Heaven and hell the same city differently dwelled
it is dwelling things that make them what they are
—Robert Kelly, Uncertainties

A thinking before the action that allows the action unhindered:

Poetry says what’s impossible to remember—to make it impossible to forget. And of course it fails, over and over. Nothing changes thereby, while everything is changing no matter what. So what kind of thing is a poem amidst so much inconsequential action? It’s the only thing possible: you find your place for a split-second as the words fall into place, or you mark what is missing. Its place is your place until you fall back out and displace. You forget what was said, but for a moment you know where you are amidst all the turmoil.

What have I just said? I rode the edge of a thought out in the open (prompted by knowing that a poem might be coming our way), hoping it would take itself home when lost. It’s the thinking that poetry makes possible, vehicular and subtly adjusting to the shifting surfaces. It’s learning to walk all over. And talk as you walk. Mind full, in over flow. With tempo and gaps.

The poet you read today is the one that gets you as far as you’re willing to go. At the reading moment. The poets I can’t read are the places I won’t go. Not today anyway. Or maybe not before coffee.

The poem is the opposite of sleep. It has always loved dream because dream is what happens in spite of sleep. Even, it seems, in spite of the Big Sleep—I meet my brother long after he left (“for good,” we say, but don’t think it’s “good”), and in ways I never could before (that part’s good). The dream is the poem in sleep, and remembering it writes it further, impossible to recall, now still lingering, but no, it’s gone—and I’m in waiting for the next one I can know. I see my poet out alone at night, wondering whether to run home, offer her body to a stranger, or find a new way to walk in the wild. Alone not alone. Tough choice every time. Like finding a new self and a new gender and a new planet just to get through one journey of the sun, up to the edge, and over.

It’s never a good time to meet the unknown, until the poem says it is. Who wouldn’t serve such a powerful thing?

The thinking is what the poem makes possible, suddenly, and all too briefly.

We have to learn our own language.

So, let’s assume that a poet is one who has learned her or his own language and, to communicate with (= read) the work, we now have to learn that language. It might help to recall past work already “learned,” but, on the other hand, it might hinder.

Maybe every poem is a new start, a new language. That would call for zero point reading. The open space, the empty set, that allows the world to configure freely.

Robert Kelly (photo Susan Quasha)

Actual encounter:

 tout dire

Speak language

the way thunder does,
all the words at once

what lingers
turns slowly into meaning

meaning is not what you think
meaning is what stays

—Robert Kelly, Uncertainties (Station Hill of Barrytown, 2011)



“… tout dire …” — to say it all

The speaking text—under the name Robert Kelly—is aspiring to the condition of all-speaking, occupying a sort of midpoint between Adam and the Tower of Babel—language liminal, that is, to the autonomous magical power of a sovereign human and a common social property uncontrollable in its infinite variability. It’s as if poetry is a zone in which these “two truths” are in play and meaning is the residue of any complete action thereof.

What does it mean to call a book Uncertainties? Needless to say it’s uncertain, but not in the sense of a poet confused, indecisive, tentative, or indefinite. Also not in the sense of literary ambiguity, however many types you can count; not, that is, poetry as rhetoric. We might consider it as indicating a willingness to be as uncertain as things are, and not necessarily in a negative sense; it’s not a lament or any given mood of receptivity re: the problematic of unpredictability. On this plane of meaning, the personal response, it might better be seen as an alignment with the world on its own terms; to be in step with what is never in step until you are. Poem as specific alignment in process, so to speak. The poem inside the moment happening, then, is a medium for exposing what is otherwise invisible, the maneuver of bodymind to maintain a certain upright balance amidst perceived attractions and torrents of the day. One name for this perceptual process is proprioception, “self-knowing,” applied, with some license, to verbal events, as a sort of lingual register of how a being knows itself in spacetime. Yet it’s not strictly personal; in fact it’s interactive with the world, something happening between.

One of the Uncertainties (cap to assume unique qualities) is the status of identity. It’s rather hard to allow a poet with the name Robert Kelly the space of “open identity” which requires momentarily forgetting that he’s the author of many dozens of published books. If books were sins and we were, say, true Christians we might be willing to forgive him his wayward life of prolific poetry and grant him born-again status: that is, read him as he writes himself free from who he already is. But this is nearly impossible, which is why poetry is nearly impossible in the sense of its most radical possibility: to come upon singularity. The mind tired out by the school of hard knocks, literature and the pursuit of identity status can barely resist trying to decide the abstraction du jour (Modern, post-Modern, etc.), and trying to make out the stripes of the home team. It’s only human.

So, forgive me if I look for another way out, that is, a way into the poem as it is to itself.


Meshes mean me the voices
family matters murder the ear

I am deaf from sheer neglect
the snow perishes hence is beautiful

men ask women for the time of night
men don’t know women are the sun herself

it’s all about hiding and being found
all the rest of culture is a battered rose

we are stronger than war we can give it a name
to have seen with own eyes Danube’s Iron Gate

leaving the sea behind came to this brown hill
the opposite of everything

he took the long-stemmed rose and pounded it on the table
spread its petals and found food he gave to a child

we are nourished by mysteries alone
calm this morning like a book you read before.

One way to track a work is to look for its very own poetics. Where there is no discernible tradition-based prosody, procedure, concept, or theoretical dogma we might allow a given textual process a “metapoetic permission” by which it defines its “rules” as a singular dynamic. I’ll call it here, ad hoc and sui generis, an “Uncertainty poem,” written it seems in flexible units: numbered sections made up of a variable number of two-line stanzas in distinct (more or less separate but linked) lines. The units determine very little in the abstract, and mainly they are limits of irregularity, wherein, so to speak, the deuces are wild. They contain but somewhat like corkless bottles as stopovers for genii in passage.

The poem does not progress; it lives along. The journey home is uncertain, perhaps in the sense of the Taoist classic: The land that is nowhere, that is the true home. Speaking from where it is, it can say: Today poetry doesn’t yet know what it is. And so it feels its own “true” with no room for apologies. How long it takes to reach not knowing and offer no resistance to sudden awareness, that’s how long the poem is in every line.

The mind can’t help trying to say something true. Nothing wrong with that, unless it believes in what it says. We become fundamentalists of our own constructions. Perhaps poetry is what saves us from ourselves, from our continuous surrender to the siren of our own voice claiming to tell the truth. The will of the poem to continue, to keep coming back, to leave behind the already said—a rescue mission from a part of the mind that knows better. But this too is uncertain.


Smart ones would tell you too much
be a mirror until you break

be a tumbler till you fall
fill or drown, just be unsure

uncertainty is all and your appeal
the way your eyes so steady are clear

while your fingertips are roving
through the frantic jungle of what you really mean ….

The “two-line stanza,” says the poet, sets up “experiments in duration, in complex syntax and melodic demands.” The sense of continuity derives not particularly from content as such but from how the “melody of the first line necessitates the melody of the next. Shape shaping shape.” He acknowledges constraint at the level of a line’s desire to be itself: “each line wants to be semantically intact”; “yet it also must link syntactically or narratively with the line that follows”—sovereignty subjected to inevitable variability. And stanzas stand “in relation” with those before and after, but that relationship is quite open—a neighborhood where most anything can happen, and does.


Follow your own femoral artery long enough
you’ll find yourself in the body of another person

this sometimes called love was called by the ancients the Red Thread
stitches life together with itself you wake in the mountains

the girl brings you small gentian flowers you go on sleeping
she says Spring is here and you dream Old Persian verbs ….

“Hypersyntax, where phrases link with what comes before or after, or plausibly stand alone” are “strategies in ‘mental strife’”—attractors of a state of “mental warfare” which Blake opposes to “corporeal warfare.” Robert Kelly wishes the poem to “solicit the dissolving of certainties—in between the inbreath and the outbreath, where nothing is fixed, and freedom begins.”

Uncertainties comprises 125 numbered and untitled poems in an order not arbitrary—the order of composition—yet which in fact can be read in any order without disruption of the overall sense of the work. That’s its spacetime reality: go anywhere, know anything, in your actual own time. If you see something, write something. It’s a poetics that continuously points back to the singularity of readerly configuration. Reader furthers the reading which is writing. Poem as matrix of world reconstruction. And it’s a world without censorship, beyond dogma, without arbitrary control, where taboo cannot get a foothold, and desire is never made less than what it is—desire. And all our secret personal fundamentalisms dissolve into breath.


Originally Published: May 2nd, 2014

Poet, writer, musician, and artist George Quasha was born in White Plains, New York, and grew up in Florida. His many full collections of poetry include Amanita’s Hymnal (1970), Magic Spell for the Far Journey (1971), Somapoetics (1973), Word-Yum: Somapoetics 64-69 (1974), Giving the Lily Back Her Hands (1979), Ainu Dreams...