In Memoriam: Molly Peacock on Peggy Penn
Was there anyone more elegant than Peggy Penn? She had a deliciously monochromatic style of dressing, where each item of clothing would echo in texture and color the next item, a salmony silk with a cantaloup cashmere, and tiny orange sorbet-colored beads at her ears; or violet-gray wool slacks with a violet silk blouse and amethysts at her lobes. The same was the case with her poetry, where a pond would reflect an activity which would reflect an emotional state, all gradients of the same color of a feeling . She dared to find all those overlapping colors and put them together with the panache of intuition rather than the over-focused conscious concentration that leads to precious decision-making in art. She understood that style was the subtle interrelationship between form and content. This was something she taught me again and again, something repeatedly beautiful, and I loved all the manifestations of her idea of style as I loved her.
Peggy and I were poetry friends. I was her teacher, introduced to her by my dear friend, Barbara Feldon. Though I knew all of Peggy's work since she began writing twenty years ago, and since she found her publisher, CavanKerry Press, her late poems astonished me. Their subject is age: winter and funerals, yes, but also brassieres, orgasms after sixty, flourishing gardens, and four boys, her painted warriors. Her rhythms are so stately and her lines are so poised that we know we are in the presence of a dance, rigorously rehearsed and performed at a peak of energy. It is the kind of poetry I can turn to when I wake in the night, still hearing in her art the voice of both a fellow companion and a sagacious guide. Here is one of my favorite Peggy Penn poems, from her book, So Close, published by CavanKerry Press.
* * *
Dancing in the Dark
Tin cans rolling across the patio
wake me. Creeping downstairs I make a plan—
fling open the door to scare the racoons
when a piece of darkness separates
itself into a blurry massive shape:
on my lawn there is a bear! a bear!
Saliva all over the patio
where he's drooled and strewn four days of garbage.
Striped by moonlight, I watch his snout thrust deep
inside half-grapefruit rinds. He sneezes,
crams his dripping tongue inside a herring jar,
lumbers toward the compost heap and tossing
the matchstick fence over his shoulder
sits on top of the heap: bear so hungry...
moonlight caught on crystal tips of fur.
I reach for the phone, they will shoot him...
Rearing, he stands upright, swaggers
to the ash tree, beefy haunches plie
up and down, loosening his back in a long rub.
Once his ass is scatched, his penis drops
inches till he pisses, glaring—it lasts
minutes. I abandon the phone and my hand
floats spellbound like an oar on the air.
Between the pointed teeth in wet black gums
saliva rolls down his chest, and I feel
beads of my own sweat moving uncertainly,
finally looping under my right breast.
Reeling back to the patio he begins
a dance among the cans, a clattering,
paddling, sashay step! He turns, head up,
and through a confetti of moonlight I hear,
Dancing in the Dark. Beneath a mirrored ball
I dance back, swaying to his brush-step swing,
following his feet, just two on a floe,
a hoodlum freedom in my head, rocking
and stomping, bear on the patio, me
in the kitchen, his secret partner, turning
when he turns, lifting my bosom to him ...
kicking my silent cans. But suddenly
he stops, drops down, lurches near my window
as though looking for something lost: a glove,
a dance card? Instead he finds the right spot
and shits enough to fill a hubcap, scuffs
to the edge of the dark and disappears.
Outside now, I stand in the smell, the lure
of rotten cantaloupe and mango skins
mixed with his steamy sulfurous sweat.
Forbidden Fruit hangs in the air; love
must be somewhere. I go back up the stairs
and put a blue hibiscus in my hair.
* * *"Dancing in the Dark" from So Close. Copyright CavanKerry Press 2001.