Iteration Nets by Karla Kelsey
Reviewed by Fox Henry Frazier
Karla Kelsey’s Iteration Nets presents itself (via “A Note on Process” below its Table of Contents) as an investigation of the sonnet. And it is: within the book’s three movements, the reader is treated to traditional, canon-inspired sonnets, ‘exploded’ versions of those same sonnets in the form of prose poems, and, finally, a page-as-field long poem comprised of erasures that Kelsey has created from the prose poems. This Note informs our reading of the book’s three movements beyond its obvious purpose; in addition to embracing the Steinian maxim that understanding is enjoyment, Kelsey’s choice to directly address her readers at the beginning of the book (rather than placing her Note at the book’s end) hints at a privileging of process, perhaps even over the resulting artifact of the book itself. However, the consciousness with which Kelsey is present throughout the rest of the manuscript, even when utilizing the language of others, discourages any impulse to read this as a conceptualist piece of work along the lines of Craig Dworkin or Vanessa Place.
The first movement of Iteration Nets consists of nineteen sonnets (ranging in length from 11 to 19 lines), all of which include direct quotes from the literary and philosophical canon (Kelsey’s sources include, but are far from limited to: St. Augustine, Georges Bataille, H.D., John Donne, Tomaž Šalamun, Martin Heidegger, and Lisa Robertson). Each such line is mirrored throughout the poem by loose homophonic “translations.” The opening two lines of the first sonnet, for example, constitute a mash-up of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms and Lyn Hejinian’s Border Comedy:
And suddenly, we were in it and it was snow –
flesh in liquid, skin in shreds.
These quoted texts reverberate back to us throughout the poem, malleable as echoes:
Lush’s been wicked – sinned – when dreads
end lovingly demure limits: sand lit wars know
lands thundering. He, heard. Whims met. Handed love slows
less insipid linen beds.
By virtue of reappropriating these canonical quotes, Kelsey necessarily alters our understanding of them; her sound translations compound the effect, as our cognitive interaction with this language is enhanced by sonic nuance. Iteration Nets is an apt title: as Kelsey spins this expansion of language and casts it across the space between herself and her readers, her language “catches” a variety of meanings within it – meanings provided by original (canonical) context, by the new context into which she appropriates pieces of the canon, and, finally, an intuitive understanding of language based upon sound and repetition. Though the jagged repetitions of Gertrude Stein are absent from this book, certainly a similar relationship to sound informs Kelsey’s work. In the second movement, the above-mentioned sonnet is ‘exploded’ (Kelsey’s word) as follows:
And suddenly we were in it. Or suddenly we realized language, the
day within the mind within the world except for the parts going
unabsorbed and inexcusable as two of us walk in black hands clasped
behind our backs, church courtyard, Sunday, looking at old-fashioned
names engraved. You were my Rose. You were my Lily, my Loralie, my
Cora, my Clara, and it was snow. A flash goes off radiating out the granite
angel, heavy and plinth. And in the mind’s eye make the snow melt,
real-time sped up, imagination revealing crocus buds blooming . . .
This new connective tissue plunges Kelsey’s found texts into yet another new context. Throughout the second movement, this tactic often intensifies the feeling carried by the original work and/or the earlier sonnet’s sentiments. However, by the third movement, Kelsey’s erasures provide a complete alteration of context and understanding that depart from all she has previously presented us with. These new apertures in movement three commit a violence against the language itself that is reminiscent of Susan Howe’s text collages. For example, the first erasure piece of the book’s third movement (taken from the ‘exploded’ version of that same first sonnet) begins:
And suddenly we were
Kelsey creates with her erasures such a separate experience for the reader that the resulting long poem is virtually unrecognizable; how, one thinks, is this possibly the same thing that I read a few pages ago? Ultimately, in part due to the success of its third movement, Iteration Nets also functions as an interrogation of how we as readers respond to space on the page, as well as a reminder of the multitude of options present to us as writers, in terms of how we choose to situate ourselves in and contribute to the tradition of literary conversation. In addition to the challenges and delights of reading this ultimately successful study in the repurposing of language, sound, and space, many readers will likely also experience a separate sense of pleasure from the simple fact that someone did this – enacted all of these literary techniques in a way that at once questions them individually, collides them with one another, and creates a thing with its own pulse that is ultimately more than a sum of well-executed device.