Saturday, February 04, 2023

Reading Robert Kelly: A City Full of Voices, A Voice Full of Cities

"The mind loves the unknown." 

It wasn't in a poetry magazine that I first came across the work of Robert Kelly, but in the underground film house-journal Film Culture.  It was sometime in 1965 that I happened upon Kelly's short entry on Stan Brakhage's Art of Vision (RK: "Mind at the mercy of the eye at last."). It was some months later, while living in Mexico City, that I first encountered Kelly's  poetry, El Corno Emplumado's edition of Her Body Against Time. Up to then I was primarily reading Michael McClure and LeRoi Jones/not yet Baraka, with Olson and Dorn waiting in the wings. Nevertheless, I would carry Kelly's book with me from  Mexico to New York to Los Angeles and, finally, San Francisco.  
Brakhage, in turn, wrote two published letters to Kelly, which I was certain I had also read  in Film Culture, but apparently not. But both those letters and the Robert Kelly's essay can be found in A Voice Full of Cities: The Collected Essays of Robert Kelly (2014) and A City Full of Voices: Essays On the Work of Robert Kelly (2019). Edited  by Pierre Joris, Peter Cockelbergh and Joel Newberger, and published by Contra Mundum Press, these books are clearly works of love, whose editors who have not only gathered together Kelly's many contributions, but have enlisted an army of contributors, all clearly au courant when it comes to Kelly's work, coming at it, as they do,  from different angles. Which makes these two volumes a heavy lift, whether metaphorically or literally; in fact, some 1400 pages in all. Though so prolific has Kelly been that even that  number would no doubt  pale compared to what might constitute his collected works.   

Reading Ken Irby's review of Her Body Against Time in A City Full of Voices, I began to wonder if I had come across that review when it  first appeared in Kulchur, before I'd read Kelly's book. It's possible... But even as a  poetry greenhorn, I remember being impressed by the depth of Kelly's vision and the how his poetry was not only his world but how the world seemed like fodder for his poetry.  A condition echoed in lines- purloined from Jed Rasula's excellent "A Book On Line and Measure" in A City Full...- in a later lengthy poem entitled  The World, in which Kelly reminds us that "there is no/form not/organic no/mind not mine."

Or it could have been that any poet who wrote about Brakhage, and, in turn, any poet that Brakhage found important enough to write about, was going to be of  interest to me. So infected was I at the time by the visual poetry of what was then called the New American Cinema.  The common denominator  being the investment both placed in seeing, not to mention their articulation of that investment.  As Kelly writes in Her Body..., "how much more/will I see/ or see again..." Couple that with their take on Olson's "'You go all around the subject.' And I sd, 'I didn't know there was a sub-/ject,'", and it's no wonder that I would fall under Kelly's spell, just as I had been by Brakhage's films, not to mention how both were able to dissect their own work and that of others.      

For some reason my reading of Kelly's work tailed off sometime after the publication of his book length poem The Loom (Black Sparrow). Around which time I heard he'd been appointed poet-in-residence at Caltech, which of course prompted fanciful notions that such an institution, in my home town at that, might be giving this particular poet space to practice some kind of Duncanian alchemical magic, while, at the same time, hoping it wasn't an indication that it was trying to revive its  sleazier roots personified by the likes of arch-huckster L. Ron Hubbard and rocket-man and dark arts dabbler Jack Parsons. Now that I think about it, what kept me from continuing my reading of Kelly's work was  that I simply couldn't keep up with the volume of his output,  though it should be said that my interests around that time were solidly Dornian. It goes without saying that reading Kelly is no small matter, but entails a level of attention that not everyone is ready or willing to give to it. Still, for me, Kelly's notion of "the city," or "polis," as Olson would have it, would continue to resonate. That is to say, the  city as a place of discovery, not just in Paul Goodman's sense of an Empire City, but a modernist twist on the Augustine's  belief that "outside the city man is either god or beast;" which is to say, a place in which one is allowed to discover a poetics out of that experience.      

Fast forward  half a century and I find I'm once again attracted to Kelly's work, or, at least for the time being, his essays. Call me perverse, but for some reason I've always had  a weakness for  prose written by poets. Which, for me, makes A Voice Full of Cities such a delight. By the same token, it's invariably interesting to read those who write about Kelly, covering as they do in A City Full of Voices a range of interests and ways  of thinking about Kelly's poetry.          

Even had I been able to do so, it would have been difficult to keep up with Kelly's incredible output. After all it constitutes a life. As Guy Davenport has written, "There is no end to a Kelly poem...It's a cataract of energy." His essays, reviews, stories and novels (unfortunately his fiction isn't included, but perhaps would constitute a volume on its own) are much more than an addendum to his poetry, while, at the same time, squelching the notion that prose is necessarily a more literal or less poetic form of writing. But here they are, his essays, which, if nothing else, demonstrate once again the breadth of his work. 

Now in his late 80s, Kelly has moved  from the articulation of a working poetics (deep image) to an autobiographical and investigatory poetics, which necessarily includes the aesthetics of various poets, film-makers, artists, novelists, philosophers, friends, etc.. The  common denominator here is the relationship between seeing and vision, turning, as Brakhage did, a physical deficiency into a personal aesthetic.  And so Kelly's essays, moving from  the late 1950s to the near-present, constitute a map of thoughts and images- if one can separate the two- making these two volumes a celebration of Kelly's poetic life by a range of respondents, each with their own insights, from early takes by the likes of Olson "not imageS but IMAGE," Creeley, Blackburn, Irby,  Sitney, Eshleman and Davenport to later writers like Joris, Cockelbergh, Quasha, Silliman, Fisher, Yau, and Chernicoff. Proving that no single person has the definitive word or ability to encompass Kelly's oeuvre.  As Billie Chernicoff asks at the beginning of On Robert Kelly's Seaspel, "How does he do it?" To which she says she has no answer. I would agree. One can only shake one's head and wonder, while marvelling at the flow of words, the intensity of thought and vision.  

Click on here for a short interview with RK by George Quasha.:

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