Review of Vox Humana
From M. Travis Lane , The Fiddlehead, issue 258, winter 2014

The Under-Singing

Vox Humana, E. Alex Pierce. Brick Books, 2011.

Vox humana is the name of an organ stop whose tones remind us of the human voice. In E. Alex Pierce’s Vox Humana, vox humana represents what we recognize as human in music: sounds that we hear as emotional, spiritual, often sexual, speak to our understanding almost as if they were narrative. Because this voice carries emotional meanings, we can hear it, also, in animals: they “sound like us” (“Vox Animalia” 41).

In the untitled proem to her eloquent collection, Pierce speaks of an essential, aboriginal vox humana — the voice of:

. . . the lost child that every child is, the one before becoming,
before they
made us who we are, the voice that is the under-singing, the one we
have forgotten. (9)

Voice, in Pierce’s moving collection, is life force, and spiritual identity.

The title poem, “Vox Humana,” charts the development of voice: voice “before becoming” grows into the voice of becoming, of self discovery, of self-naming:

The thing which has no voice,
refuses to speak, is a thing
flayed and pitiless . . .
. . . it will name itself vagrant,
subordinate, unfledged, vestigial . . .
Feeling the probe of its fish-nudge,
floating in a current at last
recognizable, it will sing to itself
I am, I am . . .
feral, wily,
free (33)

A sense of our own voice is essential to our sense of of identity. In the prefatory poem, “In the Sand Hills,” the speaker, remembering childhood, yearns for its voice, music:

I want to speak the sounds I was born to speak —
be the music that played me, safe in that car . . .
I want not to have lost what I am looking for now. My sounds
are down there . . . (13-14)

Pierce consistently links music with identity. Our own voice is not our public speech, but our intimate speech, our lyric. Its music characterizes us. Childhood, her parents, and most of the characters in her lyric dramatic monologues are associated with music, with singing, with poem-making. Even a deaf woman has voice, has music:

. . . she catches his words through her fingers, her ears.
He is tuned to her notes . . .
(“Sestina on Six Words from Frances Itani’s Deafening” 67)

Voice “will press into the spaces between things,” will “enter every bowl that has ever held soup,” it speaks about love, and with love. It is life-force:

And then you will cry and lie down in your feather bed and feel the great skims of your loneliness lifting away from you. Someone will speak to you and a change come over you, your skin will be moist and fresh and will remember itself, its own name. Then the winnowing will come through you and you will sit up, and laugh, and go out under the trees, and a coil unwind in your throat, and the arc of your singing will come out. (“Arioso” 87)

Death is the loss of “voice.” The seriously ill and the dying gradually lose the ability to speak. the dead are silent. In “Their Boy,” parents walking with friends try to retain a sense of their lost child:

. . . It’s like a search,
the body already found. Pacing. with him still close.
Still in them, between them. There’s a voice on the wind
they can’t hear any more. Mum. Dad. Figures pacing.
Giving him up. (35)

A sub theme in Vox Humana, closely related to voice as identity, is the theme of gender prejudice; the problem of voice, self-naming, for a woman whose gender is disvalued by her parents (e.g. “Last Summer in the Old Craig House,” “A girl awake”) or by a lover (e.g. “Ophelia`s Book,” “Desdemona”:

. . . Once I prayed to him . . .
. . . he was my lord . . .
Oh my lord, I said. My lord, what wilt thou?
Thou. You, me. I
when I said I, I lost him.” (“Desdemona” 46)

Many of the poems in Vox Humana are lyric dramatic monologues: a speaker obviously not the poet soliloquizes, not speaking to an imagined listener or addressing the reader, but, rather, as if privately musing. Pierce writes the sort of poetry John Stewart Mill meant when he wrote, in Thoughts on Poetry and its Varieties (1833),

Poetry and eloquence are both alike the expression or utterance of feeling; but, if we may be excused the antitheses, we should say that eloquence is heard; poetry is overheard. Eloquence supposes an audience. The peculiarity of poetry appears to us to lie in the poet’s utter unconsciousness of a listener. Poetry is feeling confessing itself to itself in moments of solitude, and embodying itself in symbols which are the nearest possible representations of the feeling in the exact shape in which it exists in the poet’s mind. Eloquence is feeling pouring itself out to other minds, courting their sympathy, or endeavouring to influence their belief, or move them to passion or to action.

What I find particularly attractive in Pierce’s poetry is her ability to imagine for us the intimate, private musings, the “ under-singing,” of imagined characters. The largest of these lyrical dramatic monologues is the five-part “Snow White & Rose Red,” a poem/short story which chronicles the feelings and behaviour of a woman who has been told her daughter will be stillborn, the feelings and behaviour of her husband, the memories of the child’s conception, the complex ways the parents react to and cope with the loss. Pierce is not primarily a pictorial nor an anecdotal poet — but where she does use imagery, as in this long poem, the images are symbolically packed, significant, full of emotional resonance.

Here “white” is the colour of a tiny toy bought as if for the child the mother knows will be born dead (and white is the colour of death, of non-existence, of coldness, as Melville has shown us). Red is the colour of the briar rose seedling the mother finds trying to grow in an unpromising situation, and which reminds her of her lost child, and which she endeavours to help. (I am also reminded of the ballad association of the briar rose with a grave). That “Snow White” and “Rose Red” are the names of daughters in fairy tales underlines the not-thereness, the imaginariness, of the daughter about whom the mother continues to think.

Love, music, and mourning, especially the loss of a child, are the main subjects of Vox Humana. The power of these poems lies in their depth of understanding and in their emotional intensity. I cannot read them unmoved.

One of my favourite poems in Vox Humana is the love poem “Ich habe genug: It Is Enough.” The speaker, exhausted and sweaty from hiking with friends in the high mountains, longing and grieving for her lover, and musing about distances, geological and human, sits to rest while the others go on without her:

I felt safe there, alone on the springy ground cover beside the
path. But when I stripped off my wet clothes to change, I saw how
unprotected my body was, nothing between me and bare sky. How
little heat there was left in the sun — what did I want?

To kiss you and die.

The next morning, in the library, by chance, looking for something
to comfort me, I took down a volume of Bach cantatas. Ich habe
. Yes. That’s what I felt, this is enough, and has at the same
moment no hope, no other thing, no else.

I have seen you. You fill my eyes. (70)

— M. Travis Lane’s latest book Ash Steps came out from Cormorant in 2012.


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