"Practice" appears in Ellen Bryant Voigt's 2002 poetry collection Shadow of Heaven. The title Shadow of Heaven is derived from these lines of John Milton's Paradise Lost, quoted by David Baker in his review of Voigt's book: "What if Earth / Be but the shadow of Heaven, and things therein / Each to other like, more than on Earth is thought?" Critics have noted that, as Voigt's sixth volume of published poetry, this book reflects her maturation as a woman and as a poet while preserving the themes and stylistic tendencies that have marked her past work. The accomplishment of this collection was recognized in its designation as a National Book Award finalist.
"Practice" slowly unfolds an expression of deep emotional pain that ultimately reveals itself as grief. As the speaker considers the passage of time and its effect—or lack thereof—on heartache, she interjects a telling natural image. "Practice" is not a lengthy poem, but it is dense and challenging, inviting the reader to uncover its layers of meaning. This poem is a fitting example of Voigt's work, especially her mature work, because it offers her characteristic clear voice; use of themes and images from nature; emotional subject matter; and sensitive, honest expression. Because it introduces the idea of an afterlife, it relates to the title of the book, making it a suitable representative of the volume as a whole.
The speaker in "Practice" opens by describing seemingly unprovoked weeping. She mentions watching a clock, waiting to see it move as evidence that time is passing. Her attitude toward time, toward the thought of having to get through another day, is revealed in the phrase "dumb day," which seems to mean that the day is both ignorant and unknowing and also mute. The day, in other words, offers her no emotional support or comfort. She then asks if this experience of weeping and waiting for time to pass is "merely practice."
Voigt sets up this first section as a single thought by waiting until the end of the sixth line to provide ending punctuation, in this case an inconclusive question mark. This choice expresses the speaker's uncertainty and vulnerability. Voigt also unifies the first six lines by structuring them with several infinitives ("to weep," "to wake," and "to wait"). This approach reflects the speaker's uncertainty, because the infinitives seem to lack an anchor. For example, the statement "I need to weep" is more defined than the phrase "to weep." By using a series of infinitives, Voigt subtly illustrates the speaker's lack of direction in the midst of her emotional turmoil.
The next statement the speaker makes is very short: "Some believe in heaven, / some in rest." The speaker is pondering what happens after death, but she does not seem to have a strong belief of her own. She makes this statement casually and then turns her attention to someone to whom she is now speaking. At this point, she repeats what this other person has told her: "We'll float, / you said. Afterward / we'll float between two worlds—." She is somehow taken with the idea that after death, people retain a connection to this world.
The speaker is then distracted by her own thoughts. Voigt introduces an image—it is unclear whether the image is...
(The entire section is 844 words.)