Peggy Penn and I met about 15 years ago in a writing workshop lead by our beloved mentor, Molly Peacock, in my home in East Hampton. Peggy was stunning! Stunningly gracious and beautiful and stunningly gifted–her work so accomplished, from my vantage point, she didn’t belong in a workshop. I was stunned (there’s that word again) that she hadn’t published a book!
We met again as members of the Board of Governors of the Poetry Society of America; we shared many of the same views; we liked and admired each other. Years passed and I was privileged to start CavanKerry Press. The greatest thrill was making the phone calls to the poets whose books I had always dreamed of publishing. Peggy was one of the first; her book was/is So Close and it was/is splendid. It arrived the Tuesday following 9/11. I called Peggy to ask her if she’d like me to hold it until we had absorbed the reality of the tragedy that engulfed us (as if we ever could!) –I wanted nothing to mar her joy at seeing her first book in print. But Peggy quickly said. “Oh, No. Please send it. I need the comfort of birth and creation now.” Such was her wisdom and depth. And so we did.
When I think now of her poems, two seemingly dissimilar images come to mind: that of a Persian rug—probably Kirman—and that of a Japanese line drawing: that voluptuous, that precise. Poems, sensual and lush, that sound like she spent her life devouring books in an opulent library surrounded by gardens foolish with blossoms. Peggy was a painterly poet, her imagery and language as vibrant as either can be in the ‘hands’ of a master. When such gifts are wielded with emotional openness and intimacy, a rare combination all artists aspire to, we are given a work of art that levitates off the page and exists as a being in space—a dance, Peggy would have said of other such powerful work– and presents the reader with an experience so deeply personal that we are suddenly revealed to ourselves. Peggy Penn’s poems guide us to that unconscious place and make it safe for us to go there.
Amazingly, Peggy’s brilliance was not confined to poetry. She was an astute clinician in Family Therapy at the Nathan Ackerman Institute in New York and in fact was Clinical Director for several years. Widely acclaimed for her brilliant lectures worldwide, Peggy’s clinical papers and essays, most of which spotlight the effectiveness of writing as a therapeutic tool, are collected in her book Joined Imaginations.
Anyone privileged to know Peggy or her work, knew of her commitment to family—to her husband Arthur, her son and daughter, Molly and Matthew, and her Painted Warriors, her grandsons, the stars of her latest collection of the same name. Along the way, I was privileged to meet Arthur. Also brilliant and generous, at Peggy’s request, Arthur, a filmmaker, created and directed a fundraiser for CavanKerry called “Hollywood on Broadway” and invited his friends, screenwriter Walter Bernstein and producer Julian Schlossberg, to share the stage with him in a discussion of the ‘old’ days of Hollywood. Peggy, meanwhile, spread the word about CKP’s work and made sure the event was well attended. The evening was a sellout and a smashing success. Such was the friendship of Peggy and Arthur. We lost both of them within a few short years of each other. There’s a hole in our hearts where they once lived. Thankfully, we’ll always have their art.
The last time I saw Peggy was in May at a salon hosted by Sondra Gash to celebrate the publication of Peggy’s My Painted Warriors, Carole Stone’s American Rhapsody and Judi Hannan’s Motherhood Exaggerated. Peggy was very frail and could no longer walk on her own but still stunning—stunningly gracious and beautiful and stunningly gifted—and luminous—her skin the color of pink pearls and her hair, the finest silk. It was my great honor that she allowed me to sit beside her and read some of her poems—my favorites, old and new. Her words still languish in my mouth.
-Joan Cusack Handler