January 5, 2010

Alison Townsend

THE ONLY SURVIVING RECORDING
OF VIRGINIA WOOLF’S VOICE

I’m not expecting to hear her speak, stopped as I am
at a red light in Stoughton, Wisconsin, on the daily, desperate
dash home from work, my fractured spine throbbing
as if it housed my heart not my nerves, this snippet
on NPR as unexpected as recent November warm weather.
But here she is, sounding husky and a bit tired, her plummy
accent drawn out as she speaks about words, English
words…full of echoes and memories, associations
she does not name. It’s still 1937 in her mouth
and later I’ll learn that she’s not really talking at all,
but reading a talk called “Craftsmanship” on the BBC’s
program Words Fail Me, the script held up before her,
like a tablet of light in her long, white hands. Or a window
the sound of her voice opens in my head, her deliberate
phrasing a kind of eulogy to words and the way
They’ve been out and about on people’s lips, in houses,
on the streets for so many centuries, time passing in the hiss
and skritch of the tape. As I imagine her in the studio,
a bit tense perhaps, her hair in that dark knot, dressed up,
though no one will see her, though years later her nephew
will describe the recording as too fast, too flat, barely
recognizable, her beautiful voice (though not so beautiful
as Vanessa’s, he’ll add) deprived of all resonance and depth.
But I don’t know this as I listen, nothing to compare her to
but the sound her words made in my American head, as I lay
on my narrow dorm bed in my first November in college,
underlining phrase after phrase from To the Lighthouse
in turquoise or fuchsia ink, not because I understood
what they meant but because they sounded beautiful
aloud and my teacher had her photograph up in her office.
After my mother died, the first thing I forgot was the sound
of her voice, nothing to preserve it but a moment or two
on tape where she speaks in the background, saying
“Not now, not now,” as if no time would ever be right, even
that scrap vanished somewhere in the past. Though I recall it
as I listen to Virginia Woolf, her voice—which is nothing
like my mother’s, which my Woolf-scholar friend tells me
she “needs some time to get used to”—drifting on for eight
entire minutes, a kind of dream one could fall into, as words
stored with other meaning, other memories spill like smoke
from her throat and the light changes, and I drive on
through the gathering darkness, thinking about voices
and where they go when we die, how to describe pain
then leave it behind, her lamp in the spine
glowing, briefly lighting my way.

from Rattle #32, Winter 2009
Rattle Poetry Prize Honorable Mention
Pushcart Prize Nominee

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