Simone Weil, in The Iliad, or The Poem of Force, writes ‘And as for the soul, what an extraordinary house it finds itself in! Who can say what it costs it, moment by moment, to accommodate itself to this resistance, how much writhing and bending, folding and pleating are required of it? It was not made to live inside a thing; if it does so, under pressure of necessity, there is not a single element of its nature to which violence is not done.’ Much like the soul, the human voice is subject to similar violences—of bodily containment and of social judgment—and the agonies of the soul that Weil speaks of have but one recourse: to break from such violences toward both expression and presence.
In “Leopold Stokowski tells Marian Anderson, ‘My roof is too low for you’,” Elizabeth Robinson masterfully responds to these violences leveled at soul and voice by utilizing poetic breakages that showcase the potentialities of language. The poem—should we consider it a manifestation of the soul in agony—ruptures containment by opening the voice to the multiplicities inherent in language: ‘The voice has a single eye whose vision is/nonetheless binocular.’ We are immediately struck by the eye/I of the voice and its dual source—the soul and the body—much like two eyes fuse to create our singular vision. Even vision here seems to open towards its expression as visionary in a nod to the poem’s heroine, the contralto Marian Anderson, whose uncanny, beautiful voice was at the forefront of the struggle for civil rights. Indeed, this is another layer to consider: voice not only as of the poetic vocation, but the ‘coming to voice’ experienced by the silenced and marginalized. The stanza continues:
The eye of the voice
is like the eye of the needle.
In which the eye has two sides, can be seen
from both sides,
and is a medium through
which its own measure can be passed.
While these lines gesture towards presence, towards the eidetic power of language and its slippages (concerns that Robinson has been exploring for years), I can’t help but think of the agony of containment once again. The longing for transcendence, for passage, is strong in these lines; its play with the eye of a needle vs. the eyes of the body vs. the ‘I’ of the voice is indicative not only of the ‘writhing and bending, folding and pleating’ that Weil speaks of, but also of language’s constant striving and unique ability to break into multiplicity. For in multiplicity, language connects and shares, links the disparate and locates the commonalities among us. Stemming from Robinson’s image in this stanza of a needle with two sides, the voice becomes a thread that makes the needle useful—powerful—not only in stitching subject and object into experience, but also in commanding a presence—to be known, here and now, as Anderson wanted to be known and heard as equal.
The second and final stanza stems from the low roof of singularity, of confinement. It is too low for the sublimity of a beautiful voice or an anguished soul, and to capture this looming limitation, Robinson has cleverly saved the lone appearance of the ‘I.’ No longer a phantom twin of ‘eye,’ Robinson’s ‘I’ appears as if to capture what refuses to break down its own confinement:
I have quietly closed, cut off as they are,
from the hospitality
the voice gives
The ‘I’ that the speaker releases here from the shadows of the poem is a rope to hang ‘those who do not let the eye/go through the eye.’ Robinson’s speaker hands the ‘I’ over; it’s no longer needed. There is better breakage for language to perform. In the penultimate line we encounter the word fail, failing to fill the space of the expected word fill:
This moment, burning with aesthetic defiance, is indicative of Robinson’s transcendent achievement. It is an extraordinary moment in an extraordinary poem, the moment when language breaks the confinement of context, the pressure exerted by a violent limit. It’s a small moment insofar as it’s one word loosed from its moorings, but to me it signals a power held by small things, a power that the poem can explode past ceilings, literal and metaphoric. It’s the moment when the voice of presence, of soul, of an aria or of a people defies confinement, and, unflinchingly, opens its eyes.