Ever since the Cynical Century rendered the words God and love ironic until further notice, fewer contemporary poems test the faint boundaries separating Plato’s four madnesses— those of lovers, poets, religious ecstatics, and genuine psychotics. It’s just too much work to suspend the belief that the carnal, the aesthetic, the insane, and (especially) the divine are definitively distinct. William Blake, John Clare, and Christopher Smart were lunatic poets in their time (and maybe for all time), and didn’t bother to recognize those boundaries. Neither does Brigit Pegeen Kelly. I imagine she might have been tossed into Bedlam in the seventeenth century, but our understanding of exuberance is more nuanced now. (Today she resides in Illinois in relative safety.) The religious is still perceived as categorically distinct from the avant-garde to those reading by yesterday’s rules—but the result is that it’s now become radical to eschew qualities historically associated with the avant-garde. It’s radical to write nonironically about God. And so we have Kelly, drowning us in blood-tinged honey, radicalizing the love poem into the twenty-first century.
“Black Swan,” the first poem in The Orchard, Kelly’s third book, teems with her familiarly elemental modifiers: black, hot, rank, sweet, strange, old, great, stone, high, red, giant, burning, incredible, small. She dares to hover at an average syllable-count of less than two, and includes a single word like strange or incredible as a lonely modifier in an otherwise fiercely undecorated line.The title tips its hat to James Merrill, who chose Kelly’s first book for the Yale Younger Poets prize in 1987, who wrote a poem called “The Black Swan” at sixteen, and whose Stonington, Connecticut, apartment Kelly lived in while writing this book.
Since Kelly has been holding her gaze steady on her subjects for decades—metamorphosis, cycles of life and death, perception’s questionable trustworthiness—her poems remain fairly recognizable in both sound and sense. These poems pursue clarity at the cost of almost any other principle—a tendency originating from an apparent belief that, by definition, a poem is already infinitely far from the world it describes, and all but doomed to fail in its attempt to make even the smallest authentic sound. This book, though comprising the familiar landscape of wide fields and yards, populated by dogs, deer, wolves, and statuary, reveals a landscape that has bleached and weathered in the nine years since Song, her second book. The lines progress as slowly as Song’s lines do, accumulating sense via microscopically meandering revisions, but the new poems focus even more tightly on even fewer subjects. I imagine Kelly has decided that depth of focus on a small corral of matter is good work until that corral is exhausted of its subjects—and that it will never be exhausted of its subjects. I look forward to future poems about a carp, a boy, a dog, a gargoyle, and a few particular birds.
Kelly’s work ruins the work of the army of contemporary people-whose-job-it-is-to-act-like-poets, those writing encrypted banalities while searching for subjects to fill their talent. The word bright (one letter away from Brigit) reappears throughout The Orchard that’s as blinding as Blake’s Tyger or as Ezekiel’s “fiery wheel they spin in” (from Kelly’s poem “Lion”). Her limited lexicon and small library of symbols arise not from a lack of imagination but from an undistracted focus. Or perhaps from Freud’s compulsion to repeat—but it makes no difference.The fire is authentic.