blackbirdonline journalSpring 2022  Vol. 21 No. 1
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Founded in 2001 as a joint venture of the Virginia Commonwealth University Department of English and New Virginia Review, Inc.

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Kelly Cherry (1940–2022)

Kelly Cherry

Kelly Cherry first appeared in Blackbird v7n1, writing about the remarkable literary presence of her friend and former teacher, George Garrett. Subsequent issues featured Cherry’s fiction, poetry, reviews, and readings, and she was the inaugural recipient of the Rebecca Mitchell Tarumoto Short Fiction Prize for her story “On Familiar Terms.” Cherry was a true and remarkable person of letters, and it is with sorrow that we note her death on March 18, 2022.

Fiction writer Lee Zacharias, a longtime friend and University of North Carolina at Greensboro connection, has very kindly provided the following appreciation of Cherry and her work.


A Kind of Dream
Lee Zacharias

I knew of Kelly Cherry before I knew Kelly Cherry. She was “the girl in the black raincoat,” subject of a 1966 anthology edited by George Garrett that included work by such luminaries or soon-to-be luminaries as Mark Strand, Donald Justice, May Sarton, Carolyn Kizer, R.H.W. Dillard, Annie Dillard, and Fred Chappell. I did not yet know the story behind the anthology—that at the University of Virginia, where Kelly enrolled as a graduate student in philosophy at age twenty, Henry Taylor, who would later win a Pulitzer Prize, had written a story about the shy, beautiful young girl who wore a black raincoat to class even when the day called for sun, or that when George arrived to teach creative writing at UVA the next year he used the girl in the black raincoat as a class prompt and then a call for the anthology. Half a dozen years later, Richard Dillard was my mentor at Hollins College, and when I went on to study for an MFA in fiction at the University of Arkansas, I met George Garrett and Fred Chappell as visiting writers. Fred hired me to teach at the University of North Carolina Greensboro, where Kelly had completed her MFA in poetry in 1968 and published her first poems in the inaugural issue of The Greensboro Review. By then Kelly’s first novel, Sick and Full of Burning, had come out, deemed “near perfect” by Kirkus; the Chicago Tribune called it “flawless.” My colleague Bob Watson put her second novel, Augusta Played, in my hands. I was tentatively, nervously, trying to follow the footsteps of two legends: Randall Jarrell, whom Kelly studied with for the three months before his untimely death, and Kelly, a literary Theda Barrow, the “It Girl” of her time.

At the time The Girl in the Black Raincoat came out I was still an undergraduate, wondering whatever I was going to do when I got out of college; in 1968 I was working all day in an office to support my first husband’s flirtation with various PhDs, though by 1981, when I met Kelly at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, where she was teaching in its new low-residency MFA Program, I had published a collection of stories and had a novel in press. The woman I met was, yes, beautiful and brilliant, but also as generous to me then as she would have been to an uncertain undergraduate or stifled drudge I had been while her star was rising. Like me, she was vulnerable, despite her success, worried about how the words she wrote in the private space of her “attic” would be received. Would she marry again? (We were both divorced.) Would she have children? We became friends and remained so over the ensuing decades as her publications multiplied and my career stalled. She graciously blurbed a novel that had sat on my shelf for years before it finally came out in 2013. She was unfailingly attentive to the work of other writers, especially emerging writers. Often, she recommended their books on Facebook until her posts abruptly broke off in November 2018, after a painful back surgery. She never spoke in clichés like paying it forward, but she remembered—and often spoke of—how fortunate she had been in her early mentors and friends. She was never a prima donna.

What she was, in the truest sense, was a woman of letters, a reader, a student, a literary critic, and in her own writing a master of genres, prolific but never careless. In college I once took an exam in a comparative literature class taught by an uncompromising man of letters who offered clues instead of questions—the one I recall is “butterfly wings and cathedral arches,” which referred, of course, to Virginia Woolf, though it is also an apt description of Kelly, who was at once fragile and made of steel, who was “called,” as she liked to say, instead of driven, her every line, every sentence, undergirded by a deep intelligence and tuned by lyric grace.

She was shy, she said, but too curious to stay home.

If her work is enriched by its cultural grounding, it is also entirely her own. The last and gorgeous volume of her trilogy of novels-in-stories, A Kind of Dream, completes a cycle that was especially dear to her, bringing a fictional alter ego, Nina Bryant, to life in order to make sense of the world. The first volume, My Life and Dr. Joyce Brothers, rejects the past answers to life’s dilemmas offered by the industry of self-help. As Nina says of her own writing, even in the face of her own many dilemmas, “It was about making something that would bring aesthetic happiness into the world . . . It’s what makes a person an artist.”

“We are made of dreams, and our life stretches from sleep before birth to sleep after death,” says Prospero in The Tempest, and Kelly held Shakespeare, especially The Tempest, close. Read the trilogy that ends with A Kind of Dream. Read Kelly’s poems. Let your heart break as you read “Alzheimer’s,” published in 1997, when her brilliant violinist father was reduced to “a crazy old man” by the same disease that would claim Kelly a quarter of a century later. Read the obituary for her second husband, Walter Burke Davis III, who died of cancer eighteen months before her, which speaks of his athletic youth, his history, his interests, and personality; then let your heart break again when you compare it to the brief, perfunctory obituary Powell’s Funeral Home issued for Kelly. Kelly never shied from death, though she feared confusion. All her life she wrote elegies for our common mortality, elegies that are also celebrations of life. We are graced by the fact that she remained clearheaded and giving as well as gifted for so many of her eighty-one years. May the dream in which she now sleeps be filled with the music that inspired the dream from which she woke when she was born, into a reality that is both blessed and doomed by its yearning for the ideal, a Platonic wilderness that is not the dream itself, but, as Kelly knew, a kind of one.  end

Kelly Cherry was the author of nineteen books of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction, eight chapbooks, and translations of two classical plays. Her most recently published titles are The Retreats of Thought: Poems (Louisiana State University Press, 2009) and Girl in a Library: On Women Writers and the Writing Life (BkMk Press, 2009). Her short fiction has been reprinted in Best American Short Stories, Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards, The Pushcart Prize, and New Stories from the South, and has won three PEN/Syndicated Fiction Awards. Other awards include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Rockefeller Foundation, the Bradley Major Achievement (Lifetime) Award, a Distinguished Alumnus Award, three Wisconsin Arts Board fellowships and two New Work awards, an Arts America Speaker Award (The Philippines), and selection as a Wisconsin Notable Author.

Lee Zacharias is the author of four novels, a collection of essays, and a collection of short stories. Her most recent novel is What a Wonderful World This Could Be (Madville Publishing, 2021). She coedited an anthology of short fiction titled Runaway (Madville Publishing, 2020), and her essays, which have appeared in numerous journals, have been cited and reprinted in The Best American Essays. She has taught at Princeton University and the University of North Carolina Greensboro, where she is emerita professor of English.

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