September 2, 2020KR OnlineNonfiction

Someone Is Here

Methought it might suddenly have fallen to naught for littleness. . . . That is an utterance from the mystic Julian of Norwich from her book Revelations of Divine Love, which I was trying to read in October 2016, the month that Brigit Pegeen Kelly died.

The “it” was a hazelnut that Julian held in her palm. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine holding something in my palm. I wanted to keep something from falling to naught.

It was a cat-food kernel. I held it cupped in two hands. It was so brown and little that the fat creases of my palms kept hiding it and I’d think, Oh, I’ve dropped it, but then it would still be there, in the palms of my imagination: little, brown, not for naught, no. I would bring this to the cat, which I did not particularly like. The cat in my house who needed care, who had, on that stairway, seemed to ask.

Ask as an intransitive verb. That cat, his name was Sweetpea, was simply asking. I thought, What is asked of me not by me—must I honor that above all that I myself want? And I thought, Yes. Yes: if there is littleness. If it is a child or a creature or something large that is wounded. If it is a person without what they need, yes.

And then I thought, but this brown kernel of cat food is not nearly enough of what the cat needs. And I am too tired to think it into something more. I am so hungry and tired at the moment of writing this. I would love to eat a box of not-too-salty crackers, and then with the crumbs still over my mouth, sleep, my head on my arm (how many summers I slept lost in my hair) on a brown, ratty couch in a bare room, where no one knows I am, and with a TV in the window of the apartment across the way, which I can see and nearly hear.

Encarcerated soul, the poem I write to you is where I go to be forgotten. The poem I read to you is where I go to enter into not this world, not this time. In that bare room I long for, I will read a Brigit Pegeen Kelly poem (The TV across the way is so that I will have the world at my shoulder. There is a silence I cannot dare yet.) I will read a Brigit Pegeen Kelly poem, and I will save the kernel of cat food from falling to naught for littleness.

The fall that Brigit died, I had a teacher say to a class I was in that what we might ask from art was to save us from perdition. I was in a class because I long always for a teacher. I tolerated the cat in my house because cats can walk between worlds. After the teacher said that about art, I looked up the word perdition. It must be related to the French word perdre, to lose. Perdition itself must mean a state of getting lost, I thought. I was wrong. Its root is destroy, and it means eternal damnation. But. But—Words can even destroy in their saying the very things for which they stand. That line is Brigit. I have none of her books in front of me, but all these stray lines from her teem in my brain like worms.

I began writing this Internetless, two falls after Brigit died, in a cottage built on the ruins of an ancient Irish monastic site, taking stock; the stock was supposedly of my self and that self’s writing. All I could think of was Brigit, or me in relation to Brigit, or that Brigit is my stock, my reserve. Brigit, who was so open and approachable and yet so private and deflecting. (If it’s Brigit herself that I want to describe, I have to be honest and say I have nothing new to add.) To write about Brigit Pegeen Kelly in a monastic setting was funny, but also right, because as far as I know—which is to say, I know her like I know the horizon—Brigit raised at least three children and lived actively as a spouse, grandmother, sister, daughter, teacher, and friend. Yet in person, and in her poems, there was/is a monastic sensibility: removed, devout—and also sensual in the way I believe real religious ecstasy might be. If you cut your hair off and give it to the gods will it grow back red and furious . . .? That’s from an early poem. In her later ones, each thing—the mouths of the carp, the breasts of the old dog—seems ready to pierce or be pierced (the body and the veil of this world). I do not encounter any kind of hibiscus without seeing, in its middle, the dog’s bright penis emerging from its hairy sheath. I love her carnality. And it doesn’t feel classical. More anchoritic: as in Julian of Norwich, who desired bodily knowledge of Christ—to be his lover and to undergo his excruciation—and whose revelations came in part through finding, enclosed in her palm, the hazelnut (“It is all that is made,” God tells her.) I want it to be true, and I think it is, when I say: Brigit’s poems have entered my mind through my body.

If I say that what I feel reading Brigit’s poems are fulgurations, it’s because in that word I hear “pulsation” and “transfiguration” and especially “vulgar.” A Brigit poem would not use a word so long and flashy like “fulguration.”  But the feeling of being surrounded by her poem as I read it is a lot like standing in a flash of sheet lightning. The whole sky is covered. Or the whole sky is heaven. It took me until fall 2019 to realize that I read Brigit’s poems because I want to know about what kind of life the dead have. Her poems can describe this life even if they can’t name it. Right alongside a child’s ballgame is the darkness, which comes up from the ground like flood water gradually filling the basement of a house, dark water full of unnameable things. Or one line that is a universe (uni-verse): the dead keep working. if you listen you can hear them.

But her questions. Her questions. If I step like a fool into the glassy outer darkness? Today when I picked up To the Place of Trumpets it fell open to page 23, to a poem I’d never before read, that ends:

                                                  O spaniel, mad spaniel,
are you lost to the whistle, wet in your master’s mouth,
too high-pitched or too remote for my ear, calling you
North, calling you South? Or lost to your small heart
telling you cross, cross space and you will own it?

The swallows build the bank. Are you my fear?
Blind as the wind that works to pull their nests down?

Are you my fear? The poet Pádraig Ó Tuama says, very simply, that prayer, like the French prier, is to ask. Brigit is asking. It has taken me from 2002 when a friend first shoved ”Song” into my hands on a lunch break at our job until writing this (the way my mind sometimes refuses to make sense of words that are perfectly clear, / Simple words spoken slowly and with great care) to think: yes. If what prayer demands is asking, then I can say yes, I pray. I ask. (What is asked of me not by me?) And yes, I do, I pray to Brigit.

Deer are my portal to her. There were five in a cage in a forested petting zoo in North Attleborough, Massachusetts. I would talk to her, when she was alive, through these deer. Standing before their particular silence, I would speak to them in my head and feel that they took the message to Brigit. An infinity corridor between New England and Illinois. The deer became such a powerful portal that I wrote a play (it will never leave my notebook) about Brigit that featured these deer, alongside the cows from “Three Cows and the Moon,” the sick dog from “The Orchard” (is that the same dog as the dog, foul dog walking up the cornrow of your spine?), and I called it “Someone Is Here.” Someone is here. Or someone is falling, out of a dream in which she was someone. I was still writing it the autumn she died, and grateful, in a way, that I had had the gift of thinking about her so intensely during the months before I learned she was gone. When I returned to the deer cage that November, there were only four left. . . . The deer that had died was named Kit, which you may know means “carrier of Christ.” Inside me was a stillness a bell possesses after it has just been rung.

On the third anniversary of Brigit’s death I had a dream, the details of which went fuzzy almost as soon as I woke up. The day after the anniversary of her death I had another. Both dreams were telling me something about the dark side of a person I love. Then, in the dawn of the day after the anniversary of her death, I saw a dead deer on the side of the road. I know Brigit did not give me those dreams. I know she was not the deer at the side of the road. But there is no morning on which I want to think about the dark side of my beloved. There is no morning that invites the image of life leaving a creature’s body. It is my love for Brigit that gives me the company, I won’t say courage, but company to look at these things I cannot look at alone.

The grief I felt and continue to feel at her death is sharper because we were not friends. That is, I sent handwritten letters to her at her farm (carefully spaced out by years, so as not to tread too heavily on her kind impulse to respond to so many readers and former students), bearing only the direst questions, pleas to read anything she was writing, and pictures of my children. She replied in loopy blue pen with humor, warmth, books to read, and scant details. When I love, I want to possess, so I collected every detail of her life it was possible to find. When I first met her as a student in her workshop at Bread Loaf, her teenage son was with her, her daughter and granddaughters visited her there, and she told stories to us, her students. Now that it is time for details, I am suddenly and oddly protective of the few I have. The details of Brigit’s life have been crucial to the blueprint I continue to construct for my own life. How rare, how utterly weird, to love the poems and the person both so fully. I once got to go on a walk with her and asked her about having children and writing and working full time. The details! I wanted all the details, and beyond that, the permission, and beyond that, a way to be in the world. (Another novitiate once wrote about his own mentor, “A way of life is a way to life.”) But it’s the details of her not-life, her visions, that clutch me. (It is a dark, unsettling place and I am drawn to it.) Whenever I am at a loss for what to say here, I let one of her lines come into my head.

Her last letter arrived three months before she died. Although as a rule I have read each one of her letters only once (and quickly), as things that are too wonderful cannot be borne for long, for answers as to whether she had been ill, suffering or afraid, I returned to that last letter several times, and in it there may have been hints. There was a phrase “out of time” or “out of tune”—I can’t read her handwriting. Both phrases fit. And I always felt anxiety in her work: the current of fear that almost always runs through me. The air in her books is full of dark shapes turning. When I think of it now, there is so much putrefaction in her poems. Newly dead animal bodies, apples rotting. Rank—I can’t think of a more BPK word. More than three years on from her death, the putrefaction stage must have passed for Brigit’s body. It must be clean now. Bone. She is out of the realm of her poems. I’m sorry I’m imagining her dead body. But I do imagine it and am relieved that the rotting stage has passed, because in her poems, that is the stage where things leap out of bounds…. I imagine her hyoid bone, the only thing left of her voice, though every six months or so I listen to a recording of it. Her voice. Oh, I love the sound of her voice. Did the bush fear the ice? Did it know of the ice’s black designs? And I worry over her, worry about her fears.

That last letter also contained a gift, a hardcover library-bound edition of the Irish writer Juanita Casey’s second novel The Circus. Casey, like Brigit, was a poet and artist, and in this book, elements of the world that most of us consider fixed or dead are alive and willful: a rocking horse, the elephant on wallpaper who leads a child out of her house. In 2017, the cat, that little, plant-eating cat, led me to shelve a spider plant at the top of my bookshelf, knocking down a Witold Gombrowicz book in the process. A letter from Brigit fell out. I read only the postscripts: “P.S. You should try writing a novel. P.P.S. Have you read Marie Redonnet’s trilogy Hotel Splendid, Forever Valley, Rose Melie Rose???”  I did both of those things, and especially the former because it was the sole prescription she has ever given me. When the novel was published, it was dedicated to her, and, in fact, it was my second book dedicated to her, which, as I type this, sounds ridiculous, inflated (but the tree itself was inflated). Dedications like that are possible only because she is not here. I could never have embarrassed her otherwise. In the first book to her, my last page is simply a line from her poem “Plants Fed on by Fawns”: Be thou always ravished by love. It’s a corruption of a Proverbs line that advises a husband to appreciate his wife, with deer as the metaphor: “Let her be as the loving hind and pleasant roe; let her breasts satisfy thee at all times; and be thou always ravished with her love.” Brigit’s revision, not ravished with her love but by love itself is absolutely the experience of her poems (not, as others have pointed out, an experience described but an experience enacted). And ravished is a violent word. She is seized, and we are seized. I want to be marked by this involuntary state of love. Least of all, it allows me to say that I cannot help, nor do I want to, my consuming love for her.

Which brings me back here, to myself, whose writing is not like Brigit’s. Much-loved but seldom reviewed, Brigit is most often compared to Yeats, whom she mentioned or read from at many of her own readings. Like Yeats, she is a poet of vision (and unlike Yeats, when it came to visions, she was no talk, all action). It’s difficult to express why this person is the example I need in order to be a poet in the way that I want. I remember Eileen Myles saying (in Women the NY School and Other True Abstractions), “I made the model of what I needed there to be.” Two wise friends have explained to me that it may be more accurate to say that upon encountering Brigit, I created the need that Brigit was there to fill. Or, the version of her that I needed her to be will forever stand between me and who she actually was, a permanent eclipse. I concede this. However, I am loath to concede a deep understanding of Brigit’s real laugh. From the very first time I witnessed her give a reading, I recognized the way she laughed.

It was 2003, at UCLA’s Hammer Museum series. Stephen Yenser gave a lavish introduction, describing how goat is the root of tragedy and thus how Brigit’s poem “Song,” about a decapitated goat whose head sings to its murderers (Listen: there was a goat’s head hanging by a rope from the tree), was really a birth-of-tragedy urstory. He concluded with talking about her poems’ rhythms. (Which are everything. After I read a poem by her I wake in the middle of the night with her lines coiling like snakes around me.) And then Brigit got up to the podium quite unceremoniously, and she said to Stephen, “Thanks but these are flat as hell,” and she laughed. Later she also said she’d no idea about the word goat being the etymological root of tragedy, and laughed again. She laughed so much that night, but it was not exactly nerves. A deep deflection, maybe. Brigit looked in her poems. (Where? At what? The air full of dark shapes turning.) And then with the laughter, looked away. It was a wry laughter: a swerve. I am afraid to look as Brigit looked. Are you my fear? But I recognize the deep ambivalence about the looking itself, and I strongly recognize the need for laughter as a change of direction. That was the night that Brigit read a poem by Laura Riding, “The Wind Suffers.” And I have to stop here for a moment because I had forgotten that poem and that Brigit had chosen to begin it with: “The wind suffers from blowing, / The sea suffers from water, / And fire suffers from burning, / And I of a living name.”

I would not write this essay if Brigit were alive. If she were, I can imagine her wincing at each utterance of her name.

I was forty-three years old when I started this essay in Ireland. When I was thirty-three, I published my first book. Since age twenty-three, all I had wanted and worked for was to see my poems in a book. The day that Beth Frost called to say I had won her Fordham contest was perhaps a week after my first daughter had been born prematurely. En route to the NICU, pretty much numb to everything but my need to stick my finger back in that incubator, I listened to half of the voice mail, then threw the phone in the backseat. Eventually, I returned the call, of course. (Of course seeming now to me to be the problem, or at least the question.) Now I have published poetry books, and I feel a kind of indebtedness to the publishers not unlike I feel for my mother: thank you for letting me be born (beth, alice, josh, lynn, nick, robyn, matt, and eric: in your dotage, I am ready to spoon your gruel!) And now that I have been born and am living and have found my people, who when I look up, are here in this life—texting me at all hours messages addressing me (female, 44, mortgage) as dude, witnessing my covert wedding, sending me letters with strands of their silver-and-black hair taped to the margins—that is, now that I have found my friends, but—ineluctably—friends also living under poetry skies, what more can I or should I ask for? Who said, Thus far you shall come and no farther? Brigit is talking of death. But I think I may be, too. As well. In a way. There is a point in me when professional ambition will be a kind of death.

Brigit once said to me that she would not give Yale University Press permission to reprint her first book (which anyway left a bunch of her awesome early poems uncollected). By her own account, she was writing, writing, writing (and painting, some say) in the twelve years between The Orchard and her death, while publishing I think only two poems in that time: “Iskandiriya” and “Rome.” The why not—why didn’t you, Brigit!—was a question I did not really get an answer to. As a reader, I feel that my life would be changed, absolutely deepened, if I could read the writings of her last few years. To see some of that would be like reading “As Kingfishers Catch Fire,” saved (I think? I like to believe!) by Hopkins’s friend, or like reading Simone Weil’s Gravity and Grace, here now only because she had given that notebook to a farmer. . . . Another wise friend said the question isn’t really why she stopped publishing but why she started publishing in the first place. Or, as Marguerite Duras wrote, “It’s interesting, this difference between people who publish and people who write.”

The summer I met Brigit at Bread Loaf I kept marveling: Brigit Pegeen Kelly at a socially intense writers’ conference? I asked Michael Collier, But why did she ever come? And he said, Well, I think she needed the money. I have lived on his answer for years. The money. OK. The money. Yes, I need that. I now have a full-time, semi-stable job at a university and things are OK with money. Paid readings, conference invitations, the rare fellowship—oh yes, I want them. I want them because they might mean more job stability, which would mean more financial stability for my kids. (More and more. Hello, dear daughters, yes, you were born into a bourgeois household.) These are the glibbest and truest thing I can say about literary world money. And what academia wants from me is not what I want for my writing. I cannot try to lead a worldly writer’s life without getting caught up in the plot of that life. (We can say the things of the day do not fill it.) Power has no mystery, and mystery is what I write from.

But I also want to say something about Brigit’s ponytail. It was a loose ponytail, a quickly made one, with no sophistication. It was a girl’s ponytail. Each time I saw her, she had that ponytail, and I saw all my professional aspirations bound with an elastic and attached to that precious skull. How to be a girl and an adult poet? How to cultivate naivete, resist cynicism, stop strategizing . . .  how not to put things and people to use, for money, and for power? I want to stay a novice, a child, always. My self has made a vow to always run from my own authority.

The last letter I sent to Brigit was in March 2016. It did not include, though I had considered it, a book that I had just published. Instead, I sent her Lila by Marilynne Robinson. I knew she liked Robinson. Although Robinson’s sensibility is Calvinist whereas Brigit’s was Catholic, or another way to say it—Robinson is compassionately philosophical and Brigit compassionately strange—I saw in Lila and its title character (unlike in Gilead or Home), so much of Brigit herself (uncomfortable brilliance, naivete, reticence—I did not know her at all). I will always be so glad that I sent her, in her last months, that novel instead of my own poems. It’s true that as large as she has loomed in my life, I have never written for her, only because of her.

In that Irish monastic village, I could see the Skellig Islands. The monks who inhabited the greater Skellig did not go in search of it. They let their boat drift all night while they slept, and in the morning they had left the known world and were bobbing against the ledges of a seven-hundred-foot-high rock. In the book I came across (came across! those two words now feel like the boat between the membranes of two worlds) the phrase peregrinatio pro Dei amore, wandering for the love of God. Since leaving Ireland, I’ve been collecting phrases that have to do with wandering. Another one, from Maurice Blanchot: “. . . it is essential not to turn toward Canaan. The wanderer has the desert for his destination. . . .” When I think of Brigit’s retiring presence/absence in the literary world when she was alive, I sometimes feel ashamed that I do anything with my writing besides write it. But I love giving readings. I love teaching weird workshops. And in the year that I’ve been working on this essay, I’ve decided I will keep putting books into this world and letting them drift. On what roads, you ask? “The roads toward denuding oneself of chronological perceptions are difficult.” That’s Ramόn del Valle Inclán, in the Trinitarian Exegesis. Those roads. Brigit’s, whose poems collapse time and space (the silence of night awake inside the silence of day) (it is hard to know the way in or out). My books are for the past or the future. They will find the right person. If I am going to write without deathambition, I have to believe that there is no one here right now.

But I want to subtract, or else add on to, the image of Brigit as rarefied, shut up behind abbey walls. I am grateful to be able to hear her voice in my head—her alive, grounded, deep, rueful voice. On her few extant readings before she forbade recordings, you can hear her laughing. She will describe shoveling shit out of her barn, or something funny her then-young daughter did. On one of the first occasions I spoke with her, in the middle of her saying something else, she mentioned “a coffee from Starbucks,” and I nearly fainted, I really did. This, this woman, this seer, this utterly other consciousness, someone I might have made the mistake of calling master if she would not have laughed, hated it, and in a manner, run away—this woman also was alive and went, at least once, to Starbucks.

Since I met Brigit, there have been so many moments when I have longed to turn around and see her and that ponytail behind me. Once I felt the atmosphere behind my back thicken. I turned around. It was not Brigit. She was not there. It wasn’t even a bird in a bush, or a deer. There was just a tree stump. The tree had been a stump for a long time. There was a fungus, white, growing up in accordion folds along the stump’s side. What do you do with a stump? You can stand on it, like a stage. I do love to talk. I stepped up, opened my mouth to say I don’t know what, and it was wrong. I stepped down. What kind of poet do you want to become? I want to become a poet who listens to what is asked. One who laughs. One who has enough stillness at times to feel denuded of chronology. (One who will always love the word denuded.) What kind of poet do you want to become? Kelly, one of my students—yes, her name is Kelly—sat across from me over falafel last week and said that she badly needed to believe in an afterlife. I want to become the poet who can help her keep wanting to believe. I want to become the poet that my friends need in order to keep making their poems. I want to become the poet who loves littleness. I want to become the poet who makes books but does not hold them up. To be instead the poet who buries their books in a grave, along with the orange peels and apple cores and coffee grounds and potato-chip bags—all the things consumed while the poems were being made—and then to make over the gravesite a garden from which I feed the people I love. What kind of poet do you want to become? The poet eternally becoming the poet who loves Brigit.


Read a “Dead Doe: I” by Brigit Pegeen Kelly published in the Kenyon Review, New Series, Summer 1991, Vol. XIII, No. 3.