'Between the last word and this one': Brigid Kelly

Brigid Kelly
Brigid Kelly

When a poet voices primarily for performance, publishing sparsely, then leaves the spoken-word scene it can be difficult for subsequent generations to recover and appreciate that voice; what was cutting when delivered can sound blunt from the perimeter of decades. Commentary is prompted then sustained by an evidential body of work once the live performance is over.

“Any treatment,” suggests Caroline Bergvall, “any font, any blank, any punctuation, any intonation, any choice of materials, any blob, however seemingly peripheral to the work, is part of the work, carries it, opens it up, closes it in, determines it. This is its performance. Its points of impact.”[1] For Brigid Kelly, these points of impact rest on the socialised body of the poem — the poem as a social field — that stores its rhythmic energies in sharp lineations and sparse punctuation. James Norcliffe, who regularly heard Kelly perform, suggests the lines are mobilised for the speaking voice, but you could also argue that her lineations are not restricted to the spoken word, they become the performance itself. The successive one word lines in “Becoming Unwell,” for example, rapidly build up sonic tension whereby each “click” perforates an already contemplative text. Yet the long last line functions less as an ossified “a-ha” moment following the final “click” than a swift remapping of the poem’s thematic stance coming to rest. In “Long Distance,” Kelly renders legible the material scalabilities of emotional distances, imagined through technomedia. Her “energetic biro scribbles” gesture to our familiar mandible dances, to the raw hand attuned to frantic semiotic movements. Indeed, Kelly’s poems seem to capture an overlay of multiple presences — of lovers, footfalls of strangers, copper wires, newsprint, Arabic radio — that leach through one another. The material and performative aspects of her poems bring to the fore the nonverbal and the inarticulate. Indeed, as Kelly suggests: “the static is carrying no messages, / only untranslatable proddings / and reference points.”[2] For a poet who was active in the 1990s before shifting into dance, it is the untranslatable proddings and reference points in her poems that clue us into their live performances.   

“Poet as dancer; dancer as poet”
James Norcliffe

The Canterbury Poets Collective (CPC) is New Zealand’s longest-running poetry in performance group, having organised an annual series of readings for nearly thirty years. The collective was established in Christchurch in the late 80s by expatriate Australian Jeffrey Harpeng, his Kiwi wife Karen McNabb, and David Howard. It has been going strongly ever since, albeit in a variety of venues: from its inception in the Christchurch Folk Club rooms, to studios and ex-lecture halls in the old university site (now the Christchurch Arts Centre), the Workers’ Educational Association, the much-loved but now defunct Madras Café Bookshop, and currently the Ara Institute of Canterbury. Not even the huge earthquakes, which devastated Christchurch in late 2009 and 2010, could interrupt the CPC, although the sudden absence of venues did prompt a change from autumn to spring readings. The CPC is a place where people hone their skills and learn from each other’s strengths (and weaknesses). They come, make their mark, and leave. One who made her mark twenty or so years ago was a young journalist, Brigid Kelly.

Brigid was a striking figure, with a hint of Goth. Her delivery was striking, quiet yet sassy. Yet Brigid did not circulate work widely. The CPC readings and a group of women poets, The Airing Cupboard, were her preferred venues. In print she published sparingly: a few poems in JAAM, in Takahē, and more recently in the Phantom Billstickers Café Reader. She also contributed a dozen poems to the Aoteoroa New Zealand Poets Sound Archive.

For those who have been lucky enough to have heard her perform, this sampling brings back the authority and power of her reading. The poems are dark, spare, at once personal and sensual. Their lineation is orchestrated for the speaking voice, as is their movement. Kelly is also a dancer, specializing in Middle Eastern dance, and these poems with their subtle repetitions and sinuous lines underscore this: poet as dancer; dancer as poet.


Between the last word and this one
lies a map, a journey

this has been an eyeless trip
into sound and feeling

I am found in the thready tangle of spaces between,
In my own stretched and folded flesh,
In things only half-understood

Even sorrow’s cadence demands joy here
So here I learned to smile,
To see both love and pain as transient
To converse in two tongues.

It is time to look outwards.

During most of the 1990s I was a poet. Near the end of that decade I pretty much discarded that idea and put my energies into being a dancer instead. When David Howard contacted me suggesting I revisit that time, I was not all that keen. But I’d been slowly dipping my toes back into creative writing, and after a restructure made me redundant from my job as an editor, I had determined to say “yes” to everything. Looking back over my old work was not easy. I found much of it self-indulgent, repetitive, and, in some cases, actively painful to look at. I was not a happy person for much of the time I was interested in poetry and most of the writing reflects that, particularly the later work, some of which was written when I was quite unwell. I wrote a lot about relationship angst; heartbreak of some kind or other was usually the main driver. I was also yet to realise that writing doesn’t have to hang on self-loathing to be valid, and that digging around in the muck, while cathartic, wasn’t good for me. Interestingly I’ve passed over many poems I liked a lot at the time. I’m now better read, more grounded, and have had a bit of help with the old serotonin levels. I’ve grown to value what’s slight and light as well as what’s deep and dark, which is pretty much where I started out, poetrywise. It will be interesting to see where that takes me.

For this retrospective project I have selected several old poems, all fairly short ones, and edited them a little in some cases. Despite rolling my eyes at so many of the pieces I wrote, I admit it’s been very hard to choose, which means that some of the others might need to see the light of day again sometime. There are also two that are new.


There are distances between them
their emotions vibrate along cables
harmonic imprint of a kiss on a wire
they can touch hands over those miles
sense each other’s smiles, they have grown
so tuned to the nuance of each tone

she writes him letters on heavy notepaper,
red and green; he replies on
whatever comes to hand,
energetic biro scribbles
uncomfortable with sentiment
he becomes a brandy-warm voice on the telephone
that smells, feels, tastes
of newsprint

they wait for the cheap rates
and solitude of night
to share their hopeful passion with
bundles of wires and telecom operators

second-hand body contact
a voice sparking taste, feel, smell again
in the air, to warm them, lying
not-together in their beds.

My first proper love was a guitarist and we went out together for a couple of years, long-distance. Our relationship was nearing its end when I started writing poems around 1990. I like the imagery and also the (unusual for me) fact that it actually has some rhymes in it. I’ve always been fairly terrible at endings — both relationship ones and writing ones — and I saw the opportunity to rearrange a little bit to make what to me is a more satisfying, and slightly less mopey, piece. The original version of this poem is typed, and I’m struck by how old-fashioned all the technology references seem today!


you let it fall over you
like a spangled muslin shroud
and the voices massage your spongey overheated brain
with henna-reddened fingers

you’d think you might galvanise
only this one time
against the bellowing, blaring, gritty city
still breathing and grunting and farting in its sleep
while you chew a nail and worry about work in the morning

you can feel the blood
rushing around every muscle
each atom you can feel spinning
you could dance like a point of light along the rim of a glass
be one pale spot in space
be a universe of endless blessed black,
and alone,
and silence

other people’s feet tremble your floor
but the static is carrying no messages,
only untranslatable proddings
and reference points.

sometimes when the world has failed you
the only thing to do is
sit in the dark and
listen to arabic radio.

“Arabic Radio” would be one of the first poems I wrote after I moved to London in 1991. I include it not because I think it’s particularly good but because it’s turned out to be strangely pertinent to my much later journey into studying Arabic music and dance. At the time I had no interest or awareness of it whatsoever, and I kick myself now for not exploring the scene in London that was happening right under my nose. But I wasn’t ready. With an MA in cultural studies and eighteen years’ dance experience now under my belt I want to slap my so-orientalist past self — the way I mish-mash muslin and henna and spangles into that undifferentiated Arabian Nights fantasy is appalling and I was probably listening to Urdu or Hindi radio for all I’d have been able to tell at the time.

I was very depressed in London, where I spent four years, and living in a very emotionally unhealthy way. While objectively I think some of the few poems I’ve kept from that time are quite strong, they’re painful to revisit (and long, and ugly, and wilfully confessional, and challenging). The following is much less so, and the only one that doesn’t nauseate me.


pretty much drenched in tequila and cider, I
feel like an old lush, drinking your face in
your tongue is more honest than your eyes,
little boy

all beer-colored and crazed like a cracked pane,
do you think if someone flicked a shard loose
you would crumble into my blood-shattered arms
dripping carmine and piss, dripping yellow liquor

if you bit me any harder I would bleed
and it pisses me off, this numb passion,
thwarted greed, eating without tasting,
your eyes gone blind with sex and tequila
you and me not talking any more

and your skin is sweet like sherbert and the rot
beneath your broken nose is rank
when I think of you now I can smell you dying
and it pisses me off, this numb living of yours
the way every breath is a struggle
you twist out of my hands so quick
from under my dull fingertips, you shrink
inside your big body like a small-shelled thing
and you bite down, glazed and afraid,
hard enough to bruise, as if it would
make me go away
and then you steal the best part back inside yourself
hide it behind your shuttered eyes and leave me
still gnawing the bones
trying to find the marrow
looking for the taste.

“Thief” is essentially the story of what happens when two messed up people who fancy each other make a Fatal Decision to sleep together and things become awkward. The man in question was beautiful and funny and a chronic drug and alcohol abuser. I am pretty certain he died young. I’d love to find out I’m wrong.


fat key

a space
a door
a talk show

tumbler against teeth
water, and the plastic going down
cream and blue
one glossy cap mane

one greasy grey key that unlocks everything.

When I returned to New Zealand I worked for a while at what was formerly known as Sunnyside Hospital. It helped me put a lot of my own experiences of anxiety and depression, and the treatments that I’d chosen to accept, into perspective. The ward on which I worked had a massive key which I used to come and go. To this day I have never seen a bigger key. I felt like a mediaeval gaoler.


in my warm bed of sin
my belly swells big, bounteous
under your hand

under your hand
I creep
into your junky heart
my tears
oil your fingers
into my chest
in our bed of warm sin rolling

and your stroking hands
my junky lies
on my back
destroyed my soul
tracing lines
a long time ago
on my forgetting flesh

and our sin, our sin
our most grievous sin
is a taste of heaven
a patch of blue
in our prison
cell, in my bed
in your body
in my head

My second proper love was a recently recovering addict when we first got together, and I’d spent most of my life obsessed with love, so I became incredibly enamoured of addiction references at that time. Of all the poems I wrote about us — and there are a lot — this is the one I can most imagine printed and stick on a bollard somewhere, so that’s why I’ve chosen it. I like the interlacing structure in the middle, and it’s obviously erotic. I don’t know what our sin was supposed to be — probably letting ourselves feel. How melodramatic.


It is written
It is said
The map of me falls over you
The map of you falls over me

It is written
it is said
it is felt
night lies hot
over our terrain
shadowed countries
unknown forests
it is written
it is said
it is felt

it is felt
that eyes are mirrors
that skins are maps
that veins are rivers to the heart


each time we meet
like opposing tides, two rivers
into each other
conversation slipping around
bits of your debris
in my fingers
foreign now
and not dear

it is as if
a stranger inhabits your body
your body inhabits
a stranger
a man in a plaid shirt
I never

we clash

and then

just as you drift
comfortably into
my bloodstream
you say
it’s time to go

There’s not much to explain in “Cartology” and “Valentine’s Eve.” They felt slight and not particularly important at the time I wrote them, but today they seem much more effective and enduring than a lot of the more overwrought stuff I was producing then. These are personal poems but they seem to be things that anybody could relate to. I like that in an artwork.


In the green valley
The wind makes the borders shift;
We live outside time

Your amber-brown gaze
makes promises you won't keep.
Who are you, really?

We will count the hours
In tens, in a sweet samai;
A waltz with a pause

The wind feels like love,
Skittering across our flesh.
Nightfall is sudden

With my rings I tap
A rhythm upon my cup.
Daf echoes off the hills

We sing, oh my eyes,
Oh my night, it feels like love,
Sipping our bad wine.

I wanted to try writing poetry that had a defined structure, for a change. I figured the haiku, while not easy, is simple and straightforward to work with. Of course, I couldn’t stop at just the one … This piece was written at dance camp in Queensland and contains several references to Arabic musical forms, songs, and lyrical conventions. And love of course. As ever.

[1] Caroline Bergvall,  “Keynote: What Do We Mean By Performance Writing?” from Performance Writing Symposium, Dartington College of Arts, Devon, UK, April 12, 1996.

[2] Brigid Kelly, from “Listening to Arabic Radio.”