Uncovering What Is Brave: A Remembrance of Brigit Pegeen Kelly by Joy Manesiotis and Maxine Scates

Uncovering What Is Brave: A Remembrance of Brigit Pegeen Kelly by Joy Manesiotis and Maxine Scates
February 29, 2024 Scates and Joy Manesiotis Maxine

In this month’s essay for Plume, Joy Manesiotis and Maxine Scates, two former close friends of Brigit Pegeen Kelly, share a memorable appreciation for Kelly as both a beloved friend and, as the Poetry Foundation refers to her, “one of the most strikingly contemporary American poets.” Scates and Manesiotis make a strong argument indeed for Kelly’s enduring legacy. After reading their inspired tribute to their dear friend, one is reminded of the lag time American readers and critics perpetuate in their tardy appreciation for authentic poetry that’s fated for greatness. Scates and Manesiotis divine such greatness in Kelly’s poetry with exegetical skill and complementary insights, adding perception to perception in a collaborative back and forth that makes an irrefutable case for Kelly as that most rare modern day, anchorite-like poet à la Dickinson who remains anchored and transpersonal simultaneously. Manesiotis captures this paradox in her dear friend’s genius for bilocation as herself and other in her haunting, indelible poems:


Brigit experienced the world much as it is represented in the poems…She saw and perceived and experienced something wholly other. Which is one reason her work is so arresting. The poems present a world wholly other but at the same time, wholly recognizable and true, but the overlay is not visible.


–Chard deNiord




Uncovering What Is Brave: A Remembrance of Brigit Pegeen Kelly

By Joy Manesiotis and Maxine Scates


Brigit Pegeen Kelly lived her life day to day, like most of us do. She loved her children and grandchildren, practiced her religion, tended her farm. She had many dogs. She had cats. She had chickens. Once she had cows and a bull named Moses. Like many American poets, she taught creative writing, and when she died of cancer in October, 2016, she left behind generations of students who speak of her generosity as a teacher and mentor. And yes, she was generous and caring just as she was also intense, fallible, wry, funny and self-deprecating.  She was our close friend for over three decades. The following is based on an exchange that began between us a couple of years ago, born out of our love for her and our grief at her passing.



The Satyr’s Heart



Now I rest my head on the satyr’s carved chest,
The hollow where the heart would have been, if sandstone
Had a heart, if a headless goat man could have a heart.
His neck rises to a dull point, points upward
To something long gone, elusive, and at his feet
The small flowers swarm, earnest and sweet, a clamor
Of white, a clamor of blue, and black the sweating soil
They breed in. . . . If I sit without moving, how quickly
Things change, birds turning tricks in the trees,
Colorless birds and those with color, the wind fingering
The twigs, and the furred creatures doing whatever
Furred creatures do. So and so.  There is the smell of fruit
And the smell of wet coins.  There is the sound of a bird
Crying, and the sound of water that does not move. . . .
If I pick the dead iris? If I wave it above me
Like a flag, a blazoned flag? My fanfare? Little fare
With which I buy my way, making things brave?
No, that is not it. Uncovering what is brave. The way
Now I bend over and with my foot turn up a stone.
And there they are: the armies of pale creatures who
Without cease or doubt sew the sweet sad earth.


~The Orchard



JM: “The Satyr’s Heart” is the poem I read this morning, as I thought about Brigit, as I felt the loss of her, as I thought about writing to you. I am not sure why this poem, today, of all her poems. Maybe because it opens with a maimed statue. The lines and their internal repetitions “My fanfare? Little fare/With which I buy my way, making things brave?” are so characteristic of Brigit’s poems. And then the immediate refutation, the monosyllabic hammer and clipped consonants of the disavowal: “No, that is not it.” And the last image: “Now I bend over and with my foot turn up a stone./And there they are: the armies of pale creatures who/Without cease or doubt sew the sweet sad earth” of unseen creatures, pale from working under a rock, literally, who work on behalf of the earth. The poem opens with the speaker resting her head where there would have been a heart, where both head and heart are absent, and ends with a tribute to those lowly creatures who labor for us “without cease or doubt,”—which makes us question the enterprise, even as the speaker places faith it in. Somehow that trajectory describes an arc that Brigit traced often in her poems.


Still, I cannot get my arms around the loss of her, am inarticulate about the shape and magnitude of that loss—but you know that, you share it. I have found some solace in reading her poems again, and oddly, I’ve started with The Orchard, as terrifying as that book is—perhaps because the times seem to call for that stark vision.



MS: When I think about the poems, I can’t really separate them from the places they were written in and, why not, for better and for worse the natural world was enormously important to her. Eugene, New Jersey, Champaign—where she did not like the flatness of Illinois corn fields. Later Arcata, in those years when we could see each other on some kind of regular basis again—then the beach at Trinidad, a graveyard in Ferndale high on a hill looking down at the town.


I was with her in all of those places, and yet I think of Brigit as still living inside my head or maybe that was just the phone, the hours and hours of talking, about poems, about life, problematizing, working it out, laughing over the mystery of why her lone TV station in the middle of Illinois was suddenly playing only foreign films. I still hear her—the particular timbre of her voice.


We met when we were both editors at Northwest Review in the early eighties. She was passionate about poetry though nobody could read her handwriting when she commented on the poems.  (Some years later she spent part of a letter riffing on possible meanings of words destroyed by my own handwriting—it’s amazing that we could communicate by letters at all.) We met on the page, in the poems we exchanged then and continued to exchange through the years. Many of the poems she wrote while completing her M.F.A. would eventually appear in To The Place of Trumpets, and those of us who read her poems then understood how original they were. Too soon, she and her family left Eugene and moved to New Jersey where they eventually lived on an old farm, the house high on a hill, the walls full of her paintings. On one visit, she pointed to a wall and told how in a dream it opened and a lion had emerged from the opening.  She reported this with some amusement. I think this was the lion that later turned up in “Three Cows and the Moon.” She had a painting studio down by the river.  She finished  To The Place of Trumpets and wrote most of her second book there—it took its name from a poem she wrote in 1989 called “Song.” They all thought the farm was haunted.


I could talk about the statuary—in New Jersey they were there in the form of redundant statues from a nearby church. They lined the drive going up the hill, and they first appear in Song and later come alive on the paths of Allerton, the overgrown meat packer’s estate, the broken windows of the green houses, the wilderness of what had once been manicured drives in the ruined world of The Orchard.


We walked there. We walked and walked in Arcata up the long hills above the sea.



JM: I, too, have a hard time separating the poems from Brigit, from what I know of her. I remember with crystalline clarity the moment a poet friend jumped out of my car in Manhattan, where I was dropping him after he had visited in Brooklyn, and as he got out he asked if I was going to the 92nd Street Y for the Discovery/The Nation reading. And he said, “Brigit Pegeen Kelly is the winner—you should go.” And I did.


Our friendship was born from a 5-hour nonstop talking session at a café in the West Village in New York, and then, for years, on the phone. Remember those years of per minute long distance charges? We went through all kinds of machinations to be able to have hours-long conversations—conversations, like yours, that ranged over poems, faith, daily experience, poems, dreams, the writing life, our reading, the struggle to get the work done, family issues, poems, all the things that make up a life. We visited, yes, but over the years, I remember most the weekly marathon phone conversations. I did visit her in New Jersey, in Champaign, in Arcata. I met her family in California and spent time with her treasured aunt. When she first came to my house in California, she said, “You never mentioned the birdsong here.”



MS: One day she called while I was working—I never answer then, but I did, and I read what I was working on and she said, yes, right there, that line. I remember the poem and the line. Her criticism of my work always seemed so thoroughly on point, but it never felt like criticism, it felt like praise for the worthiness of the whole endeavor, a sense of being seen. I’m sure that quality extended to her work with her students. As her friend, I know how extraordinarily heartened I was by her generosity about my own work. Yet, out of a sense of modesty, I thought then, she could hardly listen to praise for her own though more recently I’ve come to think that she didn’t think of her poems as belonging to her. After I read the final version of Song I sent it back to her having written that it was “wonderful, beautiful and stunning,” but I know when she read those words there was no writerly ego to receive them—and certainly she never flaunted the many awards she received, let alone even mentioned them. One morning, I picked up the New York Times and found that she had been awarded a Guggenheim. Later that day I went to pick her up at the airport for a reading she was going to give at Reed where I was teaching. I chided her for not telling me, and I wanted to announce it that night when I introduced her—the answer was a firm No.



JM: Many times, I learned of various awards she was given and asked her about them, asked why she hadn’t mentioned that particular one to me. She often dissembled, said she wasn’t allowed to announce it yet or that it hadn’t occurred to her. She never felt “inside the circle”—and maybe never wanted to be “inside the circle.” She appreciated the support but she didn’t want any notoriety.


Brigit’s encouragement of my work was central to me. She was the only person I showed my work to for most of the years of our friendship, and she did have an uncanny way of being inside the work with a kind of gracefulness. She didn’t give criticism, so much, as help shape my thinking about a particular piece or even, a whole manuscript. She did confirm or pinpoint the “rightness”of a moment or a move, as she did for you.


And at times, she would read drafts of her work over the phone. Once, she read an early draft of “Courting the Famous Figures at the Grotto of Improbable Thought”—and of course, I was stunned, listening to all four pages of it—and then asked about my response, in a general way, without my seeing it on the page. I remember the physical sensation of my mind grappling with what I had just heard, all the complex layers of it, and struggling to find language to convey my experience.



MS: She loved poetry. She loved making. She loved painting. She loved “mucking around.” In answer to a question one of my students asked after a reading about process, she said she thought when she was writing she was actually trying to paint. Sometimes she did think it might have been better to be working with her hands. In later years, in the many readings she gave throughout the country, she read equally from her own work and the work of others which sometimes annoyed those who had invited her to read. When I last heard her read, she read poems by Emily Dickinson, Miroslav Valek, Edwin Muir, John Haislip and Laura Riding with an equal number of her own. She believed that poetry, that literature, was a communal endeavor.



JM: Brigit conjured poems into the air in her readings. Often, I would look around at the audience, and everyone would be absolutely still, literally stunned.


All work rises from specific sensibilities, perhaps. Brigit experienced the world much as it is represented in the poems. Filtered, of course, and developed in the poems. But the overlap is strong—meaning not a one-to-one correspondence but a kind of layering of perception. She saw and perceived and experienced something wholly other. Which is one reason her work is so arresting. The poems present a world wholly other but at the same time, wholly recognizable and true, but the overlay is not visible.


Reading The Orchard, I am struck, again, by the strangeness, the complexity, the baroque quality of the world of the poems, told in very plain language, with matter-of-fact tone (this is how it is and I am just reporting it to you). Not that the linguistic surface is simple—anything but: Startling moment after startling moment born of language. But the language is not overly ornate. Although the syntax is often unique and the layering of syntax, punctuation, diction is a system/lexicon that Brigit created for the poems, in the poems. The tone is correspondingly flat or refusing incredulity–much like in fable.


The action of the poems, though, follows the construction of dramatic action. It is symphonic, a description often used to describe Brigit’s work. As is the way the dramatic arc is orchestrated, the way the action or dramatic situation unfolds, the way the sentences build. But the poems are not symphonic in theme, so much as in gesture, the way a painter uses gesture. And Brigit wished, above all else, to have been only a painter.


Her relationship to sound was instinctive, I think, and she transformed that intrinsic understanding of the physical, tactile quality of sound and its power into incantation, until the web of sound becomes physical and we feel it in our bodies. The building repetition is often housed in short declarative sentences that unfold yet another level of rhythmic repetition. Under the pressure of her imagination and coupled with her lush, disquieting images, the density of sound echoes something close to chant, calling out to ancient ritual, ceremony, prayer.



MS: Someone, I don’t remember who, called her work “anti-pastoral” which does bespeak the sense of the pastoral as an ideal and, like the idealized blandness of the statuary she made come to life which shattered that ideal, I think what she began to construct out there in the New Jersey countryside in the long narratives of “The House on Main Street,” and eventually “White Pilgrim: Christian Cemetery,” “Three Cows and the Moon ” and “Song,” were the rhythms which drive those poetic structures in that flatness you talk about, that refusal of incredulity. I think, too, she built those structures to bring us closer and closer to experiencing what she saw. Was she a visionary?



JM: And who is the speaker in her poems? Brigit constructed a first-person speaker even though one of the directions in American poetry was to avoid the use of a first person and she employed several angles on the spectrum of tonal possibilities. In her poems—and this develops book to book—the speaker was not a regular person in the world, but the expression of a consciousness that is drawing from multiple layers of existence. The voice in the poems was so different from Brigit’s actual voice, her musings and humor. But both driven, I think, by the forward brilliance of her mind in motion. (Remember trying to keep up with the lightning shifts in her thinking when she was really grappling with a subject in conversation?) Although in the poems, the thinking is slowed down and built through figure and image so that the many layers dawn on us slowly, or more precisely, are built in the reader similarly to how those layers are built in the poem. Does that make sense? I have that sense: that the poem builds in the reader and then the reader is taken aback to find a whole constructed thing inside them.



MS: Every rereading of each book brings something new, most particularly how her voice changed after To The Place Of Trumpets, where the quality of intimacy made for a vulnerable speaker in poems like “After Your Nap” and “To The Lost Child,” both poems for her daughters, one very much alive and one who was lost.


What evolves instead, and what I think of as replacing that intimacy, are the more discursive poems, those that I’ve already mentioned but also “Dead Doe” in Song and “Sparrow’s Gate” in The Orchard. Both poems are once again for her children, and in them, a sense of the howness of the speaker’s thinking is more in play. By howness, what I mean is apprehension, how the speaker and the reader both come to know in the course of the poem, and I think that speaks to your sense of how the poem is “built in the reader similar to how they are built in the poem.” Yes, absolutely. Interestingly, her children also accompany her in “Three Cows And The Moon” and “The White Pilgrim: Christian Cemetery” as the parent-speaker sees something that they can’t see. Yet “Three Cows And The Moon,” “Dead Doe” and eventually “Sparrow’s Gate,” in The Orchard, all ending with the presence of children, are still all vulnerable in their way. But, I think what I’m trying to say is that those poems were born out of the perspective of a parent worrying about the world her children can’t see, but a world she is all too aware of. And, moreover, the structures of those poems allow the reader to be immersed in that world in a way that earlier poems had not—the result being that perhaps we’re thinking less about the person who is writing them than the structure that moves us, which I’m pretty sure was what she wanted.



JM: Yes, your thoughts about how the speaker and the reader “come to know” seem exactly right. It happens in a physical, material, almost painterly way. When I would teach Brigit’s poems, which I did every year, I would see, again, how the structure itself became a kind of character, or presence, in the poems. This is particularly apparent in the poems in Song. The two poems that many people seem to know, “Song,” and “Three Cows and the Moon,” both marry structure to voice in the way characteristic of Brigit’s poems, but that marriage is more easily apprehendable in those two poems. Brigit spent time in the theatre, in her earlier days, and she loved the theatre—we talked of it often, given my own immersion in it—and in the poems, she is working with that sense of a constructed character inside an imagined world that is so essential in theatrical realism. But of course, the poems, like much non-linear, expressionistic theatre—and she loved Beckett, Pinter, Brecht, and she knew the structure and specific moments of several Shakespeare plays intimately—pushed past realism into, what? Myth? Vision? Not exactly, but a way of seeing. And a willingness, or necessity, to see, and to say, whatever the cost. What she had to negotiate, the journey she took to make those poems, to craft that inner landscape, to hold to that vision was immeasureable.



MS:  With regard to that speaker and the vision in The Orchard, which I find less visionary than prophetic, there is sometimes a kind of rapacious horror as when the dog in the “The Dance” at first disgorges what it has eaten and, once glimpsed, swallows it again. For most of us, it wasn’t an easy place to go. For her, I think what she’d seen early in folktale had prepared her–-what folktales dared to say about the world before it, too, was swallowed up and disgorged again in a more palatable version where witches still eat children, but the children somehow look like Hummel figures, unthreatened, undreaming, and altogether lacking in the complexity of Brigit’s “Black Sheep” where a boy is born of an animal but only wants to be a normal boy. Throughout her poetry, rooted in the physical world as it was, melodic and sensual as it was, it is perhaps in The Orchard more than the earlier books where the poems consistently engage what is often unfathomable, unknowable as they glimpse, to paraphrase a line from “Pale Rider,” the shapes our minds resist again and again only to have those shapes disappear.


So, maybe that’s another tension to think about, how the visionary contains a quality of passivity that allows her to see, but not to offer a solution. The oracle is one who says what she sees without resolution. She warns, and that quality of warning is so much a part of her work, and often what is so disturbing. Yet what is at the center of Brigit’s work is how she lowered herself down, how she witnessed without offering a way out of what she was witnessing which, to me, does honor the mystery of poetry—what can’t be defined or taught, or ultimately resolved.



JM: In the later poems, I am struck, again, by how intimate the voice seems, how close, almost speaking quietly in my ear. And yet, how dark the vision—or perhaps not only dark, but willing to look. How difficult what it recorded, what it made visible. The world those poems summon—yes, right here in front of us—articulate some other reality or shadow or other world living in the forms of this one. So the intimacy of the voice holds me to continue reading even if, at times, I want to turn away from the vision it is conjuring. And, as has been written about elsewhere, a voice coming from everywhere at once, not tied to a particular location, physically or in time.



MS: Yet, in terms of how you hear the poems, how that intimacy holds you, I sometimes wonder if the lack of a fixed persona frustrates those readers who love her work because they believe they ought to know her as they believe they know other poets whose persona is more fixed—when, of course, they don’t know those poets either. Over time, especially since her death, I think there’s been a tendency to make her into a mystery, and it’s true that she guarded her privacy more than she had when she first came to poetry. It’s also true that she wrote poems that were startlingly unique in American poetry late in the 20th and early in the 21st century which, in turn, seemed to engender so many requests that she could not meet from people who needed something she could not give them. I think there were those who believed she could provide a pathway to understanding how she could see as she saw, as if there was a formula she could give them when there most clearly was not. I know she was both conscious of and saddened by this.



JM: So many people wanted—and continue to want—something from Brigit. So many people try to claim her, as if by claiming her, they locate something for themselves, or find a kind of status that they seek. Brigit remained true to a remarkable, and arduous, interior journey to make the work. Hard won. And, true, others perhaps want the fruit of it but not the journey itself, not that doubt or—as in her poem—to wrestle with the angel (for us).



MS  Yes, and I think you’re speaking to the tenor of the time we live in which denies both the originality and mystery of poetry and turns it into another commodity. Of course, craft can be taught, but no one can teach how to be alone with the work, how to follow what you encounter in that aloneness—and I think that’s what some people wanted from her—but you have to go there by yourself to find it and she did.  She once described herself as a “solitary.” What I mean to say is she did not will herself to see what she saw. Instead, she opened herself to follow what emerged from a practice that was both poetic and spiritual.



JM: Following seems right. And who/what she was serving? I do think she was serving in her work. Even given her faith and practice of Catholicism, I suspect she might have approached the making of poems not as prayer, but as a kind of accompaniment to prayer. That’s not exactly right. A kind of secular prayer? An offering of some kind. Fraught, yes, because it privileged her own inner life, her own voice, her own self, perhaps. But, still. She did it. In a recent lecture, Brenda Hillman suggested cultivating the “habit of a walking dreamer.” Brigit was, by nature, a walking dreamer. Hence, her uneasy relationship with the business of poetry and the issues it presented. Perhaps one of the reasons I so treasured our friendship was that her relationship to the work was not inspiration, but instruction, in a way.



MS:  She was a seeker. Somewhere recently I read that those who have the greatest arguments with God are struggling to believe even as they rail against God. She struggled with belief, but she believed in that struggle. I’d left the church around the same age Brigit came to it—late in my teens. Once, when I wrote a poem in which my father’s phallus turned into a snake, Brigit said that I could see that way because I had been raised in the church. I was startled, but I think she meant that what came naturally to me, however antagonistic my own relationship to Catholicism, was something she had missed and part of what she now actively sought. Her parents were the ones who had turned away from it, and she was the one who returned. One morning in Arcata or Eureka, she went to Mass. I didn’t go in. I waited in the car. Later, after she died, I took my mother to Mass and remembered everything, when I was to kneel, when to stand, when to recite–and all of it was for Brigit. I guess it was both an act of mourning and my way of sharing one of the few things I couldn’t share with her while she was alive and we had shared so much.



JM: Her sense of the worth of the individual self—which she applied only to herself, and not others—was that it was unnecessary, perhaps even dispensible. But the poems hold a different kind of largeness, perhaps because they were an offering. Those two, at times dueling, forces were at work, always: To build the contemplative life and then, protect it, while asking that the self step back.



MS:  I recall how sometimes when she read she made jokes at her own expense between poems, and I was a bit jarred by that, but I think she did that as if to lift the burden a little, hers and ours. Whether they were or not, she didn’t want the poems to be taken as about her. Perhaps it’s trite to say so, but she was a messenger and when you talk about her background of theater, I’m struck by how, in their way, each poem was a mask. But here is the point, as she would say, she wanted to tell us what she saw, and the mask allowed her to both say what she saw and get herself out of the way of what she was showing us. And, as you suggest, the poem was that offering of what it was to be there with her in the wandering.



for Maria

Maxine Scates’ fourth book of poems, My Wilderness, was published by the University of Pittsburgh Press in 2021.  Her poems have been widely published in such journals as AGNI, The American Poetry Review, The Iowa Review, Ironwood, The New England Review, The New Yorker, Ploughshares, Plume, Poetry Northwest, Poetry and The Virginia Quarterly Review and have received, among other awards, the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize, the Stafford/Hall Award for Poetry and two Pushcart Prizes.



Joy Manesiotis is the author of three collections of poems, A Short History of Anger, chosen by Brenda Hillman for The New Measure Poetry Prize (Free Verse Editions/Parlor Press), Revoke (Airlie Press), and They Sing to Her Bones, which won the New Issues Poetry Prize. Poems and essays have appeared in literary journals and anthologies, including The American Poetry Review, Poetry, Massachusetts Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, and Poetry International. She is the Edith R. White Distinguished Professor Emerita in Creative Writing, University of Redlands, California.