Monday, January 29, 2007

Krishna had made a pun at her book club and nobody had gotten the joke. It had been something that substituted yam for Ya as in Ya-Ya Sisterhood. She recounted her problem – “they must have thought I was so stupid” – over the dinner table and both of the boys started coming up with other funny, or at least ostensibly funny, combinations involving the word the yam. It was all quite silly & I’m sure it was one of those “you had to be there” moments that bond families while helping to create the sort of private language all families have – for example, the way my family (and that of my brother) have used boppo for years to mean “potholder,” because it’s the private term we grew up with, my grandparents having adopted it when my mother, then just a toddler, settled on boppo to refer to same. My mother’s grandkids now number in double digits and if these kids end up having families that adopt that term, and their kids do likewise, then a couple of generations out we might find it starting to emerge into something akin to general usage. But right now, anyway, yam is the charged term in our house. Any ordinary question that can be responded to, however improbably, with something containing yam is fair game.

So when, looking later this same week through the one hundred or books that have arrived in the mail this past month, I noted a book whose back cover reads


I had to show it to Krishna. The words are the title reversed from the front cover (as tho you were reading the cover “from behind”), the book being May Day by Robert Kelly, fresh out from Parsifal Editions. Then Krishna asked to see the book, noting that the design was beautiful (which it certainly is), and read a poem aloud to Jesse & me. Then she read a second one. Then a third. “He’s really good,” she noted, to which I immediately agreed. Krishna grew up, more or less, reading the Allen anthology (one reason why we have three separate copies of it around the house), knew who Charles Olson was the day I met her &, as it turned out, had actually attended the very first poetry reading I’d ever curated some four years before we “officially” met, a benefit with Robert Creeley, Joanne Kyger & Ed Dorn for the prison movement group with which I was working. It totally stands to reason that Robert Kelly is going to be her kind of poet. Mine too.

Kelly is one of the younger New Americans or post-New Americans (take your pick) who stands as a bridge betwixt that aesthetic and langpo. It’s not an accident that Kelly, in fact, had the very first poem in the first issue of This, the magazine edited by Barrett Watten and, for the first couple of issues, Robert Grenier. In more respects than one might imagine, Kelly has a lot of similarities with Clark Coolidge. Both write enormous amounts – Kelly’s Wikipedia site notes that he’s published “more than fifty” books of poetry & prose, and the note itself hasn’t been updated in eight years – and it would seem that each poet must easily produce more than one book of new work every year. Both also have a range around which almost all of their mature writing seems to operate, tho they are somewhat different from one another as to what that range might be. And both give an awful lot of authority to the role of the ear in the poem.

Right now, if May Day and the recent Shame, his collaborative prose work with Birgit Kempker, are any indication, Kelly is in an especially productive period of his writing, at the top of his form. Here’s an untitled poem from May Day:

We say he went to heaven
or heaven happened to him
right here, like Foucauld
in Africa, blood over white

sometimes the comedy
comes first, Marx’s
patterned lute that sang
the looms of Lombardy

all work and no stained glass
the gods exist to take
this pain away, gold filigreed
their skins of lapis blue

Marx’s lute in Mao’s fingers
no one understands
power is the choosing not to tell
or not to kill

I am in the sky, it said,
winged, of either sex
as your body may have need
my six wings all hovering

they cover us both
the wrap, finale, apocalypse
of all our skin
unwrapping the mystery

to spill this ordinary thing.

I don’t think you need to know the difference between Charles de Foucauld and Michel Foucault to read this poem (tho it probably helps not to presume one is the other). Rather, the poem reminds me of how, when, in the introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Marx wrote that religion “is the opium of the people,” he clearly intended the term opium to be understood medicinally and not in terms of opium dens or recreational drug use: “the gods exist to take / this pain away.” But Marx’s “lute” – his celebration of the actual labor of peasants – becomes something quite different in the brutal & stupid re-education programs that characterized life under the Gang of Four in the PRC. Yet what amounted to a kind of class genocide in the China of the 1960s was experienced very differently by the French mystic when he came to live among the poorest peasants of North Africa. As Foucauld had written when he served as the custodian in the convent of the Poor Clares of Nazareth earlier in his career,

I have now the unutterable, the inexpressibly profound happiness of raking manure.

Kelly has never wavered in his career in knowing which side of this argument he preferred. At the same time, he’s not pinning his soul on a single narrative that would transform spirituality into institutional religion:

I am in the sky, it said,
winged, of either sex
as your body may have need

I can imagine an interesting test for an undergraduate literature course that had, as one question, a requirement to identify and discuss “the ordinary thing” of this poem’s final line. I would add a further question: is a “wrong” answer possible?

Very much like Coolidge, Kelly, even tho he writes poems – there are a few booklength projects, like Shame or Axon Dendron Tree, in his oeuvre, but even they seem to stop at the last page – actually falls on the poetry side of what I think of as the poem vs. poetry divide. It’s as if the poems channel into some wavelength of which they are representative strands. At one point, reading this book, I began a wonderful piece entitled “The Politics of You” and, when it came time to turn the page, turned two by accident, so that I found myself reading the end of “Twelfth Night,” and it made – aesthetically at least – excellent sense. Here is the collaged text:

I meant a politics unwinding
the machinery, the bluegreen
feeling that just happens
when a thing is finished
even if it’s not finished well
or something’s put away
into its place and the mind is clear
for a minute or two, losing
your colonies after a war
no more Togo no more Kamerun
I mean where are my legs
to stand, why is the earth
denied to those it bore?
A Latin question, the kind
old poems ask and colleges
yawn over for a thousand years,
don’t get me wrong I’m asking
for you to be beside me
to live in touch as some men live in hope,
a cathedral is never finished
always a ruin, the great abbey
open to the instruction of the wind,
a roofless love, the woman I forgot
some called her turquoise
because her eyes were ocean
in that sallow place, cubicula
saw Apollinaire
rooms for rent in Latin
for the students, nobody knows
how Flemish I really am
but those who have felt
my dame mustache sur la nuque
and breathed in my fantasizing breath,
Christ stumbling into Brussels
in Ensor’s painting, and I am all
the other faces, mask under mask
until the simplest touches
you and goes to heaven, how easy
such a politics could be if we had a little
bungalow right near the beach
and money is only good in drugstores
on toothpaste and Vaseline and soap
and we eat whatever the fishermen catch
and they catch whatever we throw away,
this is the art history museum please
you follow the footsteps of the visitors
and see what they see, what they look at
longest must be the best, write it down
as your dissertation, who are you
to go against the current of the world?
I was a salmon once and look at me now
with a twisted jaw and full of lust
and the only way for me to move is up,
if you love me there is plenty to eat
shadows and the warm tabernacles
and even among the avalanches
the rhythm of all things is our salvation,
we ride our world between our legs,
people fear me often when we meet
because some text is crumbling
from my mouth, reservoir and baptistery
and gentle old stone basin in a cloister
all the ruses of water, o mirror
of your stillness,
hazardous face –
when the wind blows I see
what I will look like when I’m old
but I could be your beast until the end,
I saw my death year cut in plain marble
of somewhere else, some other god
crept onto the altar last night,
there is always another color hidden
inside what we see, like a girl with
an amber lozenge in her mouth
you’ll never know the taste of
till you kiss her but she runs away.

Support me by the fabric
I mean the factory of dream
by which we are clothed
and dare to walk along the road
from this town to another
without apology for our feebleness
nakedness, only two legs,
only two hands, how will I ever.

And that is the little glory of us
we have to invent calculus every day
and learn a new language
that calls itself Greek again
but this Plato is not like I remember
and his Socrates is nailed to a barn door
and his Alcibiades is a girl in the woods
running naked as a fox for a forgetting.

If you don’t have the book to check against, I don’t think a reader can honestly tell where one poem ends & the other picks up. Obviously, such a reading is a form of violence to Kelly’s poetry – Forgive me, Robert! – but I think the result, this Levitican text, demonstrates several things about Kelly’s work. One is that it often moves laterally, bringing in many different topics, tales, even languages, while it also continually returns to certain themes & elements again & again – the Latin of Apollinaire & the Greek of Plato & Alcibiades come from two different poems, yet I at least find this mélange of my own misreading to be quite powerful & moving. As poetry, it works completely. Now both of the two source poems here are considerably tighter – closer to poems than poetry, at least in relative terms – than this text would make it appear. But the underlying values of each are, I think, those of poetry more than of poems – they have more in common with Charles Olson or Louis Zukofsky or Pound’s Cantos than they do the fixed positions & formal containments one finds, say, in the work of virtually any School of Quietude poet, and which can be found as well in the writings of such post-avants as Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Jonathan Williams, Frank O’Hara (Biotherm would be an exception), Jack Spicer or Denise Levertov. Kelly in this sense is decidedly a writer of poetry, even when it shows up, as here, in what clearly are poems.

What this means is that you can pick up Kelly at almost any point – just open a book and start reading anywhere – and you will almost always get a good result. Another is that Kelly could, if he wanted, take on a project of some heft – say, equivalent to Ashbery’s Flow Chart, which certainly is more words even if not more pages than Axon Dendron Tree – and it would be totally readable, cover to cover, perhaps more so than Ashbery’s poem, which often feels at odds with its own scale (unlike Three Poems).

But also like Coolidge, I think Kelly’s decision to write poetry within poems, resulting in many mostly small books, makes it easy, too easy perhaps, to undervalue his accomplishments as a writer. The number of poets of the generation immediately older than mine (who came into their own as poets during the 1960s) who are still writing and publishing new work has dwindled noticeably in recent years – the New Americans are down to a handful – and the number of such poets who are, right now, at the very top of their game as writers may even be a list of just one. We’re fortunate that one is Robert Kelly.