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Book Review Tony Leuzzi

The Orchard
Brigit Pegeen Kelly
BOA Editions ($14.95)

Brigit Pegeen Kelly's poems are like rare birds: strange and wonderful. More closely aligned with the offbeat brilliance of Dylan Thomas than, say, the confessional voice of Anne Sexton, Kelly's intricately-patterned poems inhabit the fertile field of elegy––a subject that, through its obsessive reiteration, suggests that each new poem is a dazzling revision of the ones that came before it. If I'm saying that Kelly tends to write the same poem over and over again, this tendency enables her to achieve the sort of depth and vision most poets only dream of. As a book, then, The Orchard is a coherent statement on the experience of loss, or––more precisely––how one attempts to understand this experience through the powerful yet unstable realities of the physical world. Whether the voice in her poems is pondering the "heavy" absence of a statue's arms ("The Sparrow's Gate") or discovering the problematic relationship between likenesses (such as "mute the birds. Not like birds at all" in "Two Boys"), or ruminating on the mind's tendency to sculpt its own approximate reality (as the artist does, using a "poor dog" to carve "Out of the blackest of black stones a female wolf" in "The Wolf"), it is always aware that, in its fumbling toward articulation, it is attempting to fill space, to create matter where there is only emptiness.

Perhaps it is this very anxiousness that accounts for the conspicuous fullness of Kelly's poems. Her long, loose hexameter lines aurally and visually distinguish her from the shorter, more concise expressions of her contemporaries. Moreover, within these lines, there is a tendency to bead together disparate images, suggesting that everything is connected: in "The Satyr's Heart," for example, the voice notes "…There is the smell of fruit/And the smell of wet coins..." Like Whitman's "inclusive" verse, her cadenced lines are patterned on parallel structure and figures of repetition because these devices allow her to be expansive. Unlike Whitman, however, Kelly's expansiveness is filled with doubt, with dis-ease. In "Brightness from the North," one of The Orchard's most moving poems, a seven-line enumeration about the vegetation in a garden is immediately followed by the admission that "…the day will be empty/Because you are no longer in it…"

Most people reading this volume will attempt to compare it to Kelly's previous book, 1994's Song––a tour de force that established Kelly as a sui generis voice in contemporary poetry. While there is no question that both books are compatible in theme, tone, and diction, The Orchard finds Kelly moving further away from stanzaic forms. The notable exceptions here are "Sheet Music" (quatrains) and "Midwinter" (tercets), both of which are as powerful as some of Song's best poems. Nonetheless, the prevailing structure throughout is on the aforementioned loose hexameter that accumulates beyond twenty-five lines. An untrained eye might mistake some of these poems (like "The Dance" or "The Sparrow's Gate") for prose, since their lines are so deliciously long. To make this mistake, however would be to disregard Kelly's consistent integrity to line endings and her impeccable ear for rhythms made possible through line breaking. One need only consider the four actual prose poems in The Orchard to understand the difference.

Scattered evenly throughout the book, these poems share with the verse a preoccupation with the internal struggle between presence and absence, and they boast much of the same rhetorical brilliance of the lined poems. However, the prose poems are, perhaps, an uninitiated reader's best way into the book, since their structure seems to have allowed Kelly to relax and write more directly. In "The Foreskin," for example, she states her theme more plainly than she does in any other section of the book:

the word did not seem to resemble the thing I held in hand, as words so often do not resemble the things they represent, or what we imagine them to represent; words can even destroy in their saying the very thing
for which they stand.

While the act of planting her newborn child's foreskin in the garden is made clear, the poem, unlike so many contemporary prose poems, is not driven by action or event. Very much like the verse, an understated act precipitates observation, rumination and ultimately revelation.

In the context of The Orchard, the prose pieces usually function as interludes for the more complexly-designed lined poems. However, one of these prose poems should be regarded among the book's best poems. Consider the gorgeous, natural music of "Windfall," which moves organically from the voice's perception of a "wretched pond in the woods" to her shock and delight in finding the pond is filled with "ornamental carp...large as trumpets." The prose here moves seamlessly from observation to observation, braiding compound figures and seemingly incompatible imagery into a coherent microcosm of the entire collection itself.