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The Surreal Is No Less Real: Brigit Pegeen Kelly

Written by

Carl Phillips
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Year

2014
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This article originally appeared in issue 36 of American Poet, the biannual journal of the Academy of American Poets. To subscribe to American Poet, become a member online.

 

Photo by Brian Palmer

What the previous recipients of the Academy of American Poets Fellowship have in common is the particular achievement of having made a poetry whose vision, sensibility, and prosody are unmistakable for anyone else's—and through that poetry they give us back the world that we thought we knew, once, and make us look more closely. This is easily the case for Brigit Pegeen Kelly, this year's recipient of the award.

"What I / wished for is not as I understood it to be," says Kelly, in "The Peaceable Kingdom," from her first book To the Place of Trumpets. And with that statement, she seems to have turned to, or have found, her work's chief ambition: to investigate why the world is so protean, pitching our human desire to empirically know a thing against a very real—and in the world of Kelly's poems—an otherworldly resistance to so-called rational thinking. In the title poem of Kelly's second book, Song, a goat's head sings to the boys who decapitated the goat, and the goat's head is both the possible metaphor for guilt or regret, and it is somehow exactly what it is: a goat's head, singing—utterly believable, as is what we are told of the song itself, that it is not a cruel song, but "sweet. It is sweet. The heart dies of this sweetness."

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. Kelly has created a poem that often purports to be narrative, but turns out to work like a secular version of John Donne's sermons, crossed perhaps with the deliberately misleading innocence of, say, the Elizabeth Bishop of "At the Fishhouses," where she effortlessly shifts from singing Baptist hymns to a seal, to a grand vision of knowledge as historical, flowing, and flown. Comparisons of this sort are a way of approaching a truer thing about Kelly: her poems are like no one else's—hard and luminous, weird in the sense of making a thing strange, that we at last might see it, poems that from book to book show a strength that flexes itself both formally and in terms of content, in ways that continue to, at equal turns, teach and surprise. Perhaps the best way to describe them might be these lines from Kelly's own "The Dragon," from her third book, The Orchard:

                    ...and the air
Was like the air after a fire, or the air before a storm,
Ungodly still, but full of dark shapes turning.

This article originally appeared in American Poet, the biannual journal of the Academy of American Poets. Copyright © 2009 by the Academy of American Poets. All rights reserved. To subscribe to American Poet, become a member online.