Guest Poetry Blog Series #25, Part Two — American Poet Amie Wittemore Features American Poet Brigit Pegeen Kelly (1951-2016) and Irish Poet Medbh McGuckian (1950 -)

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



Listen: there was a goat’s head hanging by ropes in a tree.
All night it hung there and sang. And those who heard it
Felt a hurt in their hearts and thought they were hearing
The song of a night bird. They sat up in their beds, and then
They lay back down again. In the night wind, the goat’s head
Swayed back and forth, and from far off it shone faintly
The way the moonlight shone on the train track miles away
Beside which the goat’s headless body lay. Some boys
Had hacked its head off. It was harder work than they had imagined.
The goat cried like a man and struggled hard. But they
Finished the job. They hung the bleeding head by the school
And then ran off into the darkness that seems to hide everything.
The head hung in the tree. The body lay by the tracks.
The head called to the body. The body to the head.
They missed each other. The missing grew large between them,
Until it pulled the heart right out of the body, until
The drawn heart flew toward the head, flew as a bird flies
Back to its cage and the familiar perch from which it trills.
Then the heart sang in the head, softly at first and then louder,
Sang long and low until the morning light came up over
The school and over the tree, and then the singing stopped….
The goat had belonged to a small girl. She named
The goat Broken Thorn Sweet Blackberry, named it after
The night’s bush of stars, because the goat’s silky hair
Was dark as well water, because it had eyes like wild fruit.
The girl lived near a high railroad track. At night
She heard the trains passing, the sweet sound of the train’s horn
Pouring softly over her bed, and each morning she woke
To give the bleating goat his pail of warm milk. She sang
Him songs about girls with ropes and cooks in boats.
She brushed him with a stiff brush. She dreamed daily
That he grew bigger, and he did. She thought her dreaming
Made it so. But one night the girl didn’t hear the train’s horn,
And the next morning she woke to an empty yard. The goat
Was gone. Everything looked strange. It was as if a storm
Had passed through while she slept, wind and stones, rain
Stripping the branches of fruit. She knew that someone
Had stolen the goat and that he had come to harm. She called
To him. All morning and into the afternoon, she called
And called. She walked and walked. In her chest a bad feeling
Like the feeling of the stones gouging the soft undersides
Of her bare feet. Then somebody found the goat’s body
By the high tracks, the flies already filling their soft bottles
At the goat’s torn neck. Then somebody found the head
Hanging in a tree by the school. They hurried to take
These things away so that the girl would not see them.
They hurried to raise money to buy the girl another goat.
They hurried to find the boys who had done this, to hear
Them say it was a joke, a joke, it was nothing but a joke….
But listen: here is the point. The boys thought to have
Their fun and be done with it. It was harder work than they
Had imagined, this silly sacrifice, but they finished the job,
Whistling as they washed their large hands in the dark.
What they didn’t know was that the goat’s head was already
Singing behind them in the tree. What they didn’t know
Was that the goat’s head would go on singing, just for them,
Long after the ropes were down, and that they would learn to listen,
Pail after pail, stroke after patient stroke. 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

There are so many excellent poets in the world, and so many that have deeply touched me, it’s hard to highlight just one. So, I’ll go with two. The first is Brigit Pegeen Kelly, who was my undergraduate teacher and mentor. When I was her student, I hadn’t read any of her work so was unaware of her robust reputation. This was probably for the best. It let me trust her but not feel intimidated by her (though she was quietly intimidating, smart and straightforward, reserved yet caring).

After I graduated and moved to Oregon, I finally got around to reading her acclaimed second book, Song, and was like oooooooh. Kelly wrote in a painterly way (her background was in painting), crafting image after image with a musicality that is largely unrivaled. Her poems are dark and haunting—Midwestern gothic. I loved them. I still love them. To this day when I read Song, the hairs on my arms lift.

(To see previous blog posts on Brigit Pegeen Kelly in Recovering Words from 2016 and 2014 please click here and here.)


Irish poet Medbh McGuckian (1950 -)


Marconi’s Cottage

Small and watchful as a lighthouse,
a pure clear place of no particular childhood,
it is as if the sea had spoken in you
and then the words had dried.

Bitten and fostered by the sea
and by the British spring,
there seems only this one way of happening
and a poem to prove it has happened.

Now I am close enough. I open my arms
to your castle-thick walls. I must learn
to use your wildness when I lock and unlock
your door weaker than kisses.

Maybe you are a god of sorts,
or a human star, lasting in spite of us
like a note propped against a bowl of flowers,
or a red shirt to wear against light blue.

The bed of your mind has weathered
books of love, you are all I have gathered
to me of otherness; the worn glisten
of your flesh is relearned and reloved.

Another unstructured, unmarried, unfinished
summer, slips its unclenched weather
into my winter poems, cheating time
and blood of their timelessness.

Let me have you for what we call
forever, the deeper opposite of a picture,
your leaves the part of you
that the sea first talked to.

Medbh McGuckian from Marconi’s Cottage, Wake Forest University Press, 1992

Irish poet Medbh McGuckian (1950 -). Photo Credit: Belfast Telegraph 2021

The second poet I want to feature is Medbh McGuckian, an Irish poet. How I came across her poem, Marconi’s Cottage during my MFA program, I honestly have no idea. It’s not easily searchable on the web. While highly acclaimed in Ireland, her work is not something I see shared often in the U.S. And yet, I pasted the poem into my LiveJournal (yes, I keep a LiveJournal, that predecessor to blogs; no, you cannot have its address) and then, years later, rereading it, decided to memorize it.

Marconi’s Cottage was the first of a handful of poems I memorized. And, while it’s foggy now—I do not recite poetry enough!—it hangs in front of my office computer, daily imbuing me with its magic: Small and watchful as a lighthouse, it begins, and immediately I’m taken to Ireland, to a rough coast, to some flickering brightness. It resides in a sensuous strangeness, as it addresses a ‘you’ in a way that feels romantic, or at least, intimate, ending with this gorgeous stanza:

Let me have you for what we call
forever, the deeper opposite of a picture,
your leaves, the part of you
that the sea first talked to.

Recently, I came across McGuckian’s book by the same title and am enchanted by her work all over again. It came out in paperback in 1992 and feels as fresh and weird as I’m sure it did then. Something about her surprising adjectives, her extended metaphors grips me, makes language feel new again—and that is the best gift a writer can give a reader.

Blog Post for Recovering Words by Amie Whittemore, February 2024

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