Book Review

In the introduction to her seminal 1987 collection The Reproduction of Profiles, Rosmarie Waldrop addresses her use of the pronouns “you” and “I” throughout the book’s prose poems. Waldrop informs her readers that the pronouns do not refer to real-world people or even to individuals in the poems. Rather, she writes, “This ‘I’ has lately been confused with the expression of unquestioned subjectivity and identity. But it simply indicates that language is taking place.” A substantial number of poems in Karla Kelsey’s fifth book, Of Sphere, make frequent use of “you” and “I” in a way that feels evocative of Waldrop’s pronouns. As with Waldrop’s use, the pronouns are non-deictic; they do not gesture or point to an autobiographical self. In addition to Waldrop, Kelsey pays homage to female modernists, most notably Virginia Woolf and H. D. Like H. D. in her mature writing, Kelsey structures the poems of her collection as palimpsests. Multiple discussions are maintained simultaneously, and figures (and selves) blur and overlap with one another. In a further nod to H. D., Kelsey invokes the Greek figures of Psyche and Athena. By tethering her work to the poetics of Waldrop and H. D., Kelsey creates a palimpsest of feminist poetics that spans the twentieth century. This mini-tradition invokes uses of poetic language and understandings of the self that promote fluidity and flux while circumventing the rationality-heavy and patriarchal poetry of figures like Ezra Pound.

But, Kelsey’s interest in pronouns takes a turn away from Waldrop’s. Her pronouns do not indicate self-propagating language. She uses them to explore the nature of the self: the curious causal factors that allow what we call a “subject” to exist, and the various ways in which the objective, external world are responsible for shaping and inhabiting the self. The sections in Of Sphere investigate the ways in which selves intersect and are cocreated by other selves and material objects including old cars, stones, birds, and seedpods.

In Of Sphere, as in her other three poetry collections, Kelsey deploys an interest in formal and conceptual hybridity. Formally, Of Sphere crosses and dissolves the boundary line between essay, prose poem, and lineated poem. The book comprises five sections named for the four “spheres” of the Earth’s ecosystem: “Geosphere,” “Hydrosphere,” “”Biosphere,” and “Atmosphere.” A fifth section is titled “Celestial Sphere.” Between each of these “-sphere” sections lie lineated poems appropriately called “Cosmogeny” (science that deals with the formation of the universe). Finally, the book concludes with a lengthy “Notes” section. Each two-to-three-page note opens by explicating an allusion or reference from the poem to which it refers. The note then takes on a life of its own; each reads like a mini-essay that delves into topics as varied as readings of Freud’s “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” and artist Heide Hatry’s Not a Rose project. Kelsey’s notes further the hybrid mixing of the text; they are not interested in giving the reader information that maps back onto the poem from which the note originates. Instead, the notes find their own way to question subjectivity and the interpenetrative formations of the self, parallel to the poems. For Kelsey, giving the notes autonomy—and their own form—is a way of resisting imposed hierarchy and of refusing to subordinate note to poem. Kelsey implicitly acknowledges that there is not one way to probe the nature of the self, but many ways that combine and flow together.

This conceptual hybridity is a major poetic strategy within Of Sphere. Even at the level of syntax, words and concepts flow into one another. The poems are fluid and absorptive. Interconnectedness abounds, although the links between topics on the page are not always associative. Some are abrupt, paratactic. In a beautiful passage in “Hydrosphere III,” she writes:

What happens when landscape erodes beyond recognition, its name a ribbon of text embedded in my skin? Pulse there. Vein there through plate glass and iron railing, the abandoned patio and beyond, the road, and beyond, the mall, but more often than not I’m wrong about the detail, the citation, the text. For example, the remnant of a rose grafted to the action of tying a stone to the dog then pushing her under.

Another view of the workings of Of Sphere comes from Kelsey’s reading of Freud, whom she invokes a number of times in her poems and notes. Although she refers most often to the famous “Fort-Da” passage, her poetry bears a functional similarity to another of Freud’s analytic concepts: transference. Transference as operative metaphor in Of Sphere allows the text to take on a quality of fluidity; it allows selves and subjectivities to interpenetrate, blur, and combine. Psuedo-transference occurs in the language also, as sentences meander from topic to topic and weave heterogeneous subjects into a single utterance. This quality of language allows Kelsey to invoke “becoming one with the machine” in “Hydrosphere IV.” In an optimistic moment that describes the possibility and function of transference between persons in the poem, Kelsey writes in “Biosphere IV,” “To inhabit a pronoun as time limit, two minutes of looking and the image travels through eyes, mind, body and her posture is my posture, her expression my expression.” Qualities of being can also transfer from material objects (with which the collection is rife) to humans.

Kelsey presents a strong, timely argument that what we call the self is not autonomous and isolated, but is mixed, formed, and deconstructed by technological and natural forces. What’s more, the spaces—or spheres—of technology and nature themselves can no longer be differentiated, but have blurred together into a hybrid techno-nature. Technology and the former “natural” world blur, mix, and rope themselves into human subjectivity to become part of what Kelsey gestures to when she writes of the self. Yet, her goal in Of Sphere is not to synthesize human, technology, and nature; doing so would too easily render a stable, set end point. Instead, Kelsey wants to rearticulate these terms, question their typically static definitions, and examine new hybridities that can be created out of these formerly static and separate spheres. Kelsey puts this well in a passage taken from “Celestial Sphere IV”: “Observation and instruction tell us cars don’t grow out of earth . . . . But note the revelation created by standing in the silence of the once burnt while, at the self-same time, being engulfed in one’s own burning.” Hybridity, it seems, is the only form suitable to speak accurately regarding the contemporary ontological and political moment.

About the Reviewer

Connor Fisher lives in Athens, Georgia. He has an MA in English literature from the University of Denver, an MFA in creative writing from the University of Colorado at Boulder, and is working toward a PhD in English and creative writing at the University of Georgia. Reviews and poetry have appeared in journals including Word for/Word, Typo, the Colorado Review, 7x7, and the Volta. His chapbook The Hinge is available now from Epigraph Magazine.