Association and Desire in Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s “Blacklegs”

            The first time I read “Blacklegs,” [1] a poem whose subject is a black-legged sheep, I was entranced by the logic of its repetition: it is hypnotic, lulling, dream-like—or simply, intuitive, and yet: there seemed to be a very careful patterning to the images. The poem feels ineffably logical: it works by way of accretion; desire drives its repetition. More exactly: the speaker’s desire to reach an exactitude requires the subject be named and renamed, defined and redefined. Each stanza in itself is an imagistic concatenation, or evolution, of its subject. The poem moves hypotactically, via repetition and anaphora, which produces the effect or sensation of logic in what is otherwise, at times, illogical. [2] For example: stanza one begins with an image of the sheep’s nipples and ends with milk. The first two sentences begin with “the sheep,” and the repetition of the sheep. The act of describing the sheep continues until the next “subject” is found, and then that subject is viewed and reiterated (the language feels like turning a tiny object in your hand, admiring it).

            “Blacklegs” is a free verse poem of four stanzas that uses primarily repetition and refrain. Each stanza has two repetitive elements: the refrain “the boy said” and the image of “legs.” Each stanza also takes a different animal as its subject: stanza one is sheep, stanza two is bees, stanza three is a horse, and stanza four is the boy (plus all the animals combined). The refrain “the boy said” is the “constant” that does not change (or—at least—barely changes), while the rest of the poem’s repetitions show the possibility/potential for transformation via association within each image, or, as I’ve called them within their respective stanzas, each “subject.” 

In this first stanza “the sheep” is repeated and described until the sheep’s name, “Blacklegs,” is given. The name causes both a break in the repetition of syntax and in the speaker’s thinking. By way of the sentence’s hypotaxis, the name is associated with “a cry like breaking glass. / The glass is broken. The glass / Is broken, and the milk falls down.” This act of naming becomes the cry, and then the cry is compared via simile to a glass, and then the glass, like the sheep before it, becomes the subject and is spun on itself: first “the glass is broken”, which evolves into “the glass is broken and the milk falls down,” which is itself an evolved repetition of “nipples” from line 1. What a riddle! What I love about this poem is its insistence on showing every link in the chain of association: Kelly’s desire for exactitude in language, for wholeness, is the desire to leave nothing out, and yet, there is an inherent failure in this attempt to contain (a cry, a breaking glass)—which seems, to me, to be at the heart of the poem. It is failure that pushes Kelly's language into its lush expansiveness: an expansiveness that altogether transcends questions of logic and illogic, and, in my mind, it is precisely this freedom from the fixity of causal reasoning that allows the reader to access meaning that is open, unfixed.

            A similar transformation happens with the bee in stanza two (each stanza is a kind of parable-in-miniature, describing each animal). The image of the bee’s “suffering softness” is repeated/evolved into “fur,” and then the fur is evolved into a “ring of fire.” (here, the associative leap happens, too, at the level of consonance). Kelly writes towards a “thing” until association sparks, and then abandons that original subject for association’s creation. “Things” accrue: desire for precision, containment, and the failure to contain become the engine that spurs the poem on. In this case—the bee’s fur as a “ring of fire” will mean that the bee “burns the flowers he enters.” Kelly engages the danger of naming, which is, of course, a danger of desire. Once adopted, the “burn” becomes the repeated subject: “rain burns the grass.”

The bees’ legs, more a refrain rather than strict repetition, are next taken up as the subject: “legs” are repeated three times: “six legs”, “strong legs”, legs that “whistle like a blade of grass.” Grass also associatively connects to the bees’ legs, and once the full simile is reached: “[w]histle like a blade of grass”. The stanza is complete and closes. Kelly pushes each image to a kind of close with a verb that appears in the final line of each stanza: the milk “falls down,” the grass “is blown,” and, in stanza three, there is possibility of a “spill.” Verbs “end”—their action “opens.” 

            In stanza three, again, a new subject is adopted, yet the refrain continues: “the boy said… the horse.” We see “the horse” defined and redefined: it runs, and three similes describe how the horse runs: “hard / as sorrow, or a storm, or a man…” The horse holds a “moon white as fleece” in his mouth (“fleece” associatively repeats the man’s shirt from the earlier simile in this stanza.) While the first two stanzas began with their subject: “The sheep has…” , “The bee has…”, this third stanza began with the speech: “The boy said…” This is a meaningful break in the pattern, as it prioritizes the speech-act. We are reminded of the told-ness of the poem, which brings me back to anaphora’s definition and link to orality. The sense that this story is ancient, inevitable “has been told and retold so often that its inevitability goes without saying.” Again we are given only part of a whole.

            It is worth noting here that each stanza so far has also contained a nominal “emotion.” These emotions are connective evolutions threading the stanzas’ language: stanza one “cry,” stanza two “suffering;” stanza three “sorrow.” This is another repetition, albeit an affective one. Each accompanying stanza contains a liquid: milk, rain, and, now, in stanza three: the moon held “like water” in the horse’s mouth—as we will see in stanza four, the liquid evolves into blood. Here containment is configured: in stanza one the “milk falls down,” in stanza two the rain “burns the grass” (rain also, naturally, falls), in stanza three the horse is trying to contain the water/moon in its mouth so it won’t “spill out.” Each stanza aims to contain, and cannot. Is this poem speaking to the desire and failure to contain “things,” possibly grief?

            The final stanza begins with “And the boy said this, I am a boy.” Now the subject is the boy: what will be viewed, evolved, and turned. The conjunction “And” is a change in the refrain, one that demonstrates the poem’s logic of accretion: we’ve reached the final act of a list/system. Now the legs are the boy’s legs: “My legs are two.” The boy’s legs “shine black as arrows.” This “arrows,” in the context of the other “emotions” mentioned in the previous stanzas could be a possible homophonic play on “eros.” These arrows (eros) are what pierce the boy’s chest and “draw out the blood / the bright animals feed on” (presumably the animals from the previous stanzas). This “feeding” is repeated yet evolved in the final line: “whose / Hunger is a dress for my song.” Kelly’s animals are evolved, one final time, in the penultimate line: into “the ghosts of the heart.” Desire! Memory! Hauntings! These animals are personal to the boy/speaker, these “ghosts of the heart”—what are they? What are they not? What matters is this: the boy creates the animals (through speech: “And the boy said”), he gives them life (“Whose hunger,” desire) and that hunger is a “dress”  (a cover, an overlay) for the boy’s song (utterance, expression). Here! An ars poetica: the boy, the poet, creates the animals; and the animals are the outward expression of something intrinsic to the boy, an outward expression of his interior desire…

I love this poem: it’s of its own logic, entirely; meaning emerges via the transformations of and between images. The poem’s meditation speaks to the risks and limitations of desire. It’s also a mediation of potential, possibility, causality. “Blacklegs” strikes me first on an instinctive level: it’s a poem, firstly, of pure pleasure: pleasure in language, pleasure in naming, pleasure in failure. In stanza one: “he burns the flowers he enters”—is this the speaker’s “burning” the things named? The things touched? Is this not what the artist, or even lover, does? There is an inherent cruelty, yes, in naming something, in containing it, and the boy is not exempt from this: his legs are the arrows that draw out his blood, blood which feeds the animals, animals which are the “ghosts of [his] heart.”

The poem’s final repetition—of lamb’s legs drawing out blood—is an evolved repetition of the title. Blood turns black—This is the title: the boy’s legs are the “Blacklegs,” yes, but they are also the sheep’s name, the innocence of the boy’s desire to name.



[1] Brigit Pegeen Kelly, “Blacklegs”, The Orchard (BOA Editions, 2004) 17-18.

[2] The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics claims that “paratactic (associative) styles are often underlined by anaphora” and that “anaphora ...often places events in a flow of rhapsody where the coherence of the passage is provided not by articulating the logical connections among the events but by tapping into the sense that this story has been told and retold so often that its inevitability goes without saying… it may not articulate the relationships among the successive objects, but it places them in a context of unending rhetorical abundance” (650).

Works Cited

Kelly, Brigit Pegeen. “Blacklegs.” The Orchard. Rochester, NY: BOA Editions, 2004.

Greene, Roland, et al. The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. 4th ed., Princeton University Press, 2012.

Mary Helen Callier’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Colorado Review, Bennington Review, GASHER, and elsewhere. She currently serves as the Junior Teaching Fellow in Poetry at Washington University in St. Louis, where she co-edits the Revue portion of The Spectacle magazine.