Chris: Welcome to Lyric Essentials, where writers and poets share with us a passage or poem which is “essential” to their bookshelf and who they are as a writer. Today Emilia Phillips reads “Song” by Brigit Pegeen Kelly.
Emilia, what a haunting read! A few months ago Kori Hensell read Dickey’s “The Sheep Child” which “Song” reminds me of with its strange, surrealist qualities. What makes “Song” essential to you as a writer?
Emilia: “Song” embodies the essential strangeness and loneliness that I most admire in poetry. It’s not just about grief or violence or loss, or reconciling those things together, but the feeling that the poem in some way moves into that space freed up by something left behind or taken away, and it can never quite fill up that space. I often find that I’m most interested, invested, and devastated by poems that do that very thing.
Chris: I love the exchange between the beginning and ending of this poem where the goat’s song at the start appears to become the song of the boys who did the killing at the end. What do you make of this kind of reciprocity that bookends the poem?
Emilia: That ending seems to be more about the poem’s songiness more than the voices of the goat or the boys. In some ways, the song is the poem, and so the poem describes its own creation by its description of the song at the end. This feels especially true to me because of the poem’s title—“Song.” The poem is the song that is sung within the poem. It’s like looking into a mirror that’s facing a mirror here, and because of that, rather than crowding out the reader, it opens up space, to create more loneliness. I can’t help but think of a line in an Elvis Perkins song here: “Your vampire mirrors, face to face, / they saw forever out into space.” The poem that is the song that is the song mentioned in the poem seems to leave a gap, a loop that can never close. In that way, the poem sends us spinning back to its beginning: “Listen,” it says forever.
Chris: “Song” then epitomizes the type of poem you’re most interested and invested in by promising an eternal redundancy of almost fulfilling a void via the loop it creates? That is absolutely brutal! Also an incredible, and beautiful concept. How else does Kelly appeal to your interests of loneliness and strangeness in this poem? Is there any particular part of the poem that catches you every time you read it?
Emilia: Well, I don’t think I could answer this question without mentioning that singing goat’s head! But, in some ways, that’s the most obvious strangeness of the poem, right? I mean, what really gets to me is the way in which the girl interacts with the goat. There’s loneliness there, but I don’t see it as a bad loneliness. Isn’t the girl with the goat not in a contented loneliness? Is not each lonely unto its own species, not to mention its own self?
Chris: Is the “essential strangeness and loneliness” you mentioned admiring characteristic of Kelly’s work? What other poems or books do you enjoy that attempt to fill a void, but come up just short?
Emilia: If I had to create a synesthetic analogy for Kelly’s work, at least those poems in the book from which “Song” appears, I’d have to say that she reminds me of standing on a windy hill, where the wind fills one’s ears and seems to carry snatches of meaning, but they dissolve quite quickly. That’s not a complaint. For me, Kelly is a master at mystery, of not over-determining a poem. That’s what I most admire. Levis does this, and so does Alice Oswald. I also feel it intensely in the works of Lo Kwa Mei-en, Paisley Rekdal, Diane Seuss, and Dana Levin—but all in different ways! For me, the work that really devastates is that which buckets out a lot of water in an idea but spills some in the process and can’t fill that space back up.
Emilia Phillips is the author of two poetry collections from the University of Akron Press, Groundspeed (2016) and Signaletics (2013). Her poetry appears in Boston Review, New England Review, Ploughshares, Poetry, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of the 2015 Nonfiction Prize from StoryQuarterly, the 2012 Poetry Prize from The Journal, and fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, The Kenyon Review Writers’ Workshop, among other places. She’s the Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Centenary University.
Chris Petruccelli is still doing his thing in East Tennessee. His poetry appears or is forthcoming in Appalachian Heritage, Cider Press Review, Connotation Press, Nashville Review, Still: The Journal, and Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel. Chris continues to drink whisky and smoke cigarettes with older women. Check out his chapbook Action at a Distance from Etchings Press.