Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Professor and Poet, Brigit Pegeen Kelly

Image result for brigit pegeen kelly's death

Last month, as a prompt in my on-line poetry class with Irish poet Kevin Higgins, it was suggested we attempt a piece comparing humans to animals. I chose my three sisters because they are dear to me and selected the Pipistrelle bat for comparison because of a poem I read some time ago written by Brigit Pegeen Kelly. She introduced me to these tiny creatures in her poem Pipistrelles, and I had fun comparing my siblings to the same. I called my piece The Pipistrelle Cartel and although it did not compare in any way to the original, I had fun writing it.

Then, several nights ago, I could not sleep, so I picked up a book, my usual insomnia routine. My selection, taken from a wobbly pile  next to my office chair, was Western Wind, An Introduction to Poetry by David Mason and John Frederick Nims. For whatever reason I flipped through the pages and came across the poem Song, also written by Brigit Pegeen Kelly. 

It is a sorrowful piece, one of unfulfilled longing, that constricts your chest and makes one short of breath, or at least that was my reaction to it. It is a poem that demands to be read out loud. It reminded me again, how much I loved this poets work. I read it again, slowly, jotting down some of the most striking descriptions such as "the goat's silky hair/Was dark as well water, because it had eyes like wild fruit." The sadness of the piece haunted me, a young girl loses a beloved pet, and it took some time to feel sleepy again. So I set a goal for the new year. I selected twelve poets I appreciated and wanted to study more, one for each month, and I wrote their names on little tags. I would start this independent study later in January.

The day after that, my husband was driving us to a family Christmas event and I was pouring through my newest edition of Poets & Writers Magazine when on page seventeen I came across the  In Memoriam listing of writers/poets and there, just past the middle of the list was her name, Brigit Pegeen Kelly.  I turned to my husband and asked the silliest question of my adult life. "In Memoriam means dead, right?" I was having a difficult time understanding that this gentle woman, this beautiful poet, had died. For the next ten minutes I was all over my smart phone looking for proof and it was everywhere. On the Poetry Foundation Web page, where is listed her birth and death date for example. She had died just eight weeks ago at the age of 65.

Still, weeks later, I feel deep sadness when I think of her passing. We were not close friends, I was only one of the hundreds, thousands? of students she encountered, but regardless, I feel quite blue.

I was unaware of her until August 2014 when I enrolled in her Introduction to Poetry class at the University of Illinois in Champaign.  As I did with all my writing professors, I researched them via the schools web site, the creative writing department web site, Google, and in her case, The Poetry Foundation. I was impressed with her credentials, her accomplishments, her publications,  and I was excited about being one of her students. I was even more thrilled on the first day of class when she slipped noiselessly into class wearing jeans and a sweatshirt. Her long, grey hair was as straight and unadorned as she. Her presence was quiet but her eyes were excited, as she took all of us in for the first time. A finalist for the 2004 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry was here, in the same room with all of goofy newbie poets.

I was 55 when I returned to college, an quasi-mature hippie type living on an organic farm, and I felt sorely out of place in this class room full of young, bright, firm bodied, purple and pink haired shining-star millennials.  Brigit equalized us by putting us to work immediately. "Write me a poem, about anything." So we did, and they were all varying degrees of awful. Little thought put into form, craft or sound, yet this unassuming woman in charge found several good and decent things to say about each poem. These comments were genuine and well thought out. A "quirky rhyme" we penned accidentally, or a "meaningful dialogue on loss" we missed all together were given notice, praised, and recognized for potential. Rewrites were encouraged and discussed again, either in the classroom or if we preferred, in private in her office.

She was also interested in our career goals and our reasons for choosing poetry, being most fascinated by those less expected to write poetry: the students of math, chemistry and engineering. It was the exacting nature, the reasoning within these students work, she focused on, encouraging the rest of us right brained artistic types to take note. "If you want to master word economy, read the mathematicians poem."

I took advantage of her office hours several times, and she was a most gracious host in her end-of-the-hall room. The wood floors, leather chairs  and piles of manuscripts, book and papers in near cascading form on her desk screamed Poet At Work Here! I assumed she was tremendously busy with her classes, her writing, her own family, but when I was in her office, she never let on, I was at that time, her main interest. She asked not just about my poetry, but about my background, my children, my farm, and she connected with me by encouraging me to write about ALL of that.

The last time I saw her was at the end of that semester in December 2014. I had returned to her office with my copy of her book, Poems: Song and The Orchard in a quest for her signature, but she would have none of it. "Later," she said, "some other time. Now show me what you've written lately." We spent nearly an hour together that afternoon and I felt bad about taking up so much of her time, but when I would start to leave she would ask me another question like,  "Why did you choose the word 'thread' when talking about the suns rays? Tell me about that."

A few times I even thought I might send her the book, maybe it would be easier for her to sign it if I wasn't in the room. I imagined she would pen something hysterical like, "Good luck with your writing, but don't get your hopes up." Of course she would've never done something like that, that's more my warped style. She had far more class than I ever would.


  1. The people you re-find in the middle of the night, only to discover they have left this world just as you re-discovered them.

  2. I'm afraid I don't have anything eloquent to say, like Mirka. I just couldn't help but think what a gem of a person Brigit Pegeen Kelly was, and how fortunate you were to have her for a teacher. Caring teachers seem rare these days.

    I'd not heard of her, but your eulogy (and I had to look that word up to make sure I was going to use it correctly ;) here really makes me wish I had known her. I confess to not appreciating poetry as much as I think I should. I seem to lack the patience to be sensitive enough to what a poet has to say.

    1. No worries Leigh, my appreciation of poetry came very late. I was so busy for so many decades rushing around causing trouble. Finally, I'm learning to be still, to listen and watch and the words came more easily after that. Brigit Kelly had so much to do with that long overdue transition. I suggest you read her poem SONG. I believe that you, a fellow goat lover, will appreciate it. https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/song