The Place of Love

Robert Kelly & Contemporary American Poetry

Photo by Charlotte Mandell

by Jordan Reynolds

It would be a disservice to Robert Kelly’s virtuosity to label him as a certain kind of poet who writes a certain kind of poem. Instead, it is instructive to investigate his work as kindred to his contemporaries. Of the kind of poetry he writes, Kelly finds good company with a poet of similarly enormous stature, Charles Olson. Inside of Olson’s breath, on the space of his reaching pages, the place of the poem is investigated, resolved, questioned. The poem and the poet are moored by the body and the breath to the very moment of the poem just as a shadow is moored to the ground. Olson’s poems are found “among stones,” as in his great work, “The Kingfishers,” but he also uncovers his honey within the place of his body:

I have this sense,
that I am one
with my skin

Plus this—plus this:
that forever the geography
which leans in
on me I compell
backwards I compell Gloucester
to yield, to

is this
“Maximus to Gloucester, Letter 27 (withheld)”

The Oxford English Dictionary traces the word place back to 12th-century Old English, where the meaning was often difficult to pinpoint, being used to signify town squares and fortified outposts as well as a private residence. The term coexists publically and privately, both interior (in the sense of a room-as-place) and exterior (the place of the field, open, exposed). Olson’s polis (the perfect city-state of his body and of Gloucester) is kindred to that sense of place that Kelly identifies with in his quietly important poem, “Wintereve:”

There is nothing but this purple landscape
fell down on us from the hump-backed moon

at the middle of a month, a mouth
under a mountain.

Wives yearn with eyes & mice & crows
across this river topped with blades of ice

too thin to walk on, too slow, too slow.
There is an hysterical logic of winter nights
quiet women afraid of their porches,
their spruces blue in moonlight. I too am afraid

that I am really here, that this shadow on the snow
is my own weltering eternal shadow

that the birds fly past with ice in their beaks
& this place is my place.
(from Kill the Messenger 1979)

If this poem is addressed to anything, it is addressed to Olson’s “Songs of Maximus,” song two:

shall we go from here, what can we do
when even the public conveyences

how can we go anywhere,
even cross-town
how get out of anywhere (the bodies
all buried
in shallow graves?

The fear in “Wintereve” arises from a fear of being stuck in place, unable to cross the razor-thin ice blades, the women afraid, even, “of their porches.” Kelly interrogates place, the terror of the given outside, there being “nothing but this purple landscape,” and nowhere to go. The yield and change of Gloucester that Olson insists upon in “Letter 27” is in this poem mimicked by the very words of place as they morph in stanza two from “month,” to “mouth,” to “mountain” (from the abstract, to the personal, to the public/exterior). In Kelly’s poem this shifting is not fast enough (like the ice: “too slow, too slow”) and/or does not allow a “forwarding,” as Olson calls it in “I, Maximus of Gloucester, to You.” Still, Kelly’s poem is received directly from place, “There is nothing” but it, after all, at the beginning of the poem.

For Kelly the fact of his “eternal shadow,” of his really being there in his place, forever generates the anxiety of the poem. It is the possession of this private space, of his own realization that he is one skin, that permits Kelly’s projection onto the wives who “yearn with eyes” for what is outer (beyond the frozen blue exterior that they have at their disposal). Again, Olson’s company provides a foil for Kelly’s issue, in his poem “The Distances”: “Love knows no distance, no place / is that far away.” For Olson, the realization of a possessed and personal space is the ultimate freedom and the culmination of a spiritual as well as a physical geography.

The resolution of Kelly’s anxieties of rootedness can be found in his poem “Binding by Striking,” where it becomes clear that it is a proliferation of spaces that suits him, where he can make the shifts, quick, between “month, mouth, and mountain,” and through those shifts in his physiological and geographical landscapes, arrive at a place where he can compel the assumed strictures of geography, as Olson finds himself doing in “Letter 27.” Here is the poem entire:

Say I come to you by circles. Say the line
that carries my name keeps me
from knowing you as a car knows a garage.
Say I am a wine you know better than to drink.
Say I, seeing the pale skin inside your upper arms,
become a better animal and become water.
Say this water doesn't pull but when you fall
takes you altogether in. Say you are in.

Say we sit on some steps together, or a wall.
Say something falls. I come to you then confused by lime,
sand, long hair holding the mortar together.
Say we stand a long time and one of us falls and one
catches, one catches and one lets go and it's night already.
We are still together. Say I am oily and you're dry.
Say a straight path and a twisted gate. Say something
not easy to say. Say the self-renewing knot of flesh
they call the rose blocks at times the future prong.
Say we belong to each other. Say the same thing
that holds us holds us apart. Say we struggle
to get in and stay in and not ever leave. Say for a change
you are out and I am in and I have trees too
your path gets lost in. Say you have numbers I can count
and numbers that leave me out. Say we change
but say we are always being held to the same.

Not to say little of same. Not to say one is more than some
or some less worth than every. Not to say every.
Not to say your pale skin is paler than this or this wall higher.
We rise where we fall. Not to say the word that draws us
doesnt some way let us in. Not to say in is the only.
We are held where we call. We know something and are held
to what we know. We fall through the wall. Not to say
there is only one garden or one car. Not to say one
when we mean “a road” and not to say going when we mean “home.”
Not to say time when we mean space. Not to say stone
when a wind blows through the place where we've fallen.

Say you come to me by line. Say the circle you understand
has more light than a bone and more air than a tower. Say
the broad leaf of burdock plays two pieces of music:
bug-holes and leaf-shadow. Say a skin is like that and that
what we have consumed gives us light and what is gone
is the constellation that guides us. Say you have come
and will come. Say the language is dry and the wall is low.
Say a word gets over the wall. Say we are in. Say my skin
draws you. Say what we do with each other goes on.

Say a voice that you hear. Say that we know ourselves
chiefly in many. The Oil of Others is the light-giving flame.
Say we are the same. Say we come to it simply again.
(from Under Words 1983)

It is “the line that carries [his] name” that keeps Kelly from knowing his beloved; instead, Kelly comes to the beloved “by circles,” by the infinitely complete, with centers all around. His instruction here is taken directly from Emerson in his great essay, “Circles”: the “incessant movement and progression which all things partake could never become sensible to us but by contrast to some principle of fixture or stability in the soul. Whilst the eternal generation of circles proceeds, the eternal generator abides.” And, elsewhere in that same essay: “The only sin is limitation.”

The power of the anaphoric “say” in this poem allows Kelly literally to assume everything. His beloved is all, already in the first stanza: “Say you are in.” And it is by comparisons of the nature of fixity and the nature of an infinite generosity that Kelly can come to assume knowledge of both himself and the beloved by the end of the poem: “Say we change / but say we are always being held to the same.” Here is Emerson’s “contrast to some principle of fixture or stability in the soul.” Kelly is already wine, an animal, a circle, and skin at the beginning of the poem, and his release of a vocabulary of stricture and fixity releases him into the infinite unity of his soul-self, what is Olson’s personal and spiritual geography, by the end of the piece:

Not to say in is the only.
We are held where we call. We know something and are held
to what we know. We fall through the wall. Not to say
there is only one garden or one car. Not to say one
when we mean "a road" and not to say going when we mean "home."
Not to say time when we mean space. Not to say stone
when a wind blows through the place where we've fallen.

Kelly’s compellation of the vocabulary of being tethered (“Not to say in is the only”) is essential for the poem to culminate in a space where lover and beloved are free to be everything (“Say that we know ourselves / chiefly in many”) as well as one thing (“Say we are the same”). Susan Howe, who must also be entered into the conversation here, quotes Felix Guattarri and Gilles Deleuze in the beginning of her poem “Thorow” as stating that:

The proper name (nom propre) does not designate an individual: it is on the contrary when the individual opens up to the multiplicities pervading him or her, at the outcome of the most severe operations of depersonalization, the he or she acquires his or her true proper name. The proper name is the instantaneous apprehension of a multiplicity.
(from Singularities, 1990)

So, Kelly names every thing one and many. The lover and beloved become the names of each thing: in, out, path, rose, and flesh. And after such a radical transformation of the norm (and of the name), living everywhere and nowhere becomes the easiest option, and proliferates in itself: “Say we come to it simply again.” And again, and again, and again, the reader assumes.

Through this assuming, Kelly’s “Binding by Striking” eventually moves beyond language in a way that creates a phenomenology all its own.

We are still together. Say I am oily and you're dry.
Say a straight path and a twisted gate. Say something
not easy to say.

The recognitions of the strictures inherent within a language provide Kelly with the tools for him to begin to dismantle it. “Say a skin is like that and that / what we have consumed gives us light and what is gone / is the constellation that guides us.” The constellation of a language thatmeans is replaced, by Kelly, by the ever-present and infinitely proliferating generosity of a language that is; a language that permits a “forwarding”: “Say what we do to each other goes on and on.”

The privacy of the language generated by Kelly in “Binding by Striking,” is, to call it a thing, a language of love. Michelangelo’s admission of an inexplicable love in the beginning lines of his sonnet XXVIII is perhaps the best primer for discussing a love poetry that exists outside the conventions of a language of love: “What gives my love its life is not my heart, / The love by which I love you has no heart” (translated by J. A. Symonds, quoted in Pater). Like Michelangelo, Kelly’s love poem must function outside of cliché and signified meaning, and does so through both accumulation of things (again, Susan Howe’s “Thorow” is instructive: “Must see and not see / Must not see nothing / Burrow and so burrow / Measuring mastering”) and velocity: something like the explanation Olson gives of Melville in Call Me Ishmael: “He had to be wild or he was nothing in particular. He had to go fast, like an American, or was all torpor.”

And it is his affinity for velocity and his unflagging recognition (he knows it over again; new) of the phenomenological that aligns Kelly with two of the American tradition’s greatest love poets: James Schuyler and Frank O’Hara. In the love poems of all three of these poets, there is a tension between the language used to describe a known world, and the more private language of intimacy used between lovers and loved friends, that participates in combination with phenomenology and velocity to create a new space where love is born new each time, is original (in that it creates new space, departs from the true center and moves out).

It is the intimate connections between these concepts (of the familiar and the most private) that generates the expressions of these poets’ love, and the creation of original frontiers, literally charged, within the spaces of their real lives:

Then I say, yes,
and the world lights up like the hot star they say it used to be
or may become,
burnt by the sun.
It’s still glowing!
That’s not my sleeve, that’s my heart.”
(Schuyler, “Having My Say-So,” from Other Flowers)

The transformative powers of Schuyler’s loving, in this poem, are activated by his saying “yes,” and the consequences of his actions turn the clichéd into the real: his heart becomes his sleeve and vice versa. A similar consequence occurs in Frank O’Hara’s poem “Aubade,” written to “Jimmy Schuyler” in New York, 1952.

A million stars are dreaming out
the murderous whims of the apples.
Sinking like celestas in the dawn
already growing faint, beyond temples

whose silent throbbing dictates
a green life to my waking heart. Bids
the bones decorate this shore
become the pearl of loved eyelids’

sunlight, withdrawn until unseen
at night, when like the cat’s hand,
the sea, they warmly flutter near
upon the belly of the sable sand.

A meaning of my life volleys
thus into the sky to rest, breathes
upon those vessels by the sea,
to be wrought in the frothing waves.

There is so much making in these lines, and all because of vision: the transformation of bones into the “pearl of loved eyelids’ // sunlight.” The velocity of O’Hara’s enjambment weaves the fabric of his mournful love poem into an entirely new landscape, here, as in Schuyler’s poem, with green life dictated to a heart (i.e. a new heart made). And it is the transformative properties of this “green life” given to O’Hara’s heart that reverberate into new makings of the world surround: “A meaning of my life volleys / thus into the sky to rest” after such velocity up to this point, whereby respiration is enough to make the newborn vessels that arise from the “frothing waves” at the poem’s end.

So, the act of loving and saying it are the qualifications by which O’Hara’s and Schuyler’s love poems intimate language. The conflation of the everyday “yes” of Schuyler and the entirely new “murderous whims of apples” seen by O’Hara bring each writer to an intimate space, newly made. In his poem “The Alchemist,” Robert Kelly discusses love with these same terms (from Red Actions, 1995). In the end notes to the poem, he called it “the first full poem” he had written, because of its “cross[ing] some line that made me me.” Kelly begins the poem at “the origin” and later, in the third stanza proclaims “man, the / origin.” By beginning his poem with an origin, Kelly again orients his writing within the space of Olson’s description of Melville as “an original, aboriginal. A beginner.” The poem begins at the only beginning and stays there. From that origin, Kelly’s alchemist makes a new world (as do Schuyler and O’Hara) through a specific physics of being in the world:

The alchemist
(twenty years over the alembic)
his left hand fisted, snotrag on cheekbone,
who shall weep
and wake up in the morning
selling flowers in the veins of his arm
crying down the street jonquils jonquils
the needle stuck in his brain
inventing true north

The making of “true north” in this poem, is the posturing that Kelly arrives at which allows him, later in the poem, to inhabit an entirely intimate space where “the leaf is subjected only to the patterns of its own green veins / which out of all patterns only will feed it when I am dark.” This arrival, as in Schuyler’s and O’Hara’s pieces, is achieved via a collision between the public and the private (in this poem, the public space of “the street” where the alchemist yells “jonquils jonquils” and the private space of his lab “twenty years over the alembic”). The encroachment of the “I” opens the private space and leads Kelly’s poem into a discussion of the physics of the alchemist’s vision: “brown blood wreathing the heart muscles // he holds to his eye” and eventually the discovery that holds the entire resonance of the poem’s tensions: “NAME IS LOVE.” The climax of the poem is as much a conflation of the word name with the word love as it is a conflation with the concept of body and vision. Susan Howe discusses this same profundity in “Thorow,” realizing that her “whole being is vision.” Kelly’s admitted working with, what he calls (again, in the notes), the “chilly love duet between Calaf and Turandot in Puccini’s opera” is, of course, a given in the original piece of music, but the recontextualization of the moment by Kelly must be examined in the space of the love poem in which it finds its situation, and by way of the velocities of mixture that combine vision and body and a tradition of giving name with a tradition of loving exactly, intimately, singularly and infinitely.

Directly following the admission of “NAME IS LOVE,” is the connection of the poet’s vision to a world made new on account of the fact of his love, and a space made real by “movements somewhere in time / since our own eyes are not still.” For Kelly, the combination of a velocity of sight and a world new-made culminate within the body, itself, which, at the end of this poem, is found “in a cloak chewed into rags by its symbols // a body, / under it, / whose name is love & which only of all light love can eat.” As in “Binding by Striking,” “The Alchemist” resolves in a language that becomes everything: both body and vision, a language that is most intimate because it is distilled in the alembic of experience where the deepest symbol and meaning of any thing is the thing itself. The act of loving for these three poets transforms the world into the new thing called love; the singular prerequisite for a thing made, for Kelly, O’Hara, and Schuyler, is that it be a thing loved.

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—. The Collected Poems of Charles Olson: Excluding The Maximus Poems. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.
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—. Other Flowers: Uncollected Poems. New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2010.
Spicer, Jack. My Vocabulary Did This to Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2008.

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