Aline Soules on Blood Feather by Karla Kelsey

A blood feather is a newly developing feather in a baby bird or a new feather in an adult bird who’s molting. This feather has a large blood supply in its shaft, which will dry up when the feather is fully grown.  

The title prepares us for reading this triptych of poems, three ‘word pictures’ hinged together and placed as an altarpiece to the reflections of the three female personae on culture, history, arts, and the role of women in these worlds.

In the note following the poems, Kelsey explains that this work began “as a six-sentence dramatic monologue.”  She acknowledges that the words “came from” her but says that “the voice of the fragment was foreign.”  

Move into the poems and discover a unique structure within a traditional one.  Three poems, each in four sections, each section in six parts, and each stanza in six lines.  But the six parts begin anywhere within the stanzas and the words, without punctuation, run together as mantras, litanies, chants. This flowing stream creates endless enjambment, one section informing the next and the next and all ebbing back to inform what came before. Within this structure, the reader can hardly breathe, as the words pile images and ideas on top of each other.

Everything about this work pushes and pulls against itself.  The structure itself is formal against informal, the classical elements opposing the stream of unending words. The constraints of the structure push and pull against the wide-ranging sources Kelsey infuses into her work. Those sources, listed at the end of the book, range from Aristotle to Dali. Her choice of epigraphs by Barbara Guest, Simone de Beauvoir, and Anni Albers push and pull against the three female characters’ interior monologues.  Within each monologue are individual elements that do the same thing either within the poem or threaded through all the poems.  There is an endless push-pull where the reader is called to absorb, sort, and make sense of what is offered.

For example, in “Three Sprigs of Rosemary Bound with Red Thread,” an actress contrasts her persona with the real, diamonds that are rhinestones, gems that are fakes.  When the reader encounters these elements again, the echoes of persona-real re-emerge. Within “Three Sprigs,” the reader encounters “buttons of pearl” and a “new faux fur cape.”  In “So Press This Fire to Me,” there is “an accumulation of botanicals” that includes sequins, “buttons of pearl,” and later a “dinner dress” with a “rhinestone-studded collar” and, again, “buttons of pearl.”  In “Let Us Be as Aperture,” there is “the mask’s teardrop,” the teardrop being “taken for the lost earring of a careless heiress a freshwater pearl / a misshapen bead.”

Through all three poems, the reader can trace images of threads, fabric, clothes, colors, gems, metals, houses, water, sky.  The three personae can be interpreted separately and integrated into a whole by these images.  Similarly, the subjects the personae pursue connect.  The theater of the first poem, the architect of the second, and the filmmaker of the third. Yet, other disciplines emerge through the sources as well as the personae, philosophy and history and science.  The third poem, “Let Us Be as Aperture,” a “Homage for Maya Deren,” the Ukrainian experimental filmmaker, is also choreographer, dancer, film theorist, poet, lecturer, writer, and photographer.  The disciplines expand.  

Sexual tension threads through the poems as well.  In the first poem, “I’m not a child though it’s / a fact I pretended to be.”  The persona sits on Hadley’s knee, bestows “tiny kisses” even as his unzips his pants in the car.  In the second poem, the persona “adopt[s] the plunging neckline of / a gala dress,” but the architect has a “habit of stopping [her] mid-sentence to grab his / notebook write furiously...”  The physical attempt to attract, the dismissal by the architect.  In the third poem, the persona “realize[s] you filmed / me that morning half-naked wandering through / sea holly and stonecrop,” filmed unaware.  She also “spend[s] afternoons in bed watching / YouTube videos of missiles launched into / the Fortress of the Passing Bell...”  Hesiod is referenced often in this poem, love (Eros) being a fundamental force in his Theogony, not entirely benevolent, proliferating dark forces and monsters.  

Looking at the individual poems, Kelsey begins the first poem with negation: “cancel desire cancel Eve cancel / Venus cancel elicit meetings with Hadley,” then examines and contrasts what we see (the viewer) with reality (the insider): “...the absence of Mother / doesn’t mean the absence of Mother’s / voice.”  What we see is not what we get.  As the poem unfolds, the litany emerges, a plea to “look / at me not a soulless silicone / creature but from flesh and blood / enclosed in a synthetic skin.”  Kelsey weaves swan boats through this poem. In the third section, the persona surrenders “because if the boat / goes down I am of the / boat I am of the bottom / of the lake hair billowing...”  In the fourth section, “Venus offers Helen the / daughter of Leda and the Swan / the most beautiful woman in the / world.”

The title, Blood Feather, appears in the second poem, “So Press This Fire to Me.” Kelsey weaves Stravinsky’s Firebird with blood feathers.  The “Firebird’s / feathers never cease glowing” but the blood feathers must “begin protected by a / waxy sheath.”  This persona also reflects on her Russian childhood in this poem (as well as in the third poem), thinking of an orphan girl known for her embroidery, but even that traps her “as she embroiders / her own fate,” which is not in her hands but in those of the Tsar, who “transforms himself into an enormous / raptor and carries the Firebird off.”  She doesn’t submit, but sheds feathers and dies.  “Let’s / make you a starchitect,” says the persona, sealing her own fate as lesser than that of the architect as she will be the woman behind the man.

In the third poem, the world is reduced to black and white.  On the surface, this reflects Deren’s work as a filmmaker was often rendered in black and white, but the polarization of these colors reflects growing separation between women and men and the polarization between the way women and men express art, as exemplified by Deren’s persona. 

There is also value in comparing the ending of each poem:’s often the case

that the weight of an object

remains even after that object has

been released for the relinquishing of

objects does not necessarily secure peace (“Three Sprigs of Rosemary...) know oneself the

over-pink rose caught in a sphere

of glass and so dew-tipped and

never-fade but what does it become

when you break it when you

break it out of the glass (“So Press This Fire to Me”) she lifts

a poppy to the sky forming

a conduit between materials animate and

inanimate organic and inorganic the source

of being and art a dissolution

felt first in the gut then

following out past the body in

a chain of image and syllable (“Let Us Be as Aperture”)

Here is redemption, here is progress. The first persona begins with the idea that relinquishing objects doesn’t guarantee peace.  The second, caught within a sphere of glass, breaks that glass and escapes the confines in which she is placed.  The third forms the conduit that connects disparate elements into a whole.  The source of being and art leaves the body in image and syllable.  There is an aperture, a way to a new philosophy and perception that the personae of these women can provide.