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Review – Shadow of Heaven by Ellen Bryant Voigt

When Professor Emerson handed me this book, she said something along the lines of “This is one of my favorite books, but don’t feel obligated to love it.”  I’d be lying if I said that didn’t make me a little nervous!  I loan out books kto roommates and friends all the time, and I’m terrified that someone will not be as in love with a book as I am.  When I started reading Shadow of Heaven, I began with this trepidation, but as I got further and further into the collection, I knew why it is so loved.  Voigt combines the natrual with the human in these poems, filled with stunning images.  It is hard to pin down exactly where Voigt is writing from, but she is writing about a variety of topics, from her mother’s battle with cancer to poems written for her sister, featuring house cats of all things.

In the series of poems dedicated to her sister, Voigt’s poem, simply titled “8” is a perfect blend of the natural and the human.

The slim successive cars like vertebrae
trailing the primitive skull, the train pulls forward,
past other trains and disconnected engines, Janus-faced;
negotiates the network of spurs and switches,
a thicket of poles and wires, sheer brick canyons,
signal-flags of laundry; passes the cotton mill’s windows’
blind blue grid, and picks up speed downhill

as the late-model coupe turns left at the edge of town.
Windows open.  Maps unpleated across the dash.
Something loud, popular and brisk, on the radio.

Now solve for x: how long, midday, they’ll travel
neck and neck beside the broadening river….

The poem is an example of some of the lighter poems Voigt has written.  It is a brief scene, but written beautifully (with just  a little math thrown in.)

Another poem that I was particularly intrigued by was the poem “Lesson.”  It’s such a fascinating glimpse into the relationship Voigt had with her mother.

Whenever my mother, who taught
small children forty years,
asked a question, she
already knew the answer.
“Would you like to” meant
you would.  “Shall we” was
another, and “Don’t you think.”
As in, “Don’t you think
it’s time you cut your hair.”

So when, in the bare room,
in the strict bed, she said
“You want to see?” her hands
were busy at her neckline,
untying the robe, not looking
down at it, stitches
bristling where the breast
had been, but straight at me.

I did what I always did:
not weep – she never wept –
and make my face a kindly
white-washed wall, so she
could write, again, whatever
she wanted there.

I think these two poems show the dichotomy that is present in Voigt’s book very well.  There is a wealth of topics and emotions covered here, and I would certainly recommend this book; it is a beautiful and moving collection.