I met Brigit Pegeen Kelly as an aspiring poet; she was my instructor for Advanced Poetry Workshop at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana. At that age, I did not understand the incredible privilege it was to work with her—I had read none of her work, and to be honest, knowing how I am, I probably selected her section based on the beauty of her name or the convenience of the time as much as anything else.
Regardless, this was my third semester of poetry workshop and I was intimidated, certain everyone in the class was a better poet than me. I agonized over the first poem I submitted for workshop, nervous about her approval as much as that of my classmates; I wanted to impress everyone. I wanted to create a poem so sleek, the seams were invisible. I wanted, as always, to be invulnerable.
So, of course I was stuck. I took a walk through February snow, in a giant multi-colored coat, wearing a hat an elf wouldn’t be caught dead in; I was 19. Emotion avalanched inside me; I liked talking about kindred spirits and synchronicity a little too much.My walk took me to the university greenhouses where I stood outside, admiring the contrast of heat and snow, leaf and frost. I wrote my poem.
Her main comment on it: you realize there are at least seven poems in this poem, right? I did not. After class, she asked me how old I was, if she could read other poems; I gave her a handmade chapbook my cousin and I had fashioned the summer before. She met with me to talk about them. I was certain I knew which ones she would like, but she pointed to one that surprised me and asked me if I knew why it was the best: I had no idea. She said, in it you have a unique voice. In it, you have a voice. I knew then I had found not just a teacher, but the teacher. I ate every word she spoke from there on out.
I do not tell you this to make my early, idiot poems sound particularly remarkable; they were not. I tell you this to show you how deeply remarkable it felt, to be held in Brigit’s attentive gaze. To have her discuss your work, her hands fluttering in the air as if weaving a tapestry of your poems, or unraveling it, or both at once, her delicate bones like needles beneath the harsh fluorescent school-light. I tell you this because you have read her poems. You know she was a genius. But you might not know she was also a gifted, audaciously generous teacher.
Having Brigit’s attention was bewitching; fixed beneath it, I refused to budge. I asked her to be my thesis advisor and spent a year of Friday afternoons in her office. The dark wood and narrow windows of her garret-like office in the English Building made the light seem slightly sodden, no matter the weather outside. We read Rilke’s Duino Elegies. Two other young women joined in those talks, all of us seniors, all of us caught in poetry’s yawp. One of them wrote a poem called “Forty Years Later,” which, while I do not remember the content, envisioned a sweetness in her future. Brigit scoffed, inviting us to imagine how horrible the world would be in 40 years. I felt the air leave my lungs; she was right—how foolish to imagine anything but a world subject to various, frightful diminishments. And yet. She would also tell us stories about her nephew’s antics, how her husband, growing up in New York City, thought food came from the grocery store basement when he was a child. Always, light and dark, irreverence and reverence with her. Her poems as much about the beauty of the Midwest as its relentless desolation and redundancy. She squeezed the rag of that dull landscape till it spit out all its secrets. Her cunning eye and her ear for music border on miraculous.
I know I am being superlative, but what better gift can you give the dead, washed clean of their ambitions and flaws; why not lavish them with every goodness, every sweetness we were too nervous to lavish on them in their lives?
As graduation approached, I was working on a series of dream poems (this surprises no one who knows me); the speaker of each poem was a different dreamer—a landlord, a physicist, a farmer. One Saturday morning my phone rang and it was Brigit calling me about two of the latest in the series, telling me they were the best so far and I should include them in my honors thesis. Reader, it’s true: Brigit Pegeen Kelly called me on a Saturday morning to talk about my poems. I did not then, in my youthful solipsism, realize how incredible this was, how little this had to say about me, how much it had to say about her.
After graduating in 2002, I floundered as most young people do. I wanted to write poems until my heart fell out, but I was skeptical about MFA programs, skeptical about how to get a job, how to write when it wasn’t for an assignment. I wrote her an email—one full of woe’s stringy meat. She wrote back, in her straightforward way: either writing is the way you make sense of the world or it is not.
Simple as that. In the five years between leaving the University of Illinois and starting Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s MFA program, that advice served me well; it helped me make sense of the world even as my confidence in myself as a writer floundered. I thought writing for myself was enough. It seemed horribly self-indulgent to pursue an MFA. Yet—yet, the dream clung. When I applied, I once again reached out to Brigit, who, generously, read more of my poems and wrote me a stellar letter of recommendation. At this point, I had read her books; I had heard her spoken of by other writers in hushed tones; I knew how lucky I was. I dreamt of writing a book good enough to share with her.
This essay is stuffed with me: I wish I could give you more of Brigit. I wish you could bask in her presence, I wish you could listen to her read a poem, enjoy her dark and roving humor, her bright mind, her warmth—though she was not affectionate. I once tried to hug her and it felt like a violation; she was as private as a diary. I think of a bird’s wing, covering its body in sleep. You want to know the hard, clear, soul of Brigit Pegeen Kelly? Read her poems.
It took me six years after completing my MFA to finish my first book; I consulted with her along the way and, after its publication earlier this year, I sent her a copy with a note. She sent me a note back just a few weeks ago. I am as thankful for this last token as for her bedrock of support all these years. Was I special to her? I don’t know; her students and admirers are legion. And, it doesn’t matter. What matters is she made me feel worth paying attention to—she made me feel worthy of my own attention. She was not one for showy demonstration of emotion. But her love—and that is what it is, in the end, what every dedicated teacher gives her students—was as enormous, complex, and humble as a prairie. Oh prairie. She’s come back to you. Give her to your worms and voles, wildflowers and long grasses, to the pesticide and the fertilizer, the fat Illinois sunset bleeding across the endless fields, the storm clouds unlacing their fingers across the sky.