Kathleen Peirce

Kathleen Peirce
Photo By John Anderson

Kathleen Peirce didn't always have the power to see and say everything. As a little girl, she even had some trouble learning to read time. One day, her mother brought home a wooden clock that housed a pink ballerina in a pretty glass case. Like a music box, the clock chimed away tunes while the ballerina bobbed and turned slowly, attempting a soft pirouette, but she never turned far enough to show her full face -- the only view of the tiny dancer's eyes and red lips was in the mirror placed at the back of the box. There were angles, of course, that offered sweet teases -- the lines of the cheek growing full, then waning again in the dancer's return to the far side -- and games of hiding and showing, the telling and keeping of secrets, or the illogical physics of beauty, that are echoing still in the lines that Peirce so masterfully patterns today.

"Come at it slantwise," she says, recalling Dickinson. "Say the thing, but say it slant." For Peirce, whose book of poems The Oval Hour earned her a 1998 Iowa Poetry Prize, this angled approach to the world and its emotions gives her a voice that makes the reader believe that perhaps she can see and say everything worthwhile. With seductive and deceptive effortlessness, she takes on the Confessions of St. Augustine, walks in the woods that Ovid created, dissects her own heart, and creates a language that covers the body in love like a new sacred skin. Not to mention that she does this with meters and structure you feel in your bones. Heart, body, skin, bones? It's hard not to use such corporal words when trying to grasp Peirce's poems.

"The demand was to stay in the physical world as deeply as possible and to stay in my interior world as deeply as possible simultaneously," she says of creating the voice in The Oval Hour.

A teacher in the graduate creative writing program at Southwest Texas State University, Peirce surrounds herself with a strangely raw tranquility that allows her to keep one foot in the physical realm while she ventures off into that deeply interior world. Her home in Wimberley sits on a ragged little hill and is decorated with quilts she's made, both alone and with her students, over the years. She enjoys the rock shop just off the main square in town, listens to rare Nordic chants, and loves the scenic 20-minute drive to campus.

"It's beautiful, and it's just occasionally a little crazy with mad cowboys, you know, but it's exactly what I wanted," she says.

Having grown up in Iowa, Peirce is accustomed to the quirks of rural life. Before entering her formal studies in creative writing at the Iowa Writer's Workshop, she was even a successful saleswoman of farm supplies -- hog medicines, feeds, and the like. "I always topped quota, but it was not exactly what I was made for," she recalls.

But from her windows, Peirce must see far more than the routines of small-town Texana, far more than the acre of land where her son loves to play. As she writes in her poem "Confession 4.2.3": "the mirror that reflects my face/reflected first its maker as all mirrors do,/and returns me a reversal of myself." For Kathleen Peirce, there's always far more to the image and the world surrounding the body: pathways of history, narratives unspoken, and reflections revealing unspeakable selves.


Kathleen Peirce will participate in a panel discussion, "Sheer Poetry," with Naomi Shihab Nye and moderator Betty Sue Flowers on Sunday, November 7 at 11am in the Senate Chamber.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Kathleen Peirce, The Oval Hour, Texas Book Festival

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