The Only Surviving Recording of Virginia Woolf’s Voice by Alison Townsend


“The Only Surviving Recording of Virginia Woolf’s Voice” by Alison Townsend


I’m not expecting to hear her speak, stopped as I am

at a red light in Stoughton, Wisconsin, on the daily, desperate

dash home from work, my fractured spine throbbing

as if it housed my heart not my nerves, this snippet

on NPR as unexpected as recent November warm weather.

But here she is, sounding husky and a bit tired, her plummy

accent drawn out as she speaks about words, English

words…full of echoes and memories, associations

she does not name. It’s still 1937 in her mouth

and later I’ll learn that she’s not speaking informally at all,

but reading – a talk called “Craftsmanship” on the BBC’s

program Words Fail Me – the script held up before her,

like a tablet of light in her long, white hands. Or a window

the sound of her voice opens in my head, her deliberate

phrasing a kind of eulogy to words and the way

They’ve been out and about on people’s lips, in houses,

on the streets for so many centuries, time passing in the hiss

and skritch of the tape. As I imagine her in the studio,

a bit tense perhaps, her hair in that dark knot, dressed up,

though no one will see her, though years later her nephew

will describe the recording as too fast, too flat, barely

recognizable, her beautiful voice (though not so beautiful

as Vanessa’s, he’ll add) deprived of all resonance and depth.

But I don’t know this as I listen, nothing to compare her to

but the sound her words made in my American head, as I lay

on my narrow dorm bed in my first November in college,

underlining phrase after phrase from To the Lighthouse

in turquoise or fuchsia ink, not because I understood

what they meant but because they sounded beautiful

aloud and my teacher had her photograph up in her office.

After my mother died, the first thing I forgot was the sound

of her voice, nothing to preserve it but a moment or two

on tape where she speaks in the background, saying

“Not now, not now,” as if no time would ever be right, even

that scrap vanished somewhere in the past. Though I recall it

as I listen to Virginia Woolf, her voice—which is nothing

like my mother’s, which my Woolf-scholar friend tells me

she “needs some time to get used to”—drifting on for eight

entire minutes, a kind of dream one could fall into, as words

stored with other meaning, other memories spill like smoke

from her throat and the light changes, and I drive on

through the gathering darkness, thinking about voices

and where they go when we die, how to describe pain

then leave it behind, her lamp in the spine

glowing, briefly lighting my way.




Share your response to this work, in any form, here



Alison Townsend Artist Statement:

Alison Townsend is the author of two poetry collections, Persephone in America and The Blue Dress, and
two chapbooks, And Still the Music, and What the Body Knows. Her poetry and essays appear widely, in
journals such as Bellingham Review, Parabola, and The Southern Review. She has won many awards,
including a Pushcart Prize, a literary fellowship from the Wisconsin Arts Board, and the Crab Orchard
Open Poetry Competition Prize, among others. Emerita Professor of English at the University of
Wisconsin-Whitewater, she lives with her husband in the farm country outside Madison. The Persistence
of Rivers: Essays on Moving Water recently won the Jeanne Leiby Prose Chapbook contest from The
Florida Review, and will be published in early 2017. Her book-length collection, Nature Girl: Essays on
Body, Memory and the Landscapes of Home, was a finalist in six contests this year. She hopes to place it



Author: A Room of Her Own

Share This Post On