#222: KYRIE. “Why did you have to go back, go back / to that awful time, upstream, scavenging / the human wreckage, what happened or what we did / or failed to do? / Don’t you people have sufficient woe?” In her 1995 collection of sonnets Kyrie, the awful time Ellen Bryant Voigt goes back to is 1918, when the last months of the World War were coincident with the murderous outbreak of the Spanish influenza, when it must have seemed as if the various forms of death, violent and viral, were racing each other. “The U.S. toll was half a million dead: as many servicemen killed by influenza as in combat, and ten times that many civilians.” Voigt evokes this cataclysm with remarkable restraint, always refusing the high note, the big pay-off, always keeping to the personal; each poem instead tells its quiet story of loss, its little single death one event in the maelstrom. The formality of the sonnet form affords Voigt a kind of tactful distance; the loose, unrhymed approach to those formalities, her mastery of the plain word, keeps the voices audibly American and of their time. This is Spoon River Anthology told not by the dead but by the survivors, the bereft, some of the unsuspecting soon to be dead themselves. Of a boy who makes it home from battle to an Armistice celebration: “he plunged / into the crowd, tossed his crutch to the flames, / kissed delirious strangers on either side. / Say he lived through one war but not the other.” The boy’s letter home (or another’s?) surfaces later: “we hadn’t thought / to be married anyway before the fall, / I should be home to bring the harvest in” (the missing period is Voigt’s). We hear the reproach of the final sonnet, quoted above, but we know the answer to it as well. We go back, go back because we need the poems’ maps for the sorrows we will face ourselves. Kyrie was recommended to me recently, as appropriate to our own time of violence and pandemic but no doubt its time will come ‘round again. There is always sufficient woe, and always more to come.
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