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The Art of Sitting in Silence

Robert Galvin

“… What they didn’t know

Was that the goat’s head would go on singing, just for them.

Long after the ropes were down, and that they would learn to listen.”

Song / Brigit Pegeen Kelly

It was more than a quarter-century ago — June of 1995, to be exact — when I sat in silence as the poet Brigit Pegeen Kelly read “Song,” the title piece from her second collection.

Perhaps “read,” while factually correct, is the wrong word for that moment.

An admittedly reluctant reader, Kelly nonetheless stilled her audience with a low, direct tone, gathering us close as her narrative spun its unlikely story — the killing, as a prank, of a young girl’s pet goat — to its heartbreaking conclusion.

There was a communal pause as she finished, followed by the polite applause expected at such an event. I never asked her, but it wouldn’t surprise me if she felt more at ease with the pause — acknowledgment that those in attendance not only had heard the poem … but had learned to listen.

April is National Poetry Month and, while poetry has infrequent bursts in the national spotlight, it always has felt to me as the most personal of arts.

Maybe you share what has sprung from within; maybe you keep its existence to a select few; maybe it exists only on pages that you yourself are too reluctant to read once complete.

Poetry exists because it must. It can’t stand still, behind some wall. It must be let out.

Poems might demand to be delivered, but they do not emerge with public recognition as their goal and, if they do, the artifice can be easily detected and questions about the writer’s motives should rightfully be asked.

April is National Poetry Month and my mind, as it tends to do, wandered to that early summer night in 1995.

It was the opening evening of a writers’ conference — the sort of weeklong fantasy camp where those who have summoned the courage to exchange their efforts hoped for nothing more than for their words to avoid being picked apart by others hoping the same hope.

Brigit Pegeen Kelly, California born but at that stage of life teaching at the University of Illinois Urbana, would lead the poetry workshop in which I found myself sitting.

She had read the night before our contingent first met; so we were equally insecure and intimidated before that initial encounter.

We needn’t be. She had been in our place before. She empathized. She knew, if not how much we cared about our poetry, how much it took to come to the point of wanting to lay it bare.

By week’s end, those in the workshop had learned more about each other than we had expected — a social intimacy that had eased tensions, while demonstrating her innate abilities to teach, and inspire.

And then it was over. The week ended, the workshop attendees dispersed back into the upoetic everyday.

Or so I thought.

On the final day of the conference, she gave me her address. She wanted me to send her what I was writing, or rewriting, or just what I had been thinking about writing.

I don’t know how many others from that long ornate conference table received the same gesture, so I never believed myself special and never expected it to last more than a single exchange of letters.

And yet I was wrong again. Over the next half-dozen or so years, we exchanged notes and letters, poems and pieces of poems.

It was always, always about the writing. Always about the words, and the order in which I had chosen to put them.

It was as though this poet, winner of several awards, nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, was giving me a one-on-one graduate class.

When the correspondence ended, as it eventually must, there was a sense of loss, but also of gratitude — that this reluctant reader and (I’d come to learn) private person had granted me as much time as she had.

Brigit Pegeen Kelly passed, privately, in October of 2016 and this National Poetry Month I do what I do every April ...

I read her poems and listen to her again for the first time.

Mail Tribune news editor Robert Galvin can be reached at rgalvin@rosebudmedia.com


Listen: there was a goat's head hanging by ropes in a tree.

All night it hung there and sang. And those who heard it

Felt a hurt in their hearts and thought they were hearing

The song of a night bird. They sat up in their beds, and then

They lay back down again. In the night wind, the goat's head

Swayed back and forth, and from far off it shone faintly

The way the moonlight shone on the train track miles away

Beside which the goat's headless body lay. Some boys

Had hacked its head off. It was harder work than they had imagined.

The goat cried like a man and struggled hard. But they

Finished the job. They hung the bleeding head by the school

And then ran off into the darkness that seems to hide everything.

The head hung in the tree. The body lay by the tracks.

The head called to the body. The body to the head.

They missed each other. The missing grew large between them,

Until it pulled the heart right out of the body, until

The drawn heart flew toward the head, flew as a bird flies

Back to its cage and the familiar perch from which it trills.

Then the heart sang in the head, softly at first and then louder,

Sang long and low until the morning light came up over

The school and over the tree, and then the singing stopped....

The goat had belonged to a small girl. She named

The goat Broken Thorn Sweet Blackberry, named it after

The night's bush of stars, because the goat's silky hair

Was dark as well water, because it had eyes like wild fruit.

The girl lived near a high railroad track. At night

She heard the trains passing, the sweet sound of the train's horn

Pouring softly over her bed, and each morning she woke

To give the bleating goat his pail of warm milk. She sang

Him songs about girls with ropes and cooks in boats.

She brushed him with a stiff brush. She dreamed daily

That he grew bigger, and he did. She thought her dreaming

Made it so. But one night the girl didn't hear the train's horn,

And the next morning she woke to an empty yard. The goat

Was gone. Everything looked strange. It was as if a storm

Had passed through while she slept, wind and stones, rain

Stripping the branches of fruit. She knew that someone

Had stolen the goat and that he had come to harm. She called

To him. All morning and into the afternoon, she called

And called. She walked and walked. In her chest a bad feeling

Like the feeling of the stones gouging the soft undersides

Of her bare feet. Then somebody found the goat's body

By the high tracks, the flies already filling their soft bottles

At the goat's torn neck. Then somebody found the head

Hanging in a tree by the school. They hurried to take

These things away so that the girl would not see them.

They hurried to raise money to buy the girl another goat.

They hurried to find the boys who had done this, to hear

Them say it was a joke, a joke, it was nothing but a joke....

But listen: here is the point. The boys thought to have

Their fun and be done with it. It was harder work than they

Had imagined, this silly sacrifice, but they finished the job,

Whistling as they washed their large hands in the dark.

What they didn't know was that the goat's head was already

Singing behind them in the tree. What they didn't know

Was that the goat's head would go on singing, just for them,

Long after the ropes were down, and that they would learn to listen,

Pail after pail, stroke after patient stroke. They would

Wake in the night thinking they heard the wind in the trees

Or a night bird, but their hearts beating harder. There

Would be a whistle, a hum, a high murmur, and, at last, a song,

The low song a lost boy sings remembering his mother's call.

Not a cruel song, no, no, not cruel at all. This song

Is sweet. It is sweet. The heart dies of this sweetness.