“The Only Surviving Recording of Virginia Woolf’s Voice” by Alison Townsend

Alison Townsend


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


Alison Townsend: “This poem arrived for me in almost exactly the way it is described in the piece. I was on my way home from work, in pain from the effects of a long commute on a healing broken back. I was stopped at a light in my small, Midwest town, when I happened to hear a clip on NPR about the only recording of Virginia Woolf’s voice that has survived. Woolf’s writing has always been important to me, and I was stunned by the sound of her living voice. That set off a stream of associations and I made the leap from Woolf ’s voice to that of my own mother, who died when I was a young girl and whose voice I have forgotten. When I got home, I listened to the clip again, sat down, and wrote the poem. Knowing more than I did (as our poems always do), the poem made the connections and circled back to Woolf ’s concept of the ‘lamp in the spine’ of female intelligence. I felt lucky to have had that moment, where something that felt so difficult in the moment was transformed. All the italicized words are from the recording, except for the phrase, ‘the lamp in the spine,’ which appears, famously, in her writing.”


2020 Rattle Poetry Prize winner Alison Townsend is the guest on tonight’s Rattlecast! Click here to watch live …

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