Sunday, July 20, 2008



The Orchard By Brigit Pegeen Kelly
(BOA Editions, Rochester, N.Y. 2004)

Perhaps our ongoing fascination with fiction vs. memoir, the blather about spin and “truthiness” are what finally drove me out of the garden of reality and into the mythic orchard where what’s real is less important than what’s imagined and made. I weary of the noise of the culture straining to squeeze beauty out of the immediate. I want to be lost for awhile. As a youngster, several books offered this refuge -- The Secret Garden and A Girl of the Limber Lost -- and I often returned to them. Exploring those texts meant encountering images at the intersection of dreamscape and psychology -- where danger and eros, loss and discovery reside in the strange flora and fauna. In her book, The Orchard, Brigit Pegeen Kelly roams around this essential, ruined space, “a place/So old it seemed to exist outside of time.”

This is, however, no orderly, comforting garden. But then what garden really is: Who knows what or who lurks beyond the sugar snaps or zinnias -- ask Peter Rabbit and Eve. The poems in this collection are full of disquieting images: broken statues, rotting vegetation, overgrown and untended fruit trees, animal children, ancient gigantic carp and other weird beasts. It’s the landscape of fable and myth. Thus, Kelly’s project isn’t about telling it like it is. Nor is it about telling all. Her poems don’t sing of references to popular icons. Nor is she participating in the current narrative craze for stories of triumph over pain. The work of this collection is to lead the reader deep into the region of archetype, of dreams, to spend time in “the oldest part of the woods. / It is a dark unsettling place and I am drawn to it,” as the speaker describes her own underworld journey in the poem “Pale Rider.”

It’s a difficult undertaking. These poems demand the reader move slowly and return again. We’re asked to relinquish our need for short breathy meters. Kelly’s lines are as long and overgrown with sound as the orchard and fields depicted in the poems. There are archaic constructions that highlight the sense of myth and scripture even. Listen from the opening lines of the poem “Brightness from the North”:
Bright shapes in the dark garden, the gardenless stretch
Of old yard, sweetened now by the half-light
As if by burning flowers. Overture. First gesture,
But not even that, the pause before the gesture,
The window frame composing the space, so it
Seems as if time has stopped, as if this half-dark,
This winter grass, plaited with frost, these unseen
Silent birds might stay forever…

At the heart of the collection is loss, though there’s no one named -- a parent, a lover perhaps? The missing you is addressed directly in the poem “Elegy,” “I find you here, in the shifting grass, / In the late light, as if you had always been here. / Behind you two torn black cedars flame white/ Against the darkening fields…” Indeed the force of this absence has overturned statues, given stone lions mystical powers of birth and caused a swarm of bees to do “something beyond the report of beauty” -- carry a snake through a garden. Counterbalancing loss is presence, a boy child who opens the collection. In the prose poem “The Foreskin,” the boy’s foreskin is buried beneath a magnolia tree, thus blessing both flesh and fruit. The child figure appears through the course of this poetic wandering as a Virgil-like guide offering prophetic utterances.

What to make of this orchard, its old garden, dark pond, weird statues and shifting imagery of benevolent and malicious characters? That suffering and beauty go hand in hand, the foul and the fragrant, all the imaginings, the many arms of the mind, as Kelly writes of her orchard inhabitants -- this is dangerous beauty. It’s familiar territory for Kelly. She’s excavated around this place before, notably her previous collection, Song, which was the 1994 Lamont Poetry Selection from the American Academy of Poets. But a decade later, the sense of allegory is stronger and darker. The poet has retreated from the concluding stance of Song, which depicts the speaker and children looking at the moon,
“Perfect like a flower. Or an oracle. Something/Completely understood. But unspeakable.”

Now, comprehension is less important. Confusion -- and its images that “cannot be deciphered” but still delight -- abounds. Ultimately, Kelly proposes that the numinous is good. In the final poem, “The Sparrow’s Gate,” Kelly reminds us that:
…the fabric of the world—the sky itself, the trees, the garden
and its terrifying colors, the dusky texture of the boy’s hair—is
woven from rebuttals and embraces, takes on its hue, retains its
shape as surely as the patterns on the loom, to which the
woman had given too much importance, mistaking cloth for

It’s in this last poem, with its loose, rambling irregular lines and cadences, and informal structures, that the reader is finally led out of the dark orchard. But unlike Dante who was greeted by stars after his long journey, we’re offered distant figures coming through a gate, women “laughing and laughing and carrying on” -- such a long strange trip but the mind is clear, “the air itself made visible.” And I am pleased to have lost bits of myself along the way, even as Kelly has re-fashioned remnants of myth and fable that this reader at least will bring back as boons.


Pamela Hart, a former journalist, is writer in residence at the Katonah Museum of Art where she works as a teaching artist. Her chapbook, The End of the Body, was published in 2006. Her work, which has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, has been published in qarrtsiluni,, Rattapallax and Kalliope and is forthcoming in The Cortland Review. Read her blog, A Walk Around the Lake, at

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