You who do not remember
passage from the other world
I tell you I could speak again: whatever
returns from oblivion returns
to find a voice:
from the center of my life came
a great fountain, deep blue
shadows on azure seawater.
—Louise Glück, “The Wild Iris”
Those who like to think of poetry as the purest expression of a unified self, in the tradition of lyric, should prepare to have their world upended by Karla Kelsey’s A Conjoined Book. The first half, titled Aftermath, reads as eerily prelapsarian, as though the earth, sparsely populated, is only beginning to give up the first signs of life. There is intense pressure, elaborate scene setting; no one has yet even opened their mouths. And yet, like the addressee of Louise Glück’s “The Wild Iris,” we feel ourselves in the grip of dramatic developments that—although beyond our ability to sense them—have long been in the works.
Aftermath couches most of its action in descriptive terms and sometimes exhibits the slippery, understated—perhaps even beside-the-point—subjectivity of an Ashbery poem. We are treated to a series of outdoor landscapes animated by description, as well as a series of “afterimages” (“The window bathed in blue & the window bathed in tourmaline. How to approach a series of photographs torn from event, a collection of wounded nexuses. Evidence of antecedents, discontinuities between them laboring under a continuous dawn”). We wonder, then, what serves as the precedent for this “afterimage.” The logical candidate seems to be a lingering erotic encounter, which silently unspools, nearly in real time. Perhaps—but the presence of altered registers of speech—the mytho-religious, the apocalyptic—hint at revelations yet to come, the seed of aftermath, as it were. A submerged narrative runs in the footer beneath some of the poems, further upsetting any sense of cohesion. There are lines that could as easily be attributed to the lovers as to the earth on which they stand (“If I miss you in hindsight I’ll indulge myself by naming you just one in a succession of the fragile-shouldered”). The sense of being addressed by land itself, or rather, by land suffused with story, places Kelsey firmly within Glück’s sphere of influence, although the fragmentary approach belongs to Kelsey and her generation of poets who work polyphonically.
It is in the latter section, Become Tree, Become Bird, an ostensible exegesis of the Grimm fairy tale The Juniper Tree, that Kelsey at last takes us into her confidence by a dawning sort of logic. She repeats sentences and phrases wholesale from the book’s first section, as though to point out that figures of speech that seem to apply most directly to the unique conditions of our lives have their proper origin in the shared cultural realm of myth. Included in this section are also a number of proclamations regarding the nature of storytelling and performance, such as: “Methods of production include addition, subtraction, rearrangement, juxtaposition, & graft.”
Juxtaposition is perhaps the most important of these methods for Kelsey, a notion underscored by an illustrative digression into optics and color theory. Under the pretext of tracing Philipp Otto Runge’s articulation of a “color sphere,” Kelsey wonders aloud what happens to perception in that vibrating margin where two juxtaposed fields of color meet. How it is that we see purple at the confluence of red and blue? Can it be that the eye is predictive, automatically mixing those colors? But this does not explain the vibration. It is that vibrating space that is truly Kelsey’s concern, as she writes in both Aftermath and Become Tree, Become Bird: “I’ve seen between myself & myself.”
What do we learn by juxtaposition of our own stories with the stories of others? The Juniper Tree is characteristic Grimm, with a jealous stepmother, infanticide, unwitting cannibalism and a final transformation that is both miraculous and endlessly sorrowful. The blameless young female protagonist is made to feel complicit in the murder of her beloved half-brother; she must live in that “aftermath.” What does this have to do with the present day poetic speaker? At times as I read, I confess that I was unable to say, except that it surely had to do with more than the development of mere empathy. In the end, The Juniper Tree does not seem directly instructive to the various incarnations of the poetic speaker. What lingers is the guilty “what if,” and a sense of the self as a protagonist at the nexus of nature, culture, and chance.
A Conjoined Book is a fascinating study, often dazzling in its effects. The opening stanzas will suffice as an example:
I awake mid-
thought & feeling
the bedsheets taut
I lily over-
rained and burgeoning.
For all the stunners, though, there are some conspicuously “poetic” images and diction, from girls with horses to “sycamores.” But in surrendering to the powerful crosscurrents of the multiple stories, one is struck most by Kelsey’s impressive layering and her ability to navigate the reader through disparate registers of allusion and disjunctive settings in time. These are leaps that open up the land around us, and remind us that we are, simultaneously, creatures of now and then, heroes and anti-heroes of overlapping stories.
About the Reviewer
Benjamin Landry is a Meijer Post-MFA Fellow at the University of Michigan and the author of Particle and Wave (Chicago). His poems have appeared in American Letters & Commentary, Crazyhorse, Denver Quarterly, Subtropics and elsewhere. His essays and reviews have appeared in Boston Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rumpus and elsewhere.