FEBRUARY 11, 2022
I WAS ONLY halfway through a first reading of Nathaniel Perry’s second poetry collection, Long Rules, when I knew I should pair it with Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s iconic second collection, Song.
For one thing, both books sing. The poems, which wear their intricate formal dexterities with a Dickinsonian “Costumeless Consciousness,” are alive with sonic verve and beauty. Long Rules is a book-length, roomy blank-verse “essay/assay,” in which the narrator sojourns to several Trappist monasteries, using these visits as an occasion to meditate on volition, faith, solitude, family, and the natural world. Kelly’s Song offers a paean to the terror, vicissitudes, mystery, and resilience of the (hum)animal spirit. Each second book, in its own way, explores the risks and rewards of attending to one’s inner song and of leading a contemplative, inner, examined life — a way of being, as Eavan Boland pointed out in an homage to Kelly and her work after Kelly’s untimely death in 2016, that our turbulent times have “turned out of its habitat.”
Brigit Pegeen Kelly is well known for flying, by choice, below the po-biz radar. The recipient of a host of major writing awards, and treasured as a devoted, discerning teacher, Kelly was not the sort to self-promote. When invited to give public readings, for example, she was more inclined to read poems by Wallace Stevens than her own work. Her debut collection, To the Place of Trumpets, was selected by James Merrill as the 1987 recipient of the Yale Younger Poets award. Song, the 1994 Lamont Poetry Selection of the Academy of American Poets, appeared with BOA in 1995, followed by The Orchard, also with BOA, in 2004. Carcanet published Song and The Orchard together in 2008, and this was to be Kelly’s last book before her death.
Anyone educated in a creative writing program in the last couple of decades likely knows at the very least the title poem from Song, a justly lauded, terrifying piece about song and poetry, love and death. Mention Kelly to most practicing poets, and even those who haven’t read the poem, or read it recently, will respond, “That’s the goat poem, right?”
Poems in our moment are often encountered singly or in small clusters: in anthologies, in course packets, via tweets, Pinterest, Facebook, Instagram, or blogs, or in online journals. Yet something happens to individual poems when they are read as the poet collected and curated them, one piece leading to the next or talking back to the foregoing, a single poem domesticating or wilding up another when juxtaposed or “rhymed” with it. For example, the unflinching pathos of “Song” — which plays on the etymology of “tragedy” (goat-song) and describes the senseless beheading of a young girl’s pet goat (“Then somebody found the goat’s body / By the high tracks, the flies already filling their soft bottles / At the goat’s torn neck”) and the subsequent haunting of the culpable boys by the phantom “sweet” song of the dead animal (“The heart dies of this sweetness”) — dilates into the larger realms of shame and grace when read alongside “Wild Turkeys: The Dignity of the Damned.” A file of wild turkeys (“Those laughingstock, shriveled, lipstick red hearts — / Swinging on throat and foreneck / Beneath the narrow heads that are the blue // Not of the sky but of convicts’ shaved skulls”) might be easy to disregard as a shabby, sulky parade of doomed fowl (“Yesterday they were targets, but now they go slow”). But Kelly changes the stakes, alluding to the plight of other sulky marchers: “When the state you defend is a lost state, / When lurching into an ungainly run / Only reminds you that there is nowhere to run to.” The speaker comes to view the turkeys as a tableau of humility,
Reveal[ing], as we watch, the dignity that lines
Of pilgrim-sick possess as they halt toward some dark grotto —
A faith beyond the last desire to possess faith,
The soldier’s resolve to march humpbacked straight into death
Until it breaks like oil over him
And over all that is lost.
For all of their intimate, sensory renderings of flora and fauna, living and dead, these are measured poems, their intricate patterns, internal rhymes, and refrains all calling attention to themselves as song, in the style of obvious kindred poetic spirits like Wallace Stevens and Louise Glück. Images of stones and statues and masks and figures recur; the word “posture” appears more than a few times. But the poems also swell with volant images of flight. Each proceeds like its own piece of music — phrasal, accretive, with sudden sharps, flats, incidentals. It may be precisely this elaborate structural artifice that allows Kelly to move through the chaos of her dark materials. The poem “The Music Lesson” serves as a kind of ars poetica in this regard. As a young piano student fumbles through a piece of music, a metronome keeps time:
[…] Back and forth:
Back and forth: the lesson’s
Passion is patience. Through
The domino tumble and clutter
Of the pupil’s untutored touch
The metronome keeps
A stiff upper lip, pays out
Its narrow train of thought,
While above, God,
Gold carrion in a lit frame,
Rehearses His reproach, one-
Noted. Final. The unnegotiable
Real estate of absolute loss:
Discipleship’s cost. […]
And yet, in a conspiracy of inspiration and dogged patience, the boy at his lesson plays something unexpectedly true and musical:
Luck lays hands on
The boy’s hands and prefigures
The pleasure that will one day
Possess this picture for good.
This is the stone the builders
Rejected. Pleasure. Pleasure.
The liquid tool, the golden
Fossil that will come to fuel
In lavish and unspeakable ways
All the dry passages
The boy does not now comprehend
Or care for. And then his
Stricken hands will blossom
Fat with brag. And play.
This is a dazzlingly controlled poem, its closely keyed, metronomic internal rhymes pitched against the off-kilter triadic stanzas. Through these techniques, Kelly articulates what lies on the other side of technique: the pleasure of experiencing, even creating, something “unspeakable,” however awful, however beautiful — something that music, that song, that poetry can inimitably provide. The “pleasure” referred to in this poem evokes the mortal, fatal “sweetness” of goat song in the title poem and is a prelude to the epiphanic vision that closes the book’s final poem, “Three Cows and the Moon,” a seven-page cosmos in which a mother and her children are privileged to witness, over the course of a long afternoon and moonlit evening, a strange and mystical vision in a field of cattle:
And the last sound was the sound of the cows stopping
In the final circle. And it was quiet then.
And we were looking up. Light flooding a room.
The four corners of the night all staked out.
The moon high up and small. High up and small.
Perfect like a flower. Or an oracle. Something
Completely understood. But unspeakable.
As befits a significant pilgrimage, Nathaniel Perry’s Long Rules, winner of The Backwaters Prize in Poetry, was a while in the making. His first book, Nine Acres, winner of the 2011 Honickman First Book Prize, was published 10 years ago by Copper Canyon Press. Of Nine Acres, Marie Howe wrote: “I felt [Perry’s] love for the hard work of language so wrought as to be almost adequate to life [… and in it the] taste of water and metal, arising from a spring close to the source.” The poems in Long Rules evince that same authenticity of voice and attentiveness to the seasons in their courses, but they extend beyond the first book’s preoccupations — stewardship of the earth, its cultivation, husbandry (in many senses), and family — to encompass an older person’s concerns with illness, grief, and the balance between our solitary and communal responsibilities. “The sun is down,” he writes, “and half the world’s asleep — / the killdeer, my kids, and all I’ve tried to keep.”
Perry is a formalist, and, as was the case with Nine Acres, numbers and patterns are inextricable from meaning in this second book. The collection is divided into six sections, each titled after one of the southeastern US Trappist monasteries Perry visits on his pilgrimage (among these six “monasteries” is the speaker’s own plot of nine acres in Cumberland County, Virginia). Each section is divided into five 42-line poems, the first of which starts with the phrase, “Listen, child of God” (“Listen, child of God, to Willie Nelson”; “Listen, child of God, to the rain riding / bareback over the knobs”; “Listen, child of God, to the saddle-backed / caterpillar chewing on blueberry leaves”) and each of which ends with a rhyming couplet. Why 42 lines? Perry’s choice could also be a reference to the many biblical and Kabbalistic occurrences of the number, or even a shout-out to Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in which it represents the “answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything.” In any case, these formal “rules” give each poem the stately feel of a way station along the route of a pilgrimage and offer just enough restriction to allow Perry’s prodigious, tangential, and thoughtful meditations free and ample range.
The book takes its title from the Rules of St. Basil of Caesarea (330–379), with whom the speaker in Long Rules is often in amiable argument and nimble conversation about the full, paradoxical menu of life — solitude, devotion, prayer, work, faith, family, and, centrally, love, which Perry calls “pure verb that is our densest noun.” As Perry’s speaker makes his way from intentional community to intentional community — conversing with their denizens; buying their honey, their cheese, their bonsai and fudge; attending services; listening to their singing; sharing meals — he continues to meditate on the depth and quality of his own faith, as in this passage from part three of “Mepkin Abbey”:
[…] That the loving lord
will not wash all sins away, it seems, is a sword
that cuts both ways to my mind sitting now
in the front-wake clarifying sun of a morning
that is suddenly September as summer ashes
over. This light, this threshold-making spider
light of after-dawn, is like a rule.
It makes community of whatever it touches
and leaves, at times, even good things in the shadows,
which collect at the margins of the yard.
Who lives there, Basil? Would you let them in? Whoever
knocks on the door of the monastery can enter
but there are so many unforgiveable sins …
One can only read the hair-splitting of doctrinal
carping for so long, but in it is something
desperate and familiar — that we must know who
we are to know who we are. We require a sense
of the light to know its shining on us. In his
most private moments Basil knows this is
not exactly right. Light is something constant
and something constantly elusive. The moon,
when sought, says Emerson in a sober moment,
is mere tinsel, but when felt as a presence, a rule
you didn’t write, it is beautiful, the face
of an idea not divinable
by tractate or sermon or by the widest eye
or our shallow topographies of nerves. Now what
we know in syllables we can know in the soul,
but the soul makes up rules, I’ll warn you, as it goes
along, which make, themselves, for a kind of song,
like a caterpillar’s chewing; and it’s long.
As with Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s Song, music is at the beating heart of this collection. Readers of Long Rules may find themselves rummaging through their own records, searching for the many songs and artists threaded throughout the essay — not only the aforementioned Willie Nelson, but also John Prine, Jason Molina, and old gospel tunes. And while Perry’s speaker finds that he sometimes cannot “sing along” with the monks at prayer, his own poems are full of music, as in “Mepkin Abbey”:
In heron-air, in human prayer,
in turnip-tang and flair, in river-where,
in Basil’s healthless graceful word-made care,
in the notes the banjo and the guitar share […]
Or in “Our Lady of Gethsemani: New Haven, Kentucky”:
When you cultivate solitude
alone, you are alone. When your solitude
is shared, your sickness in ways becomes a prayer,
one that asks whatever god is there
if not to answer then to understand
These sonic textures are more than acoustical flourishes; they reinforce and embody the trinity that stalks the book — community, solitude, and self. At the close of the very last section, which recounts a visit to the “Monastery of the Holy Spirit” in Conyers, Georgia, that the speaker makes with his father, Perry writes:
We move together and we move apart,
our movements strangely familiar to each other,
like letters or a tune, or blue light, or time,
or like the echo of remembered rhyme.
While the current buzzword “metaverse” may become, eventually, as blasé as terms like “world wide web” or “selfie,” our obsession with a virtual future keeps many from paying close attention to the manifold music and lessons of the world that we actually inhabit. Both Nathaniel Perry and Brigit Pegeen Kelly negotiate the tension between action and contemplation, the tame and the wild, the virtual and the physical in ways from which we can learn endlessly. Their second books are a reminder that we ignore the music of the real world — its paradoxes, complexity, and mystery — not only at the risk of spiritual impoverishment, but also at our individual and collective peril.
Lisa Russ Spaar is a poet, essayist, and professor of English and creative writing at the University of Virginia. She has published numerous books of poetry, and her latest, Madrigalia: New & Selected Poems, was published in 2021.