Knowledge, Forms, the Aviary
Winner of the 2005 Sawtooth Poetry Prize
Knowledge, Forms, the Aviary takes flight from Plato’s Theaetetus, in which Socrates tells us that the mind works as an aviary—particles of knowledge fly around, like birds, and the thinker plucks them down to use whenever he or she sees fit. A book-length project in nature and scope, Karla Kelsey’s work pushes against this traditional idea and image of knowledge, investigating the meeting of thought, emotion, and experience by pulling language through variations of poetic and linguistic form. Here the lyrical trope of the bird is borrowed into Socrates’ bird of knowledge, and the action of the bird becomes the action of the mind folding and unfolding into explosions and navigational patterns of flight. This work’s modes of expression admit of both an intensely individual and collective sense of experience as image and language slowly mutate within and beyond familiar boundaries. It is through subtly shifting repetitions of image, music, syntax, and word that Knowledge, Forms, the Aviary engages us in a cultural and political critique of the creation of meaning.
The book includes an introduction by 2005 Sawtooth Poetry Prize judge Carolyn Forché.
“As consciousness turns out to be nothing less than one infinity surrounding every thought, so here, ‘Marked/ by the spaces,’ poetry proves to be an infinite, tender inundation of our syllables by love, by grace expansive and underway. Karla Kelsey is a poet of a knowledge given wings of a dove. I honestly believe these poems will lift us.”—Donald Revell
“These poems rise up at the crucial turn from phenomenon to language and exquisitely reveal the debris shimmering in the corners during and after the ricochet. What happens, as word and world fold into each other and blend or shatter? The possible names for the bird flower beneath the word for the bird. Kelsey’s mind lovingly polishes the world’s objects into these gorgeous, gleaming things.”—Eleni Sikelianos
“‘…to love the world our words made?’ Kelsey builds us a world here as a painter might—based on colors, vivid and free-floating—and she populates that world with birds and gardens and a sense of delicate, indeterminate destruction. And so she rebuilds. This book is a lovely feat, a triumph over eroding forces and the proof that resistance can be graceful, compassionate, and above all, adventurous. We see it in her page arrangements and hear it in her weave of sounds; it runs all through the book and lets us glimpse from time to time ‘through a crack in the sky, the mind.’”—Cole Swensen
from “Flood Fold: Aperture 3”
Halting into the mouth I thought
the image of the bird would sing but it wouldn't
though the mouth says I am content now with domestic things
the sound of the broom on the floor body moving
the way a woman's body has been seen moving
a simpler song and more sweet some would say when heard or read
as the birds wake and there is no reason for waking oneself
on a day like this beginning in curtain light and oranges.
Copyright © 2006 Karla Kelsey
"Knowledge, Forms, The Aviary is a lyric enactment of the confluence of thought, language and possibility, embarking from Plato’s Theaetetus, where in the mind of each . . . there is an aviary, a flock of knowledges beating wings against (only) apparent confines, as the mind beholds and captures knowledges in turn, various in form, able to be fleetingly caged but not possessed. This is a poetry that resists possession of world by mind with all that this implies for the dominions of power; it is a poetry that refuses the cumulative acquisition of experience, but rather thinks toward and through our knowing the beyond and between—not only what is, but what is (apparently) not. This resistance is at once philosophical and political, though not systematic, yet the implications for human relation to world are clear. Kelsey writes what it is to know, of what we become / when the universe is seen in lights of its generation. We are, in this work, in the midst of things, and as Plato’s Socrates has it, the eye becomes filled with vision and now sees, and becomes, not vision but a seeing eye. Kelsey’s gift is for the inter-subjective lyric, the “we” of interdependence. For, she writes, if earth is the center of the body, heaven is the center of the soul….We are her species. We are her parts. The genius of this work is in its formal embodiment of epistemology: the layerings and repetitions, asterisks and spacings, and the ways in which the language of the senses remains in such flux that no recurring image returns as it was, but rather is changed by the shimmer of perceptual encounter. As phenomenologist Merleau-Ponty has understood, “If we set ourselves to see as things the intervals between them, the appearance of the world would be just as strikingly altered…there would not be simply the same elements differently related, the same sensations differently associated…but in truth another world.” This is what Kelsey has given us in lyric form: another world, wherein the reader may enter and become awake."
Judge, 2005 Sawtooth Poetry Prize
“Kelsey’s poetry understands that language is an unreliable record at best, that images and forms reconfigure and expand, layering meaning as a complex system of possibilities that never rests, that thrives in its own multiplicity.
“This mutability/mutation is carefully exposed in the first section, flood/fold. In ‘Aperture’ One through Four, the poet positions herself and her readers for reception. Just as the words ‘flood' and ‘fold' act as both verbs and nouns, we are prepared for a conflation of creation and creativity, subject and object, thought and the act of thinking. The work is arranged conceptually; each section of text, each blank space, each vertical line of asterisks behaves as an opening—a sliver of light or sensory detail, a glimpse, or an act of waiting, a receptive emptiness. In ‘Aperture One’ the lyrical encounters drop slowly, tenuously connected by a thread of asterisks running down the center of each page, while in ‘Aperture Two’ lines stretch across the page, as eyes might scan a landscape. As with the thinking process at the heart of Kelsey’s work, there is no formal consistency—a style will emerge and retreat, giving way to a new style equally refined, crafted and compelling, equally replaceable.
“...The brilliance of this poetry lies in Kelsey’s joyous application of the world as she receives it to the world of ideas established by Plato as a framework for the book. She leaves us with ‘an opening of hands,’ released into our own ‘slice of day,’ where the world continues to know us and be known as endless possibility, poetency, revelation, and grace.”
—from the review by Heather Winterer in Colorado Review, Summer 2006.
I was born in Long Beach, California in 1975. I grew up there and stayed in Southern California for my undergraduate work, which I did at UCLA. I majored in philosophy and literature and graduated Phi Beta Kappa. I went on to the MFA program at the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop where I was awarded a Teaching Writing Fellowship and then did a PhD in literature and creative writing at the University of Denver. While at the University of Denver I was the Associate Editor of the Denver Quarterly for two years.
One of the very important elements of my biography not reflected in my academic and publishing career is that I trained to be a classical ballet dancer. I was passionate about ballet and it is quite literally the end to which all I did was focused towards, from the age of 4 until about 18, when I realized that I had allowed all of the pressures of being a dancer to eclipse the joy of dancing. I quit ballet and went to college because I didn’t know what to do with my life. I quickly found writing and pursued it with all of the passion with which I pursued ballet. I have never written any “ballet” poems, but the training and rigors of classical ballet have been fundamental to the writer and person that I am. When you grow up spending hours teaching your body to fulfill certain very specific forms (positions and movement) you develop a very unique and distinct relationship to form. When you grow up spending hours inspecting the forms that you make in the mirror as you are making them, you realize the extent to which the act of dancing does not equal the image created by the dancer; rather, it is more. It is no wonder that I ended up fascinated with philosophers like Plato, who deals with the ultimate realities of forms—the ideal dancer—and hashes out the physical and mental relation to those forms. Along with physically teaching me things that I think I will always be working through in language, ballet also taught me to protect what I love about poetry from the pressures of the “profession.” Iowa, for example, is well known for being very tough on writers in terms of competition, but after having dealt with that sort of thing from a really young age, those pressures didn’t really bother me and I was able to get so much out of the program.
Knowledge, Forms, the Aviary is my first book. I wrote another book during my years at Iowa called The Seeing Exercises, but I don’t think that it will ever see the light of day. The book is important to me, because I was working through many things—particularly elements of objectivism and ideas I had about the ethics of language—but I don’t know that the book would be very interesting to readers. I also have a chapbook published by Noemi press called Little Dividing Doors in the Mind. I’m currently working on book-length project based around the sonnet called Iteration Nets. This book takes my interest in form and in pulling ideas and language through different forms that I work with in Knowledge, Forms, the Aviary and applies it to the sonnet. My poetry has appeared in Fence, Verse, Boston Review, 26, The New Review of Literature, Elixir, and The Antioch Review. I am Visiting Assistant Professor at Susquehanna University where I teach poetry writing. I live with my husband, Peter Yumi, on the Susquehanna River in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania. Peter is a visual and sound artist and we always have a few projects cooking at any one time. We are currently at work on a chapbook/cd project of hymnals about the river.
Ideas in philosophy (in general) and Plato and phenomenology (in particular) have been a great influence on my work. Not necessarily in the sense that I think that my work enacts any sort of philosophical method, school, or rule, but in that I think that I am always concerned with the confluence of thought, language, and possibility that resonates off of traditions in philosophy. Often I am working through things in my poetry and then I will, later in the day, find an “analytical” or “critical” articulation of what I am feeling out in a work of philosophy. In Knowledge, Forms, the Aviary, Plato’s Theaetetus was a great spark to my inquiries, because the picture of knowledge provided by the birds and cages in the dialogue is both horrifying and beautiful. Socrates envisions the mind as a type of aviary. Birds of knowledge fly around and the thinker/knower plucks them down when he or she wants to use them. This vision is horrifying because the knowledge-birds are trapped and the knower “plucks them down” to use them (the mind as a thing that “uses” the world seems like a very skewed and limited sense of being and thinking and seems to be the “default” notion of mind, knowledge, and language that has had vast political (and I am trying at the political in this book) and social consequences). But the vision is also beautiful in the idea that the elements of knowledge are independent of the thinker and of the cage, that they have a certain set of freedoms even though they are contained. Plato is an interesting one for me, because on the simplistic view that people generally have of him—that our works of art are imitations, several times removed, of forms, I utterly disagree with him, seeing something like Knowledge, Forms, the Aviary as very much a work of thinking, not of a representation of thought. However, when I consider his form, dialogue, and the way that his thought is built up within and between his speakers, I am very much in admiration of the way that his dialogues are thought and are great thought-vehicles for his readers. When engaging in his dialogues, his readers engage in the form of Thinking.
My work comes out of the simple idea that our thoughts are always contained by the language(s) that we know, yet through careful work with language we can think beyond and between the meanings associated with words. This beyond and between is important to all of the repetition and slight variations of repetition in the book as well as the white space and asterisks. Another philosopher who always helps me think through things is Merleau-Ponty who says somewhere: “If we set ourselves to see as things the intervals between them, the appearance of the world would be just as strikingly altered...there would not be simply the same elements differently related, the same sensations differently associated...but in truth another world.” Being able to think in and through as many worlds as possible is important to me—I deeply believe such thought is the foundation of freedom and the fact that we can grow in our capacity for such thought is, I think, one of the great glimmers of hope. Particularly in a social and political climate, such as ours, where we are trained at birth to limit our scope and action of thought. Here I think of Stein wherein a rose is a rose is a rose produces a different rose each time, a layering of roses that allows one to see more, feel more. I think of the cubist artists who asked their viewers to use their minds in an atypical way to create sense of their work. And viewers realized that, yes, it makes sense to think through the world in this way, that the paintings got at the sensation and emotion of reality in a way that really wanted the viewer to be and remain engaged.
I like to think that the images, ideas, and emotions of the book work and evolve through repetition and variation—that the different forms in the book allow different elements of the ideas and imagery to be pulled out. A central example of this is in the figure of the bird, which I hope is the traditional bird of the lyric, bird of knowledge, action of mind, figure of the airplane, bomber, bullets. Exterior and interior events inform thought and thinking is always personal and emotional. This point is very important to me: even though I like to speak of my work in philosophical terms, the work that I do is very grounded in the sensual and intellectual textures of my life. Language and thought—philosophical and poetic—are ways of considering and digging in to the textures of life. There is always a lot of talk about the way that abstraction in language and thought is cut off from “real” life. I have never understood this. Abstraction—the action of the mind revolving in synthesis and the creation of ideas—is not set apart from life and thought—it is fundamental to life and thought.