Reviewed by Mathias Svalina
Karla Kelsey takes the title of her first book, Knowledge, Forms, the Aviary, from a passage of Plato’s Theaetetus in which the philosopher explores the ways in which a person may be said to possess yet not contain/control knowledge, in the same way that the person has birds that he keeps in an aviary. With this launching pad Kelsey produces a project that both attends to the mechanics by which one may glean knowledge from language and lyric poetry while enacting a rhetorical process that forces the reader to constantly renegotiate whose knowledge the book creates.
In essence, Kelsey explores the workings of poetic epistemology, which is a process of awarenesses. Language accumulates information in relation to the forefronting of the words and artifice, thereby questioning the use value of language. Through the simultaneously denaturing and reifying effects of the line and form, her poetry arrives at meaning through a participatory process. In this book knowledge is not only unstable and fleeting it is more clearly situated in metaphor than in sense data. The epistemology of poetry obviously bears little resemblance to the attempts to analytical denote the world through the precision of true, justified beliefs, but neither does Plato’s metaphor of the birds. Poetic knowledge is always provisional, negotiated relationally in the aesthetic experience of the poem. It is experiential both in the presentation of information and imagery and experiential for the reader in the process of reading and making connection. Kelsey produces a kind of knowledge that develops multiplicities through matrices of meaning rather than a monument built on unshakable blocks.
But I don’t want to talk about this book as if it were only a philosophical text. Yes, this is the kind of book you have to wrangle with, both intellectually and aesthetically (and these two are coreferential in the book). It simultaneously envelops and ejects the reader. A big book, both its intellectual and experiential scope, I found it both difficult to read in one sitting and difficult to pick back up in the middle. But the wrangling is one that enriches the reading. And this book is an aesthetic pleasure to wrangle with. The beauty of the lines, the lusciousness of Kelsey’s language and the incredible ability of her fragments to strike resonant chords out of ideas that seem so dissonant all propel me to continue to mine the deep intellectual veins.
The first of the three sections that make up the book, “flood/fold,” consists of long poems entitled “Aperture One” through “Aperture Four.” The poems in this section are fragments of moments, ideas and events, separated by asterisks and often series of asterisks. The book even opens with a series of three asterisks, a formal convention usually used to denote the movement between sections; this opening gambit implies that not only are we entering the poetry in medias res, but that we will never, as readers, be able to enter into the full lyric experience. We are phenomenologically thrown into a world in which we immediately have to negotiate ourselves into a kind of sense. And yet the moments are, for the most part, presentations of experience. The first poetry in the book presents characters in action:
into the street making
this the movement. What
we call home comprised
and pictured. Sold
unto a title of time, of
into the back of the chair
a waiting within
the network: a visor
and a mask
Elusive, but well within the current lyric style of personal experience. The photographic metaphor of the poem titles invites a reading of these moments as brief snapshots, splices of a film disjunctively pieced together. At turns intellectually abstract, and at others immediately experiential, through the whole there is a consistent voice and a consistent imagistic concern for birds (always the universal “bird” rather than specific species), gardens and people either in action or watching things move. I can tell as a reader I’m participating in the work of a unified, authorial voice, but the poetry refuses to allow a consistency that can result in my containment and control of this voice. Kelsey responds directly to the Platonic question of what it is to possess knowledge: “I must ask you why/ this should be spoken of in terms/ of possession: the I go or I went of the face/ the call fo the bird, of grace.” The individual speaker, the object of lyric attention and the concept behind them are all available to reader but beyond the cage-like grasp of possessive comprehension.
Its stunning really, how the books twirls the reader between lyric identity, textual plasticity and reader response. This twirling works so well because of the sharp ear and eye of the poet. Though for the most part the individuality of the fragments blur after reading them the immediate moment of reading is consistently dazzling, for instance “The blue paper crane/ hangs in the tree,/ arc of thrust and drag”; “coined visible, invisible, or an alternate scraping of rust”; or “Into the loom, call it season, call it personal bent.” It’s the kind of book that distorts the room you are in when you look up from reading. The room becomes alien, the color of the paint is somehow a part of the poem rather than your drab office walls.
After the asterisk-laden fragments of the first section the second section, “Containment and Fracture,” which begins 52 pages into the book, slams the reader up against the brick walls of prose poems. And yet these prose poems are more abstracted than the gusty lilt of the fragments. As the section moves between the I and we of the opening section’s actions it seems to attempt the creation of a recreatable experience: “It was on the road from here that it happened, one and one and nothing left on the shelves to pilfer// and light leaking from under doorways to know we are home by…” But, as the section title implies, the more a speaker attempts to use language to contain experience the more it reveals the epistemological fractures. The poetry seems to spiral inward as it tries to make sense of how we are to make sense of the relationship between language, experience and knowledge. There is a new focus on colors both as sensual experience and as universal and disconnected properties. It is as if the attempt to create and contain experience in language causes the intellectual assumption to arise through the fracture, frustrating the speaker:
I was working the free radicals, the delay, looking for a method in this desire of constituting the whole. As if to reconstruct an imagined world in shades of red seen through light particles of varying density. Red, darker red, orange-red, air—as in being given an audience and so the ability to perform the whole, the parts thereof, the keening. Allowing a “her” into the abstraction arrests it for a moment. This abstraction has been arrested as a form of grace, light in ash-dense air gilds trees. We are not satisfied.
And we are not satisfied. As this intellectually obsessive voice reduces the attempt to create cohesion into a rubble of epistemic problems, it rejects the kind of cohesion that I feel as a reader through the fragments of the first section. This is similar to the idealist curse of never being able to truly interact with any other thing, and here she has to please the reading audience. But the intellectual dazzle and Kelsey’s consistently sharp ear and eye keep this from being merely a philosophical exercise.
This second section continues the project set up in the first, of attempting to understand the workings of knowledge-making in poetry, but through a self awareness that seeks to balance the construction and deconstruction rather through the creative performance of the epistemological fissures. The third section sends this project out into the world, asking how we can participate in a world in which there are such epistemological fissures. Recognizable, ordinary objects such as baseball bats and umbrellas enter in the first poem, but these poems continue to develop the epistemological question of how we construct the world through our relationship with it: “Dragonflies hover/ and we topple // to the sound of purity given up/ to our making. We can call it what we must, the leaves in, canopy/ shaking.” Kelsey has returned to the world that we participate in, but only after the skeptical agenda of the first two sections, and therefore it is a new world of self-awareness, of conscious makings. The question has changed from how we construct the world to how do we negotiate ourselves in relation to a construct:
Charted outward, are we beholden
to love the world our words made? The images
on the flat surface fold into our story
of the unique idea constituting the country bathes
in heralded light and betrayed by its people’s decision.
The original image sets of birds and gardens remain, but are changed. The birds in the aviary are now bothered by such technological things as headlights and “atomic despair.” The poetry does not provide an answer to the question of how we negotiate the social with disrupted foundations, instead focusing on the quest of the question, but the development of the prosody and the referential focus through the third section does suggest why the quest is essential.
The prosody of this third section grounds the book in a more familiar free verse style, moving the book as a whole into what is visually recognizable as conventional contemporary verse. The cinematic metaphor also returns in the third section but to different effect, The poems are entitled “Sound and Image Accordance One” through “Three,” but rather than the disjunctive set of moments of the first section these poems situate the individual speaker in relation to the world as both an objective reality and, as seen above, a political reality. The creation of the polis becomes significant in this section, as the individual experience becomes networked with the many. But the city is also overlaid with the individual, such as when she writes
this city of grid and artery mapped
and charted, no longer the same
after blast and drill—
for the medium of the mountain
has disintegrated, and the blue sky cover, sooted
in this sequence of buildings, air
and repetition disappearing, and then, I am I,
magnetite in the mind,
And this reestablishment in the natural world, particularly the mountains is where the book leaves the reader. This is not a Romantic turn to the sublime, however, but more of a way of recognizing what is not epistemologically negotiable—the mountains are under your feet regardless of how you construct the experience of the mountain beneath your feet. In the end there are limits to the problems of epistemology.
Makes me feel I’m up in the eastern mountains
released over knots of valley-light, disintegrated
into the many made of smoke plumes, flares billowing
as if we were an array of dawns or another kind
of knowing, interiors blowing toward muscle
It is this feeling of assured solidity that ultimately is a part of our experience. And this is where Knowledge, Forms, the Aviary leaves us, back in the real world, but with the questions still fundamental—the birds still rustle in their aviary as knowledge twitches and flutters. The journey of the book begins in questioning the formation of knowledge and returns the reader to the public world, but it is a world fundamentally altered by the journey.
KARLA KELSEY is a graduate of the University of Denver (PhD) & the Iowa Writer's Workshop (MFA). Knowledge, Forms, the Aviary, her first book of poems, won the 2005 Sawtooth Poetry prize judged by Carolyn Forche & is out from Ahsahta Press. She has recently finished a book-length manuscript based on the sonnet called Iteration Nets; poems from this book can be found in recent issues of the Denver Quarterly, Bird Dog, & the New Review of Literature. Along with her husband Peter & dog Jessa-Belle she lives on the Susquehanna River.
MATHIAS SVALINA lives in Lincoln, Nebraska where he co-curates The Clean Part Reading Series & co-edits Octopus Magazine & Books. Poems of his have been published or are forthcoming in Fence, jubilat, Typo, Pindeldyboz and Denver Quarterly, among other journals. His first chapbook, Why I Am White, is forthcoming from Kitchen Press in 2007.