Arts/Literature

VerseDay: The "Song" of Brigit Pegeen Kelly

Not long ago I was bitching about how utterly banal I think a lot of contemporary poetry is. Shortly thereafter I got a note from scrogue JS O’Brien saying he thought I might appreciate a poet he knew a little about, Brigit Pegeen Kelly.

So I hit my Internets and tracked her down. The first poem of hers that I came across is called “Song,” and it’s the title track of her 1995 book. In the spirit of “show, don’t tell,” let me begin by asking you to read it.

Song
by Brigit Pegeen Kelly

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.

Copyright © 1995 by Brigit Pegeen Kelly.

It’s been awhile since I tripped across a poem that simply knocked me this off-balance. Specifically, it’s been since 1987, when I discovered Charles Wright’s “Lonesome Pine Special.” The vision expressed in “Song” is breathtaking. There’s transcendent love, betrayal and spitefulness and loss, redemption, and most critically, an overpowering sense of immanent mystery in the world. Have I ever seen a poem that more beautifully portrays the sum of human life?

I’ve been struggling for weeks to find even these words, and still I feel speechless and unworthy in its presence. It does what the greatest art always does to me – it simultaneously inspires me and overruns me with despair. How could I ever write something this good. It’s the same feeling I had when I sat in Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence, transfixed by The David, until my wife nearly had to drag me away.

2008 is nearly upon us. May it be a year full of art and music and literature that stuns us all into silence, as “Song” did to me.

15 replies »

  1. I’m glad to hear that you and JS appreciated this poem. I’m afraid that it doesn’t strike me at all. Not in the same way that a great painting, or amazing sculpture does. It’s fine, and certainly better poetry than I could ever write, but whether from a lack of appreciation skill for poetry in general or what, I’m afraid that I just don’t see the greatness you do.

  2. Goosebumps…when I read or hear something that does the job well.

    “Then the heart sang in the head…” at that line the goosebumps started.

    Palazzo Medici I remember well. So pretty and relaxing it was. Stunning in parts.

    I was staying elsewhere in Italy but had managed a quick day trip to Florence. So many buildings were covered in scaffolding but even with all the renovations it was worth walking the routes through Florence. The sum of the city itself was wonderful to me.

  3. This one, I like. I think I need to read it several more times to really get it. Like when I’m not at my parents house listening to the dishwasher and arguing about whether or not I’ve seen the 1951 version of A Christmas Carol. But this stream of consciousness kind of think makes perfect sense to me. I get it, at least on some basic level, w/o having to know any background or history. That’s the main problem I have with some of YOUR stuff. There’s so much there I don’t understand about the place names and historical/mythological events. Here, it all hits you in the gut. There’s probably several layers of symbolism here that I don’t quite grasp yet. But I don’t have any basic mental blocks that keep me from…feeling.

  4. Of course, as I have noted before, it’s a mistake to let yourself get tripped up by some of the specifics in my work. Yeah, there’s plenty there if you want to dig, but they’re designed to work at a more intuitive level, as well.

    Glad the Kelly clicked for you, though. I agree that it’s more obviously accessible than some of what I write.

  5. Ubertramp:

    Just to add a layer for you, the word “drama” probably derives from ancient Greek syllables for “goat song,” likely referring to religious ritual. Kelly was once a very fine actress.

    Just thought you’d want to know 😉

  6. Wow.

    Incredible. Leaves me sad, though.

    On a lighter note, another Christmas gift found, if I can locate the book at Barnes & Noble here in town.

  7. JS. Cool. Thanks. 🙂 ‘Course, since I’m currently in Hawaii studying visual poetry in motion in it’s various forms, it might be a bit before I can start thinking about dramatic goats.

  8. I know this is an old post so you might not see this, but I just now ran across this and am stunned …. what a magnificent poem …. and your response is also moving …. it perfectly sums up my own reaction .

    • Thanks, Teresa. Yeah, this is one of those remarkable moments when art just transcends everything. This poem left me breathless.