Monday, September 22, 2014

NEW! Review of Karla Kelsey

A Conjoined Book: Aftermath & Become Tree, Become Bird by Karla Kelsey. Omnidawn Publishing, $17.95. 

Reviewed by Catherine Kyle

In Karla Kelsey’s A Conjoined Book: Aftermath & Become Tree, Become Bird, disparate things coexist in tenuous but elegant union. The tranquility of nature interlocks with decay, contamination, and violence. Fairy tale joins with historical anecdote. Descriptions of painterly techniques are juxtaposed with meditations on astronomy, Descartes, and Galileo. The book itself, as the title suggests, invites a kind of “conjoined” or double vision, challenging readers to form connections between linked but separate things. Aftermath and Become Tree, Become Bird exist in recursive harmony, each teasing out new meanings in the other. 

Aftermath opens with an epigraph from Virginia Woolf’s The Waves that conflates the speaker’s subjectivity with the sea. This excerpt sets the tone for the first portion of Kelsey’s conjoined book, which thoughtfully explores the parallels between human consciousness and nature. In “Landscape of Vantage & Soft Motion,” she writes:

… the
river is not just the river but holds legends in relief. The
woman in reeds breathing murky water. The man &
the stone that was starred. Pages begin to disintegrate 
& so she puts them into a glass cylinder & buries it
under the holly tree.

While this bond between humans and nature is frequently generative, it also necessitates joint suffering. Kelsey’s subjects and speakers experience decline in concert with their settings:

mercury into
the watertable

(the scald
filled me 

In an interview with Omnidawn co-editor Rusty Morrison, Kelsey explains that part of her inspiration for the book came from her time spent in Pennsylvania, a land that both awed her with its beauty and pained her with its long history of environmental degradation. This disquieting blend of admiration and horror is brought to bear in her work as she orchestrates imagery that encompasses both: “I /   was your / Rose, your Lily, your Loralie dying over & over with the slow pause of an early / silver screen, grass gone nickel, skin gone glycerin.”
True to her understated approach to such turbulent themes, the catalyst of the subjects’ waning vitality is never explicitly named. Speaking from the negative space of undisclosed events—the perimeter, the echo of catastrophe rather than the catastrophe itself—Kelsey dwells in effect rather than cause. This is perhaps most deftly achieved in her series of “Afterimages” that read as both part of and additions to the poems that immediately precede them:

the sun

the pen

increasingly estranged. 


… In pictures his
face has gone blanched from scald from freeze. The car a
sun a chair that wouldn’t that couldn’t go.

As is apparent in this passage, Kelsey’s work bears certain hallmarks of modernist writing, foregoing standard punctuation in favor of free-flowing thought. Hyphenated phrases such as “the seen-through-a-glass” and “the wait-in-the-doorway-until-you-recognize” invite consideration of the relationship between perception, understanding, and language. The author also toys with form, rearranging and repeating poem titles, interspersing asterisks and footnotes, and substantially altering her use of line breaks from one piece to the next. These techniques, which also appear in the second half of the conjoined book, reveal a keen interest in expression and a willingness to take linguistic risks. 

Like Aftermath, Become Tree, Become Bird opens with an epigraph, this one from the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale “The Juniper Tree.” This story, in which a wicked stepmother murders her stepson and frames her daughter for the act, forms the backbone of the text. Kelsey unfolds the story gradually, interlacing it with echoes of Afterimage (some line-for-line) in addition to plenty of new images and themes. Though it has a somewhat narrative quality, Become Tree, Become Bird is more than a poetic retelling of “The Juniper Tree.” With its abrupt shifts from the intimate and personal to the historic and public, Kelsey troubles the boundaries between confessional and expository writing:

Shadow: Your hair smelled of smoke & ash & I have not forgotten departure 
sketched on thin paper. …
Source: The sources used by the Brothers
Grimm were demonstratably literary & many of their tales are not
exclusively German. From the 1812 edition on, one way the Grimms made
their fairy tales seem authentically German was to render them in some form
of dialect. 

This questioning of the supposedly monolithic subdivisions of literature evolves as Kelsey reflects on the invisible dialogue that undergirds all reading: “True readers always read creatively,” she writes in “Interstitial Weather Remnant.” In another poem by the same title, she adds, “Performers do not repeat their texts word for word but introduce changes into them.” This is a book that asks us to imagine, to fill in gaps, and even to invent. Many of its strongest moments are those that make readers conscious of their own presence, which, as Kelsey suggests, is synonymous with their own participation. Become Tree, Become Bird encourages us to regard text as something living, protean, and wily, much like the soul of the stepson who reemerges in new guise. 

The body of A Conjoined Book is followed by a “Sources” page—a list of books, images, and internet searches that Kelsey “is indebted to.” The breadth of sources illustrates the author’s curiosity, and the bibliography lends one final flourish to her work’s thematic apophenia. An intellectually nuanced and formally refreshing read, A Conjoined Book is a layered set of mirrors reflecting nature, tragedy, resilience, and the spaces where these things meet in contradiction and symbiosis.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

NEW! Review of Elizabeth Robinson

On Ghosts by Elizabeth Robinson. Solid Objects, $16 (hardcover).

Reviewed by Mary McMyne

Elizabeth Robinson’s fourteenth book, On Ghosts, is indeed a haunting collection. Elusive and difficult to characterize, the book contains poems as well as abstract essayistic passages, floating quotations, anecdotes, an e-mail, mathematical formulae, and descriptions of (absent) photographs. In her “Explanatory Note,” Robinson writes that the collection “is an essay on the phenomenon of ghosts and haunting,” and at first glance, this statement appears to be true. She begins by exploring the “conditions that locate themselves in specific sites or persons” and “calibrate individuals and places, make them vulnerable to the heightened perception, which is hauntedness.” What conditions make us vulnerable to perceiving that which others cannot see? How and why does this happen? What can we make of it? Later in the same note, Robinson claims that an “[a]pparition is not an entity as we think of it” with agency, but an “erasure.” As an example of this phenomenon, in “Creatures,” she describes a “subject” plagued by pain so insistent the pain
eats through layers of herself variably, mostly consuming the surface, but sometimes penetrating deeper. The remainder of the surface is first spongy with excavation, but then dries to a surprising sheen
bright enough to “attract things that want light.” The subject goes on to complain that since the pain has begun to persist, she has perceived invisible things attacking her, which she calls “creatures” for lack of a better word. The subject’s complaint—along with many of the other images and examples Robinsons uses throughout the book, such as the image on the first page of a building infested with termites—emphasizes the erosive quality of loss, the way absence can eat away at the self, causing the self to perceive absence as something other, something else, like a phantom limb. 
Much of the book is filled with essayistic passages, which outline ideas in abstract exposition and ask readers to project their own understandings to fill in the blanks. Robinson’s examples, when she provides them, are brilliant and lyrical. In “Incident One,” she narrates the story of a child who ends his own life: “Over and over the loop of his life rubs on its seam until the stitches rough up his skin and the garment comes apart. Dual ravel. He wrestles in the hammock slung over what, until seam and skin fall out.” Once dead, the child cannot figure out “what to do with goneness” and “keeps coming back to his departure.” The bereaved family he has left behind then perceives his presence in uncanny details, presumably projecting the apparition of his ghost, though Robinson stops short of saying so: “The nicely watered grass gets trodden down and the soil beneath it glistens, clinging to the bottoms of shoes.” A “tape clicks on mid-narrative when no one is there to push the PLAY button on.” In the description that follows, which appears atop a blank page with no such visual aid, Robinson describes the house the child has left behind: 

This is a photograph of a domestic interior. Because this ghost manifested primarily in an auditory manner, it is hard to see anything of significance in the photo. Note however the ghost’s baby tooth crumbling in a dish on the kitchen counter (foreground) and further back in the room, the boom box that went on at random times, always when there was a Harry Potter story tape in it.
There is, of course, no proof of the little boy’s ghost in this description, nor would there be in the missing photograph. Rather than provide proof that the haunting occurred, the description offers only proof of the boy’s family’s desire to perceive the boy, in the crumbling “baby tooth” that so concretely evokes his absence and the uncanny auditory events they ascribe to his return. Throughout the book, every time Robinson approaches the question of proof, she emphasizes her inability to provide it: in the doubtful nature of her evidence, her beautiful fumbling language, and the language of her characters. 
A closer look at On Ghosts, in fact, reveals the collection is less about literal ghosts than the ghosts of meaning and metaphor. Pulsing beneath the surface of these fragments is Robinson’s interrogation of the sort of haunting that compels writers to put words to page. Like ghosts do the bereaved, termites buildings, and pain its victims, the question of meaning haunts writers, compelling them to write despite the fact that their words “never truly impact the surface.” Robinson explores the way words erode those who attempt to “use” them as their medium, “lessening” or “infesting” them: “The word, his word or words, was like an autoimmune disease which attacked him, the word’s own organism, his soul and his body.” In “Drifting Interlude,” a writer trying to explain something—what we cannot be sure—
says, gesturing with her hands,
“There was just
this and this
and in between it was all commas.”
In “Visitor,” an elderly poet, who Robinson wryly calls “the dead man,” enjoys reading his poems aloud to a class despite having forgotten its teacher’s name, then, in “PHOTOGRAPH #3,” “is seen”—or not seen, since it is absent, of course—“looking jaunty, surrounded by a group of friends and admirers,” holding “a cigarette aloft.” In an epigraph to her poem, “Translation,” Robinson quotes James Longley on his difficulty with capturing the spirit that haunts him on the page: “How will I be sure that the spirit is speaking in me at all, much less when I transcribe, much much less when I translate?” Such writerly skepticism is apparent throughout Robinson’s book, in the way she uses analogies and then corrects them, the way she consciously experiments with form.
It is, no doubt, Robinson’s experimentation with form that causes the collection to continue to haunt the reader after it has been put back on the shelf. Robinson has written a collection full of absences, blank spaces, and abstractions, which require the reader to project her own understandings, to fill in the blanks in a way that brilliantly illustrates the book’s concepts. Robinson’s consistent use of absence, echo, and fragmentation enables her to capture a difficult subject in all its complexity, offering readers a new language for contemplating the human struggle with meaning and absence.