in the dusk when nothing is clearly seen
and why the owl’s eyes are fixed facing ahead to better focus
so its whole face swivels in each direction like the turret on a tank
the round plates of feathers surrounding the eyes collect the least sound
when it turns the owl is computing by geometry the exact

location of the mouse or snake or songbird
that moves imperceptibly in its nest toward which the owl
sets out from the hole in the tree the burrow the eave of the barn
and crosses the field in utter silence wing-feathers overlapped
to make no sound poor mouse poor rabbit

                                                                  last night
from the porch obbligato to the brook and the snuffling deer
intent on the gnarled worm-bitten apples we leave on the tree
I heard what must have been a Barred Owl or a Barn Owl
or a Lesser Horned Owl close by not deep in the woods
what I heard was less a call than a cry

a fragment repeating repeating a kind of shudder
which may be why the country people I come from
thought an owl was prescient ill-omen meant to unspool
the threads they’d gathered and wound I was a grown woman
when my father took the key from under the eave

and unlocked the door to the darkened house he had grown up in
and stepped across the threshold and said as he entered the empty room
hello Miss Sally as though his stepmother dead for weeks
were still in her usual chair

                                          in the Medicine Wheel
the emblem for wisdom is the same for gratitude at dusk at dark
the farsighted owl strikes in utter silence when we hear it
from the tree or the barn what it announces
is already finished

—Ellen Bryant Voigt

Sally Keith reads and discusses Ellen Bryant Voigt’s “Owl”

Transcription of Commentary

My name is Sally Keith and I am a poet living in Washington, DC.  Thinking about it today, it’s February 2018, I would call a great American poem one able to radically describe one kind of time, or experience, inside of another; such a poem would be magnificent in innovation but equally delicate, able to attend to and hear what might otherwise be overlooked.  The poem I have chosen to read is Ellen Bryant Voigt’s “Owl.”  Reminding me at once of Whitman in its expansiveness andDickinson in it sly profundity (if not also Marianne Moore for yoking the habits of animal and man) the depth of Voigt’s poem is shown most truly by its simultaneously fastidious and wild construction.

“Owl” opens recalling an idiomatic phrase (“The sign for making the most of what you have”), one perhaps deeply entrenched in American ideals, a springboard for the description of the owl, and then its kill, that will eventually open out to the story of a human life.  Ellen Voigt is a rural poet; having grown up in Virginia and then spending most of her adulthood in Vermont, she always has been.  Headwaters, the larger collection, is Voigt’s most recent book, one in which she innovates, letting go of punctuation in favor of carefully arranging “chunks of syntax,” as she has called them, over and across lines, a method of composing that necessitates a fine-tuned awareness of the grand sweep of the sentence, on the one hand, and the rhythmic stress of individual words and phrases on the other. 

Without an exhaustive dismantling of syllable, line, and sentence, it’s easy to see (and hear) dominant repetitive structures.   Most notably, at first, are the extensions in lines like “to the beak to the eyes,” and “in the dark in the dusk,” which intrigue me in their combined dedication to the description and song. It seems this kind of repetition wouldn’t quite work if the sound didn’t dig back, making us recall an actual human voice.  As the poem goes on and we are increasingly comfortable with its movement, the kind of repetition varies, and new parts of the poem feel as though they clap together outside of the sequence of the running sentence.  We hear the “turret” and the “tank,” which makes way for, at the beginning of the fifth stanza, the sound of the owl as “less a call then a cry” (a phrase we, somewhat oddly, come to hear as repetition).  The owl’s supposed “cry” leads, via its own modification, to the poem’s only literal and sequential repetition: the cry like “a fragment repeating repeating.” I’m struck by this reference back to the poem (as writing), and, more importantly, to the aspect of human behavior from which the poem began.

The repeating fragment is like a shudder from the “country people” who “Thought an owl was prescient ill-omen meant to unspool threads they’d gathered and wound.”  It is at this moment, in the poem’s tightest pivot, through a sonic repetition that is the most distant in its repetitive properties (“they’d gathered and wound I was a grown woman”) that a brief personal narrative emerges.  Here, the speaker’s memory of her father revisiting his childhood home, his almost thoughtlessly calling to Miss Sally, his stepmother, long gone, allows the segue into the final consideration of the owl’s mysterious cry.  We are ushered into silence, no sound. We feel the power of this invitation not because of the intricate weave of human and owl description, but because we have heard what it sounds like for sonic markers in a longer chain of language to call forth and prioritize one sound while the other, helplessly, falls away.

I love the way “Owl” (along with all the poems in Headwaters) is likely to get described as a kind of writerly feat, which it is, but, then, how wrong we would be in settling there. It is the complexity of the innovation in combination with the tender humanity which makes me feel the poem as American.  The poem’s belief (if I can say such a thing), felt both in its construction and what it actually says, is not that it has unearthed rare fact, or confessed a dark story, but somehow, and more deeply, that out of pattern and rigor, individuality will emerge, or has, or, better put: our originality is inherent.

“Owl”, from Headwaters: Poems, by Ellen Bryant Voigt.

Copyright © 2013 by Ellen Bryant Voigt.

Used by permission of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Related Resources

Sally Keith

Sally Keith

Read “from River House” by Sally Keith

Sally Keith (1973- ) was born in Virginia, and is a graduate of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She is the author of four collections of poems, including River House (2015), Dwelling Song (2004),and Design (2000), which won the Colorado Prize for Poetry. Her honors include fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference. Keith is currently on the MFA faculty at George Mason University. Photo credit: Juana Medina

Ellen Bryant Voigt

Ellen Bryant Voigt

Ellen Bryant Voigt (1943- ) was born and raised on her family’s farm in Chatham, Virginia. She attended Converse College and the University of Iowa, where she received her MFA. She is the author of several poetry collections, including Headwaters (2013); Messenger: New and Selected Poems 1976-2006 (2007), winner of the Poets’ Prize and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; Shadow of Heaven (2002), a finalist for the National Book Award. Voigt has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the MacArthur Foundation, and the Guggenheim Foundation, as well as a fellowship from the Academy of American Poets. She currently teaches in the MFA writing program at Warren Wilson College. Photo credit: John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation