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:
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:
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:
… 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
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.