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Introductions and Re-Introduction:

Introduction to Kristin Kelly’s Cargo

“You are told you have two choices: wreck or get off the train.”

Cargo opens with a command, and that command—resonant, multiple in its meanings—lingers long after it is read. What are the choices? What is the train? Who, for that matter, is the You?

My natural instinct, as a reader, attempts to accept and encompass Kelly’s initial lines on all levels, and in my body, for how else do we know without surrender to what one contemporary critic calls that “vertiginous condition of language we call poetry”1? A past one, Eliot, uses a similar term: “the auditory imagination.” His gnomon: how one sees words on a page—written there by herself or another—penetrates the ear and eye, penetrates our other senses, and ultimately our bodies themselves.

Eliot was my first poet, and the narrator of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” prefers the self-transport of walking, diffidently at times, in dusk or moonlight. He and his creator told me what I wanted to do with my life when I was sixteen.

Flesh/bone and spirit/psyche. Folded together. Unfolded. By which I mean: for women, having a body means having a double existence: subject and object. Who am I?, most of us ask, if unconsciously and in almost Pavlovian manner, when we pass by any reflective surface. Am I the surface seen by the world and thus maintained at all costs, or the inner, subjective “I”?

Kelly rarely approaches these subjects head-on. Thank goodness. More quotation: “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.”2 And a paraphrase: Rhetoric arises from the quarrels we have with others, poetry with those we have with ourselves.3 “Cargo”—think about the connotations of that title, which encompasses not only the baggage that each of us carries from the past into the present and expect to lug onward to the future—does not take on these quarrels as a public matter, but, rather, internalizes them.

Cargo”: the freight carried by planes and ships; and another kind of baggage, one inherited from the mother of my poetic generation, and the grandmother, seemingly, of Kelly’s. Here I’m speaking of Sylvia Plath, born the same year as my own mother. Plath, who wrote famously in “Tulips”: “Now I have lost myself I am sick of baggage.” (It hardly seems an accident that on the very same day she wrote “In Plaster,” a poem about her own double nature, smooth and white, as polite on the outside as the “ugly and hairy” self beneath, which, being trapped in a body cast, but “that doesn’t matter a bit,” meaning revenge is at hand, so to speak.) Richard Howard, whose first review was of Plath’s début collection, The Colossus, called “Tulips” “a poem of total purification,” meaning that it all but screams—at her mother, her husband, her child—Leave Me Alone So That I Can Do My Work—but it wavers, it wavers between Death and Life—the latter “a country far away as health” to which she finally returns and indeed, where else is she to find “those little smiling hooks” of her husband Ted Hughes and daughter Frieda?

“The country as far away as health” remains, nonetheless, America. In “Sea To Sea, Shining,” the lines and sentences wrap around the page like the body of water Kelly crosses—the Mississippi: neither the Atlantic nor the Pacific, but, according to Eliot, “the father of all waters.” Here’s what Kelly sees and hears, in addition to squirrels being given birth control “in Santa Monica, the homeless / capital of the world”; a girl who “sits in her living room for five weeks with hiccups,” “news reporters, / talk show hosts, cameramen,” for what comes to us except through media these days? This:

Last night I stood in the park a tornado clipped a year ago.
My raincoat against your arm, people around us
like buildings. Others like cities, rising up.


Pictures are there to remember when we were more than
ourselves. In black in white, two children
are sad, perfect statues. In color, they’re just kids
with a fire hydrant between them.

And, most important:

Ginny, a hospice nurse, says that you can tell in the eyes,
when it’s time. Think of it, she says, like cargo.
We go this far, then we unload it.

My father keeps in his basement a blue, never-used, two-person
kayak that his closest friends bought him for his fiftieth.
Every time I’m home, I look at it.

I know how he imagined the morning. The boat light on his shoulder,
its tip into the water, he wavers in
after, has to steady his self. Then he begins the paddling out.

Kelly was born in suburban Kansas, home to many vertigo-inducing tornadoes—“the number of us betrayed by them.” Indeed, on the third poem of the manuscript open in my lap, entitled “Natural Disaster,” I see that I have scribbled “Where you from, honey?” just after these splendid stanzas, alternately couplets and tercets tied together by “slant” and off- and internal rhyme.

The woman holds the man

and says, No, we’re not dancing.


One window, one woman.

A church and a prom. People

unshingled, a house held on, one

girl in one tree

counted lightning—one

thousand, two—the rest of us

in a ditch with our heads

in our hands, as if wind

were the thing

we couldn’t take more of.

Kelly, in all-American style, moved away from the midlands and has lived on both coasts, landing in Northampton, home at different times to both Dickinson and Plath. Are these places and poets part of her own mental and intellectual compendia, or are they merely, solipsistically, what I bring to her words like extra baggage they do not need or want?

Like certain of Kelly’s predecessors, Plath and Eleanor Ross Taylor, she might be called a “semi-formalist”; unlike them, she doesn’t begin with received patterns and meters and shake them off like the skirts and boas mentioned in Cargo, but somehow manages to fit everything in one book, even within single poems. Even in the quoted snippets above, the sonics are spectacular in their spiky intelligence and angular beauty.

And yet, my commentary on Kelly’s book, put together as fragments much in the way that one might rummage through a suitcase to fit this piece of clothing with that, leaves out one crucial element: how proud, and how lucky, I feel to be introducing Cargo to the world. May it find room in all the backpacks, valises, duffel bags, trunks, and, finally but most important, hearts—in the singular or plural, a word which Kelly uses again and again—of all the readers this collection so richly deserves. “It surprises you,” she writes in Cargo’s last poem, speaking of moonlight and stars, and before that, “gum wrappers” and roadkill, “that this is enough.” Cargo is enough, and more.

Diann Blakely
Judge, Elixir Press Poetry Awards

1) Ben Downing, “Big City, Long Poem.” Parnassus: Poetry in
, Vol. 17, No. 2/ Vol. 18, No. 1, 1993, pp. 219-234.

2) Emily Dickinson, The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, Back Bay Books, 1976.

3) W. B. Yeats, “Anima Hominis” in Per Amica Silenti Lunae, 1917
and 1924.

Re-Introduction to Kristin Kelly’s Cargo

I wrote the introduction to Kristin Kelly’s remarkable Cargo, her début collection. “Remarkable?”—what other brand-new books do you know to have been assigned as term paper topics, as Baruch College’s John Deming did? A former protegé of David Lehman, Deming long ago surpassed any such label, though it’s scarcely one of which to be ashamed: I consider myself a member of this select group, despite requiring an extra “e” and locating Lehman’s splendid villanelle in the manner of Robert Lowell, since I am trying desperately to write one about yet another dead friend.  

Kelly, Deming—who is crafting poems, teaching, and editing Coldfront—Lehman, and Julie Kane, however, are all very much alive, thank goodness. Kane, having written her doctoral dissertation on the French form, is someone to whom I have sent out several distress e-mails begging for the attention of “my villanelle coach.” 

Speaking of matters français, translation, relations, introductions, and reintroductions, through writing Cargo’s Richard Howard proved to me that some returns are recurrent, lively, and happy: I not only quoted him there, but only a few months later, an ars poetica Howardiana titled “A Proposed Curriculum Change” sprang to the surface in the current issue of Antioch Review. Howard’s own début as a reviewer came with Plath’s The Colossus. My début as a writer of introductions came with Kelly’s début volume. Does this make us a ménage à trois des débutantes?

Kelly used to cross the Mississippi twice daily—the anchoring poem in the book is called “From Sea to Sea, Shining”—during her aborted academic career. Practicing the art of improvisation, she has opened a boutique named, appropriately enough, “Ode.” Of Kelly, as determined to keep her desired marriage—“poetry and the perfect dress”—as private as I was to keep her from being immediately ghettoized as a Female Poet, I’ll add only that to adorn Ode’s first windows, she used some lines by Lucie Brock-Broido, whom the late William Matthews called “a blues singer” on the very same—ahem—jacket that also swells with Howard’s praise.
Now we must embark in T. S. Eliot’s company: “The river with its cargo of dead negroes” leapt into my brain before I’d scarcely gotten ten pages into Kelly’s manuscript, at which point I knew she was my choice for Elixir’s annual publication prize. Was it before, during, or after that I composed a recommendation for Elixir’s founder and editor-in-chief, Dana Curtis? She, to succumb to my own words’ undertow,

writes with a pen dipped in noir—think Warren Zevon and his obsession with the genre as manifested in fiction; think Sylvia Plath and her obsession with the early and inky-hued films of Ingmar Bergman, especially The Seventh Seal, The Magician, and PersonaThink also of Paul Muldoon, the only poet, so far as I know, to win an award from ASCAP, and the great line he wrote for his dying friend: the flesh, Warren, is merely a bruise on the spirit. Curtis’s body may be bruised, and also her heart, but the latter beats strong beneath the spiky, seductive intelligence—now think barbed wire—of these poems’ music, which amply displays a poet come fully into her powers and with her spirit flying free.

I have two great problems in my life: a completely unlinear, associative mind; and if there’s nothing I can do about what is apparently hard-wired, I should have known over a dozen years ago that my love for creating little families, in particular introducing friends to friends, believing that they’ll dote upon each other as I do each of them, is utterly foolish. Before the thought of tossing a dinner party for the half-dozen most intelligent, interesting, and artistically gifted women I knew in Nashville appeared on my horizon, one of the invitees told me that she “had come to accept that [her] friends were difficult.” Wouldn’t you think that would have been a sufficient alarm signal? No. If not quite on the level of a disaster-at-sea, the evening approached the same condition on dry land: the juiceless lemon chicken nearly choked everyone and though certain that those present did what they could to smooth the troubled waters, it was lighthouse-visible from beginning to end that most detested each other.

Had only Jake Adam York, Curtis, and Kelly been there! He could have cooked tequila shrimp! I have the recipe but no reason whatsoever to think I could replicate his culinary seamanship. Furthermore, Curtis has an enviable gift for detachment, and Kelly could have wafted odes in all directions.

York bears further responsibilities: 1) one of my earliest, most staunch supporters, he commandeered—politely, of course—a cache of my poems into Thicket / storysouth, where to this day most people say they first discovered my work, though York and I have only recently come to know each other as friends, hence the recipe; 2) I call him my Alabama-brother-in-the-art and of-the-heart with good reason, for his first book, Murder Ballads, led me to Elixir; and 3) doesn’t he owe me a visit, coming down to one of that Shining Sea’s easternmost corners, to captain a similar enterprise? Especially because I think he’d be moved—as I always, always am—by seeing the site, not a mile away from my house, at which a number of the Ybo tribe leapt to their deaths rather than be sold as chattel slaves. Indeed, when one crosses the Jekyll Island bridge, on clear days, it’s as though Africa itself is visible, and I am haunted too by the ghostly apparition of slave ships and the lingering, suffering-but-ultimately triumphant spirit of Fanny Kemble.

York would doubtless have to fly into Atlanta’s Hartsfield airport, a wretched necessity one must endure “come heaven or hell,” as we say in this region about attempts at plane travel, and thus he might bring with him on the second and land-lubbered leg of his journey a number of the poets clustered barnacle-like—Tom Lux, Lehman’s birthday-mate Beth Gylys, Natasha Trethewey, and Kevin Young spring immediately to mind—between there and Athens, including certain of my relatives, whose lives have shown themselves to be poets in imagination. A term I do not use lightly; and here I mean specifically the families they have constructed out of international adoptive orphans. We could even holler “all-aboard” at what my aunt calls “the greed-bankrupted Sea Island.”

I prefer to save other sea-changes for my poems, thus I’ll proffer only that Southerners, to this day, don’t like being told what to do. Stubborn, we refuse to assimilate, we rejoice in opportunities to secede from prevailing social constructs, and we are made jubilant by crossing the waters between “élite” and vernacular culture. I think this is a cross-racial trait; and thank you again, Thomas Sayers Ellis, or TSE, Jr., as he has graciously and with amusement permitted me to call him, though surely this is the least of the many distinctions garnered by the author of Skin, Inc.: Identity Repair Poems (Graywolf).

Few seem to know TSE, Sr.’s essay on Marie Lloyd, the Lady Gaga of her day. One of my great purposes in recent weeks has been to insure that everyone knows about Kelly’s new book. And York’s. And Curtis’s. And TSE Jr.’s. And, of course, Kane’s and new work by Howard. For we are afloat in a wasted, muddy land of persons unknown, too often viewing each other through inadequately focused lenses, and all of us need bones shaken loose and curriculum changes. And who doesn’t carry baggage? But few as gorgeously as Kelly and the crew I’ve assembled here. She joins her lines to theirs, and they’ll serve you well as cargo, or ballast, or hold, in this journey we call life. 

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