Coldfront Magazine Best Second Book of 2010
Karla Kelsey begins with the sonnet—fourteen lines (usually) that she’s appropriated from a variety of sources, homophonically echoed, and playfully assembled. She then explodes each sonnet into a voluptuous prose poem, later erasing that into a sinuous, open, lyric line. The aim of the book is not to execute a plan or fulfill a form, but to generate new modes of inhabiting a poem. The result is a work of lyrical constraint and romantic conceptualism.
“Kelsey demonstrates remarkable formal mastery as she follows the path of the sonnet through contraction, expansion, and disruption. Yet this poetry shows that all such articulation is finally the result of ‘an undecided formula whose negation isn’t provable.’ Her intelligence and humanity work a new trust through the ‘secret inarticulate missions’ by which words can be both bereft and found. Using form to relinquish form, Kelsey risks all, taking us to ‘the crux of/presence/sundered.’” —Elizabeth Robinson
And suddenly we were in it and it was snow
flesh in liquid, skin in shreds.
Lush’s been wicked—sinned—when dreads
end lovingly demure limits: sand lit wars know
lands thundering. He, heard. Whims met. Handed love slows
less insipid linen beds.
Death and quickness limit, wed
unendingly. Reword. Win it candid below
folding, unfolding, end slaking to drown near the rocks.
Land burns. I find, then compensate missed revolution:
there had been a little town
scolding, cajoling, and shaking around in its box.
Stand firm, my mind, and concentrate with resolution:
bare sad hymns. A brittle down.
Copyright © 2010 by Karla Kelsey.
“Themes of death and love, pain and beauty entwine through Kelsey’s dazzling poems. She seems to deliberately obscure her subject, focusing instead of juxtaposition and syntax to bring the meaning through. It’s a fearless way to write poetry, and Kelsey commits absolutely. Reading Iteration Nets is like walking through a strange city, where “a gun is a golden ringlet” and “the night goes broken as the leaves, fallen off their branches, have marked this spot.” Romantic, reflective, and always rooted in the vision of memory colliding with reality, Iteration Nets is an enchanting collection that gives new meaning to the reader with every poem. The last line of one sonnet spurs the first line of the next—they are at least thematically or conversationally linked—and gives the reader the sense of listening to a conversation between the poet’s past and present selves. Although the sonnets could easily stand alone, Kelsey has arranged them so that the thread of the poems draws the reader forward into an elegantly constructed maze.” —Claire Rudy Foster in Foreword Magazine
“In this uncompromisingly inventive triptych, Kelsey shows us how she ‘threw away abstraction’ in order to meditate on what inhabits relation. From sonnet cycle, to prose sonnet, to archipelagoed pages, every poem discretely recalibrates the way replicating lines constitute experience, its gestures, its enunciative cloakings, its denser renderings. ‘Why cry for trust,/ an undecided formula aching away green lust,/ following every vector toward the promise of the overdeveloped world?’ There is for some of us an attraction in such resistances as to retrace from the seeds of re-inception the very sense of making meaning. These poems offer a supplicant’s reward for delving consciously into the nodal ties that bind and re-invent matrices of intertext, the perfect pitch of genuine becoming through performance. Here, sonnet-citing reiteratively breaks into saga until the series coheres in a personal weave where every line is an echo meted, each gap a double-entendre rendering palpable how knowing multiplies perspective, the way hands, eyes, and mouths speak simultaneously, each telling the truth but illuminating elsewhere.” —Jean-Jacques Poucel
Karla Kelsey’s first book, Knowledge, Forms, the Aviary, was selected by Carolyn Forché for the 2005 Sawtooth Poetry Prize. The book was published by Ahsahta Press in 2006. She is also author of the chapbooks Little Dividing Doors in the Mind (Noemi Press) and Three Movements (Pilot Press). She has been awarded a Fulbright to teach in Budapest in 2011 and is on the creative writing faculty at Susquehanna University.
Iteration Nets was written through territories of extreme dislocation and relocation. I began the book in Denver, Colorado, Rockies forming the background, the café sincerity of graduate school in the fore. The book carried me from Denver to rural Pennsylvania, the Susquehanna River and Susquehanna University forming twin foregrounds, my double-view from the top floor of a little red house in the middle of an island in a small town in the center of a state I had never visited before.
The book’s formal nature and its procedural habit stand for portable constants that have always done the work of bringing me from a certain there to a particular here. The form of the poem written and spent. The form of the hand-made book, bound and cast-off. The form of the review, shaped and flickering in cyberspace. The form of a class. But such action is nothing new, is my portable constant. I grew up an aspiring ballet dancer, practicing the portability of forms in first one studio, and then the next. A grand jeté in Long Beach, California, where I grew up, enacted the same motion as a grand jeté in Houston, Texas, where I trained during the summers. And yet, because of this constancy transformation and transcendence happen. All of a sudden breath has the penny-taste of a Texas thunderstorm and the music coming from the piano buckles and all splits into air.
The book is written and is in your hands. And, still, the book’s formal nature and its procedural habit stand for the portable constants that do the work of bringing me from a certain here to the next there. I still live in that sleepy central Pennsylvania town but will soon live alongside the Danube as I spend a semester teaching in Budapest on a Fulbright. What formal constancies and habits will resonate with my Hungarian students? What flight of writing will such discipline and habit afford?
If poems like people bear the mark of place, the poems of this book come stamped with the traditional and avant-garde pinnings of the sonnet form. Along with its conceits and rhythmical structure, the sonnet intoxicates because it has always been inextricably entwined with the problems and exultations of translation. How do I get from here to there. Wyatt’s “My Galley,” the first sonnet I ever fell in love with, is an example of the importance of translation to the tradition. Petrarch writes: Passa la nave mia colma d’oblio/ per aspro mare a mezza notte il verno. Wyatt responds: My galley chargèd with forgetfulness/ Through sharp seas in winter nights doth pass. I say: A little soft moan. A dove cry.
Iteration Nets unfolds in three movements, all infused with constraint and process. The aim of the book, however, is not to execute a plan, to fulfill a form, but to use plan and form to generate new modes of inhabiting. The little song as generating device. Form as foundation and flight. To sound a made thing. Lyrical Constraint. Romantic Conceptualism.
SONIC PACKET ENCLOSURES: The first movement is composed of 19 sonnets—all written using the same process. The initial A, B, C, D, and E lines of each sonnet were taken from different outside texts. These lines were not merely end-rhymed with the following A, B, C, D, or E lines, but each rhymed line in the sonnet is an approximate sound translation of the entire original line. Here the sonnet’s tradition of translation, as well as Louis Zukofsky’s 1969 homophonic translations of Catullus (where he moves the Latin of Catullus into English on the basis of the sound of syllables rather than the sense of the words), have served as my guides.
RIVEN ARC EXPLOSION: 19 prose poems compose the second movement of the book. Here the sonnets of the first movement weave into long prose poems. The words of sonnet 1.1 (for example) are moved through the prose poem titled 1.2, the words of 2.1 stitch into 2.2 and so on and so on. Among other things, this process engages with questions of authorship and intertextuality. The poems in this movement are greedy. They are born of translation and accumulation. They take what has been made of what was once found and add to it any way that they can, turning to strategies of narrative, philosophy, imagination, dream.
FRAGILE LADDER BARQUES: As much as the second movement of the book thrives on addition, the third is a product of selection. Here I take my method from Ronald Jonson’s 1976 volume, Radi os, in which he “erases” most of the words of the first four books of Paradise Lost, leaving a fragmented work of lyric intensity. In this last movement I erase words from the prose poems that compose the second section of the book. The pressure and constraint of this process bring up questions of free will, generation, degeneration. The limit points of language. Debt turned flight.