Eyes Open, Uncovered To The Bone – Part Two – A Poem by Brigit Pegeen Kelly

What a delight it has been to discover the poet Brigit PegeEyes Wide Openen Kelly, author of three collections of poems and winner of the prestigious Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize in 1987. Her third collection The Orchard was nominated for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Circle Critics Award. Grateful thanks to the Russian/American poet Ilya Kaminsky for suggesting I read her poems.

I want to feature in this post, Kelly’s poem Blessed Is the Field from her 2004 collection The Orchard. Not only is it a wonderful example of a “seeing” uncovered to the bone as Linda Gregg says in her poem Each Thing Measured By the Same Sun but it also connects with a deep and intentional spirituality that comes out of that seeing. In this way it turns into a muscular praise poem very much in the yes/no manner of the poem Try To Praise The Mutilated World by Polish poet Adam Zagajewski. (I have included Zagajewski’s poem at the end of the post.)

Kelly’s poem could be renamed: I Dare You To Bless This Mutilated World! Her poem is longish but worth the read – not just once but numerous times. Here it is:

Blessed Is the Field

In the late heat the snakeroot and goldenrod run high,
White and gold, the streaming flowers green and gold,
The acid bitten leaves….it is good to say first

An invocation. Though the words do not always
Seem to work. Still, one must try. Bow your head.
Cross your arms. Say: Blessed is the day. And the one

Who destroys the day. Blessed is this ring of fire
In which we live….How bitter the burning leaves.
How bitter and sweet. How bitter and sweet the sound

Of the single gold and black insect repeating
Its two lonely notes. The insect’s song both magnifies
The field and casts a shadow over it, the way

A doorbell ringing through an abandoned house
Makes the falling rooms, papered with lilies and roses
And two-headed goats, seem larger and more ghostly.

The high grasses spill their seed. It is hard to know
The right way in or out. But here, you can have
Which flower you like, though there are not many left,

Lady’s thumb in the gravel by the wood’s fringe
And on the shale spit between the black walnut that houses
The crow, the peculiar cat’s paw, sweet everlasting,

Unbearably soft. Do not mind the crow’s bark.
He is fierce and solitary, but he will let us pass,
Patron of the lost and broken-spirited. Behind him

In the quarter ring of sumacs, flagged like circus tents,
The deer I follow, and that even now are watching us,
Sleep at night their restless sleep, I find their droppings

In the morning. And here at my feet is the self-heal,
Humblest of flowers, bloomless but still intact. I ate
Some whole once and did not get well but it may strike

Your fancy. The smell of burning rubber is from
A rabbit carcass the dog dragged into the ravine.
The smell of the lemon is the snakeroot I am crushing

Between my thumb and forefinger….There could be
Beneath this field an underground river full
Of sweet liquid. A dowser might find it with his witching

Wand and prayers. Some prayers can move
Even the stubborn dirt….Do you hear? The bird
I have never seen is back. Each day at this time

He takes up his ominous clucking, fretting like a baby,
Lonely sweetling. It is hard to know the right way
In or out. But look, the goldenrod is the colour

Of beaten skin. Say: Blessed are those who stand still
In their confusion. Blessed is the field as it burns.

Brigit Pegeen Kelly from The Orchard, BOA Editions, Ltd, 2004
I think of Kelly’s poem ( as I do Zagajewski’s) as a devotional meditation that tries to touch the mystery of existence at the place where faith and doubt meet. To praise or in Kelly’s case bless a world that holds such opposites – the bitter and the sweet – is not a given. It means blessing the creator of the day and the one who destroys the day. Ouch.

What I so appreciate about Kelly’s and Zagajewski’s poem is how they will not take the easy way out and just praise or bless the beautiful. It makes me think also of Galway Kinnell’s shockingly brave declaration in his poem Prayer that Whatever what is is is what I want.

I don’t have time or space to note all the intricacies of craft in Kelly’s poem but foremost for me is the assault of images that layer and enrich this poem. The use of colours, smells, sounds and the litany of evocative plant names. But also the way her narrative switches from formal to conversational seamlessly.

Another satisfaction for me in Blessed Is the Field are the echoes of well known words from many sources including the hymn Amazing Grace (how bitter and sweet the sound), the poem Digging by Seamus Heaney (between my thumb and forefinger) and also his poem The Diviner (dowser).

I may not know Kelly’s field but I know the world it belongs in. This lapsarian world after the fall – the biblical banishment form the Garden of Eden. The rich images from summer’s fiery end; acid-bitten leaves; abandoned house; two-headed goats; single black and gold insect; a guardian crow – patron of the lost and broken-spirited – the colour of beaten skin.  Such images of the diminishment of summer but beauty that is not quite yet vanquished.

Through Kelly’s repetition of bitter and sweet I can almost taste the opposites in my mouth. Eternal opposites. She holds them in creative tension just as they hold us here on this earth. She gives us snakeroot – echo of the fall – but balances it with goldenrod. Later she holds the snakeroot in her hand, crushing it – and the lemon scent is pungent and beautiful. Yes and no. And what a lovely enjambment, ending the last line in the stanza with crushing and continuing on to the next stanza with Between my thumb and forefinger with that Heaney echo from his poem Digging!

When I talk about the tension between faith and doubt in this poem I see it so clearly in the stanza that comes after the jarring image of the smell of burning rubber – the death of the rabbit. Her wonderful ambivalence when she says: there could be/ Beneath this field an underground river full/ Of sweet liquid. A dowser might find it with his witching// wand and his prayers. Some prayers can move/ Even the stubborn dirt…..

Even as summer ends she gives us a slight hope that there might be an underground river full/ of sweet liquid and then she adds her more robust assertion that Some prayers can move/Even the stubborn dirt. It is here she does something quite wonderful when she references the dowser – the one who might find the underground river. And with the obvious Heaney references, I think she is saying that a poet is such a dowser or diviner who can locate a life-giving underground stream that represents the spiritual or the divine.

But even with this hopefulness Kelly does not let us off the hook with a false certainty. She comes back with an ominous image – goldenrod the colour of beaten skin and then demands that she and/or we say: Blessed are those who stand still/ In their confusion. Blessed is the field as it burns.

 As someone who wavers often in that place between faith and doubt I say a heartfelt yes to: Blessed are those who stand still/ In their confusion. Blessed is the field as it burns. How can I not say this as my own life burns in what I hope is still the late summer , not late Fall – of my life!

(Here, below is Adam Zagajewski’s poem Try To Praise the Mutilated World).

Try to Praise the Mutilated World

Try to praise the mutilated world
Remember June’s long days
And wild strawberries, drops of wine, the dew.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
The abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world –
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
One of them had a long trip ahead of it,
While salty oblivion awaited others.
You’ve seen the refugees heading nowhere,
You’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
In a white room – the curtain fluttered
Return in thought to the concert where music flared
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
And leaves eddied over the earth’s scars.
Praise the mutilated world
And the gray feather a thrush lost
And the gentle light that strays and vanishes
And returns

Adam Zagajewski (1945 – ) translated by Clare Cavanaugh, C.K. Williams and Renata Gorczynski  from Without End – New and Selected Poems, 2002 ( Please note that in Without End the third line is translated as And wild strawberries, drops of Rose wine. However, in an on-line translation credited solely to Gorcznski the third line is as translated above. I prefer it).




Eyes Wide Open


  1. Heidi Garnett
    Posted April 18, 2014 at 11:03 pm | Permalink

    How lovely! These poems are such a testament to lyrical poetry, the language simple and beautifully evocative.

  2. Richard
    Posted April 21, 2014 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Heidi!

  3. Posted October 24, 2016 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

    This wrecks me…the first poem of which I am just now aware, and second which haunts with it’s invocation to try…just try. Thank you, Richard. I am newly saddened by this passing.

  4. Richard Osler
    Posted October 24, 2016 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    So glad L-A! Not that you are wrecked but that her poetry grabs you. The density of her writing, quite unlike most poets anywhere! Hope you are well! All best, richard

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