Brigit Pegeen Kelly
Brigit Pegeen Kelly is one of America’s most strikingly original contemporary poets. Born in 1951 in Palo Alto, California, Kelly has received some of American poetry’s most prestigious honors, including a Discovery/the Nation Award, the Yale Younger Poets Prize, a Whiting Writers Award, and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Academy of American Poets. In poems that frequently turn nature into a kind of myth, Kelly exposes both the glory and menace of animal and human life, birth and death, stasis and change. Over three books, she has created a style at once richly imagined and emotionally complex. Praising Kelly’s work, poet Carl Phillips noted that “her poems are like no one else’s—hard and luminous, weird in the sense of making a thing strange, that we at last might see it, poems that from book to book show a strength that flexes itself both formally and in terms of content, in ways that continue to, at equal turns, teach and surprise.” Her work has won numerous prizes: acclaimed poet James Merrill selected her first collection, To the Place of Trumpets (1987), for the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize; her subsequent volume, Song (1995), won the Lamont Poetry Prize of the Academy of American Poets; and her third book, Orchard (2004), was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award in Poetry, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Pulitzer Prize.
“The religious imagination is part and parcel of Kelly’s work,” commented Stephen Yenser in the Yale Review. “Always in touch with the so-called natural world, her poems nonetheless present it ineluctably in Christian terms, whose implicit verities she invariably calls into question.” Kelly’s earliest book, To the Place of Trumpets, includes several poems that reflect her Catholic upbringing, including stained-glass angels coming to life. At times adopting a child’s point of view, the book is a detailed vision of a world beginning to take shape unto itself; it points towards the larger themes and bigger, stranger landscapes that characterize her second and third books. While continuing to explore ritual, belief, and doubt, Kelly’s later work has won praise for its stark, even shocking, portrayals of evil and transcendence. Using a menagerie of animals both real and invented, Kelly’s later work explores the slippage between fact and fantasy. According to Carl Phillips, Kelly’s self-imposed task has been to “investigate why the world is so protean, pitching our human desire to empirically know a thing against a very real—and in the world of Kelly’s poems—an otherworldly resistance to so-called rational thinking. The title poem in Song associates a haunting tune with the brutal killing of a girl’s pet goat by a group of boys. The poem “appropriately introduces the reader to some of the unexpected and compelling ways the poet achieves meaning and effect through the agency of music,” wrote Robert Buttel in American Book Review. Comparing Song and The Orchard in the Guardian, Fiona Sampson noted that while they share similar themes and structures, The Orchard’s “diction is thicker, less elegant. The poems are more clearly narrative and populated: the figure of a boy, in particular, recurs. By now it is clear that goat, doe, and all the rest are not merely statuary but animated myths. Kelly’s Orchard is the dangerous grove where transformations happen.”
Brigit Pegeen Kelly has taught at various colleges and universities including the University of California-Irvine, Purdue University, Warren Wilson College, and at writers’ conferences in the United States in Ireland. She is currently a professor of English at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign.
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, professor of English.
- To the Place of Trumpets, foreword by James Merrill, Yale University Press (New Haven, CT), 1988.
- Song, BOA Editions (Brockport, NY), 1995.
- The Orchard, BOA Editions (Rochester, NY), 2004.
- Poems: Song and the Orchard, Carcanet Press Ltd (Manchester, England), 2008.
- American Book Review, December-January, 1995-96, Robert Buttel, "Bird Calls," p. 17.
- Booklist, February 1, 1995, Patricia Monaghan, review of Song, p. 988.
- Georgia Review, summer, 1988, Judith Kitchen, "Speaking Passions," pp. 407-422.
- Kliatt, September, 1988, review of To the Place of Trumpets, pp. 28-29.
- Library Journal, May 15, 1988, Fred Muratori, review of To the Place of Trumpets, p. 84.
- Yale Review, January, 1996, Stephen Yenser, "Poetry in Review," pp. 166-185.
Poems By BRIGIT PEGEEN KELLY
LIFE SPAN 1951–