Saturday, September 19, 2009

A Truly Trippy Prose Poem . . .

(Frontier Press, 1971)

The book’s arguably not poetry. It’s written in prose: a 65 page fictional travel memoir, of a kind, with elements of fantasy and sci-fi, all narrated in the first person by an imagined character named Selvage Immanuel Hodgkins.

It’s also difficult to find. Never re-printed since it’s 1971 publication (which followed a magazine appearance in 1970), there currently are only about a half-dozen used copies for sale (priced between four and twenty-five dollars). Get one, I advise, and quick. Otherwise, you’ll be left trying to borrow one from somebody’s private collection (good luck) or from a library (it’s only in about 100, all but a few associated with universities). [Note: please see the update, at end of post, regarding the availability of Cities in an omnibus collection.]

And yet despite, or maybe because of it ambiguous character given its prose, and somewhat occult status, Cities – a most fantastic work by Robert Kelly – ought to be celebrated as poetry, and more widely read. And thus the mission here today, in the glade: to show and tell a bit about Cities and its prose poetry, and perhaps encourage some to go out a find it.

For my discovery of Cities, Larry Fagin, who about four years ago included the book on his list of poetry neglectorinos, must be given ninety percent of the credit. The other half of the credit goes to Ron Silliman, who at that time published Fagin’s list on his blog, thus bringing it, and Kelly’s book, to my attention.

When Fagin listed Kelly’s Cities as a poetry neglectorino, he remarked, and I think tellingly, “I know, it’s prose, but. . . .”

The key there is the “but.” I don’t exactly know what Fagin meant by that qualifier. However, by including the book on his list even while acknowledging its character as prose, it seems clear that Fagin considers Cities a kind of poem. I agree. Kelly’s book is poetry, despite being a fictional first person memoir told in sentences, paragraphs, and chapters/sections. More specifically, it’s a prose poem, rich with heightened attention to and use of language, and passages that burn with imaginative energy.

The opening sentence of Cities, a question posed by the fictional narrator to himself and to the book’s readers, reveals much about the narrator and the work’s subject matter, but much more about the richness of Robert Kelly’s imagination and the poetic-ness of the writing:
“Where shall I take myself with my ostrich luggage and peacock pride?”
Well right away there’s poetry, yes? I mean in those two adjectives, in, between, within and arising out of those words. Yes, from two simple words poetry can flourish, and sometimes, as here, easily so.

First there’s an evocative adjective (“ostrich”) mirrored and/or echoed and/or paralleled just a few words down by an adjective (“peacock”) both evocative and metaphorical. Part of the wonder of these two words arise from being drawn from the world of ground-dwelling birds. They thus connote moving across the earth, and thus directly relate to, and reinforce, the notion of moving across the earth, or travel, the (voilà!) underlying subject of both the first sentence and the poem itself.

The adjectives also provide detail and color. Via the birds, they also suggest not only movement across land or even actual flight (as in a plane), but via association and deeper connotations, imaginative flight.

There isn’t another combination of adjectives that would have worked so well, and so poetically. I mean, it’s just a perfect freaking opening. You, the reader, sit down with Cities. You open the book. You turn to the first page, and the first sentence. And there it is, that greeting in the form of a question, and just like that, in that question, and more important, in the eyes of your mind, the narrator’s:

“ostrich luggage and peacock pride.”

W-o-w! Away we go! The “ostrich luggage and peacock pride” suggest it will be quite a trip. A journey both extravagant and outsized.

Yet notice how the first sentence plays, how the critical details are relayed by Kelly. It couldn’t be more straightforward. They are extravagant and out-sized, yes, but the narrator is disarmingly open and direct about it all. In this way, it all comes off as totally believable.

That mix of specific, vivid detail and a “I’m just-telling-it-like-it-is” tone is what gives Cities its irresistible verve. Here’s the narrator, on the second and third pages, introducing himself:
I am 47 years old, in excellent physical condition, of more than moderate wealth, of rubicund and mesomorphic physique but Saturnine disposition. I own houses in New York, London, Paris and Calcutta; lodges in Scotland, New Mexico, the Côte d’Azur, Ceylon and Darjeeling; apartments in Moscow, Tokyo, San Francisco, Rio and Cairo. I own seven cars, a ranch in Argentina, 3000 acres of Maine timber, a palace in Iran, two yachts, four motor boats, a modest old Ford tri-motor, a houseboat on the Irrawaddy, a 37-foot limestone wall richly carved with Hindu fable, a moderately powerful radio station In Luristan, a controlling interest in three small cheese companies and a middling oil cartel. I own no pets. I own three cemetery plots outright, one acre’s freehold in Westmorland, the largest dairy farm in Hokkaido, and one glass eye. Many monophthalmics own two or several glass eyes, fragile things that they are. But I unswervingly put my faith in the law of Unicity, which seems unlikely twice to rob one man of the same eye.
This is all “droll and explicit,” to use a phrase Kelly puts in the narrative in the sentence that immediately follows the above-quoted text. But of course it is also fantastic. Chiefly and primarily fantastic. As in amazing, there is no way on earth this could be true.

And yet, there comes a point in the paragraph above – for me it was somewhere around the carved limestone wall and three cemetery plots – where the waves of imagination capsize all resistance. Disbelief drowns. There’s no fucking way any of it could be real, but yet it seems as if every last thing there actually is.

This tone – essential to the impact of Cities – results in large part from Kelly’s use of (poetry alert) details. Many of the things discussed in the paragraph above are given specified quantities. Others are provided with adjectives (“middling” and “small” and “largest”, for example), that make the modified items far less abstract. There is also spare but effective use of exotic and unfamiliar place names (“Irrawaddy” and “Luristan” for example (consult your atlas) and filigree (a wall “richly carved in Hindu fable”), mixed in with the well-known (“San Francisco) and more plain (“houses”). There’s also vocabularic gems (“rubicund,” “mesopmoprhic,” “Saturnine,” and “monophthalmics”) scattered about, the kind of words that when as here used infrequently deserve the appellation poetic.

The paragraph quoted above also features a snap-to-attention rhythmic change. In about its middle, and in contrast to all the other sentences, which are compound, sometimes with multiple clauses, there is one super-short sentence, of four little words: “I own no pets.” That one seems to me a deal-sealer. Amidst all the long sentences, the mind latches onto that one, and not just because it’s a jab mixed in with a series of roundhouse sentence-punches. Kelly, I think, has a particular reason he uses the short sentence to grab your attention.

That the narrator owns no pets seems surprising, given all the possessions that have been just listed, and those that follow. But while surprising, it doesn’t seem untruthful. Quite the contrary. along with surprising, and here again is the point, it strikes one as honest. Truthful. This narrator doesn’t have everything, and what’s more, he admits it. The point is immediately reinforced, of course, by the detail involving the glass eye. These admissions of limits, of imperfections, seems admirably honest. This approach disarms skepticism. This here narrator is exceedingly incredible, but not totally so. Kelly, the poet, in this way calibrates his story-poem details so that it seems real, so that we accept that what is told is simply just the way it is, or was.

Kelly’s convincing approach is essential because this travel memoir, while passing through or mentioning certain well-known places (e.g., Moscow, Paris, Rio) is not much concerned with them. Nor is it concerned with any place that you or, really, anybody, has ever visited, or even heard about. Instead, the prose poem provides, to use the narrator’s words from a few pages in,
an account of some of the secret cities of the world.
Yes, “secret cities,” with some of them quite hidden, as in existing at and in the same time and space, and thus parallel with, some other, better-known place. And thus away, away-away, we readers go, go, go. In Cities, the reader = initiate, the poet-narrator = adept. To me, that’s an enjoyable dynamic: poet, please show me the (a) way.

It’d be difficult to properly describe or even just list all the places visited by the narrator in Cities, or the various modes of transportation used, or customs and ideas encountered. Of course doing that would spoil the fun you’ll have once you get hold of the book.

Suffice it to say that there’s lots of great stuff. In one paragraph, for example, you’ll read something related to nuclear fission that occurs in a particular city, and then just a few pages later there’s a discussion of another secret city’s published writings, which are never in prose but instead written in accord with a “rigidly observed metrical formulae.”

What, you doubt that everything in that city – its name, by the way is “New Harappa” – is written in accord with strict principles of poetic form? Well, Kelly may well have anticipated your skepticism. Once again, Kelly buttons it all down with plenty of detail. In this regard, his narrator presents (at page 18) a schemata or the verse form used in New Harrapa, described as “a distich of double lines:”

And this form is then explicated, via a description of other applicable rules, as follows:
The words marked a must exemplify alliteration and assonance, or rime, with one another, but not both. In the third foot of the first line, and only there, may occur a free number of unstressed syllables. The b rime (or assonance or alliteration) links each distich to the next. Distichs are commonly endstopped (and always in the older huënëha, ‘old man’s lullaby,’ an expanded simple narrative form involving “lays” or strophes of 50 distichs), and caesura never follows the second b rime – hence the b is the weaker, or ‘lunar’ rime in a distich (since its second part is ‘thrown away in the darkness’), while the a rime is ‘solar.’
Can somebody out there try writing a poem in accord with these precepts?

I’ve mentioned two out of probably several dozen events or explications in Cities that are likely to strike you as strange, passing strange. Each and every one of which, of course, was thought up, invented, made real through language, by Robert Kelly. And maybe that’s really what makes this collection of sentences a prose poem.

Which is to say, for all the ways language is used poetically in Cities, it might be enough to say that the book’s a poem simply because of the intensity of the imagination with which it burns, word to word, sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph. It never lets up. Okay, almost never. There are a few, a very few, somewhat ho-hum details. For example, most who’ve read any amount of comic books or sci-fi won’t find much in the half-sentence about how residents of a certain city turn infra-red and become invisible.

But such pedestrian imaginings are rare. Essentially everything presented is something completely different. Reading it, I was giddy with amazement at the inventiveness, and just when that sensation was about to pass, Kelly would lay on something more. You turn the page (onto page 34, for example) and holy E-ticket here’s the narrator relating the circumstances of how he left a particular secret city:
They made me mount a brightly painted wooden merry-go-round horse, whose pommel was of thick braided gold. The chamberlain whispered a word into the horse’s ear, and I found myself high above the city, streaking through the sky. I was in Irkutsk within the hour; the horse left me at the airport, in time for the weekly jet. Spring opened its gooseflesh arms to me in Moscow.

In these few sentences Kelly gives us a string of events (the painted carousel horse, animated by a whisperer, that flys to the gooseflesh Moscow spring) that any good surrealist (cf. Lautréamont’s umbrella, sewing machine, and dissection table) would love. Or for that matter, any poetry lover (cf. Pierre Reverdy’s assertion that images are strongest when the associations of ideas are distant and accurate).

May I provide another example of the poetry, the intensity of language used? Here’s the narrator’s comment (found at page 31) about what he felt when a vast and dazzling city vanished entirely as he turned around to take a look at it from an exit gate:
There is no need to give any account of the self-evident and predictable tenor of my thoughts – write them up for yourself, reader, or assume them as delivered and signed for; we have all looked on emptiness, we have all plummeted in heart’s bathyscaph to a deep current where demonic luminescent enigmas grin at us in the pressurized cabin of of our isolate despair. I have no wish to detain you with the obvious.

“. . . we have all plummeted in heart’s bathyscaph
to a deep current where demonic luminescent enigmas grin at us
in the pressurized cabin of of our isolate despair.”

I repeat in the caption Kelly’s extended metaphor – heart’s bathyscaph, the deep current, grinning demonic luminescent enigmas, the pressurized cabin – because I find it absolutely extraordinary. When I first came upon it in the book, I just stopped, and read it again, and again, and then one more time. And who wouldn’t do the same, even though (and this is funny, and another sign of the genius of this work) Kelly’s narrator, in the sentence following the extended metaphor (and included in the excerpt above), insists he has no desire to detain us with what we have just read!

Of course, after a suitable pause to admire the beauty of the metaphor involving the bathyscaph and other watery matters, I continued to read Cities. I assure you, as unlikely as it may sound, that within a page Kelly had again blown my mind, so wondrous was what happened next and how Kelly’s words made it happen.

Yes indeed, Cities, a work about travels that is written with language that transports the reader, is one truly trippy prose poem. And really, that should be all that needs to be said.

Go seek Kelly’s book, kind readers of this here glade. Be quick, I advise, lest Cities becomes as difficult to find as the secret, hidden places about which it so poetically tells.


A Note on the Cover Design of Cities

Per the credit on the copyright page, the design of Cities, including presumably the cover, is by Ron Caplan. The cover’s striking combination of black letters on white background is similar to three other Frontier Press titles published at around the same time as Cities, including their re-print of Williams’ (as they called it) Spring & All (click here and scroll down a touch to see).

The lettering on the cover of Cities is particularly brilliant. The book title is all capitals, C-I-T-I-E-S, but with an obvious, and beautifully apt, twist: each of the I’s is topped by a dot, the kind found atop lower case i’s. They’re no-doubt-about-it dots too, so perfectly proportioned, rich and black that they dominate the top of the cover.

The blending here of upper and lower case characteristics is unusual, of course, even odd. Yet that strangeness perfectly reflects the outré quality of what Kelly tells about in Cities. And the mix of letter characteristics also fits with the hybrid nature of the work as prose poetry. In addition, the dots on the cover, as round circles, suggest planets or other worlds. Places, in other words, that might be traveled to, which again fits with the substance of the book.

Finally, the cover just looks damn good. Bold and beautiful, the kind of thing you just gotta have. Cities is one book that you could appropriately judge by its cover!


Update on Availability of Cities

Commenting on this post on the Ready-Steady-Book blog, Mark Thwaite helpfully remarks that while the Frontier Press stand-alone edition of Cities is scarce, the work is included in the omnibus collection A Transparent Tree (1985), along with several other fictions by Kelly (note: I insist Cities is a prose poem!).



Ed Baker said...

my heart went 'pitty-pat. pitty-pat'
when I saw this

and now
forty years later
your "take" on it...RIGHT ON!

Robert Kelly the very first poet I r e a l l y read..

and. this. deserves re-peating:

"Here’s the narrator’s comment (found at page 31) about what he felt when a vast and dazzling city vanished entirely as he turned around to take a look at it from an exit gate:

There is no need to give any account of the self-evident and predictable tenor of my thoughts – write them up for yourself, reader, or assume them as delivered and signed for; we have all looked on emptiness, we have all plummeted in heart’s bathyscaph to a deep current where demonic luminescent enigmas grin at us in the pressurized cabin of of our isolate despair. I have no wish to detain you with the obvious."

as you say and RK does...awayyy weee gooooooo

and this was 197O!

a very huge century for many.

before I lsodt track of Kelly and everything else

I inhaled these of his:

Kali Yuga
The Common Shore
The Convections
The Loom
The Mill of Particulars
my most recent of his
Lapis (Black Sparrow, 2005)

in 1974 when my The City
was published I dropped off him a copy never heard if he got it


pee est. I just got the $4.99 copy. the postage cost more than the book!

Steven Fama said...

Thanks so much Ed, for the enthusiastic response!

And congratulations on picking up the bargain copy of Cities. I figured somebody would get that one quick!

There are still a few copies of Cities listed at the AbeBooks page linked to in the post.

You also mention a number of other books by Robert Kelly. I'd add -- and this was published a few years before Cities -- Axon Dendron Tree (1967).

Axon Dendron Tree was, per the preface, inspired and dedicated to Zukofsky, but is Kelly's own (not imitative, I mean).

It's a longpoem, a long set (a bit more than 100) of eight line stanzas followed by a equally long sets of seven line stanzas, then sets (again, of equal number, or at least I do believe) of six-five-four-three-two-and-one line stanzas. Each line has no more than three words, with many having but one or two. It goes in this way for approximately 70 legal-sized (14 inch) pages.

Ed Baker said...


I still have my original yellow legal pad pages as I did it while sitting across from Sater'Pater Gate in 1970 or so
Hexapoems I

on 8 1/2 x 11 legal pads..

can't find them any more...

doesn't Kelly yet teach somewhere? Upstate New York?

I do believe he is "out of NYC..maybe City College


as I recall

Jerry Rothenberg published him in early sixties...

when I was a mere 'piss-ant'

Annandale Dream Gazette said...

Steven -- Don't know if you're aware of Bruce McPherson's press, but here's more RK prose:

Sam Lohmann said...

"Cities" was actually reprinted in Kelly's first short fiction collection, "A Transparent Tree", from McPherson and Co., which is much easier to find than the Frontier edition.

Steven Fama said...

Thanks Sam, for the reminder regarding Cities being re-printed in A Transparent Tree (1985), which collects some of Kelly's prose writings.

I added that fact to my post yesterday, in the update at the bottom, plus referred to it in a bracketed sentence in the paragraph discussing the scarcity of the original stand-alone edition.

Thanks again for the reminder. Cities -- which again I insist is a kind of prose poem -- should be more widely read.

Steven Fama said...

Hi Annadale,

Yes, the tinyurl you provide goes to McPherson Publishing, which put out (and still sells) A Transparent Tree, which includes Cities.

Kelly has bee prolific, including writings in prose. Somebody ought to do an overview. If you know the other prose works, or any of them, perhaps you can, if you care to, write a short comment here about some or even any one of the others.

In any event, thanks for the link.

Steven Fama said...

Oops . . . in my comment just above, please strike "Annadale" and replace with "Annandale."

And for "bee" please read "been".

My apologies for the typos.

Ed Baker said...

here is a giggle

was just looking to see if I had any of Robert Kelly;s prose and opened my copy of

The Common Shore and in it is/was a yellow 8 1/2 by 11 sheet dated Tues. 3:00 1970, Berkeley, ca.

in mostly as I recall some girls hand who was there in the English dept took me out for coffee and wrote down names of folks that I would "dig" meeting..

so first up

John Martin ( who I did go see and he gave me this copy of Kelly's The Common Shore and I left him a ms of my Song of Chin) which he a cpl months later sent back to me and said "I have a full stable of writers, no room for anyone new. You might try I forget his name Swallow Press. I'd be interested in seeing your next book." (which I never sent to him)


more on this list..

Doug Fiero (822-5209),
Ed Germatne (sp ?) at Pomona, Jascha Kessler, Stephen Yenser Diane Wakoski (at Call Arts 281-1127 (Kelly who was there teaching a summer class but was at Cal State in LA), James Boyer May (who lived on Weaterly, some place called Papa Bach's (478-2374)a Sandy Garrett, who was George Garrett's cousin(who lived in Seattle, George Smith who did Beyond Baroque (1639 West Washington Blvd, Venice, 396-6551, Doug Calhoun, Odysseus who published lots of 'me', A.Garrett who I think wrote all of this down for me and her phone numbers 454-5783, 666-8480, 787-8221


as I recall after peeking in on Bob Kelly and he motioning me to enter the calss room I "booked" called the girl

and we jumped in my trusty 1987 Chevy Bel Air two door

and drove north Corvallis,Eugene, Portland, Takilma, Cave Junction, Seattle, Vancouver

took us almost 3 months to get back to D.C.!

I should have married that girl!


I was looking for some Kelly prose...also

John gave me his Black Sparrow Checklist
Order form

a bunch more books

but not the ones signe by the authors...

wanna see that 1970's list of Black Sparrow books (1970)

shit! I should have sent him that next book but it didn't get readied/done/abandoned

and Country Valley did it.. until 2007!

oh! I think Mike Anania was at Swallow

I connected with him/briefly (and got rejected) after Anais Nin came to Hopkins 'hawking' her newest diary about 1972...

about that time

I was on the way to dropping out... and did!

if I drop out agin (now)
for the next 20 years

when I drop back in
I'll be dead!

whoever said
would be easy?

Ed Baker said...

twas a 1 9 6 7 Chevy Bel Air six cylinder, shifter
with a radio

I took the back seat out and cut through to the trunk built a plywood plat form about 6 feet long an as wide as the inside of the car

put a foam mattress in and rigged up curtains..


I drove around the USA for almost 6 months! could park anywhere and not be hassled..

Montana was neat ( big sky) and The Black Hills like being on the moon!

one time I parked (with this same girl) in the square in Cody Wyoming...

over-night inthemiddle of town

REAL cowboy town! not a single person bothered us a neat museum there..

so in the morning this police officer knocks on the window wakes us and tells us we can't park here for more tha 24 hours gives us $2 ( "here, buy some breakfast and go.)"

so we did

jadecar said...

Yes, I remember Kelly's, Cities. Pickt it up years and years ago, God knows where, read it, was intrigued and fascinated by it, decided nobody else had ever read it and then put it away. After reading this post, I pulled it out of my poetry stacks - as Itoo have always considered it poetry and have always kept it filed under poetry and not prose - where it remained nearly hidden amongst the handful of other Kelly titles I own - and perused it again after reading this blog post and commentaries and decided to definitely reread it again in its entirety asap, all sixty-five fantastical pages of it. Thanks for bringing it back to my attention. Another really interesting prose thing by Kelly is called The Scorpions from Station Hill Press in 1985, although the copyright indicates an earlier publication in 1967 and that the Station Hill edition is the second edition. Dedicated to Gerrit Lansing. If what I remember of it holds true I may have to move it to the occult/metaphysical section of my library where it may perhaps find itself more comfortable alongside Manly P. Hall, Ignatious Donnelly and Paul Foster Case, who knows....

Steven Fama said...

Thanks jadecar, for stopping in and leaving a note, and in particular for the mention of Kelly's Scorpions. Reading your words about that book, and then reading a bit about it elsewhere,


Of course, it was also great to hear that you pulled Cities of the shelf and enjoyed it again!

Best travels to you, and thanks again.