The idea of the distinctive poetic voice, once central to the very idea of poetry, has fallen into disrepute in recent decades, perhaps because of its association with tendentious notions of authenticity in the confessional poetry of the mid-twentieth century. Yet a certain uniformity in much of the poetry written by younger American poets suggests that individual voice might be due for a revival, but freed from its association with the poet’s actual psychological self. It certainly seems central to Sarah Arvio’s poetry, which sounds like no one else’s. Yet the voice in her poems seems to emanate from a kind of psychic doppelganger, originating from an imagined self somewhere outside her and passing through her on the way to the reader. It writes the self from which it issues, rather than the other way around, and is constructed out of wordplay and verbal associations. Its remoteness from the autobiographical is implicit in this group of poems, which juxtapose the Stevensian smoothness of the tercets with a more ragged and disjunctive syntax. Most poetry involves verbal associations at the level of sound, but seldom in as undisguised a fashion as Arvio’s. The results are poems that possess both an eerie psychological presence and a blunt verbal materiality.

—John Koethe

Small War

I thought I had left behind the darkness
of the heart it was a plan leaving it
behind I planned to enter the trance of

sensual peace and fulfillment that was
my plan But the best-laid plans I say and
pause thinking it better not to mention

mice with their trail of dark images strange
scurry into dark holes the sense of un-
cleanliness the gamey smell a small-game

smell Oh there’s a better word game the game
of the heart small game that’s good too like small
arms and light weapons this is a small war

a small dark and secret war of the heart
The deer running fleet chased by the hounds
No not that game Heart war against all plan

thrusting out of its dark hole and
scurrying through the room of the life
Scurry or gallop the sound of horses’

hooves beating on the distant hill I’ve heard
that and thought they were running through my heart
Great gallop on the hill of a dark heart

Though war is too great a word even
small war when we remember the torture
chambers the real torture on the real flesh

the bullet piercing the flesh-and-blood heart
There are no words great or small to describe
the private torture of the hounded heart


I hate my heart What is this wild and bad
renunciation I hate my heart Why
does it hurt me even now after so

much raking over after so much ruck
It’s hard to call my heart it speaking of
part of me that is almost all of me

because what is there that is not my heart
Tucked between my breathing lungs it beats
it breathes it is my thoughts what thought do I

have that isn’t folded inside my heart
Is there such a thought a heartless thought I
don’t have one When I walk I carry what

My heart on the stick of my body Or
my courage in the sticking place O screw
don’t I have the courage of my good heart

Is this my scarecrow longing for his heart
I’m scared of my heart the old rags and bones
the rage a rage for order pale Ramon

Even though I’ve raked my heart it rages
Beshrew me I know my heart is good Shrew
little sparrow will you come to my hand

O screw I eat crow I crow my heart out
Am I the shrew to it or it to me
To no one but my heart and it to me


I am or I was
a small thing like a sparrow or a toad
or the offspring of something not so small

or the sound of glenn gould humming to himself
these sufferings of a small person wiping her nose
oh soul me I am only my small humble self

oh sorrow me
heaving inward and needing to be nursed
a slip of a thing needing a nurse mother

a gosling needing a mother goose
a ghost mom to come down and be my mom
secretly where no one would gawk with envy

that I was getting more ghost than she was
I was my own goose not good at soothing;
nurses should be soothers I was not that

having had no lessons not even a hand
or a handout no helping hand or heart
in the nursery or the gooserie

for hearts’ sake and souls’ sake stop sniveling
oh soul me I am dying to get up and fly
oh sorrow me in a hurry

out of my skin out of my soul
to the heaven of goslings with their nannies
and sparrow chicks and tadpoles

chicking and poling and sparrowing
a tad too late to play but not too soon

Rat Idyll

You irascible rascal O my rat
O rapscallion of my most raving dreams
I had my sights on you idol of my eye

O rapist of my inner thoughts and hopes
roping me into your kaleidoscope
around and around around and around

enrapturing my every root and tap
O my satrap you said it I am trapped
In my rapt joy I rally on and on

Sit down I say but you won’t sit down
I sat down and said sit down and rap
Let me rave you said let me rave and drink

Let me sleep I said let me go to sleep
O my scamp I’m sated—what a sad rap
Must never let you get my goat ever

Must be cool when you rave never get hot
never let you scapegoat me O satyr
this isn’t satire though it almost is

slapstick yes really a slap and a stick
I know what we need an artful escape
some far-out art and some far landscape

not a nightcap but a cup of icy noon
a slow boat to an island or ice-cap
the inscape of an I-land and you-land


I am very nervous in myself I
was always nervous as an animal
angling for its home and then homing in

toward a home but never finding it I
was that sort of lost animal although
animals are rarely lost we are lost

as they are not we are the burrowers
in our own dark mud when oh the light and
so on not to be dark or obtuse when

the light is wonderful this wonder that
we should be so dark and lost and the world
was designed to be a home for us or

were we merely its bad accident oh
this we came to its great beauty to mar
and obscure or this we came randomly

without meaning or message brought along
by hunger viciousness oh the beauty
that we never saw or that the vicious

never saw but speaking of myself I
tried to live in beauty but found it hard
even harrowing we are made to drive

at joy but not to strike and when we strike
we miss I am nervous as I said I
wanted all I struck at it and didn’t

hit or battered wildly and got a hit
only enough to make me hit again
lost hunter sad animal homing soul