Of Sphere   by Karla Kelsey   Essay Press , 104 pages, November 1, 2017

Of Sphere

by Karla Kelsey

Essay Press, 104 pages, November 1, 2017



Before Of Sphere won the 2016 Essay Press Open Book Contest judged by Carla Harryman, Karla Kelsey had authored three previous books of poetry, but to call Of Sphere either a book of poetry or a book of essays would diminish its considerable accomplishment in developing its own form, which I am less able to categorize by genre than I am by the effect of Kelsey’s writing, which calls to mind those hand-activated plasma globes, were my hand an eye, the globe the sphere of existence, and the lighting pulses the substance of language itself.

In this same spirit, Harryman’s introduction to the book fascinatingly describes the way Of Sphere “sets in motion a critical poetics of relation.” Harryman refers to the volume as “Kelsey’s essay,” though its formal and stylistic variety—justified prose paragraphs, fragmented lyrics that hang in white space, a section of notes that are the most essayistic writing in the book—challenges in its own way what Harryman describes as the “inside-outside binary” and the way Kelsey “queries” the speaker’s “desire for unity.” On the level of the speaker’s apprehension, Harryman notes that “movement and vision blur together” in these pages, which is a fine way of describing the phenomenology of this speaker’s sense, memory, and incursions through written language.

One matches the pages in Of Sphere up to the most relevant notes—though all feel of a piece—through titles. So you can read “Geosphere I” in the body text, for example, followed by note “Geosphere I” in the back, a line from the former in italics signaling the point of departure for the note and reiterated as an epigraph. It’s a reading motion that helps characterize the shape of the book’s thought. The notes read like concentrated, multiple-page treatises on subjects such as Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle, or lesser-known figures, such as Ana Mendieta and her Silueta series, a note particularly useful for thinking about the relationship between the ephemeral and the earthly in Kelsey’s writing. Silueta, a performance undertaken at different times and by different means in Iowa and Mexico, found Mendieta integrating her body and the landscape through acts such as building fires and breathing under layers of mud. The artist’s documentation, through photographs or video, is the only evidence outside of the medium of experience to represent the work: Mendieta performed alone.

Similarly, our uses of the word “sphere” in common parlance (e.g., the domestic sphere) come in contact with scientific concepts like atmosphere and geosphere in this text, drawing attention to the predicament of the individual, the loneliness and liminal existence that results from overlapping spheres, one that tends to dissolve rather than contrast limitations of any single understanding, opening up rather than circumscribing meaning. This condition forces Kelsey’s writing into explosive renderings of acute experience, triggered often by the uttering of even a single pronoun:

But you say “I” as if there were a marble figure buried under flesh who regrets cutting the lace dress off the matchstick doll, regrets lashing her to the bow of the boat, heavy with accumulated water turning each object that it touches into stone.

Welcome to the Kelsey sentence. In this rather heightened, diffuse, and abstract-theoretical (trying not to say atmosphere) space, there is always the hand (or eye) on the globe, the point of departure. The “Proem: Interactions of Spheres,” introduces concept of a “right-hand self” and a left-hand self.” This is a humanizing kind of binary that points to the fact that within all of Kelsey’s writing in Of Sphere, she remains grounded in actual, tactile human experience that we recognize:


I return without you to the museum, sit before the painting of your little pink daughter unfolding in time, born first a sack of blood and soft bones then aging into a four-year-old who matches her mother, though her mother always wears gray. It’s not difficult to analyze such an image.

(“Geosphere IV”) 


In that last sentence, we see one tendency of Kelsey’s speaker, her ability or willingness to reflect and second-guess her own interpretations in the moment they take shape. This, as Hopkins might say, rounds the world right, at least the world in Of Sphere, which is one where the emotional and intellectual counterbalance one another to produce a sense of space between experience and interpretation. 

Later in the same “Geosphere” poem, Kelsey considers this dual process of reflection and self-reflection explicitly:


Yes, society’s distorted reflection often creates pain, but denial of self-reflection means both social and physical death. This is the way one ascended to the status of imaginative object: the turquoise pendant so light one might forget one was holding it in one’s hand.  


Consider how these last two sentences, in a similar fashion but an inverse order, illustrate the same rounding of the world through a reflection on an abstract process, grounded in the physical, in the last case the pendant in place of the painting. More discrete spheres of existence, or contemplation, or existential longing, do not arise unbidden or without their tether to the human sphere. They are the product of the left-hand, right-hand work of living in the world. 

Carrying this information, Kelsey’s sentences are elongated by clauses that stretch our thinking to the point of a crystalized thought: “Light openings come upon us inhaling particles so newly hew from earth we become earth,” opens a sentence in “Hydrosphere I,” before continuing “more elemental to the system of organic and inorganic machines.” Sentences like this, which seem to stretch from an observation or an epiphany out to the limit of attention, remind us of what Mónica de la Torre has observed about the dynamics of spheres in relation to Kelsey’s writing, that each point on a sphere is equidistant from the center. So too are Kelsey’s sentences, seemingly flung from the emotional or spiritual core of meaning, out into the world where they meet object and limits and questions of, for example, where the threshold between organic and inorganic lies. The world of Of Sphere is not hierarchical. It’s a world of equalizing intensities.

Out of the prose that moves apace through these complexities, the book’s verse sections, all of which are titled “Cosmogony,” present a different way of understanding Of Sphere’s project while modulating Kelsey’s rhythm and diction into a more distilled version of its dominant mode. Like the science for which these sections are named, the writing in “Cosmogony” seeks out the origin of the dynamics between the individual and the spheres in which she exists. It’s appropriate Kelsey chooses this verse mode to bring the book proper to a close, which is really a transition to the essayistic mode of the Notes section. This final section presents a potent understanding of the act of writing, which Of Sphere often treats:


                        in answer to absence:

   gutting the animal of what makes it

   so beautiful


                        remainder left to the field

   carrion to crow     bones to mineral

   fertilize a document


What she describes here is not only the process by which we come to language to understand the world and potentially articulate it, but she also describes one of the book’s greatest achievements. The bibliography in the back of this volume reads like an excerpted version of a dissertation somewhere near the intersections of gender and identity theory, mimesis and representation, psychology and performance art. Yet the headiness of Kelsey’s project never impedes the heart, and by heart, I mean not sentiment but the physical organ, piping away in our chests, the animal parts Mendieta used in sculptures for Silueta. 

Kelsey’s book is corporeal, and reading it is as she describes a “red thread,” in “Cosmogony,” one that “sews the skull’s temple     as time sews / temple    to sacred place.” This place is the body, Kelsey’s book argues, which is also the mind—two equidistant points on the sphere—and the distinction between those two spheres is far less important than the fact they are inextricably bound to the sphere, equal as so many other points.


Thomas Cook edits and publishes Tammy with JoAnna Novak and Tyler Flynn Dorholt. He is the author of four poetry chapbooks and lives in Los Angeles.