The Art of Sitting in Silence
“… 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 email@example.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.