Paddling ladders (PoemTalk #11)

Erica Hunt, 'voice of no'

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When a poet asserts she has the voice of no, does that mean she has it — has got that voice down, can do that voice — and wants to know it from the inside in order to get past it, or wants to doubt it, so that she and we can get on to the positive change we seek? Or is, finally, that voice her voice? A withering critique of present conditions (21st-century-style hyper-mediation; disorientation and alienation; natural disasters in response to which there are human-made failures): is that what this voice of no voices?

Well, you can imagine that our PoemTalkers, talking Erica Hunt’s poem “the voice of no” from her magnificent illustrated book of poems Arcade, came to no simple conclusion to the above-posed questions. One reason is that the poem starts in a comically self-aware yet censorious maternal voice and then gives way, from a longer view and somewhat more omniscient p.o.v., to geopolitical social ills that indirectly but devastatingly follow (the personal is political for Hunt, for damned sure).

Elizabeth Willis joined us this time, as did Julia Bloch — for both, first appearances on PoemTalk. And an insightful regular, Jessica Lowenthal, formed up our foursome.


the voice of no

No need to be contrary, I put on a face.
No use for muscle, the workers tand on line for hours.
No need to read, 24 hours of the shopping channel.
No fine, we have the illusion of doing what we want.

Is that any way to talk with your tongue pressed against glass?
The tv set is barking this Sunday morning off
when we acquire an instant memory,
and round language, where the ends justify the ends.
We rummage among the many
unplugged connections

looking for that darn
fraction of a percent of the landscape
you say it is possible to live in,
who will miss
it when we divide up
the sun, devour the
young rather than
give up our good seats.
The postcards
are bought out,
the lp is skipping
and anyway
rescue is sure to be slow.
In place of a raft
we paddle
ladders past the
litter of drifiting bodies.

Here is a link to Arcade, with illustrations by Alison Saar. Here is Erica Hunt’s PennSound page and here is a link to the recording of our poem, “The Voice of No” (1:01).

Our engineers for this episode were Steve McLaughlin and James LaMarre, and our editor was Steve McLaughlin, now productively HQ’d in Rotterdam. The recording of Hunt’s poem was made during a conversation with Charles Bernstein as part of his “Close Listening” series, June 20, 2005. Photo by Bernstein.