Sunday, November 19, 2006

obedience by kari edwards

Factory School, 2006

Reviewed by Erica Kaufman

To open a book called obedience, the reader is immediately faced with the question of obedience to what. Though to open kari edwards’ fourth collection is to discover that there is nothing “obedient” about this text. Even the epigraph by Judith Butler that begins the book, “Possibility is not a luxury; it is crucial as bread,” indicates an emphasis on variance, rather than stagnancy. In other words, here is a book that is interested in the opening up of language and situations, as opposed to the typical and easier obeyance, or subordination.

The book opens with the word “let’s,” the conjunction for “let us.” This phrase indicates not only a certain permission or opportunity, but also foreshadows a “release,” in this case that of “a body covered in leaves/not the imagined/here to cure this language plague” (38). Right from the start, edwards sets the stage for the unpredictable, she mixes familiar words with jargon, beginning a litany that circles and undoes itself, as if to literally deconstruct the climate one lives in.

          this is your base (a square hole)
          this is your weapon (a condition)
          I am you
          a fill-in-the-blank (perception)
          which is nothing more than masturbation
          part memory
          part blood soaked sheets
          part remastered destiny (7)

The parenthetic asides act as commentary or snipes at words preceding them. What further empowers this opening verse is the direct phrasing of the lines themselves. This text is assertive, and through this wise use of the imperative, it is virtually impossible to turn a page without reading every single word. And, this carries even more meaning because there is little truth in so much of what surrounds us (meaning the general public).

          sometimes there’s qualities in schema
          sometimes things like things, cut matter (8)


In “The Author as Producer,” Walter Benjamin writes, “[The writer] directs his activity towards what will be useful to the proletariat in the class struggle. This is usually called pursuing a tendency, or ‘commitment.’” In the exploration of “naming” alongside a multi-genre book-length work, edwards succeeds in grounding the reader in an alternative society,

          depending on the country
          and proper name
          given by the institute that names names
          names the damned (13)

This is a space where the non-verbal, overlooked problems in society are verbalized as a litany, an intense, short-lined, 39-page invocation that itemizes what one is afraid to face, “the we/who have not been murdered” (29). In this crystalline language, edwards takes on cultural nomenclature or the lack thereof. She masterfully melds the vocabulary of commodity and capitalism with an exposition and deconstruction of the singular, pronouns, and the often impossibility of a stable public identity.

          pronouns are lost and then found
          or never invented or intended
          and we all play safe
          with stick familiar (9)

Returning to the idea of “tendency,” edwards questions the very notion of parts of speech so embedded in cultural expression that one barely stops to think about their usage. But the point is that we need to stop, to think in detail about the words we use or allow ourselves to use as labels, as blanket phrases. No terminology is safe, nor should it be safe.

          a vital impression
          that accepts plastic
          what do i know?
          everyone doubts doubt
          doubts bodies
          criticized at inception (20)

In Masculine/Feminine or Human? Janet Saltzman Chafetz writes, “Human beings try to make sense out of their own world by lumping together a variety of individual cases, labeling them, and then reacting to categories of phenomena.” What edwards accomplishes is the recognition of the individual, the necessary acknowledgement of biological and political restraints that keep human hands tied, minds frozen. she is a writer I endlessly admire, increasingly so with each volume I read. What is accomplished in the first half of obedience is a large-scale mediation between questioning and assertions of perhaps a majority of societal claims and problems that have never really been addressed before.

          i have been deprived of a name
          kept quiet in a place
          called eventually (30)


“because,” (40) appears alone on a page, signifying a foreshadowing of a shift in form, or perhaps an entrance into another movement or body of words. “Because” is a conjunction, meaning that we are accustomed to seeing it as the center part of a sentence, a word that indicates an explanation will follow. The effect of placing this word alone on a page, accompanied only by a comma, is one of both space and tension. It gives the reader a break from the intensity of the litany of the first 39 pages of the book, but at the same time leaves the mind anticipating what will come next. It is, essentially, the perfect transitional tactic.

The reader now enters into a textual space where form becomes transitory and many of the direct statements listed in the first half of the book are now expanded upon.

     because there is no apparent singular
          couched in a connection between
          sensible and secret powers (41)

“Because” begins as a vessel to peer into the negative, as in “no apparent.” However, the word choices do not indicate this negative to be all-encompassing. A “singular” is displayed, as are words such as “sensible” and “secret.” This word transmutation is reminiscent of Acker’s statement in “Against Ordinary Language: The Language of the Body,” that “the physical or material, that which is, is constantly and unpredictably changing: it is chaotic.” And, there is chaos here, but an effective chaos, one that takes the reader (or viewer) on a journey through sprawling language that mediates back and forth between prose, projective verse, and the left-justified short-lined form of the first half of the book.

          no fixed logic
          no fixed conception
          no fixed bias
          neither female nor male (43)

Similar to the phrase “no fixed,” as this section progresses little is fixed, not even the situating of the words themselves. The effect of this is the feeling that the left justified statements of the early parts of the poems have morphed into a sort of answer that undoes the very form or appearance of the charges or questions previously defined. There truly is “no fixed logic,” especially in a social space where so much depends on forced or inherently learned societal stigmas. And, the text itself visually echoes this.

     may the day be speaking of speaking, the sanctuary, of humanity
          and illumination in the flower of clarity, speaking of the
          poor and hungry breath of the ocean, of the saliva, of saints
          in the dust at the end of the day, at the end of all bigotry (48)

Once edwards’ lines begin to sprawl, so does the scope of the relations of the text. The reader finds almost direct addresses (or “commitments”) to “the poor and hungry” or “at the end of all bigotry.” This is a writer whose head and heart is in all the right places. While activism and politics are at the forefront of many of our minds, it is hard to find the most effective angle when critiquing the perpetually disturbing hegemony we live under. But, edwards finds again and again the most successful ways of doing so. S/he elides the problem of hegemony with her syntactical revolutions, fluid prosaic lyricism, and perhaps most importantly, unabashed, semantically brilliant honesty.

          this could be a series of singulars busting forth, points of grand realignment, instantaneous realignment, bringing life to the mud and the slime, entertaining a continuum in something multiple, segments and singularities (53)

Here we see an empowering passage of “singulars,” of “realignment.” In contrast to words like “lost” and “deprived” (both found in the first half of the book), the word choice in these few lines alone indicates a sort of reconciliation, or a coming to terms with what needs to be done, “a dark unimpressed otherwise—stripped bare in a memory of a/memory, always waiting for someone to speak and being spoken to…” (55). As the text expands, so does the exposition of the “other.” And this exposition of the reality of the “other” turns to the memory of another.

          I keep listening for what they think
          but I can’t enter their lurid regime
          leaving me out and without
          saying writing, writing saying
          this other hand
           named and pointed to
          shown the invisible (58)

No matter what shape the words or lines take, no matter how hard one tries to hear, obedience is not an option (“I can’t enter their lurid regime”). This stance is one that radiates courage because it is easier to submit (or submerge) than to cope with the feeling of being “left out.”

          almost silence, but stranger still
          a pursuit of this or that
          such that the world will change (60)

What needs to happen to create change? This answer is not named; it has no name, no body, only pronouns and adverbs. No solution is offered, only strength in language. When one strips hegemonic oppression down, what is left but linguistic strength, the ability to verbalize what is wrong (“-watching a word watch itself-“ (62)).

In order to cement the circularity of continuous societal restraints, obedience ends where it begins, with “let’s begin again” (82). Every page leading up to this has presented language and assertions that undo themselves every step of the way, mostly as a means to present the reality of the scope of identity, body, and cultural problematizing that happens daily. And, this phrase appears on a page alone, indicating a pause, or a space to fill.

          if in fact
          it is a place in time
          turning back on itself
          holding both and merely in an intention (80)


Julia Kristeva refers to literature as “work at shedding light on the laws of this immemorable language, this unconscious algebra that traverses discourse, this basic logic that establishes relations.” edwards is a writer who expands this “immemorable language” to extraordinary lengths. s/he not only “traverses discourse,” but overcomes and reinvents it. Every time I read a book by edwards, I am not only awed by her command of form (cross-genre mastery), but also with the ground she covers in the rather short space of a poetry book (82 pages). obedience is certainly another edwards must read, simultaneously beautiful and alarming, hypnotic and awakening, bodily and true.


kari edwards, a poet, artist and gender activist, received one of Small Press Traffic's books of the year awards (2004), New Langton Art's Bay Area Award in literature (2002); and is author of obedience, Factory School (2005); iduna, O Books (2003), a day in the life of p., subpress collective (2002), a diary of lies - Belladonna #27 by Belladonna Books (2002), and ost/(pink) Scarlet Press (2000).


erica kaufman co-curates the belladonna* reading series and small press. she is the author of several chapbooks including a familiar album (which won the 2003 New School University Chapbook Contest). her work can be found or is forthcoming in jubilat, puppy flowers, CARVE, LIT, The Mississippi Review, Bombay Gin, among other places. erica lives in Brooklyn.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Knowledge, Forms, the Aviary by Karla Kelsey

Ahsahta Press, 2006

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
          into lake-ripple
          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
          and thigh.

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.