Poetry by Ward Kelley

Nestled in These Whispers 
Hope Has No Roots

The Back of Your Heart

Another Saint to be Burned

Shearing the Wind
The Greater the Love
The Starting Gun
Chooses to Hide
Shine Eye Gal
Pounding Poems
A Temple in the Path of Xerxes
Come To Be Matched
The Purpose of Flesh
Seeing a Different Devil
Sylvia Pounding on the Point
At Fifteen, Catherine Is Betrothed to Grand Duke Peter
The Convent of Wayward Nuns
Emperor Maximian Decides to Kill Catherine
Long, Sleepless Watches of the Night
Gilgamesh Looses Our Youth

Heroic Romanticism: The Poetry of Ward Kelley
a review by Jim Strope



Nestled in These Whispers

The first step toward creation
is to throw off what is known,

for logic is the tool of the re-write,
not the first draft who requires

a certain faith in the soul's ability
to whisper back what is needed

to be known at this time. For
the soul to whisper, the creator

must learn how to attain a respectful
silence, and then be able to intuit

how such words of absurdity nestled
in these whispers are not absurd at all.

Artist's note:
Will and Ariel Durant (1885-1981 and 1898-1981) wrote in "The History of
Civilization," that "In a word, the student needs not the logic of reason so
much as a cleansing and deepening discipline of the soul. This, perhaps, has
been the secret of all profound education."

Hope Has No Roots

Hope has no roots,
it thrives on groundless things
who bear no logic yet stir
the heart by their pure

Hope is in our very bones;
we are made of hope,
and could not manage
our first step without
such structure.

The brain does not know
of it; hope is not a thing
loved by logic, instead
its awareness comes
whispering from the soul.

Hope has no roots,
it cannot be soiled by reason,
and comes whenever we need
to be reminded of our aims . . .
particularly at the end.

The Back of Your Heart

You have the hand of this woman,
her fingers lie splayed against your
spine and her thoughts radiate to

the back of your heart. There, on
the downbeat, there on the reverse
side of throbbing, she tells you

what she thought five thousand
years ago, the first time you saw
her in the reeds, her young body

as pure as an ebis stepping carefully
as it looks for prey. She smiles now
at the rear of your heart and says

you were her own prey and she sought
to consume your very heart, this olden
organ who still beats under her hand,

and your instincts and intuitions are
only fingerprints of her soul, she says,
this is how much I love you even as we

spin away across the centuries; we always
hurl ourselves back into the cold space of
the black river with white birds stepping.


Another Saint to be Burned

This is a world of men . . .
why God has made it so
is not revealed to mortal
women, so there is little need
to think long on these matters.

Yet I see another generation,
far in the future, but perhaps
foretold by young Jeanne
who would think to be a knight . . .
of course they burned her.

So instead I reach out to you,
you other women so far away
from me, so far into the future,
and I would tell you only this . . .

do not allow another saint
to be burned by the very
people she would think to help . . .

do not allow the whole race of us
to continue stumbling through
the same histories . . .

but do allow the world to be changed
slowly by the fiery forgiveness
you would set as an example.

Find the wisdom to teach this
to the brutal men.

Artist's note:
Christine de Pisan (1364-1429) was perhaps the only medieval woman to have
earned her living by the pen.  Schooled by her father, a physician to Charles
V of France, she was married at fifteen but found herself left alone with
three children at twenty-five when her husband and father both died.  Writing
poems, ballads and translating classical works, her writing soon became
sought after by wealthy nobles.  She frequently took up the cause of women,
writing in one text, "why are men so unanimous in attributing wickedness to
women?" and "why should we be worse than men since we were also created by
God."  Offensive today that such questions even needed to be asked, still
these topics were quite radical for the 14th century.  Christine at last
retired from society at age fifty-four - joining a convent - but also left a
final mark on literature by writing a poem about another courageous
contemporary, one who transcended her own age . . . Joan of Arc.

Shearing the Wind

Once on the ground you understand
the greatest desire of the human
is to survive . . .

Earlier in the air, when the jet
plummeted, dropping like the
tons of metal it was, and the
passengers screamed, with
various articles of travel
flipflopping to the ceiling,
with the seatbelt cutting into
your lap, a safe, safe, pain over-
ridden by the sight of the ground
come rushing to your eyes.

Always everyone screamed, but not
you; you felt determined to meet
death without screaming, or better,
you hoped death was not really
serious, this time.

Abruptly the jet righted itself, and fifteen
minutes later the captain announced
that wind shear was the trouble,
back there during takeoff.

So you know, survival is the greatest problem
you face, where maintenance of the body
is not the most difficult survival feat;
instead it is a death of the poem
that must somehow be defeated,
for you are saddened to discover
how the soul will discard the personality
as readily as it will discard the body
when it goes on so on, an arrow through
the wind of your conscious.

The Greater the Love

How does piety and bloodlust
exist in the same heart?
Such a carping question
is often proffered
by my enemies . . .

yet is this so difficult
to embrace?

The greater the love
of God, the more
a pious man must
drive himself to greater
proofs of such love,

just so, the desire to serve
God on earth drives the knight
to diminish God's enemies
in greater and greater ways.

This is the way of love, you know.

Yet . . . how can a saint
be retracted?

Artist's note:
Charles de Blois (1319-1364) nephew of the French king PhilipVI was an ascetic and a knight.  His piety and self-abasement became renown.  In the tradition of Thomas Becket, he wore lice-infested, unwashed clothing, underneath of which he bound himself with cords so tightly the knots punctured his skin.  When he attempted to walk barefoot through the snow to a Breton shrine, the common people covered his path with straw and blankets out of respect for his saintliness;  de Blois took a different path, and was unable to walk for weeks afterwards due to his bleeding feet.  In battle he was merciless.  At Nantes he loaded his siege engines with the heads of thirty prisoners, lobbing the skulls into the city, and he massacred the inhabitants of Quimper, slaughtering over two thousand men, women and children.  Canonized a saint after his death, de Blois suffered a nullification of sainthood later by Pope Gregory XI.  


The Starting Gun

They question your capability to lie,
as though this isn't a common, human
inclination, for we were all born into a lie . . .
were we not?

Not that very many really mourn this,
but the real mark of commonality
always has been the ability
to absorb the lie
then find someone to forgive . . .
maybe you found too many of us.

Fire can separate lies from truth,
but did it also fuel your absolution?
You hinted there comes a threshold
where searing pain twists
into ecstasy, while you crash
through the runner's wall
into a cool sea of forgiveness
that only saints can discover
then show us.

Your face holds the fire . . .
your tears drop balm
and agony, yet you
forgive and cajole
us poor humans

Artist's note:
Joan of Arc (1412-1431) earned, in the words of Louis Kossuth, an imposing
distinction: since the writing of human history began, she is the only
person, of either sex, who has ever held supreme command of the military
forces of a nation at the age of seventeen.  Although she achieved many
victories for her beloved Dauphin, by age nineteen she had been tried for
heresy, then burned at the stake.  She was also the only person in history
ever canonized as a saint of the Catholic church who had once been executed
as a heretic by the very same church.

Chooses to Hide

Sinful, the sisters perform patience,
coupling as they do,
similar to forms of alliteration,
but these are not words they bind
or break to fascinate those new to these endeavors.

And it is not flesh either, or titillation,
they use to explore the boundaries
of sibling affection; no, it is more powerful,
more forbidden, than sex -- a mundane type
of communication that nearly anyone can effect;
no, these items of angst instead fly everywhere.

Not words, not flesh . . . but thoughts:
a combination of the two, for true thoughts,
you know, choices actually succinct,
are like sex bent into words,
or words squeezed into phantom caresses . . .
something, somewhere, must sail out to touch the soul.

Emily discovered this early,
and never did, as some will suggest,
stay inside that large house from fear,
but rather there was nothing outside
quite as stirring as a flight of words
ghosting across the parchment
of her sister's skin . . . like a master . . .
not even God held this attraction
of cascading thoughts,
so there will be few real saints
ever found in these poems,
only jilted lovers staring out
the New England winter windows,
while thoughts scream like furies
incinerating around the bedroom.   

Artist's note:
Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) is undoubtedly one of the country's greatest
poets.  Spending nearly all  of her life in Amherst, Massachusetts, the last
half in relative seclusion, Emily came to be known as eccentric.  Besides
rare contacts with people outside her immediate family, she wore only white
dresses and sometimes referred to herself as a wayward nun.  Regarding her
poems -- only eleven of 1,775 poems were published during her lifetime -- she
advocated the "propounded word."  Her word for herself as a poet was "gnome,"
and the poems themselves she called, "bulletins from Immortality."  Her last
communication was written the day before her death, a short letter sent to
relatives: "Little cousins, -- Called back.  Emily."

Shine Eye Gal

There is a voice, a haunting by notes,
a voice to this ghost, stretching notes on and on,
to implore, to yearn, the breathing ones to come forth . . .
to be judged.

There is a dead woman singing in my ear,
her name is Puma, running, running,
eyes haunting sounds of night gliding
by the skin of jungle cats who hide the souls
of those who might be judged.

What does this ghost want to sing to us
who breathe the air of our own desires?
She does not sing words, for only haunting notes
are singular enough to bear a soul forth . . .
to bring one of us forward.

This, then, is what the ghost
will do . . . she will sing
of wrongs and cinder love, she will hum of injustice,
this ghost in my ear;  she will yearn and she will think
oh why come forth, oh why, only then to die . . .
but we all must sing this particular song,
although few know what the ghost
did sing . . . how the only judges
of us all, at the end of all the breathing,
the only judge is our very own soul
who must judge the actions of its
own singular life.

Yes, then, it's what the ghost
still knew, her own soul
judging her alone;
one sees it in her eyes.

Artist's note:
Sandra Jones (1953-1990), received her Masters at Columbia University and
went to Jamaica to labor in the social work field.  She was overheard by
aspiring reggae musicians as she sang a song in her apartment, a sound they
later described as 'ethereal.'  Together, they formed the group Black Uhuru,
with uhuru being the Swahili word for freedom.  Sandra assumed the name of
Puma Jones, and the group went on to be highly successful, earning the first
Grammy by a reggae group.  Michael Rose, a member of the group, once defined
Puma's singing, "To tell the truth, she couldn't sing reggae that much, but
she had a unique sound, something between jazz and opera.  It gave us a
different flavor, a sound nobody heard before."  Starting to lose her health,
Puma left the group in 1986.  She died of cancer on January 28, 1990.

Three Poems for Sylvia Plath

Pounding Poems

Poems pounded down like thumping hooves,
staccato oak leaves, slapped paper,
the all-importance of the words
a bond, a liturgy sticking the nuance
of self to your soil . . . even though you were
never meant to be here for long, for long.

You knew this by the way the poems pounded
down like your hand slapping the carpet
when the sloe gin has taken your presence
on another slippery expedition of mortality;
it's clear the poems do not pound the words pulped
of many other poets, flouncing their fears forward
on paper held like a ticket, a ticket.

The very thing that keeps you here
also makes you flirt with another way,
yet you fear there may not be an exact torrent
of poems there (the only way to pound the blood,
the only way to properly shake the fabric of death)
and if there's a chance the poems only pound
on this side, this side, can this be why
only a handful of poets come this close to the kill?
Poems must continue to pound, you understand,
even as you caress another way to compose yourself.


It is the positioning of the head:
on the gray, speckled metal,
on the inside of the appliance door,
so careful the hair is not lumped

uncomfortably under my left ear,
comfort so oddly important now
as if no bodily ache should distract
from this attempt to discern notes

that waft, calling my soul forth
to misfire; indeed I know this
placement of the head is a colossal
misfiring of the proper placement

of my soul, but what can one do?
I did not ask for this daemon soul
but determined I would do what
I could to make some sense

of it. I trust I have done so,
cleverly, although a tad too
conspicuous . . . even this very ending
too ostentatious, but one can only hope

I have placed my soul correctly
for the next go round.

Round and round the town,
Mr. Eliot,


Sylvia Pounding on the Point

I gallop on the point, though it never moves,
my hands pummel down the words,
my feet tango and staccato out the thoughts,
my flesh rolls over the forms that are
these reverse prayers . . . does it matter
where they originate, once they appear
so vibrant?

The point, the point, it requires hammering,
a blacksmith's thundering diligence,
the billows, the coals, all inflamed
while the dust of history whirls
like fleas or no-see-um prayers . . .
and psalms flipflop everywhere.

I can never keep my hands on the point,
I suspect no one can . . . one can touch it,
genuflect to it, kiss it like the blarney stone,
but no one can keep hanging on . . .
and those who have tried have all died,
some in kitchens, some in oceans.

So I go on, this lusting for the point,
and sometimes, briefly, between
the hammering, on the upstroke's
pinnacle, the point will whisper back,
a kiss or caress back, that it really
shouldn't matter where the receptor
minds originate either . . .
it is the process that must be


Encyclopedia Americana: POINT, that which has no part, but merely position. There are various definitions, all to a degree unsatisfactory and defective because of the elemental nature of the term.

Sylvia Plath (1931-1963) American poet, published her first poem at the age
of eight. Suicidal from a young age, she endured, at various times,
electroshock and psychotherapy. She married the poet Ted Hughes, who went on
to become England's poet laureate. The marriage lasted seven years, but
failed when Hughes left her for another woman. Months later, Plath killed
herself with cooking gas. In a macabre twist of irony, the woman for whom
Hughes left Plath also gassed herself to death. Another poet-suicide, Anne
Sexton, wrote of frequent drinking dates at the Ritz with Plath: "Often, very
often, Sylvia and I would talk at length about our first suicides; at
length, in detail, and in depth between the free potato chips. Suicide is,
after all, the opposite of a poem."


A Temple in the Path of Xerxes

Stone, frigid columns, pungent fumes from copper bowls on burning
pedestals, the chilling breeze still penetrates from the acute night outside.
These pillars are clammy, as though they can express my fear
of the invaders who arrive tomorrow to annihilate our ways.

My children are safe at the coast,
their mother spirited them down
with the slaves and my brother . . .
and now only my sword remains here with me.

By the manner the wind easily dispels the incense
and holy smoke, I can understand our gods have also
left this place . . . perhaps they too are at the shore.
So it is only myself and my mercenaries who will
face the conquerors when this night drifts onward.

Why does a man stay in place after the very gods
have fled?  Is this the nature of a man . . .
to rail against the inevitable world,
while it is in the nature of gods to dissipate at whim?
One must stand, while others are smoke
for the awe of future generations.

I cannot imagine this place without myself . . .
I touch the marble, still moist,
and fear I sense the dawn nearing,
yet I see it is still better to be a man than a god
when death arises with the breaking day,
for men may readily complete themselves
while gods can only cry at the results
of their fornications.

Artist's note:
Xerxes I (circa 519 - 465 BCE), was a king of Persia.  To punish the Greeks
for their victory over the Persians at Marathon in 490 BCE, he invaded
Greece, his vast army penetrating to Thrace, Thessaly, and Locris.  Three
hundred Spartans made a courageous but suicidal stand at Thermopylae; after
ten days Xerxes broke through, and eventually burned Athens.  Returning to
Asia, Xerxes so disgusted his subjects with his debauchery that he was at
last murdered by the captain of his own palace guard. 

Come To Be Matched

To name all the parts of a harness . . .
seems a unbearable task,

seems a forlorn mistaking
of proper work, seems like

a thing not worthy
of a woman or a poet,

for the naming is not
really important,

even the recognition
is not our main task,

but instead it is the notion,
the embrace of the thought,

how we all, each of us,
all of you, and every single

soul, and all the parts of a soul,
come to be matched with all

parts of the harness we hold clenched for
every day and every death in our very hands.

Artist's note:
Katherine Anne Porter (1890-1980) was a highly acclaimed American author,
winner of both a Pulitzer and a National Book Award.  She once wrote, "I was
brought up with horses, I have harnessed, saddled, driven and ridden many a
horse, but to this day I do not know the names for the different parts of a
harness.  I have often thought I would learn them and write them down in a
note book.  But to what end?  I have two large cabinets full of notes


Come inside, come inside, leave go
of all that surrounds you, loosen
yourself from your fearful grip
on nature, and drop down here . . .

with us, down here inside the body
that you insist on carrying everywhere,
down here where we await your discovery,
down at the core of your very soul . . .

we will not scare you, this we promise,
for you have lugged us along with
your body, on your journey started
by your birth, so we truly know how

to becalm you, and will not frighten
you in any way, will not, once you find
the courage to drop all the way down
and begin the introspection of yourself . . .

for this, then, is in the nature of prayer,
the pronouncement of words meant
to commune with a source outside
the physical plane, and that is exactly

where we reside, waiting to grant a wish.

The Purpose of Flesh

How is this intended, this life
of pondering, meditation, and
physical inaction?

Or how defended, since who
does not meditate incessantly
on what most interests?

I have come to see little
difference between bishop
and thief in energy

expended on praying for
the betterment of their
own condition.

And no immortal plan
upended since perhaps
any type of prayer fulfills

the purpose of flesh.

Artist's note:
Thomas Becket (1118?-70), chancellor of England and archbishop of
Canterbury, was canonized a saint of the Roman Catholic church.  Thomas ran
afoul of the king, Henry II, when he refused to accept the king's newly
written articles of law, deeming them contrary to canon law.  Feuding with
Henry for years, Thomas in the end was murdered in his own cathedral by four
of the king's men, acting on their own after hearing the king utter a
complaint how none of his followers would rid him of the insolent prelate.

Seeing a Different Devil

And can it reach, can it grasp,
out so far that the soul can hook
a wintry finger onto something

substantial? I am not certain,
but would hope that the arms
of the soul can traverse such

a distance as to span one life
to the next. Yet who can ever
remember except some few who

always end up doubted. Truly
one can conclude there is then
little ultimate value to such

memories, and instead it is a
pounding of the word, a pounding

of the very soul, that makes one

do it again and again, and a better
question might be if one is ever able
to stop the going round and round.

Artist's note:
William Blake (1757-1827), was an English poet, painter, and engraver. The
son of a hosier, Blake was self-taught and a voracious reader. He numbered,
among his many intellectual friends, Tom Paine and Mary Wollstonecrafft, the
mother Mary Shelley, author of "Frankenstein". From his childhood on, Blake
spoke of visions: angels in a hayfield, monks at Westminister Abbey; some he
engaged in conversation, such as the angel Gabriel, the Virgin Mary, and
various other historical figures. He even once spoke of seeing -- as he
climbed the stairs to bed -- the devil watching him from behind the banister
rungs. Blake died in poverty, at the end saying, "I cannot consider death
as anything but a removal from one room to another."


"How can you prove we flit
around your rational ears,
well-mannered whiffs of froth,
poetic fluff, who come or leave

unbidden or unremarked; just
how does one prove we are more
than dyspepsia?" The dead ones
engage this favorite game of theirs,

knowing our science has not
yet advanced to spy or measure
the whole motion of the soul; but
they enjoy creating new proofs

that cannot be proven. My role
is to endure. "We are best seen
in the certain slants of light who
enter the eye but quickly migrate

into new ideas, new messages,
from the other half of your soul's
mind, you slanted number eight,
you know what we say is so."

Yet how would I know? I lean
toward them for a better hint,
but such inclining always causes
them to become even more obtuse.




At Fifteen, Catherine Is Betrothed to Grand Duke Peter

It seeps in . . . the awareness of sex 
leeching its way into my fabric  
like melting snow on top of lichen;
and love, potent love, 
I believe to be warm, 
even torrid, enveloping . . . 
where sex itself is cold,
an assault, frosty fingers 
on impressionable flesh.  
I will go to meet this task, 
for I understand duty,
although it is an inconvenient price  
to pay for royalty . . . better to be a beggar,  
or a whore, or some wanton body of flesh,
promiscuous - yes, far better to be promiscuous,
sinful and vibrant, than properly living without lust.

Someday I mean to break free and find that jolting,
that certain thrashing away from civility,
I mean to explode myself into the memories
of our particular species, to probe the poetry
of sensations floated over the arcane paths of skin,
and to feel the feint moisture left behind
when a stern man whispers my name
between my unclad breasts.

For it is there . . . right there,
pronounced on such untouched skin
sheltered inside my youthful chest,
that someone will find the difference
between love and propriety,
or discover - if I have not learned of romance at all -
there is much similarity
between whores and queens.

Born Sophia Augusta Frederika in Poland, Catherine the Great (1729-96), empress of Russia (1762-96), was betrothed to Grand Duke Peter at the age of fifteen. Her husband ascended the throne in 1761, but lasted less than a year due to his contempt for the Russian people. He was overthrown by the Imperial Guards who installed Catherine in his place. The deposed Peter was shortly murdered, probably with Catherine's consent. Known as a sensuous woman, she took many lovers; ten held major positions in her government, and of these three exerted great political influence. In her sexual practices, she was no different than many kings of this age, yet her appetite has entered history as one of her defining traits. Catherine died of apoplexy on November 6, 1796.



The Convent of Wayward Nuns

How may my sisters expire,
how can the fires of abuse
sear the relics of skin from our
bare arms, or will the cool air
never absolve our desires?

There is a simple balm for these
fiery explanations . . . a speck,
a nipple or share of love . . .
there is a simple calm that
frees the fires of our skin:
come within, come within,
oh I know of destiny
and I know of
all the questions
in your eyes.

So this is how you do it,
you know, how you expire
all your wishes on the people
you would think to love,
and this is how you kill
the discontent of this imperfect
world, or your own imperfect life . . .
it expires in the service of others,
or in the simpler service
of the word.

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), New England poet, is one of the country's greatest poets. Spending nearly all of her life in Amherst, Massachusetts, the last half in relative seclusion, Emily came to be known as eccentric. Besides rare contacts with people outside her immediate family, she wore only white dresses and sometimes referred to herself as a wayward nun. Regarding her poems - only eleven of 1,775 poems were published during her lifetime - she advocated the "propounded word." Her word for herself as a poet was "gnome," and the poems themselves she called, "bulletins from Immortality."

Her last communication was written the day before her death, a short letter sent to young relatives: 
"Little cousins, -- Called back. 


Emperor Maximian Decides to Kill Catherine

I cannot compel myself
to make reason of her.
Why does she squander
so many hours of each
finite day, so many hours spent
ministering to dead persons?
She prays most of the day
to people who are dead,
saints of this odd sect . . .

She should bestow this time
on me, give me this ardent
attention. For I can surely
fulfill the role of saint; I can
give her answers to any
question she might ask
about living and dying.
Certainly an emperor
knows more about these
shades of man and woman
than a dead person, and I
could make her body
feel much more riveted
than any stirrings that words
of prayer can provide.

Yet . . . I fear her stubbornness
whispers to me how all our gods
are now dead -- our gods who lived
forever and received our own most
piercing, but misplaced, desires to live
forever with them . . . our gods!

So now, do all gods, once so omnipotent,
fall dead somewhere in the progress of time?

Catherine of Alexandria, (??-213?), was a Roman Catholic saint, whose beauty so impressed the Roman Emperor Maximian that he offered to overlook her refusal to sacrifice to the gods if she would only submit to his desires. Catherine rejected his overtures, saying she was already the bride of Christ, and even converted the fifty philosophers Maximian convened to change her mind. The emperor beheaded the philosophers, then attempted to have Catherine broken on a spiked wheel, however it miraculously shattered. Instead Maximian had her beheaded, yet when he did, milk flowed from her severed neck. Where this tale was highly popular in the medieval West, most historians think it is probable Catherine never existed. Joan of Arc, though, did not concur with such skeptics; Catherine was one of the three saints Joan claimed appeared to her to offer advice in her military endeavors.

Long, Sleepless Watches of the Night

Your fiery death wrenched
my entire life . . .
grief overwhelmed me, of course,
of course, but underneath this severe
pain was a severe doubt
about the very core of life
where one second we are vibrant
and in love, but the next you scream,
engulfed in fire then die horribly . . .
how do we countenance
such deadly caprice?

Your eyes, at the end, will never
leave my soul, your eyes shrieking
through the flames, and I threw
myself on you to attack the fire, my god,
my god, your fingers clawed my skin
like drowning women, only you drowned
in fire, my love, my love, I hugged
you tightly as I tried to absorb
these flames into my own body
and take this fire from you.

Your coffin is lowered,
my soul goes down,
I use my bandaged hands
to hide my tears, my face;
I wish to hide from this world
where one day my love
is living flesh,
but the next I watch
her coffin take my soul away . . .
go down, go down . . .

and then, how do we countenance
such caprice without a faith,
without a poem, without hiding our faces?

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882), American poet, was one of the most popular and celebrated poets of his time. More than any other poet of the 19th century, Longfellow popularized poetry and indelibly marked American culture. Such images as Paul Revere's ride, the village blacksmith, Hiawatha, and the courtship of Miles Standish are immortalized in American literature, even though modern critics do not share the high opinion of Longfellow that was bestowed upon him by his contemporaries. His second wife, Fannie Appleton died tragically in a household accident when the light, summer dress she was wearing caught fire. Longfellow was himself burned so badly in his attempts to save her that scars left on his face made it necessary for him to grow a beard. The title of the above poem is taken from the first line of Longfellow's poem, "The Cross of Snow," which memorialized Fanny.

Gilgamesh Looses Our Youth

The water felt warm,
as embracing as a plump
woman whose brown skin
entombs all your fears.
You stroke downward to the dark;
fish flee your pulsing muscles,
sunlight contorts into swarming dust,
yet there in the murk, you spy it.
It is yours, the thorny plant,
an underwater rose,
spiny, unfriendly stem,
but leaves of soft promise.
You give the plant both your palms,
the exposed flesh of both hands,
as you wrench it from the mud,
deep in the waters of the underworld.

It loosens from the bottom
far easier than you thought,
its thorns in your skin, the plant
the gods call How-the-Old-Man-
Your strong legs push off the bottom,
and quickly you break above the surface,
gulping air, clenching the plant; you have
achieved the greatest victory of all men,
you won the victory over death,
for the taste of this plant
will give us back our youth.
You lay on the shore,
breathing in the fresh air
of victory; it is yours,
it is yours, and you never see

the snake, attracted by the bouquet
of such an unusual plant,
come sliding out of the brush
to steal your plant away . . .

this plant, not ever meant for man.

The cuneiform writing system developed toward the end of the 4th millennium BCE, most likely by the Sumerians, a Mesopotamian people; it was subsequently adapted for writing the Akkadian language, of which Babylonian and Assyrian are dialects. The earliest motivation was of an economic nature, such as the administration of trade transactions, but later cuneiform evolved toward art, such as the Gilgamesh Epic, an important Middle Eastern literary work, written on 12 clay tablets about 2000 BCE.

Heroic Romanticism: The Poetry of Ward Kelley

by James Robert Strope

In each of Ward Kelley's poems, a person stands against odds, facing death.  In Another Saint to be Burned, the medieval writer is opposed to powerful political forces and writes a poem about Joan of Arc.   The voice in the poem advocates feminism; it complains that the world is a world of men and holds out the possibility that 'brutal men' might be taught.  Kelley's message pervades this as in all his verse: If anyone is to learn anything of significance, the lesson  must be underwritten by sacrifice.  

The commentaries that follow his historically-set poems are helpful to the reader and relieve the poem of some of its expository duties, freeing the verse to become a moment in time in the character's voice.  By selecting some biographical facts, Kelley efficiently sets the background and foreground of these poems and effectively advertises history and biography.  I confess to a bias against writers supplementing their work with extraneous documentation and was pleased to see my prejudice violated so well.   

However, in spite of the prose relieving the verse of exposition, the characters continue indulge their urge to explain, in many cases providing abstractions and morals for the reader, the telling obscuring the showing.  An intelligent stance or phrase or attitude of the character often saves the poem at the last moment by illuminating its central irony.  The total effect is good but could be made better by transferring all explanation to the prose parts and making the poems purely the voice of the character.  

The cast of characters is magnificent.  The tragic figure of Sylvia Plath appears in Placement, Pounding Poems, and Sylvia Pounding on the Point.  William Blake battles with Death in Seeing a Different Devil .  In Gilgamesh Looses Our Youth, the legendary hero risks his life to give mankind immortality. In the Emperor Maximian Decides to Kill Catherine, it is the autocratic emperor who addresses the puzzle, describing Catherine at a distance.  Emily Dickinson is the heroine of The Convent of Wayward Nuns and through her voice Kelley expresses the underlying sentiment of all his poetry:

[life] expires in the service of others,
or in the simpler service
of the word.

Prayer, Shearing the Wind, and Slants are offered without prose commentary and Kelley must rely on his skills as a poet.   Prayer is in the voice of those entities that listen to prayers.  After suspending skepticism long enough to read the poems once or twice, I could see that they are examples of the sacrifice of oneself while others indulge theirs.  The verse is romantic in that it transcends the mundane desires of the body and realistic in that it foregrounds desire. 

I find the 'we' in Slants mysterious but then so does the 'I' in the poem.  The voice in Shearing the Wind is preachy but given the voice's recent experience, it's perfectly natural that it should utter some pronouncements about the nature of life.  Many of the other voices preach to us but they are often redeemed in that they, who are about to make one of the largest sacrifices that a living creature can make, deserve a moment of our time.  

Kelley's work is romantic in that the characters yearn for what is not actually present, positing an ideal, appealing especially to a heroic ideal.   He most often focuses his attention on the sacrifice of women, which fashionably combines modern feminism with historical example.  His heroic figures might be regarded as classical although, with the exception of Gilgamesh, the characters are from the Christian and modern eras rather than classical Greece and Rome.  

He typically ends each poem or commentary with an ironic element that gives the story an intelligent and ironic twist and saves it from being too simple a tale.  In the Long, Sleepless Watches of the Night, Longfellow mourns the loss of his wife. The closing lines:

and then, how do we countenance
such caprice without a faith,
without a poem, without hiding our faces?

In contrast to his classical and romantic sentiment and setting, modern verse is the brick and mortar of Kelley's line.  He does not attempt a regular rhythm or rhyme.  He uses 2- and 3-beat lines gratuitously, generally breaking the lines at phrase-boundaries, with exceptions that enjamb the flow.  From Gilgamesh Looses Our Youth

It is yours, the thorny plant,
an underwater rose,
spiny, unfriendly stem,
but leaves of soft promise.
You give the plant both your palms,
the exposed flesh of both hands,
as you wrench it from the mud,
deep in the waters of the underworld.

The kelleian sacrifice is economically apparent in the line 'You give the plant both your palms' and is the second center of the stanza, the other being the simile: 

'The water felt warm,
as embracing as a plump
woman whose brown skin 
entombs all your fears. 

This stanza shows Kelley using realistic cues to invoke a down-to-earth carnal foreground in contrast to the idealistic  background of his verse.  

While Ward Kelley's generic approach to description and his habit of concluding for the reader rang an alarm at first, in every case he has redeemed his literary sins.  His verse is mostly dramatic in the sense that it is in the voice of a character.  True, the commentaries chime in with the voice of the poet but we have already dealt with that.  Once again, I relinquish my bias.  

Charles de Blois in The Greater the Love defends a difficult position for the moderns, who are appalled by the apparent contradictions between the professed virtues of the Christian churches and the actuality of historical events.  Few moderns can escape their bias and look at the events and the characters on their own terms.  The poem is expository but I can imagine de Blois encountering learned and emotional attacks on his controversial integrity.  As a warrior and candidate for sainthood, I expect him to defend himself.  The epigrammatic last lines do not appear to be in de Blois' voice, although, in Catholic theology, it seems that the good might look down and the bad might hear about events occurring after their appropriate rewards.  This poem is not Kelley's best but it, like all the others, reaches for distant and important objects.  


The short poems are a prelude to The Comedy Incarnate and the preceding analysis establishes the language by which we can examine Ward Kelley's most ambitious poem.  Sustaining interest in a long poem is challenging.  Kelley chooses the travelogue, a form featuring change while permitting the reader and writer to dwell on appropriate points.  In this implementation, the protagonist travels some distance and then dallies for a time.  It's a promising formula.  

The main character, who we hardly get to know before he dies, is a soul freed from his body, briefly amused at what the mortals are doing, joyful at not fearing death anymore, but finds himself in Hell, evolved spiritually by a succession of women, Lucrezia Borgia being the first.  Kelley maintains his prose/poem approach to the work, introducing each chapter with a brief and interesting biography.  

His diction in the long poetic passages reaches for a formality but the constructs are wordy, diluting the action and scenery with relatively empty summations and inelegant metaphors.  The many 'truly's and 'verily's only telegraph that the work is supposed to be scriptural.  The modern protagonist talks in a formal English that doesn't seem to have an origin in time and place. It lacks the informality that would make it Massachussetts or Georgia or London or Los Angeles or Sydney.  This excerpt from the second chapter is almost all tell and no show:

Jeanne was gone . . . 
I sensed her absence 
in my thousand sleeps, 
and though I thought 
to feel sad at her disappearance, 
I instead felt a completion, 
for I was doing what I was meant 
to do; I was viewing what 
was ordained for the witness 
to bear, and part of that 
was the forfeiture 
of the beautiful, 
although muddy, 

In the story, a man on plays on the cusp of carnality and spirituality. As a literary idea, it would seem excellent to any but the most rigorous realist.  The highly-fashionable male-feminism, the protagonist as neophyte, and the scenic mud-wrestling with Mme Pompadour while legions of zombies march toward the horizon, all confusing the carnal with the spiritual, make sensational story.  But does the tale add or subtract from the action?

Kelley wrestles with the contradiction between talking in physical terms and being out of the physical world. An immortal soul, when talking to mortals, would use a language based on physical metaphors but Kelley does not handle the contradiction believably.   The rules of the game are violated.   

The male specter's advisors are women who hold him by their physical attractiveness long enough to advise.  

Too much of the poetry is consumed by repetitive scenic description, told from the point of view of the male character and, being repetitive, do not add to the action. 

In the touching forest scene, Lucretia shows within their wood the tortured spirits of pleasure seekers condemned to save themselves.  She is the sophisticated leader and he will follow.  A naked Madame de Pompadour surfaces from a field of mud to lead and seduce and lecture as an army of sinners, chained to their desires, slogs over the landscape.  

We are treated to an extended tour of the spiritual realm Kelley briefly described in Prayer.  An updated Dante is led through a benign damnation or tortuous heaven.   

The women find themselves with a lot of explaining to do.  Apart from what they say about themselves, there is very little to distinguish their voices.  The narrator assures us that all the women are very beautiful but, apart from how they are dressed (or not) they don't seem different from each other.  The characters tell rather than show us how they feel.  Much of the description interferes with the horror.  Solving this problem offers opportunities to fix others.  

We're not told why the protagonist is such an exception, nor why he gets the company of a series of the most beautiful of Hell's angels while the others are trapped in misery.  If being tormented by the proximity to the women he admires and cannot have, then why don't we see his torment as clearly?  The story is unrealistic because we'd expect a character under such stress to change. 

Conspicuously absent are the sharp, ironic redemptions at stanza's end of Kelley's shorter works.  

Taking on six different female personalities is a very difficult challenge. In the poem, there is no time for character development before one's dropped in favor of the next and consequently none really shine individually.  And individuality was a complaint lodged effectively in the shorter poems.  The psycho-sexual allusions offer plenty of opportunities for play but the story-telling dilutes them. 

Nor is the male character developed.  He is unchanged by his tremendous experiences throughout most of the poem.  He's there to learn but it's not clear that he is learning. Is he stubborn?  Does he bravely fight against desire or does he crave it lustily?  Where is his strength against such powerful forces?  How strong is he?  

With fundamental changes such as deformalizing the diction, limiting the cast of characters to one beautiful and complex woman whispering in his ear, and better character evolution, this ambitious poem would be more in focus for the writer and  still provide Kelley with the foundation of his spiritual theories.  

Ward Kelley has invented his laboratory.  His developments include an ironic form, a suggestion of a spiritual theory, and his own distinct brand of male-feminism.  The heroic tone is very unusual in today's hyper-reality and will appear refreshing to those without a bias against it.  







"comedy incarnate" on CD ROM
by Kedco Studios (Las Vegas, NV)

"histories of souls" an ebook
by Word Wrangler Publishing, Inc. (Montana)

"comedy incarnate" on AUDIO CD
by Artvilla (Tennessee)

"Divine Comedy" a novel, forthcoming
by Word Wrangler Publishing, Inc. (Montana)

Of the 733 published pieces, some have found their way into:


ACM, Another Chicago Magazine
Ginger Hill
The GSU Review   
The Listening Eye
The Lucid Stone
Mad Poets Review
The Old Red Kimono
Porcupine Literary Magazine
River King
Sulphur River Review


Adirondack Review
Big Bridge
Lynx: poetry from Bath
Melic Review
The Paumanok Review
Poetry Magazine.Com
The Rose & Thorn
San Francisco Salvo
2River View
Unlikely Stories


Two novels, "Divine Murder" and "Keenly Alive, Tony," are represented by The Sternig & Byrne Literary Agency

Ward Kelley is the Asst. Vice President of Logistics for TruServ, the parent company of True Value Hardware, Servistar, and Coast to Coast, a co-op of 10,500 hardware stores. Formerly, he managed distribution centers in Pennsylvania, Ohio, California, Arizona and Illinois. He lives outside of Indianapolis with two adopted daughters and three foster children.

CD: http://www.artvilla.com/shopping/cdrom/comedy.htm

Last Updated October 06, 2016
For more information contact: Ward Kelley