Billie Chernicoff: On Robert Kelly’s “Seaspel”

On Robert Kelly’s Seaspel

(Lunar Chandelier Collective, 2019)

How does he do it, I’ve wondered of every one of Robert Kelly’s books, and I still have no answer. You can’t parse miracles, only witness them. 

A mosaic formed by shells of perception, the poet says about Seaspel, the latest in a series of book length poems he has written, one each year over a summer month, on the island of Cuttyhunk, off the coast of Massachusetts.

 …fragments of all sorts of shell. Clam, oyster, scallop, side by side––their origins do not matter, only shape and color––not the source, only the found fact. 

The stanzas of Seaspel are various, some as small as two or three trim lines, none bigger than the palm of your hand––none you can’t hold and turn and admire in its singularity, and hold in mind even as it yields to the whole and rounds out a shoulder, conjures foam from a wave. Birds appear. The weather changes. From broken pieces, a world takes shape, and a story. 

Two figures emerge. They walk and converse, stop and rest. They are the teacher and the student, the physician and his assistant, Christ and John the Baptizer, or Christ and John the Evangelist, author of Revelation. They are the truth and its witness. They are Lama Norlha, sustainer, friend, and John, his beloved disciple.

They drove into town
to see a sick friend.
Can’t heal, might help
John said. The other was silent,
unless a smile somehow
creates a small soft turbulence in the air,
who knows, some might hear.

Many other things happen––tambourine, sea poppy, bell in the channel, pencils, salt, bottle of milk.

Things come to mind.
There is no reason.
That is the reason.

The two companions come and go in the mist. You can’t always see them. After a while you see them in everything.

East and West also keep company here, and understand each other perfectly. Christ, the Buddha––both teach kindness, mostly, and, like poetry, silence.

Swans look like they know––
do you think they do
John had asked, and he
had just smiled.
Hours later, out of context,
out of silence, no smile,
he suddenly said
We all do.

Seaspel is a love story–– ἀγάπηagapē, the true Christian love that Buddha taught––and it may be the most tender of Kelly’s books. There are passages that both break and heal the heart, that open the heart and walk right in.

John never learned to fish
though he had many fisher friends.
They told him it was simple––
with hook and fly (angling)
or with a big soft net
scouring the inhabitants of the sea.
Lake. Stream. But he
could not bring himself to try it.
What if they died?
What if someone cried?

Seaspel, gospel, God spell, a new testament, a new listening. Here are the joyful, sorrowful, glorious, luminous mysteries, reported with profound simplicity by a poet who is the master of his instrument. I’ve read the book twice, and both times wished for it never to end. And it doesn’t.

Learn all you can /before he seems to go away.

Kelly is devoted to the things that happen, and to the words they happen in––words, those broken shells and truest colors. Fragments wash up on the shore and offer themselves, the sun rises, a teacher comes along––this is grace, and if a poet is as wakeful and willing as this one, revelation. 

John barely glimpsed
what all that was supposed to mean
so he asked him and he said,
Dear friend, Everything is right here.

Billie Chernicoff

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Comment on “Billie Chernicoff: On Robert Kelly’s “Seaspel””

  1. Another book from Kelly!
    Glorious news that is only news and stays news

    thank you for the caring review

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