Raby, Elizabeth. Ransomed Voices. Red Mountain Press: Santa Fe, New Mexico, 2013. ISBN: 9780985503123. $19.95.
In the introduction of her mixed genre memoir, Elizabeth Raby states that “Ransomed Voices is an exploration of (her) road to poetry” and an attempt to save the voices and stories of her now dead ancestors, to “save their lives—at least their lives as (she) understand(s) them.” In exploring these stories she says she wished to explore how their lives shaped her own life. The result is a thoroughly engaging book that presents an astounding sweep of history.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I am a long time devotee of Raby’s poetry and have the extreme privilege to regard her as a friend, so I knew a little of her story—that she grew up in Burlington, Vermont and that her father was a college professor and that her mother was a somewhat prim and distant woman. Being the grandson of hard scrabbled immigrants, I’ve always been impressed by the fact that Raby was a graduate of Vassar. Putting these fractured bits of information together, I expected her ancestry to be that of a staid New Englander, accented with the occasional quirky relative who had been relegated to a room on the third floor of a gothic mansion. Instead I learned that she is the descendant of Nebraskan homesteaders, Quakers and entrepreneurs, some of whom witnessed the Massacre at Wounded Knee, and although there were no relatives in the non-existent attic of her ancestor’s sod house, a giant bull snake once fell off the ceiling and landed on Raby’s great aunt from Ohio, scaring the woman directly to a train station some forty mile away.
Although the lives of her grandparents are fascinating, so is the coming of age story that Raby weaves throughout the book. This part of the story begins with retelling of a trip from Burlington to Tucson made when the author was a toddler. Her harried and isolated mother and her sickly older brother accompanied her on the trip, a trip that was made in hopes that prolonged exposure to the desert air of Arizona might bolster the fragile health of the young boy. They went by train, and the trip west occurs during wartime. The trio of Nuquist’s (Raby’s maiden name) stop for respites twice on the trek west to visit the author’s grandparents: the Wilsons in Iowa and the Nuquists of Nebraska before pushing on and staying with a distant relatives in Tucson. The train trip is recalled with great detail and dispels the notion that travel of an earlier era was glamorous. The trip was exhausting and stressful as mother and children navigate through stations and trains overcrowded with soldiers going to and coming from World War Two. At one point as the train is going through a desert in Arizona, the passengers are required to pull down their shades so whatever was on the other side might remain a secret. The story is told through memory of Raby and in epistolary fashion through the letters of Raby’s mother writing home to her husband who remained on his job in Vermont.
Once the family returns to Vermont, we get to know Elizabeth well. She is quirky kid who each night sings about the events of her day before going to sleep. Many of those days were filled with interesting capers like the time she and a friend tried to steal a neighbor’s swings set. The days are also filled with interesting adults, a neighbor who reads to her but then slips into a deep depression, and Raby’s maternal grandparents who came to live with her family to name a few. We also watch her become a foreign exchange student in Luxembourg.
In one of the great triumphs of the book, Raby retells her sexual coming of age with great honesty. She recalls her experiences which include a class at Vassar in which she was taught the proper way to sit: knees together, legs crossed at the ankles. She writes of her boyfriends and masterfully retells the sexual tension she experienced while on a ship travelling to Europe. Her sexual coming of age ends in marriage with her first husband Arturo. A marriage of convenience for her older husband, who Raby hints may have married her in an attempt to hide his true sexual orientation.
In Ransomed Voices, Elizabeth Raby includes over thirty poems. Many of these poems are written from the point of view of characters as they appear in certain sections of the book. The poems help flesh out the characters, as they show the characters thinking or speaking in their own voices. These poem are well done, but where Raby’s poetry pops and shows off her prize winning talents is when she uses the poems to illustrate the psychology of a given situation. For example, she uses her poem China, 1929 to illustrate the wonder she held for her father’s Far Eastern adventures, and perhaps also the perspective she has gained now in the retelling the story. The poem recounts how her father climbed a mountain with the aid of an ancient monk whose vocation was to man an old and rickety ladder and aid pilgrims up the mountain. But upon concluding the story the poet adds:
And there is more to the story.
When the priest can no longer
fulfill his duties, his obligation—
to leap off the rock. As a child
that horrified me. Now it seems
eminently reasonable—the decision
left to the priest as duty, not sin,
a final freefall, escape into air.
Another poem which Raby uses to illuminate the psychology of a situation is Carnivorous. Raby uses this poem to show the results of her all but sexless marriage. Her frustrations are palpable in this powerhouse of a poem.
I could sizzle up at the slightest hint
of heat—a brush of shoulder
against shoulder, a glance, a voice,
In Ransomed Voices, Raby recounts her involvement, or lack thereof, in the civil rights movement in High Point, North Carolina, 1963. Raby explores race throughout the book. Her host father in Luxembourg teaches her about the brutality of racial hatred that he witnessed in American GI’s. In her retelling of the High Point movement, Raby tells how she and her husband would go nightly to CORE planning meetings and rallies, but how they could never quite muster the courage to go on the marches with CORE through the city. Again, one cannot help to be impressed by Raby’s honesty.
Ransomed Voices is a must read book. It is an honest and well told family history, and because of it is this particular family, it serves well as retelling of American history. But all reviews must be balanced, so in closing, I’d like to point out its major flaw. The book ends in the early 1970’s, after the death of Raby’s parents, and her divorce from Arturo. She, at the end of the book, is a single mother of two and has of yet has not met Jim Raby, the great love her life. I can only hope there is a volume two in the works. The fans of her poetry and the new fans this book is sure to make will want to know more of this formidable artist’s foundation.
Reviewed by Alan Berecka. Alan earns his keep as a reference librarian at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi. His poetry has found its way into such periodicals as the American Literary Review, The Christian Century, The Texas Review, The Concho River Review, The San Antonio Express, The Blue Rock Review and The Red River Review. His work has appeared in assorted anthologies, most recently in Saint Peter’s B-List (Ave Maria Press, 2014). He has authored three collections of poetry:The Comic Flaw (NeoNuma Arts, 2009) Remembering the Body (Mongrel Empire Press, 2011) and With Our Baggage(Lamar University Press, 2011).
Still Singing: A Review of Elizabeth Raby’s Ransomed Voices
(Santa Fe: Red Mountain Press 2013, 240 pages, paper.)
To begin I acknowledge that during the past four years I have become a friend of Elizabeth Raby. As a friend, I am proud to review her memoir and hope for its success. I also recognize that I am asking readers to trust my assertions about the work under discussion, but my view is that anyone who refuses to read a book because a friend reviews it may be missing a larger point about the value of reading.
I have known Elizabeth Raby as a skilled poet and as a gentle and gracious host. The joy of reading her prose, however, is to discover the story behind the poet’s personae that so many have witnessed. As all good memoir writing accomplishes, Ransomed Voices gets to the sometimes obscured heart of the narrator’s identity. We see something in her reflection over a significant part of her life that would otherwise be unknown, ignored or misunderstood. Her story on display in these two hundred plus pages offers a humble understanding of life, one that any of us would benefit by reading.
I am impressed with the subtle but certain triumph of a common life seeking fulfillment, even joy, of self-expression. In short, Ransomed Voices displays the movement of its narrator from a timid, constrained, sometimes mute person on her journey to finding her own unique voice – and the courage to speak it - the courage to act on her considerable convictions, the result of her astute observations.
Borrowing Emily Dickinson’s phrase for her title, Raby applies it to a carefully researched family history that includes Quaker idealism (and perplexing compromise), populist politics and settlers of the American prairie. Her reflection, often skillfully and credibly imagined in various voices of her ancestors provides remarkable insight into several chapters of American history. Interwoven in all this is Elizabeth’s own personal story. Her frank honesty, her failures, her frustration are all exposed. An alum of Vassar, Lehigh and Temple universities, her degrees in history and creative writing serve her well as she leads us through her personal journey. To the point of the style of her book, she reconstructs the social and political change she has experienced, especially as a coed during the sixties, all the while retaining her own personal awakening. She is well equipped to give readers a thoughtful, if understated, view of a life trying to bloom in the acidic soil of those uncertain days.
Good memoirs offer a balance between concealing and revealing. Raby’s book strikes this balance with unusual clarity. Her poised management of syntax revealing her self-effacing humor, glimpses of false and true guilt due to moments of inaction, her courage to say what she was and what she should have been will endear readers to this text. Ransomed Voices is about the redefinition of what it means to be female and human, to be meaningful despite archaic structures and ghostly voices that protest her flourishing.
I very much appreciate and admire the structure of the book. Seven short sections, the longest consisting of 35 pages, comprise 34 effectively short chapters that weave reflections of personal (entertaining) stories, poetic descriptions of ancestral voices and historical reconstructions (including a helpful index and collection of endnotes). Implicit in all of this are social and political commentary that underscores an individual’s attempt to balance the personal within social, political contexts. The result is a smooth, albeit varied, read that strides assuredly toward its conclusion.
Reviewed by Ken Hada. Ken is a descendant of Hungarian immigrants, Gypsy poets, barn dance aficionados, art lovers, amateur philosophers, wheat farmers, cowboys, preachers, teachers and common sense craftsmen. He has four current collections of poetry in print: The Way of the Wind (Village Books Press, 2008), Spare Parts and The River White: A Confluence of Brush & Quill (Mongrel Empire Press, 2010 and 2011) and Margaritas and Redfish (Lamar UP, 2013). His Spare Parts was awarded the “Wrangler Award” for outstanding poetry from the National Western Heritage Museum and Cowboy Hall of Fame. Poems from this collection were featured four times on Garrison Keillor’s nationally syndicated program, The Writer’s Almanac. His involvement in the poetry scene includes three presentations at the Neustadt Festival sponsored by World Literature Today. Ken is a professor in the Department of English and Languages at East Central University in Ada, Oklahoma where he directs the annual Scissortail Creative Writing Festival. Reviews of his work and other information may be found at www.kenhada.org