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Worlds Without End 

click to enlarge Author Robert Kelly. - JENNIFER MAY
  • Jennifer May
  • Author Robert Kelly.

I don’t like to begin a day without writing,” says Robert Kelly, author of more than 60 books of poetry and fiction. “A word comes to mind. I write it down and see what happens. When you do this every day for 50 years, you learn how to wait.”

Kelly has a velvety baritone voice, expressive hands, and piercing blue eyes, framed by jutting cheekbones and a dense growth of bristling white eyebrow. There are two fountain pens in his shirt pocket. Around his neck is a maroon blessing cord with a circular conch-shell bead, formerly part of a prayer wheel cylinder. “When they get worn down, they’re removed,” he explains. “They’re thought to contain all the recitations from the prayer wheel. It was a gift from Lama Norlha Rinpoche, abbot of the Kagyu Thubten Choling monastery in Wappingers Falls. When he gives it to you, you don’t take it off.”

Outside Kelly’s office at Bard College, a late-summer thunderstorm rumbles. As wind lashes trees and rain pounds the pavement outside, the poet’s book-filled lair seems a true sanctuary. Behind his head, a computer monitor displays an animated screensaver of a night sky, so that Kelly appears to be at the helm of a fast-moving spaceship, burrowing through constellations.

It’s an apt backdrop for his recent novel, The Book from the Sky (North Atlantic, 2008), a nonpareil melding of visionary poetics and vintage space fantasy. In the opening pages, 12-year-old Billy is abducted by aliens who create a changeling double, replacing his organs with a clock, an old postcard, and a tobacco pouch, with two gray squirrels where his lungs used to be. Years later, he will be sent back to earth as charismatic spiritual leader Brother William (“I used to be a little boy, like you, and now I’m a religion.”) Ultimately, he and his earthly doppelganger are joined by a murderous act; it’s a Cain and Abel story in which Cain is Abel.

It’s also a feast of language from an effusive polymath—language, in fact, is one of its central concerns. When Billy wonders how he can understand his captors’ speech, he’s told, “Our language knows how to fit inside your language. Our sentences are like water, they find the spaces left in your ideas.”

Kelly’s The Logic of the World and Other Fictions, just released by Kingston-based publisher McPherson & Company, delves deeper into the open spaces within ideas. Its 30 pieces range from “sudden fictions” of a page or two to stories more conventional in length, though not necessarily in structure. In the title story, a young Parsival engages in a Socratic dialogue with a preternaturally wise dragon, which may or may not exist solely within the knight’s mind. Trigonometry, or the Autopsychography of My Life, consists of 44 cryptic chapter headings, prefaced by a wickedly funny authorial note (“The reader is urged to regard with welcoming alertness any image, of whatever sort, that may happen to arise in mind as the following chapter headings are read.”) A Simple Room unfurls an exhaustively detailed description of the objects in the largest room of an alpine chalet; in a playful homage, its title and opening reference Flaubert’s A Simple Heart, which was translated by Kelly’s wife, NEA Award-winner Charlotte Mandell, in 2004. Many of the fictions in The Logic of the World are not so much narratives as sly provocations. “They ask for activity. The reader is invited to do,” affirms Kelly. “They open a door to the reader and draw the reader in.”

The book is divided into five numbered sections, suggesting the movements of a musical suite. Is there an organizing principle? “Poets have no principles. You should know that by now,” Kelly quips, explaining that “each of the five sections leads up to something. Or down to something.” Or, in the Mobius strip of Kelly’s imagination, possibly both at once.

“One thing that struck me is that there are more stories in this volume that emanate from dreams,” says publisher Bruce McPherson. “The essence of dreaming is the startling juxtaposition of different images—images that startle, and yet demand that sense be made of them. Robert is a genius at bringing to prose those kinds of dislocations, and making them very powerful and very enjoyable.”

The two men share a long history. Kelly contributed a blurb to McPherson’s first publication, Jaimy Gordon’s novel Shamp of the City-Solo, in 1974. They reconnected through mutual friend George Quasha when McPherson moved to the Hudson Valley a few years later. McPherson went on to publish eight volumes of Kelly’s fictions, poems, and limited-edition collaborations with German visual and verbal artists Brigitte Mahlknecht, Schuldt, and Birgit Kempker. “He can do anything,” the publisher says, citing Kelly’s affinity for reimagining biblical stories, quest legends, ghost stories, and science fiction. “He’s one of the best-read people I’ve ever met.”

  • Nina Shengold profiles author Robert Kelly.

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