Tribute to Professor Peggy O’Brien
By Vinh Nguyen (B.A. 2012) | Friday, April 17, 2015
By Vinh Nguyen (B.A. 2012)
Friday, April 17, 2015
Sitting on my bookshelf at work is a copy of The Wake Forest Book of Irish Women’s Poetry, an anthology edited by Peggy O’Brien and one that I read for her class. There are notes scribbled inside: words underlined, arrows, comments about death and rebirth. Questions about the landscape. Flowers, hills, water. Water in jars, oceans, seas, rivers. A lot of water and a lot of notes. They’re fragmented and confusing, but not meaningless. They remind me of the privilege and the pain of taking Peggy’s class.
I was not, or rather, am not skilled at analyzing poetry. For an entire semester, I read these poems with almost as much confusion as I do now. Out of fear of saying the “wrong” thing, I mostly opted for silence. Unfortunately, Peggy was relentless in insisting….okay, so really encouraging….everyone to share at least one thought each class. I remember a classmate giving an optimistic reading of one of the verses. Peggy agreed with her. I must have misread the poem. When it was my turn to share, I explained how I thought the words painted a violent scene. And then came the surprise. You’re right, she said, there are hints of that, aren’t there? It was not a gratuitous agreement. Peggy had no problem disagreeing with an interpretation. But throughout the course she also emphasized and cultivated a kind of sensibility: to read these poems with multiple layers of meanings, at times contradictory, yet still simultaneously valid.
My conversations with Peggy about Irish poetry continued long after I had taken her class. I can’t tell you how many times I would run into her in town or around campus. She always took the time to speak with me, and inevitably, she would invite me to some Irish literature event. Discussions with a visiting author or perhaps a reading. She was, in her typically modest fashion, quite silent about her own collections of poetry, Sudden Thaw and Frog Spotting, among others, and it was someone else who drew my attention to her name in the New Yorker. Yet there it was, under a poem about love that itself held as many layers as those she taught to me.
Words are important. English majors know this. But words occasionally fail. We discussed this in Peggy’s class: the inability of language to capture certain experiences, whether mundane or spectacular. I still don’t remember what the notes about water mean, but I see more than an archive of literary thoughts when I flip through these pages. There’s something less academic, more personal, behind the translations of Irish words and circles drawn around subtly sexual verses: “It was his bag of tricks she wanted, surely not him.” She found that line riotously hilarious, reading and sharing it with a generous excitement and joy. I remember that.