Fire Exit by Robert Kelly
(Black Widow Press, Boston, MA, 2009)
It’s difficult to talk about a new book by Robert Kelly without considering the fifty books of poetry that have come before. Of course quantity isn’t always quality, but in Kelly’s case quantity is one of his qualities. His intimacies with language are immersive; he is in poetry as the rest of us are in air. Conversant with all that touches on language Kelly has worked in a multitude of poetic techniques, lexicons, references, dictions, and purposes. This last quality, a sense of almost expository purpose, seems to smolder through the language in Fire Exit and sets it clearly apart from other work.
A book length poem of more than 200 pages, comprised of 132 separate numbered poems, Fire Exit is composed entirely in compact three line stanzas. This three-line structure gives the work its formal coherence as well as its compact incendiary energy. While ranging widely in imagery, the subject that is exposed in Fire Exit is poetry itself; and in particular our contemporary relationship to it in this post-post present. The title urges us to rise from our seats and get outside as quickly as possible to have a look at this. While never less than noble and erudite, you can still feel Kelly waving his arms here saying, over here, look, see this, listen will you? This excerpt is from #35, a poem that makes explicit many of the books implied concerns.
poetry is language sitting around
gossiping about its family
talking drunk or sober always about itself
because as the sophophilers explained
all that language really
understands is language
all it can talk about is self
maybe itself or maybe another self
but never the actual selfless other
the thing attended to, the grail out there
here where we have come
flapping our hands like exhausted eunuchs
wondering what turn of the cloth is left
to puzzle our cunning fingers
before the naked empress stands alone
Depending on our own ‘school’ preferences we could give a name to the sophophilers, and although Kelly includes himself among the “exhausted eunuchs” we suspect he’s just being polite. We might hear a prevaricating Penelope in that last triplet killing time at the loom, but the empress here strikes me as the one with no clothes. Her clothes are gone, stripped we imagine as language has been stripped in so much poetic practice of its ‘associations’ but still marching down the street. Is she marching along pretending importance, as the emperor does, when really there’s nothing there?
This is a primary issue in Fire Exit, if we approach language with a sense that meaning is an inconvenience, if we stay safely in flarf, or nomina babara, et al, as Kelly writes in #74, is our poetry then “gilded or gelded” and is either a good idea?
free language abandons standard function
and sneaks into your mind direct
without the “inconvenience of meaning”
natural noise ill-guided by our codes
gilded? gelded? both of these
nomina barabara without a hint of child
Kelly doesn’t so much answer this question as demonstrate. His work here is in opposition to the emptying/dis-contexting (insert whatever label you like) of so much postmodern work; instead he fills words with each possible meaning, and listens for what follows. He embraces or confronts all the shifting references that are indeed held, however momentarily, in a single word or line and lights them up for us to see. He accomplishes this by remaining fiercely attentive to every possibility, semantic and syntactic in each line. The book’s opening verse, #1 is a case in point.
When I am inside you I don’t understand
The way you understand yourself
Everything else is a meadow
We could read a man inside his poem, or his reader, or a man inside a woman, either way he doesn’t understand; (if it is a man & woman that’s no time to bother with understanding) but then we learn what the speaker (the I) doesn’t understand isn’t his own situation at all, but the way readers (you) understand yourself. The switch from I to you creates a spark, so to speak, a dichotomy of knowing and knower which needs to be contrasted with, what a meadow is, a lush clearing. It’s hard on poetry to parse it line by line because of course it’s the resonances created by the reading (saying) of the line in time with the reader’s consciousness that creates the real action of these poems, the play and music. But it’s useful in Fire Exit, to look closely at how Kelly is breaking those lines against each other, flint on flint, because this is where the spark and friction of the work is found. Further along in #1 he writes:
irrelevant grammar of flowers
no one picked fall from the sky
still it’s dark in here, gasses form
Irrelevant grammar of flowers is a compelling image on its own, but in the next line we find that these flowers, no one picked, are falling from the sky, even though its dark in here. Flowers move from subject to object, with object becoming subject and subject becoming modifier. This subject/object shift is a basic trope of Kelly’s language throughout the book. We is it, it is we. No subjects are without the ability to act, no verbs lack a being.
In this world of the actual that exists beyond the Fire Exit sign of the darkened theatre, in this outside world where we are, real things are always happening, and Kelly’s language happens inside of them. People walk around in these poems, storms tear up the beach, wives give advice, and morning comes; as in poem #30.
with a sound like trumpets riffing under the sea
to wash your face
light cleans your ears he thought
remember to forget
this later, the true
nature of nothing is another thing.
Whether or not you agree that there is no possibility of absence in reality or in language, a pleasure of this collection is that insights come with a man washing his face, or they come with a face. In section #43 (at four pages one of the longest) the poet is remembering his childhood. He reveals here is own sense of being someone who not only uses language in every possible way he can, but whose life has in some sense always been used by language, with the great mystery this implies. Kelly never gives up on this mystery; he too has been the object of his own subject, and he knows it.
light is like a map
the word it shows
a lost river off the Amazon and never come home
to that thick Greek Grammar saved his life
night after night
when the spooks walked out of his head and lurked
soft as silverfish in cellar dust
since grammar seemed the safest art
no monsters vex a conjugating scholar
and Mahler hums on the record changer…
Here the terse tone has softened, but only to show some new aspects of association. Maps we think should show worlds, but this map shows a rhyming ‘word’ instead, the world is word here. We start down that lost river into word, and might never come home again, but Kelly changes his mind and drags us with a “to”, to the Greek Grammar book that saved the child with the discipline of language and its “conjugations.” We might even read much of Fire Exit as the conjugation of images; here the Amazon River, a Greek Grammar, and cellar steps are somehow cases of the same image. In the final lines scholar and Mahler remind us again that association is always a kind of rhyme, aural or psychic. One is also reminded of Williams, “no ideas but in things,” because each idea in Kelly’s work seems to find its meaning through its action in the line, an action that it has been called to by the poet, who found the word somewhere and made it do something it was not doing before. Called it into motion, animated it in order to show us what it might do, or rather what we might do with it. For Kelly refuses to accept the wisdom that we approach poetry as citizens, Marxists, feminists, capitalists, or anything other than humans trying constantly to talk to one another. It’s hard to say more than #90.
one word itself is a whole religion
no I answered, here there is no is,
we have sailed at last beyond the proposition
touch me it said and someone did
here all the stories end
after seven hundred years of snowy searching
bruised by implication
the book falls silent
life itself is an encryption-
the history of literature tries to conceal
how each age hides this secret
writing is always to someone.
It’s hard to say whether he would be read more if he wrote less; or whether a work with the atomic power of Fire Exit, would find its target if it was slightly thinner, but it doesn’t really matter. If you’ve never read a work by Robert Kelly before, read this one. Kelly comes like a benevolent conquistador to our myopic literary daze and points with his mighty pen, to the door that has been there all along.
Barbarba Roether is a writer and teacher living in San Francisco. She has a tall teenage son and a teaching job at a dangerously experimental school on the Peninsula. Former tutor to an Arab Princess and current surfing novice, she worked for many years in Bay Area book publishing. Her poetry, fiction and journalism have appeared in various magazines. She is a partner in the online collective Fellow Travelers, author of poetry chapbook The Middle Atlas, and is at work on a novel about Ohio.