Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s vivid, musical verse has impressed the literary community since the manuscript for her first collection, To the Place of Trumpets, was chosen for the 1987 Yale Series of Younger Poets competition. She has since published two additional volumes of successful poetry. The Orchard (2004), her third book, is a striking group of poems that takes place in a world of dream figures and contemplates themes ranging from fertility to death.
A key poem in The Orchard—and an excellent example of the “shocking and unfamiliar ferocity” that Stephen Burt finds characteristic of Kelly’s book in his New York Times review—is “The Satyr’s Heart,” which was first published in the Kenyon Review. In this intriguing and mysterious poem, the speaker rests her head against the chest of a headless statue of a satyr, observing the teeming animal and plant life around her. Some of the poem’s lavish descriptiveness is challenging and difficult to imagine, but this language is what makes the poem innovative and compelling, and it is an important part of Kelly’s song-like rhythm. Her commentary on themes of sexual reproduction, bravery, and higher human principles shines through and provides a rewarding experience for an attentive reader.
“The Satyr’s Heart” begins with a description of the speaker resting her head on the chest of a satyr, which refers to a creature that is part man, part animal. In ancient Greece, satyrs were usually depicted as men with the ears and tail of a horse, while ancient Romans portrayed them with the ears, tail, legs, and horns of a goat. In both cultures, satyrs were associated with the god of wine and with lustful, animalistic sexuality. In the poem, the speaker describes the satyr’s chest as “carved,” which suggests that it is a statue.
The second and third lines clarify that the satyr is a statue made of sandstone and that its chest is hollow, lacking a heart. In line 3, the reader wonders along with the speaker if the statue of a “headless goat man” might actually have a heart, particularly since the title suggests that there will be a satyr’s heart in the poem. The reader pictures the speaker with her head on the chest of a satyr statue, perhaps leaning back on it while sitting at its feet. Although the poem does not specify a location, like many of the poems in Kelly’s collection it seems to take place in a vaguely mythological orchard, teeming with natural life but absent of any humans except for the speaker.
Lines 4 and 5 describe the satyr’s neck, which thins out until it reaches a dull point. The speaker, who must be looking up from the satyr’s chest, says that it points “To something long gone, elusive.” This key phrase primarily refers to the satyr’s head, which is now missing. The fact that the satyr is only a body will become important later in the poem. Since the neck must be pointing to the sky, it is also possible that it is pointing toward some kind of god, or the speaker is at least subtly suggesting that religion and spirituality are what is “long gone” and “elusive.”
By contrast, at the satyr’s feet is a flurry of real and fertile activity. In line 6, the small flowers “swarm” and “breed” in the “sweating soil” as if they are bugs or other small, rapidly reproducing creatures. They are also “earnest and sweet,” which seems to be a contradiction, and they make a “clamor,” or noisy uproar, of “white” and “blue” within the “black” soil. It is difficult to picture exactly how these flowers must look, but they certainly seem to be involved in an active and urgent natural environment.
Line 8 contains a four-dot ellipsis that shifts the perspective back to the speaker, who sits without moving at the feet of the satyr statue. Using the poetic device of enjambment, which occurs when one line of poetry runs into the next, the speaker comments on “how quickly / Things change.”...
(The entire section is 1,534 words.)