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James T. KeaneApril 05, 2022
(Dan Meyers/Unsplash)

Was Kelly Cherry a novelist? A poet? An essayist? A literary critic? Depending on one’s point of view, she was one or all of these things. She died on March 18 at the age of 81, leaving behind many fans and a literary legacy few can match.

Born in Baton Rouge, La., Cherry was the daughter of musicians: Those who read her poems have often commented they can hear the music behind her lyrics. She wrote more than 20 books, including poetry collections like Songs for a Soviet Composer, Death and Transfiguration, Rising Venus and The Retreats of Thought.

As a novelist, her oeuvre included Sick and Full of Burning, In the Wink of an Eye, The Society of Friends,We Can Still Be Friends and The Woman Who. Her memoir, The Exiled Heart, was followed up by her essay collection, Girl in a Library: On Women Writers & the Writing Life. A lifelong devotee of the classics, she also translated several ancient Greek dramas—and the voices of Homer and Virgil are clear in the cadences of her poetry.

The voices of Homer and Virgil are clear in the cadences of her poetry.

Cherry was named the poet laureate of Virginia in 2010, a recognition both of her literary output and her devotion to her adopted state, where she lived on a small farm for many years. She was a frequent contributor to America, usually with book reviews full of wisdom and insight. She wrote for us so often that I am jealous of one of the literary editors before me, Pat Kossmann, whom I suspect knew Cherry in person. I need better friends.

In 2007, Cherry released Hazard and Prospect: New and Selected Poems, with 12 new offerings alongside previously published poems from six earlier volumes. The book was reviewed for America by Angela Alaimo O’Donnell. “For the reader whose misfortune it is not to have yet discovered Kelly Cherry’s poems, this is your lucky day,” Alaimo O’Donnell wrote. “Formally engaged and linguistically rich, these are poems that sing, that stop you in your tracks, that make you want to read them to other people and share what has come as a pure gift.”

In 2017, Cherry released Quartet for J. Robert Oppenheimer: A Poem, a book-length biographical poem detailing the life of the famous physicist and father of the atomic bomb. Full of allusions to the heroes of Greek and Roman epic literature, the poem is even written in heroic verse—iambic pentameter. “Oppenheimer deserved a classical rendition,” Cherry told storySouth magazine at the time.

It was not her first foray into a verse approach to Oppenheimer: Five years earlier, Cherry had published a chapbook, Vectors: J. Robert Oppenheimer: The Years before the Bomb. Fans of Cherry’s book reviews for America would not have been surprised at her choice of subject; fully a dozen years before, she had written a review of a traditional biography of Oppenheimer: American Prometheus, by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin. But why Oppenheimer? “Like Hesiod’s Prometheus, Oppenheimer fought on the side of humankind, giving us the tools and weapons to determine our own fate,” Cherry wrote, “and fate punished him for it.”

Oppenheimer openly regretted his role in ushering in the nuclear age and did indeed pay for it—the same country that counted him a hero for ending the Second World War later tried to disgrace him via Senate hearings accusing him of being anti-American and possibly a communist spy during the McCarthy hysteria in the United States.

The biography, Cherry wrote, ​​”recounts in substantive detail Oppenheimer’s concern for his country and the welfare of its people, the achievement of the atomic bomb, his contributions as scientist and educator and his bitter end, in which he nevertheless found a moral stature that should put the gods of the American polity to shame.”

A quixotic subject, but a quixotic author. Readers can enjoy Kelly Cherry’s book reviews for America here.

•••

In this space every week, America features reviews of and literary commentary on one particular writer or group of writers (both new and old; our archives span more than a century), as well as poetry and other offerings from America Media. We hope this will give us a chance to provide you more in-depth coverage of our literary offerings. It also allows us to alert digital subscribers to some of our online content that doesn’t make it into our newsletters.

Other Catholic Book Club columns:

Talking truth and lies with the Norwegian novelist who won the Nobel Prize

Paul Farmer, Graham Greene and the politics of liberation

Myles Connolly has a question: Why are Catholic writers so boring?

The author you probably never thought of as Irish: John Steinbeck

Joan Didion: A chronicler of modern life’s horrors and consolations

Happy reading!

James T. Keane

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