Scientists tell us that the stories we tell ourselves—and others—about our dreams are not the same as the dreams themselves, which are stranger, more fragmentary, less pliable in morning light. The same is true, I think, for the stories we tell ourselves about how we find our way into writing, into thinking of ourselves as writers.
I began writing poetry seriously in 1995, never having taken a poetry class of any kind. I was walking away from a Ph.D. in American history; I was in the process of pursuing a faith that was new to me, and often shocking, which led me to join an Amish community in rural North Carolina. As far as moments in life go, it was exhilarating, beautiful and terrifying by turns. Writing became, as I’ve said elsewhere, a bit like Dickinson’s letter to a world that would not write to her—or with whom, in my case, I’d ceased corresponding, at least in recognizable ways.
My education as a poet consisted of traveling the 30-odd miles down to the university libraries at Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill, checking out as many books as I could, and hauling them back to my cabin/trailer/house in Yanceyville, poring over them in the evenings after I’d spent the day working as a truss-maker, baker, or window-builder (in a vinyl replacement window shop). Eventually Duke deprived me of my library privileges. Eventually I gave up my automobile so that I could be accepted into membership into the Yanceyville Amish community. We were all very poor. Sometimes I would find a ride down to Chapel Hill. Occasionally I had the money to hire a taxi. Sometimes I checked out books by poets because I’d heard of them, dimly, or because another poet had referenced them. Sometimes I checked them out because I was attracted by their covers. (This is how I found C.D. Wright’s Deepstep Come Shining.)
I had a large canvas bag, really a small duffle, that I would cram books into. Sometimes, when I couldn’t find or afford a ride, I had to mail the books back to the library, box by box.
It wasn’t the worst way to come to know poetry, even contemporary American poetry.
At some point I became aware of the Best American Poetry anthology series, and I thought that I should read them too, to get some broad grasp of what was happening in the moment. I had enough sense to understand that there were many “bests”—especially in poetry—and as I turned pages in early iterations of the series, I found myself responding in all the ways one does. But there were a few exceptions, poems that stopped me cold in the midst of everything.
At that time I had just opened my bakery, a small shop on Blanch Road just off the two-lane asphalt ribbon that links Milton and Yanceyville, N.C. In my memory I read these poems a few days, perhaps a few weeks apart. I read them in my bakery, because I’d taken to reading poems in between baking chores. (I found rising at 3 a.m. all but impossible, so instead I worked through the nights.) In two cases, I remember where I was standing when I read the poems.
One was Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s “All Wild Animals Were Once Called Deer,” in The Best American Poetry 1995. I had a worn, fuzzy, third-hand green armchair in a corner of my bakery, and I’d just sunk down into it; I’d mixed all my dough for the night, everything was in the proofer, and I was, I remember, very tired already, almost cross-eyed with exhaustion.
I read the poem, and I thought I want this. I want it in my life. I want it now.
There is a spiritual version of this story; I could tell it a different way. But telling it a different way would not change how fervently I wanted Brigit’s poem to be part of my life that night.
In 2003, at Bread Loaf, I had the privilege of working with Brigit. On the first day of her workshop, Brigit asked us to introduce ourselves by reeling off the usual biographical data and then adding “something you hate” about poetry. She took strenuous issue with one increasingly agitated young woman who claimed she didn’t hate anything, didn’t want to hate anything. If I remember correctly, Brigit argued that it was impossible to be human, and therefore also to be a poet, if one didn’t hate something.
That summer I worked my way through the conference as a flunky in the back office. Among other duties, I took photocopy requests. At one point I turned to answer a knock at the office door and saw Brigit standing there, a photocopy job in hand.
I was so tongue-tied I couldn’t speak properly. She looked concerned; her brow furrowed. “Is there something I can do for you,” she asked, gently. That confused me even further. Trying to save the moment, I hazarded the first thing that came to mind. “Adopt me,” I gasped.
“I’m sorry. I can’t do that,” she responded. She seemed to regret it, sincerely.
It was Brigit who convinced me that a fierce beauty was still at the heart of American poetry, or could be (and also that sincere regret, that laces so many of her best poems). It was also Brigit who convinced me that there was still room for ecstatic vision in American poetry: not the poem that purports to record a vision, but the poem that enacts a vision, that unfolds like a sea urchin or a dahlia or a damaged globe in the cupped hand of the reader’s mind’s eye.
I’ve taught Brigit’s work almost every semester since returning to the academy, and we corresponded irregularly. I saw her one other time in person at Bread Loaf, once here at Bucknell (she taught in the Bucknell Seminar for Younger Poets in 2012), and twice in Illinois, where one morning we discussed Mandelstam and her small farm in the diner at Urbana-Champaign’s tiny airport. It makes me happy that the journal I now edit, West Branch, not only published a few of my own early poems (long before I came to Bucknell), but also seven of Brigit’s early poems, between 1984 and 1988.
I wrote my last letter to Brigit on 3 April 2016. It began, “I’m up this evening rereading Song for the first time in a few years, as I am teaching it tomorrow; and recalling, as I read, how much I owe you and your work, across many different years and places, many different selves. I know I’ve expressed this gratitude before, but time is always shorter than we think, and so: while I may.” Elsewhere in the letter I offered a string of quotes from recent reading: “Hugo Ball writes ‘One must be astonished totally, yet more and more softly. This is how eternity wonders at the times and changes them. One must wonder at the wonders. And also at the wounds, the deepest and last wounds, and elevate them to the wondrous.’ Ray Ragosta: ‘The sinking hymn lingers... / as vocables in undertow, // later read as scars upon the body.’ Wayne Miller, more recently: ‘Ghosts have no connection / to the dead. Ghosts / are merely ours.’”
I can recite some of Brigit’s poems almost by heart: the title poems from Song and The Orchard, “The Dragon,” “Dead Doe,” “All Wild Animals Were Once Called Deer,” “The Scorpion,” “White Christian, Old Pilgrim Cemetery.” I can’t go outside at dusk on a crisp autumn evening (such as tonight, as I’m typing this) without hearing lines from “Three Cows and the Moon.”
One way to figure the difference between life and poetry is between a wound and a scar. Except that poetry is the wound that goes with us, in time: that stays with us. And if poetry is the wound, then life itself must be the scar. Something or someone was there, and isn’t any longer.
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