Poetry - Autumn 2012

The Voice Is Ready to Sing

By Langdon Hammer | September 4, 2012


“The poem must resist the intelligence,” Wallace Stevens wrote, but then he added: “Almost successfully.” Stevens isn’t saying that poems must be unintelligible, but that a poem must not give in too quickly to our need to make sense of it. Rather, it must provoke, teasing the mind into action, into fresh experience.

Angie Estes—the author of four books of poetry, most recently Tryst, a finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize—would agree. Her poems revel in linguistic play, where the sound of words generates an associative logic that resists our intelligence, or at least our accustomed ways of making sense. Estes breaks language apart to see how it might be reconfigured. She pursues not sound over sense, but the sense sound itself makes, a tune that we can pick up—or better, that can pick us up and transport us—without our needing to know at all times what the words are saying.

“Nigh Clime” is about that musical transport. “Nigh,” meaning what is near, comes from Old English. It suggests the diction of the King James Bible or Shakespeare and conveys a formal tone that coexists with intimacy. “Clime” is also archaic in feel, meaning a climate or surround, some specific environment. So the title points to a place that is nearby and familiar but also old, lit with “the glim / of ago.” Because we can hear “climb” in “clime,” the place Estes invites us to is high. She calls it “the lingo / hill”: a plane or latitude we climb to when we play with words just as kids do when toying with the building blocks of language, risking nonsense. But listen for the sense Estes is making. “The hem / of home,” for instance, is not just a cleverly alliterative phrase, but also an image for the bedcover we pull up under our chins at night. That “hem” makes the blanket seem like mother’s (our mother tongue’s?) skirt. There on top of the hill, which is also on top of the bed, poet and reader put their heads (“nogs”) together. Now what is “nigh” is the leg of the reader or lover, secure beside the poet in the “niche” (so much softer than the nick) of time. This is a poem about the intimate, consoling, age-old pleasure of words on the tongue.

Not every Estes poem works in this intensely acoustic way. Images are the key in “Afternoon,” which hints at a story: behind this poem’s collage of memory and observation, linking birds’ nests, push-up bras, and Elizabeth Taylor’s sexy slip, is a daughter obliged to take on power of attorney for an aging mother losing her memory. And in “How to Know When the Dead Are Dead,” Estes is a historical anthropologist meditat- ing on the transition between life and death.

But “Recall” is a racing, intelligence-resistant, intelligence-transforming song. The sounds in that word, “recall,” a noun and a verb, take Estes from the black mouth of a trout to shooting stars and the eyes of Sienese madonnas. She ends with a quotation from the phenomenologist Gaston Bachelard about how letters on the page become sounds in our mouths: “we read ah / and the voice is ready to sing.” This experience, commonplace and mysterious, is what Estes’s poems offer us.

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