Gone So Quietly, Unexpectedly – But Listen! Her Poems Still Sing! Brigit Pegeen Kelly (1951-2016)

American Poet Brigit Pegeen Kelly (1951-2016) Photo credit: Brian Palmer

American Poet Brigit Pegeen Kelly (1951-2016) Photo credit: Brian Palmer

The Leaving

My father said I could not do it,
but all night I picked the peaches.
The orchard was still, the canals ran steadily.
I was a girl then, my chest its own walled garden.
How many ladders to gather an orchard?
I had only one and a long patience with lit hands
and the looking of the stars which moved right through me
the way the water moved through the canals with a voice
that seemed to speak of this moonless gathering
and those who had gathered before me.
I put the peaches in the pond’s cold water,
all night up the ladder and down, all night my hands
twisting fruit as if I were entering a thousand doors,
all night my back a straight road to the sky.
And then out of its own goodness, out
of the far fields of the stars, the morning came,
and inside me was the stillness a bell possesses
just after it has been rung, before the metal
begins to long again for the clapper’s stroke.
The light came over the orchard.
The canals were silver and then were not.
and the pond was--I could see as I laid
the last peach in the water--full of fish and eyes.

Brigit Pegeen Kelly from To the Place of Trumpets,Yale University Press, 1988

Easily, I could have missed the notice of the death of American poet Brigit Pegeen Kelly, except for a Facebook post by American poet Scott Cairns.  I have not been able to find any official notice of her passing. Or obituaries! A sad omission for an important poet. The only acknowledgement of her death on the Poetry Foundation website was the chilling change of Brigit Kelly is an American poet, to Brigit Pegeen Kelly was….. and a brief mention that she died in October 2016.

But I want to cry: Brigit Pegeen Kelly has died! No more new poems, new metaphors as fresh and striking as these from her poem above: I was a girl then, my chest its own high walled garden; and inside me was the stillness a bell possesses/ just after it has been rung, before the metal/ begins to long again for the clapper’s stroke.

So I am grateful to Scott for his post. Thank you. Scott included, in his post, her poem Blessed is the Field which for me is an exquisite prayer/poem! which I profiled in my blog in April 2014. To read that post please Click here.

Here are a few tercets from the end of that poem. How she touches here, as she does in so many of her poems, an underground river of spirit and mystery:

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, 2004

Kelly may not be a household name, especially to Canadian readers, but the American poet Steven Dobyns in 2004 called her one of the very best poets now writing in the United States. In fact there is no one who is any better. Kelly not only won the prestigious Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize in 1987 but was shorted listed for both the Pulitzer Prize and National critics Book Circle Award for her book The Orchard.

Kelly was acknowledged by the University of Illinois with a distinguished teaching award in 2009. And I was not surprised when I read an acknowledgement of her by a former student, Sara Eliza Johnson, who I have featured in my Blog. It made a lot of sense to me that Kelly had been a support to Johnson during the writing of her award winning book Bone Map. Their poems belong to the same family tree! Packed with mystery and rich metaphor. And as I say in a poem of mine referring to poets: How they disturb the ordinary, upset the everyday bromides, describe a world further away and nearer than the one we thought we knew!

Here is what I said about Kelly in a post in 2014:

I was unfamiliar with Kelly’s poetry when the Russian American poet, and inspiring poetry workshop leader, Ilya Kaminsky, recommended her book Song at a workshop a few years ago and in particular its title poem. Kaminsky considers her a “Southern” poet and in that context says: There is not a single living or dead “Southern” poet in the US who can live up to great “Southern” fiction writers – Faulkner, O’Conner etc. And yet, there is something in Kelly’s narrative and syntax that makes me think that she is trying to do just that, which is a huge ambition, and to my mind just aiming there is already an achievement.

I am grateful to Kaminsky for the Kelly referral. There is a dark foreboding to many of her poems but her cadence, syntax and use of repetition has a hypnotic quality about it which make the poems irresistible. She describes a known world but somehow manages to give it an otherworldly atmosphere that makes me think I am in a ghost story. Some old power, something numinous and mysterious is afoot in her poems and she sees it. It gives them a spiritual and mystical quality which is accentuated when she adds language with biblical echoes and over tones! I give her this – she sure knows how to make the hair rise on the back of my neck!

This is what Carl Phillips, the American poet said about her in an article in 2008 to recognize the honour of a fellowship given to her by the American Academy of Poets in 2008.

To persuade the reader, poem after poem, that the surreal is no less real than what we call the real, to argue for—successfully—something akin to spiritual vision side by side with the more common suspicion of anything but the cold hard facts—this requires a rare authority, at the level of intellect, to be sure, but also in terms of language and, especially evident in Kelly’s work, sheer beauty.


It seems right to close this tribute by quoting the last lines from one of her best known poems Song. A chilling, haunting poem of boys cutting off the head of a girl’s favorite goat. Referring to those boys Song ends with these lines:

……………………………………………………………They would
Wake in the night thinking they heard the wind in the trees
Or a night bird, but their hearts beating harder. There
Would be a whistle, a hum, a high murmur, and, at last, a song,
The low song a lost boy sings remembering his mother’s call.
Not a cruel song, no, no, not cruel at all. This song
Is sweet. It is sweet. The heart dies of this sweetness.

Brigit Pegeen Kelly from Song, (the 1994 Lamont Poetry Selection of the Academy of American Poets), BOA Editions, 1995




  1. Rosemary Griebel
    Posted October 24, 2016 at 7:52 pm | Permalink

    Absolutely beautiful. I too was saddened to read of her death, but she has left us many stunning poems. Thank you for this tribute.

  2. Richard Osler
    Posted November 26, 2016 at 6:48 pm | Permalink

    Thank you Rosemary. I understand that she was so private she wanted to leave this world without notice. I hope she would be ok with this notice, this tribute.

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