I’ve been thinking a lot about authors’ voices. How T.S. Eliot’s voice is vastly different from that of W. B. Yeats. How Faulkner’s voice would never be mistaken for Virginia Woolf’s. Yet each voice stakes its own distinct claim on the reader’s attention. Is it just because these writers are famous and their names show up regularly in college courses and at cocktail parties?
No less an authority than T.S. Eliot takes up the subject of “The Three Voices of Poetry” in one of his essays and talks about the first voice, as the poet speaking to himself (or nobody); the second voice, as the poet addressing an audience; and the third voice, as the poet making use of the voice of a dramatic character speaking in verse (Hamlet, Macbeth, etc.).
But what I’m talking about seems to me to go deeper. Talented writers readily slip into a voice both self-confident and even conspiratorial. They whisper in the reader’s ear: “Look, what I’m about to tell you is damned important, maybe even memorable. Give me the benefit of the doubt for the next few minutes. I guarantee I’ll make it worth your while.”
All of the writers represented in this issue of The Great Smokies Review understand how voice works and use voice to their advantage. But I’m going to zero in on two very different narratives–one a poem, Jeanette Reid’s “Baby Margaret”; the other a story, April Nance’s “Carnation,” to illustrate some of the points I am trying to make.
Reid deftly and quickly takes us into the circumscribed and frustrating world of a curious, pre-pubescent girl. Like many children, she feels cut off from vital (and disquieting) information that adults take for granted. It is Christmas—a season of maximum expectation and pleasure—but in this household, Christmas includes a drive to the cemetery, where the mother pays her respects to a departed loved one. “Be quiet,” the mother instructs her daughter and younger siblings, “do not open the door.” She’s referring to the car door, of course, but the grave just outside the car windows might be seen as a door that opens and shuts once.
In the second section, Reid learns from a snarky neighbor girl that her mother is pregnant. But, as usual, no information, helpful or otherwise, is forthcoming from her mother. Urgent voices from behind the door to her mother’s room suggest a disastrous outcome. Once again, the only source of accurate information is the snickering Lorene.
In the third section, the speaker tries to break down the barrier between herself and her mother by indirection. She glancingly refers to the fact that some of her friends have begun to have periods. But this mother could give her daughter lessons in the art of deflection. She says, in effect: The stuff you need to cope with this unwelcome development is in the bathroom closet when you need it. Help yourself. And then goes back to her book.
By the end of the poem, Reid is in ninth grade, and she and her recalcitrant mother have come full circle. The speaker is shaving her legs and informs her mother, and the mother is prepared to render an ultimate verdict that is implicit throughout the poem: “It’s your funeral.” Skilled poems like this one favor inference, and prefer to circumnavigate their messages. Reid is a very talented sailor.
April Nance’s story, “Carnation,” is a very different narrative with an equally sobering outcome. The voice we are listening to is every bit as deft and self assured as Reid’s. Nance starts with a description of her narrator’s modern household, with its dining room converted to an office. She singles out a homely metaphor, a taco sauce bottle transformed into a vase to hold a carnation. The carnation is a Valentine gift—a love token to the narrator’s son, from another boy. The tender way Nance describes the evolution of the son’s sexual identity—his new attention to clothes and grooming—reassures us that he has an ally in this mother. She helps him find the vase for his present, simple and utilitarian, but with the requisite slim neck to support a single flower. A tomato and a green plant are represented on it. It even has the appropriate sentiment in gold letters: La Victoria.
The mother in Reid’s poem was indifferent to the signals her daughter was giving off. The mother in Nance’s piece misses little, and resists any desire to pat herself on the back.
While dusting, the narrator conjures up the previous owners of the house. Gloria and Ron Carpenter had all the trappings of a traditional nuclear family, floral wallpaper, white carpeting, heavy drapes, a piano in the parlor, a spacious dining room for family meals. With new owners, the wallpaper will come down, the white carpet will be replaced, the drapes abandoned in favor of wood blinds. Guitars and drums will make no one miss the piano. Nance’s narrator wonders what obstacles her son would certainly have faced had he grown up in this house thirty years earlier. She wonders, quite reasonably, if she would have been able to supply the same level of support, or been overwhelmed by the prospect of the insurmountable difficulties her son would have faced. Fair questions all. And articulated in a way that stays with us.