Weaving words into tapestries

Where a boy can be a swan and the language is a delight

"The Orchard" has garnered a great deal of critical attention in recent months. The book has been a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Award, and now the Pulitzer.

Part of the appeal may be that Brigit Pegeen Kelly doesn't write simple poems; she weaves elaborate tapestries. Her work begins in the opening page of "The Orchard," her third collection, where she repeats certain words - boy, bird, bush - to establish a meditative tone that runs throughout the book.

Subsequent pages explore those and other images, turning them round and round until they seem both familiar and strange. Kelly, who has a keen eye for detail, slowly adds layer upon layer of meaning, entwining various threads.

She is driven, almost obsessive at times, in her desire to understand the world around her, which is often surreal and dreamlike.A boy may become a black swan or a doe may give birth to a child. The reader never knows what might come next.

The biggest delight in Kelly's work is the language, which is often quite sumptuous. In one poem, "Sheet Music," she writes: "Big as a summer hotel, thirty rooms/ For thirty birds, thirty perches from which to sing./ Such is the moon when it is full...."

In "The South Gate" she says: "Like the sun, the lion/ Is a two-faced creature. One face looks forward./ The other back. One grins. The other grimaces."

The poet makes great leaps at times, both within and between pages. A poem about how light changes shapes in a garden may move from birds to the dead and then end with:

Things painted on plaster to keep the dying company,
A toppled jar, a narrow bird, an ornamental tree
With no name, and crouched beneath the stone table,
The lion with four heads, who looks this morning
As he rises from the shadows, like the creature
Who carries on his back the flat and shining earth.

(From "Brightness from the North")

As strangely delightful as these poems can be, they are also dense and demanding. Occasionally they feel a bit self-conscious or go on longer than they should.

And don't expect them to reveal their secrets in the first reading, or even the second. Small servings and multiple readings may be required.

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