A Conjoined Book by Karla Kelsey

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I think at this point in the 21st Century we can all agree that the self if not just one self, but an accumulation of selves all grafted onto one another. The idea being that I am one I of many I’s inside me, with all our various relationships to each other, our schedules, our favorite radio stations. I might wake up with I and think something kind. I might regard I with some tenderness, maybe skepticism. That Karla Kelsey’s most recent book, A Conjoined Book, might consider the I from so many different perspectives, blurring lines between the pronouns you, she and I, maybe even smearing a little bit of a he in over the you, all of this is not only germane to 21st Century writing. It is Kelsey’s preferred use of the complication process, what I would label the engine of all Kelsey’s books. Complication around pronoun reference, around a mode of address (like when a speaker is addressing a you that is actually a reflexive “you” and so by rhetorical placement a “you” that is then even more worthy of empathy and compassion), complication, too, around a sense of consequence (especially as it relates to a tragedy). A Conjoined Book is like of a pledge of allegiance to lyric interrogation, and the answers that kind of investigation is uniquely qualified to uncover and, at times, leave covered.

For entry into A Conjoined Book, consider the lyric space between the first and second sections of Kelsey’s previous book, Iteration Nets. It is a space balanced between a condensed stylistics and an effulgent, unspooling generation of world. Graft that in-between space to the speaker from A Conjoined Book, where landscape must be viewed as both setting and expressive canvas. The landscape is actually perceptive of the speaker’s thoughts and feelings, even while it is still the physical landscape where a speaker can walk and reflect. It is like when a river appears in a landscape, it feels as though the river takes over the definition of that landscape. We think of the trees in relation to the river. The new pavilion that was built by the river now belongs to the river. In a similar way, once the landscape appears in Kelsey’s poems, and it is used to help define the speaker’s sentiment, then it starts to feel as though these sentiments cannot not be defined by the landscape.

Which leads to one of the ways Kelsey uses the lyric to blur sensibilities. How is a poet supposed to parse out experience while also simply experiencing experience? Consider this excerpt from “Landscape of Vantage & Soft Motion”:

Pictured in a wavering voice, in the watery voice of sirens called

an account

of solitude. Wrapped in torn blankets & rough sheets I’ve seen between
myself & myself writing stitched into eiderdown densed with breath

& so

infused with the chorused sun, melody dying out as dust blues
the crowd swaying like a canyon undergoing a moment of weather.

This and poems like this are the poems of a submerged voice. They speak with and among a voice that feels like it is below the language, as that voice mines insight from between the fissures of myself and myself. Kelsey’s voice is figured by and within nature. What nature? The nature that feels like the innate, genetic make-up of the poems. The human nature of this speaker very involved in the present and equally involved in the past, and, finally, insistently involved with the ways that the past continues to overshadow her present. And what past is this? The reader will never know except that the picture which evolves in the “AFTERMATH” portion of the book involves a man, woman and a child. And whatever the tragedy they have suffered, it maintains an odd parallel with the second section of the book, a section based closely around Grimm’s fairy tale, “The Juniper Tree.”

Whether it was the extended metaphor of birds caught by a net in Knowledge, Forms, the Aviary or the three distinct poetics employed in Iteration Nets, Kelsey has long been invested in crafting a poetic lens that bifurcates our understanding of experiencing or the experience of understanding anything. In other words, she has been trying to disrupt what we as individuals take to be that continuous self that is constantly observing, sensing, thinking, emoting and talking to the self as though the self were its own other. For me, Kelsey’s previous two books use a more overt approach. A Conjoined Book is more about the insinuation of many concerns played out through a series of observations and concerns that feel as though they happen at different times.

And yet all those different times have been grafted onto another, at least in that sense of grafting that involves the surgical implantation of living tissue. In an interview with Rusty Morrison over at The Conversant, Kelsey explains that A Conjoined Book is a literal joining together of two books. I would venture to stretch this statement from a “conjoining” of two books and claim that the process of grafting is the central action of this book. Kelsey opens her book by grafting one pronoun reference onto another. By the beginning of the book’s second section, Become Tree, Become Bird, Kelsey is grafting language onto language, with asterisk footnotes placed beside certain words for comment or, perhaps, continuation of that line at the bottom of the poem. She grafts history onto fable. And as the book nears its end, Kelsey even goes so far as to graft her reader onto the experience of this book:

True readers always read creatively. Put a penny in the vase. Put a tablet of
aspirin, distilled water preserving the lily until it opens
In the atmosphere ice
crystals act as prisms, light rays refracting mock suns–sundogs–through the
diamond dust.
A work of literature can bring such readers joy, inspire them, or
fill them with indignation. They may wish to interfere in the heroes’ fortunes”

And it is in this proposed relationship to her reader that I can’t help but return, again, to Iteration Nets. A book that explicates and plays on relationships that might exist among conceptualism, lyric maximalism and erasure in poetry. It is also a book with a clear organizational approach, as though she were offering the reader a clear logical arrangement of the different poetic approaches available to her. For A Conjoined Book, what might Kelsey see as the relationship between her work and her readers? Is it a grafting, so that reader and poem should feel intertwined in sentiment? Is it poem as proposition, where the reader is asked to navigate the lyrical logic? That I feel compelled to these questions when reading Kelsey’s work is what has established me as one of her truly devoted readers. A Conjoined Book only further adds to that sentiment.

Kent Shaw's first book Calenture was published in 2008. His work has appeared in The Believer, Ploughshares, Boston Review and elsewhere. He begins teaching at Wheaton College in Massachusetts in Fall 2016. More from this author →