The Last Class

by Ellen Bryant Voigt

Ellen Bryant Voigt

Put this in your notebooks:
All verse is occasional verse.
In March, trying to get home, distracted
and impatient at Gate 5 in the Greyhound station,
I saw a drunk man bothering a woman.
A poem depends on its detail
but the woman had her back to me,
and the man was just another drunk,
black in this case, familiar, dirty.
I moved past them both, got on the bus.

There is no further action to report.
The man is not a symbol. If what he said to her
touches us, we are touched by a narrative
we supply. What he said was, “I’m sorry,
I’m sorry,” over and over, “I’m sorry,”
but you must understand he frightened the woman,
he meant to rob her of those few quiet
solidary moments sitting down,
waiting for the bus, before she headed home
and probably got supper for her family,
perhaps in a room in Framingham,
perhaps her child was sick.

My bus pulled out, made its usual turns
And parted the formal gardens from the Common,
both of them camouflaged by snow.
And as it threaded its way to open road,
leaving the city, leaving our sullen classroom,
I postponed my satchel of your poems
and wondered who I am to teach the young,
having come so far from honest love of the world;
I tried to recall how it felt
to live without grief; and then I wrote down
a few tentative lines about the drunk,
because of an old compulsion to record,
or sudden resolve not to be self-absorbed
and full of dread-

I wanted to salvage
something from my life, to fix
some truth beyond all change, the way
photographers of war, miles from the front,
lift print after print into the light,
each one further cropped and amplified,
pruning whatever baffles or obscures,
until the small figures are restored
as young men sleeping.

THE LOTUS FLOWERS (W.W. Norton, 1987)

Ellen Bryant Voigt's picture

Ellen Bryant Voigt is the author of several collections of poetry, most recently Headwaters: Poems (W. W. Norton, 2013); Messenger: New and Selected Poems 1976-2006 (W. W. Norton, 2007); Shadow of Heaven (W. W. Norton, 2002), which was a finalist for the National Book Award; Kyrie (W. W. Norton, 1995), a finalist for the National Book Critic’s Circle Award; Two Trees (W. W. Norton, 1992); The Lotus Flowers (W. W. Norton, 1987); The Forces of Plenty (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 1983); and Claiming Kin (Wesleyan University Press, 1976).

Last updated December 24, 2014