Poet Karl Kirchwey Reads at Bryn Mawr: Mica and Morpheus

in Arts/Bryn Mawr by

Mine Serizawa and Meghna Singh
Staff Writers

Bryn Mawr’s 2010-11 Creative Writing Series concluded on April 12th with the homecoming of poet Karl Kirchwey, the Director of Bryn Mawr’s Creative Writing Program on leave from 2010 to 2013. The audience he addressed in the Goodhart Music Room was as familiar with him as he likely had been with them. He posed a question for the evening: what did you think the color of learning was?  The room’s walls gave an answer; learning is the gray glitter of Wissahickon schist, Bryn Mawr’s  ubiquitous and perhaps more authentic school colors. Kirchwey described the schist as “mica and hornblende flashing in a long-settled gray,” the stone that makes Bryn Mawr.

After Kirchwey joined Bryn Mawr in 2000, he went on to teach a variety of creative writing courses in poetry, memoir, literary translation and English literature courses in modernist and American poetry. As the Director of the Creative Writing Program, he has been instrumental for years in organizing the Reading Series. The Series has brought renowned literary figures to Bryn Mawr’s campus, including poets Mark Strand and Derek Walcott, writers George Saunders and Tobias Wolff.

In 2010, Kirchwey accepted a three-year position as the Andrew Heiskell Director of the Arts at the American Academy in Rome; Professor Daniel Torday is the Director of the Creative Writing Program in Kirchwey’s absence. Since his departure for the Immortal City, Kirchwey has published two volumes of poetry: his sixth book, “Mount Lebanon,” and “Poems Under Saturn,” a translation of the work of French poet Paul Verlaine.

Kirchwey joined the list of remarkable writers he himself brought to the Reading Series in years past as he read before an audience with which he shared a common past. A familial atmosphere enveloped the gathering as the visiting poet greeted old friends, faculty and past students. Current Creative Writing director Daniel Torday remarked on the complexity of the situation of introducing such a well-loved professor to his close acquaintances, colleagues and students. “It’s like cooking for Julia Child,” Torday joked before correcting himself, “It’s more like cooking for Julia Child’s family and in her own kitchen.”

In the Goodhart Music Room, in his own kitchen, Kirchwey looked at ease with a glass of water and books of his poetry on the podium with him. He read poems from “Mount Lebanon” first, beginning with the familiarly named “New Gulph Road.” As Torday’s description of Kirchwey’s poetry went, what is everyday and well-known is alchemized into magnified moments of extraordinary and unreal beauty. With descriptions like “the beech leaves’ trembling pallor”, “New Gulph Road” was one of many poems that substantiated Torday’s observation.

“Mount Lebanon” collects Karl Kirchwey’s latest poems and organizes them within a schema of Shaker philosophy. Its tripartite division into poems of the body, mind and the garden is an architecture alluded to in the floor plan on the collection’s cover—and to the poems within, with their thematic undergirding of family, learning and love. It negotiates the high-flung interior of a church in Rome, a daughter cartwheeling in the backyard and the cracks in everyday life into which loss runs (we see a vision of the poet’s mother in a red dress filtering in through a dream, a streak of blue in his son’s hair registering a burgeoning difference, a gradual distance).

Kirchwey interspersed his readings from “Mount Lebanon” with explanatory notes, personal anecdotes and sparks of wit that clarified and contextualized his poems, brought them home. He navigates with ease between the labyrinths of classical and Greek mythology and his own backyard, between Lemnos and Bryn Mawr, between an anesthesiologist and Morpheus. His poetry is a reader’s compass between these worlds as well. 

Following these poems, Kirchwey read from “Poems Under Saturn.” In his first complete translation of Paul Verlaine’s book, Kirchwey sounded out the voice of a young poet and cast of literary personas behind the Symbolist Verlaine of later years. To capture the cadence and the rhythms of the poems in the original, Kirchwey prefaced his translations with a reading of Verlaine in French. In the conversation that followed, he discussed the difficulties of translation – the struggle between preserving form and meaning.

As he signed copies of his books after the reading, Kirchwey slashed through his printed name on the title page and rewrote his name beneath it. His ink signature acted like an indelible mark you carry out into Bryn Mawr “as the walls rise up around you with their faint glitter.”

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