by Karla Kelsey
An actress. A thinker. A filmmaker. Built of archives and the imagination, the three fictive women narrating Blood Feather articulate a feminist philosophy of art-making and life-making for our fractured world.
“Flat-out brilliant. Its wit and intelligence glance out everywhere.”— Forrest Gander
Published: October 2020
An actress. A thinker. A filmmaker. Built of archives and the imagination, the three fictive women narrating Blood Feather articulate a feminist philosophy of art-making and life-making for our fractured world. Kelsey engages the given by calling on female artists of the past—Lilian Gish, Maya Deren, Maria Tallchief, and the architect Eileen Gray, among others—to join this drama of character and form. Here, structures of the past and ambitions for our future shape Blood Feather’s personae as they confirm and resist, collude with and attempt to reinvent, the cultural and personal histories that surround them.
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“Flat-out brilliant. Its wit and intelligence glance out everywhere. Smooth taffy enjambments pull the reader, the syntax, and wobbly configurations of meaning into the next line and the next with intoxicating enthusiasm. At the same time, deftly orchestrated sound patterns charm the lineal interiors. Throughout this long poem, seemingly familiar diction and grammar comes spiked with word substitutions so startling, they suspend our semantic links and subvert snatches of narrative. In fact, the whole poem seems to be constructed on a tonal framework of transilient melodic improvisations. And yet ‘SestinaLA’ is definitively a philosophical poem concerned with the nature of identity and with the proposition that ‘it is impossible/ to distinguish one self from another.’ What makes the poem so exceptional is that its theme is developed with such vivid formalism (since, as the poet writes, a ‘thing is always determined by its/ function’) in shifting fields of music and language where restless subjects shimmer into and out of view.’”
— Forrest Gander, Judge’s citation for the Poetry Society of America’s Cecil Hemley Memorial award
“It’s easy for a poet to become enamored by the form her own intelligence might take—those poems of brilliant sequins and brittle shallows. But it is intelligence of a different order, one more complex and more miraculous, for the mind to be possessed by the form of an intelligence not wholly its own—and the poems that result are genial because they are of genius, generous because some fertile force springs through the weave entire. Karla Kelsey’s Blood Feather will prove itself to its lucky readers as a primary example of the latter poetry. And as the title might suggest, that vital blood in the shaft of the feathers of the molting bird, some livid force wends it way through the myriad cares this book is possessed by: self’s performance of self, love’s performance of intimate other, architecture, agriculture, art, history, the dance that is dance, and the dance that is life. The sestina’s sinuous and fated returns course throughout the warp and weft of Blood Feather, giving us the surprise of any thought’s eternal returns, demonstrating the complex joy of life revealed as repetition’s bewildered form. That bewilderment is wild and it is also wise, as are these poems, needed reminder that we are not authors simply of our own lives, but our lives are something else—a voice that becomes a mind, a mind that suffers the feathers it grows before it takes flight.”
— Dan Beachy-Quick
“Blood Feather, like the body, as Simone de Beauvoir said, is not a thing, but a situation. In three gripping dramatic monologues, Karla Kelsey gloriously expands the literary genre of ekphrasis into the ‘rips gaps revealing unmapped places where / beauty might take root.’ The poet has built an exquisite overlay, a stunning performance of voices who reach widely and deeply into history, philosophy, art, literature, design, film, and music. In these propulsive poems about the female gaze, Kelsey affirms B.K. Fischer’s argument that feminist ekphrasis ‘comprises acts of description and interrogation, improvisation and analysis, homage and backtalk.’ The first poem announces ‘in autumn I decided / the cancel desire cancel Eve cancel / Venus,’ and thus we step breathlessly into the swan boat of a young actress, who deviates from recited scripts of gender. Destabilizing Aristotle’s truism, ‘you come to exist as an object / when you are looked at,’ she looks back, listens, and speaks. A brilliant woman, married to an architect, reflects upon personal, artistic, and planetary design in the second poem, revealing that any object’s or creature’s (even the Firebird’s) vulnerability is essential to its flight. In it, a tenacious woman in a fluid red gala dress stands ‘my spine feathering language into fire.’ Our heroine collaborates with Maya Deren in the final poem, performing a woman possessed, as we, too, are haunted by a grand meditation upon the ethics of aesthetics, especially in times of war: ‘destruction’s a cause / for coming into being,’ she reminds us. Handing us this ‘glowing feather,’ Kelsey inhabits lives corseted by received narratives, ‘the texts of the world,’ yet tatters and re-stitches their stories into a ‘suit of light.’”
— Camille Guthrie
“Karla Kelsey’s Blood Feather interrogates the lush terrain of identity and gender ‘from the self-as-object to the self-as-process’ in three striking dramatic dialogs. As interested in expanding the possibilities of the individual poem as she is in decomposing the construction of our notions of the book as book (subtitles such as Part One, Part Two, etc. appear throughout each monologue as we read on, each sending us back to prior intervals in previous poems), Kelsey reveals a kaleidoscopic view of how the feminine builds itself even as it contends with received constraints of history and gesture. No wonder Maya Deren, our great filmmaker, choreographer, dancer and poet makes a crucial appearance at the end, she who said, ‘In film I make the world dance.’ Kelsey’s performance of the performance of female gender is ultimately engaged in the act of being and the act of art—and their indelible, magnificent relation. More theatre than book, in Blood Feather, once one takes a bow, another movement begins. The work is on a continual refresh.”