Singing in the Orchard

Poems: Song and The Orchard, Brigit Pegeen Kelly
(150pp, £9.95, Carcanet)


Brigit Pegeen Kelly is a notable American poet - a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her colelction Song was first published in1995 and The Orchard in 2004, by Boa Editions, New York. Carcanet publish them for the first time in this excellent edition. I've read some of her poems in magazines across the years, but have been meaning to read the books for some time since they have been heavily recommended by a friend and fellow writer. It's certainly been worth the wait; this is a really terrific book of poems.

Dream-like, surreal, disquieting, defamiliarising - these are all apposite adjectives for the poems in
Song - which explore both the beauty and underbelly of the natural world and 'Our own genius for harm'. Lyrically rich and resourceful, musically assured, and dazzlingly intense - these are some other qualities all the poems possess. Pegeen Kelly treats nature with a peculiar (one of her favourite words) idiosyncratic syntax, mining a strange semantic seam. 'Of Ancient Origins and War' begins:

     And briefly stay, the junketing sparrows, briefly
     Briefly, their flurries like small wine spills,

     while the one divides into two: the heart and its shadow,
     The world and its threat, the crow back of the sparrow.

While 'Distraction of Fish and Flowers in the Kill' begins:

     People fish the kills here. Black, the kills, with shade,
     Moist with shade, and the graveyard odors, the graveyard hush,

     The hush of weedy distracted flowers, grass flowers, bush flowers,
    Flowers of savor, and those of ill repute. 

I love the way the syntax twists and turns, through musical repetitions and variations and an odd, yet perfectly right, vocabulary. 'Garden of Flesh, Garden of Stone', a long poem about a bird and a stone statue of a boy, had me on the edge of my poetic seat, beginning:

     The little white throat has his head in the boy's ear.
          maybe he has found some seed in it. Or maybe
     he is telling the boy a secret, some sweet nothing.
         Or maybe he has mistaken the rimmed flesh,
     taut and sweet as the skin of a fig, for his bathing dish,
          and is about to dive through the pale sky
     reflected in it, lengths of blue, lengths of gray,
          yards and yards of quarried white. And the boy,
    who is made of stone, who has stood still for a long time,
          pissing in the stone basin, seems this morning
     in the peculiar light top be leaning his large head,
           barely balanced on a narrow neck, toward the sparrow,
     as if he likes the soft sewing motion of the beak
            within his ear, the delicate morse of the white throat...

As I'm typing this I realise there's only 3 full stops in there, and it could just roll on forever with poise and ease - such a confident, deep and pleasing form of lyric. As is the ending of 'Dead Doe':

     And this is the soul: like it or not. Yes: the soul comes down: yes:
     comes into the deer: yes: who dies: yes: and in her death twins herself
     into swans: fools us with mist and accident into believing her
     newfound finery

    and we are not afraid
     though we should be

     and we are not afraid as we watch her soul fly on; paired
     as the soul always is: with itself:
        with others.
                  Two swans....

     Child. We are done for
     in the most remarkable ways.

Pegeen Kelly's subjects in
Song are rich and varied: the myriad forms of the natural world; statuary; birds; myths and folklore; Jehova's Witnesses; wild turkeys; Botticelli's St. Sebastian; a goat's head hanging by ropes in a tree and, amongst others,  pipistrelle bats that:

     Look like the flung hands of deaf boys, restlessly
     Signing the dark. Deaf boys
    Who all night and into the half-lit hours

     When the trees step from their shadows
     And the shadows go to grass
     Whistle those high-pitched tunes that, though unheard, hurt

     Our thoughts. Pipistrelles, little pipes, little
     Night pipes, the peculiar
     Lost fluting of the outcast heart. Poor heart.

Poems like these I found constantly surprising, page after page, making
Song an extraordinary debut collection. The Orchard is no less remarkable a follow-up: highly symbolic, mythic, dream-like poems - such as 'The Dragon', about two swarms of bees carrying a snake through a garden - and some fine prose poems, including the fabulous 'Windfall' that begins with a 'wretched pond in the woods', wherein live some magical carp 'large as trumpets'. The disquieting tone of the whole book is represented well by 'Blessed is the Field':

     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 beneath the 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

or the strange meeting of a madwoman on a bridge, at dusk, as she feeds corn to fish that are not there. 'Pale Rider' is equally haunting, quite literally; a long poem about a 'fallen doe', hacked to pieces by a hunter, who revisits the narrator as they wander back to the grotto in the woods, at night:

                                                             She shone
     The doe, her four heads, held high and perfectly still,
     Facing in four different directions. And then I saw
     Something else, darker, protruding from her breast.
     It was a fifth neck and head, hanging upside down
     In front, like the useless third leg of Siamese twins
     Joined at the torso that hangs out of the spine,
     And is amputated at birth, or like the water-darkened
     Rudder of a ship. I heard hot air sucking in and out
     Of the doe's many nostrils, in and out. the mist
     grew darker, and I felt afraid, for I knew even before
     My eyes confirmed it, that the fifth head was not
     The doe's head at all, as I had thought, but the head
     Of a grown child that the doe was trying to deliver
     From her breast, and I knew that the child would never
     Be born, but must ride always with her, his body
     Embedded in hers, his head up to the sky.

This is a very remarkable, different kind of poetry full of mystery and surprises; celebratory and unafraid of the dark; marvellously assured in its use of language and about the wonders and horrors of creation. This book really should be on your reading list.

             © Andy Brown 2008