The mesmerizing cover of Jessica Jopp’s debut poetry collection, “The History of a Voice,” offers shadows of trees as they fall over a stone wall and across a winding road. A lone figure walks. Soothing colors invite the reader into lyrical poetics that weave images and relationships of family and friendship.
Jopp divides the book into ten titled longer poems with parts that also work as separate poems. Form and style unify the collection in that most poems are set in free verse tercets. Several poems harken to informal sonnets, usually with rhymed variations. Jopp deftly inserts rhyme, rhythm, alliteration, assonance, and repetition throughout.
Time and a narrative thread run through this collection of gently woven poems about family members and a female friend. The speaker of the poems is one of the sisters, with all characters introduced in the first long poem, “My Mother and I in a Field.” Throughout the collection, Jopp weaves poems about relationships highlighted with lovely descriptions of nature. We begin in a field, one of several recurring images to which the speaker returns later. Jopp describes the setting in which the mother answers questions from her young daughter, the speaker, about death:
We lie down
in the dry weeds and the heat
drowses my mother into sleep.
The birds, filled with seeds and flying,
resume their murmur in the air.
Throughout the poem, we read of light, how it “sifts dust,” offers “brightness beyond uncertainties” and especially how it contrasts with real and metaphorical darkness. Jopp offers a sense of place as “I’ll tell you what my father told me / when we sat on the front porch in the summer dark: / ‘Light is everything.’” Words spoken as the painter the father was.
Many more images elucidate Jopp’s poems: moon, stone, shadows, bones, water, boats, flowers, colors, center, weight, time, windows, and doors. The reader catches glimpses of nostalgic detail. Metaphors, dreams, and apparitions deepen the collection as sadness weaves in and out.
The collection arcs into grief regarding the speaker’s parents and the friend of her youth. Several poems make mythological references aligned with death and/or art: Oedipus, Charon, Lethe, and Philomela. Poems of nature flow throughout the book and Jopp pays homage to the lyrical cadence of Theodore Roethke’s “The Waking.” Speaking of the father in “Turpentine,” Jopp writes, “My father painted many years ago / when tones and shades of moonlight stroked his eyes, / and painting told him all he had to know.”
Jopp refers to memories as nurseries of all that is past. We encounter remembrance in interactions that establish relationships: a father putting a cricket in the sisters’ bedroom for the girls to hear when they awake at night, the sensual camaraderie of female friendship, sisters running down a hill, sisters who speak in “every language” playing in a basement, and sisters soothing their mother’s nightmare.
Our ultimate relationships are those of love. In “From the Doorway,” the speaker says of her mother:
I knew nothing then of the silent
ways we love, nothing of her musk-scented clothes.
I keep learning it again. It’s not the drainage sack
taped to my mother’s wound, and not her loss
of weight, and not the ridge of bones
down her back, that speak for what
I can’t assimilate. It’s the way
she smells a peach, or holds a book,
or hear a bird, turns her head with a startled look.
Siblings share a narrative bond within families because of shared experience. For example, in “A New-World Sail,” the mother drives the car with the sisters and the inebriated father. First the narrative of the drive, then we read of “willows swooping slender arms // down in rescue.” The mother seems the rescuer. Jopp uses metaphor to assist narrative, as in “my sister and I learned // we could see a star more clearly / by looking at points around it.” Soon the speaker describes the father’s wistful hopes and inspects flecks of paint on a boat “as if I could uncover the exact / place where something in him died.”
Resilient and compassionate sisters care for the ailing mother in “A Line of Poplars,” where daughters respond to help quell their mother’s screams and nightmare. We hear of a heartbreaking success:
Our voices reached across a river,
each of us a dripping diver
carried her up into lamplight.
She talked her way back through
the dark figure pursuing her, back through
his hand on her mouth
We were like guardians of Philomela,
astonished to see her tongue
quivering on the ground.
Then we talked of recipes and clothes,
our own unstartling dreams.
We laughed and joked, squealed
and hummed. We put her to bed
with loud, smacking kisses, having brought her
back to her own tongue, back to us.
Young sisters experience their parents’ divorce and their mother’s illness with love and without accusation. Both voice and silence resonate in “What the Moon Is,” where we read of the mother’s decline as “in the silence with which I love, I will grieve. / The moon is a chip of Roman marble flung // up in the air by a stonecutter to dry.” Later, Orpheus tries to assuage his grief, plucks the moon “out of the air and rolled // it in his fingers.’’ The speaker wakes to see the moon “sailing past, / and I turn back into sleep as if I know / my hold is packed with time.”
In “A Line of Poplars,” the poet refers to the matrix of stars and then tells of when the young woman heard that the friend had died, “I believed in the hollow inside me, / but not in what it meant.” We read of dreams and stone towers:
No voice except mine saying
“the living,” and “the dead,”
gesturing to myself, then to the bodies.
I had to keep saying the words,
like learning the alphabet by singing it,
because things change,
and I had to keep track.
I had to be certain I knew
which was which, and the difference between the two.
Grief and nostalgic memories move through the poems like a river. The speaker grieves and comes to terms with the suicide of her longtime friend in “A Small Chipped Ring.” It is reassuring to read, “Since my friend’s become all spirit, I’ll be more / sunlight moving through thick watered vines / whose shadows lace the white walls of my room.”
The same poem refers to emotional peace: “we carry our demise in us, / star particles waiting to return, she is / the part of every cell that will be ash.” In reflective memory, the speaker writes of meeting her childhood friend’s two-day old baby, “I held her and looked out the hospital window.” Unequivocally beautiful phrasing as we read of “the grieving done, then never never done.”
The book closes with “I Hear an Aria.” Healing allows voices to return in song. The young woman refers to the loss of her friend, “I think of her in an unmoving center // my life shuffles toward.” This continual presence, “her island is my center.”
The last poems focus on the suicide of the speaker’s friend and of the child her friend left behind. Gradually, the poems move toward peace. An apparition appears in the field, “softly alive” and “When full, content, / each deer slowly raises its head, / dissolves among the branches.” This circles back to the first poem in the book where the speaker in her childhood lies in a field asking her mother about death.
How encouraging to end this book about loss with a revocation of gloom, that “the voice / I hear inside me humming back, the shimmering / membrane where our two worlds overlap.”
The poems resonate with resiliency, evoking boat imagery again, as it seems the speaker is moored on an even keel:
down the long road like lighted buoys
across a darkening harbor.
Whatever I said to damn this world
those times doubled down
from weight of love or from some lack,
whatever it was I said,
I take it back,
I take it back.
The poems in Jessica Jopp’s debut collection, “The History of a Voice,” reverberate with youth, nostalgia, love, and grief. Golden fields appear and reappear like a calm through-line. Although we endure loss and change, the poet suggests that relationships do not actually die with death. If only all grief narratives could be so beautifully written. These poems ask to be read and reread as they celebrate the natural world and share poetic lessons in living and grieving.
Mary Ellen Talley’s poetry book reviews appear online and in print journals such as Compulsive Reader, Asheville Poetry Review, Crab Creek Review, Entropy, and Empty Mirror. Her poems have appeared in many publications including Raven Chronicles, Gyroscope, and Banshee, as well as in multiple anthologies. Her chapbook, “Postcards from the Lilac City,” was recently published by Finishing Line Press.