Kit Kelen, up through branches. CETAPS, Universidade Nova de Lisboa, Portugal in collaboration with ASM/Flying Islands, 2017. ISBN: 9789996557101
It’s a familiar dilemma. How do you express mystical or ecstatic states, states that significantly diverge from our ordinary sense of the world, by means of everyday language? ‘The way that can be spoken of is not the constant way’, warns the very first statement of the Tao Te Ching, just to put us straight right from the word go! Language by nature is fundamentally unequipped for the task since, in order to function, it has no choice but to carve up the seamless totality of reality into discrete objects and events, and to express a welter of simultaneous happenings as a linear series like a story, in which one things happens after another in plausible but distorted sequence.
Moreover, it’s not just our talk. As Rilke pointed out in the eighth of his Letters to a Young Poet, the whole fabric of our experience shuts us off from non-ordinary reality: ‘The fact that human beings have been cowardly in this sense has done endless harm to life; the experiences that are called “apparitions”, the whole of the so-called “spirit world”, death, all these things that are so closely related to us, have been so crowded out of life by our daily warding them off, that the senses by which we might apprehend them are stunted. To say nothing of God.’ We have two options, it would seem. Either we become like the Zen monk Gutei, who simply raised a finger in silence when asked about what he had learned, or we try, like Kit Kelen, to radically remake language, a project that runs the risk of reducing mysticism to simple mystification.
His latest book is actually a pocket-sized catalogue, accompanied with Chinese and Portuguese translations, specially produced for an exhibition of poems, paintings and photographs held in Lisbon last year. Its primary orientation is to go ‘where no word would’ (87). Given the fact that he has lived in both the People’s Republic of China and in the former Portuguese colony of Macau, Kelen may have come into contact with Taoist ideas. Certainly, as the title of this latest collection of 33 mainly shortish texts suggests, the natural world so central to the philosophy of Tao is vital to his experience of the numinous, and it may be that the visual images – many of them inspired by natural forms and colours – are intended to reinforce the point that language can only take us so far.
The collection’s title poem opens the book, and it introduces us to some of Kelen’s most characteristic gestures, including alliteration, sound play, quirky diction, and occasional surprising shifts in word-class – Gerard Manley Hopkins and/or e. e. cummings would appear to be important influences. Here is the opening segment (the title also serves as the first line):
of bright birds, dull
of leaves caught light with
a welcoming —
of wind, of cloud, of constellation
as from the vast of days
it isn’t the eye alone to see, to steady with the sky
they stand tattooed, leaf shone exalt
a puzzle of bark to read past weather
breakfast in branches honey in the highest
count them, lose yourself this way
this is the tree where possum learned climbing
and came to grief
trees of the swing where we killed hours
if I could reach like this I’d be rich
wings dip and lift in quilting light
and everything with tail and twitch
comes under spell
of lichen, moss
and catch the fruit that’s falling
be hat upon trudge, crook head to the tilt …
The conspicuous oddities of grammar and diction here – inspired by the attempt to evoke a new world for us – jolt us out of our ‘conscription’ to language and its habits. Sometimes this works well, as in ‘a puzzle of bark to read past weather’ and ‘wings dip and lift in quilting light / and everything with tail and twitch / comes under spell’, but at other times his testing of the limits of expression is not so easy to follow – I’m still scratching my head over ‘be hat upon trudge’. He can get a bit mannered at times, too. The phrase ‘as from the vast of days’ is a rather windy abstraction: the long-drawn-out stressed vowels in ‘vast’ and ‘days’ sound impressive, but they don’t add much to the overall meaning.
Having introduced his tree theme in such hectic terms, Kelen then proceeds in the rest of the book to an elaboration of its mystical and ecstatic aspects. One of the most successful instances is the poem ‘where was I’:
when the tree became me
mid-flight, like an arrow’s twang
the arrow, too, is tree was, will be
we sing and point the sky in rising
but the moment’s
all time felled
where was I
taken root and branch
efflorescences of wing lit
am I so swayed
but a breeze is limb
where was the instant
green became me
danger was outrun
because I took
the tide to heart
and made a moon
where no word would
ashen I bent to turn the man
where? where was I just then?
For a brief time, the speaker enjoys a moment of being-tree. Kelen again tries to approximate the singularity of this experience by trying to force language out of its normal patterning. Short phrases are jammed together in defiance of grammatical rules – ‘where was I / taken root and branch / efflorescences of wing lit / grub got’ – in order to convey a sense of profound disorientation. In addition, double-meanings proliferate. Does ‘but the moment’s / all time felled’ mean that the moment was the only thing that time felled, or does Kelen also want us to read it as saying that the moment is the entirety of time, felled in one swoop? The verb ‘swayed’ is similarly double-jointed, implying that the speaker has somehow been talked into letting go of his human form (to sway = to persuade or influence somebody to believe or do something) and now moves in a manner natural to a tree in the wind (to sway = to swing back and forth). Further on, ‘limb’ is both a human body part and a major branch, while ‘green became me’ and perhaps also ‘I took / the tide to heart’ invite multiple interpretations. Even ‘ashen’ may be read two ways, as the pale complexion of a man still reeling from the shock of his transformation, and as the condition of being an ash tree. Certainly, ‘where was I’ is a tour de force, in which the manipulation of syntax and polysemy verges on the violent.
Thanks to these two poems, we now have a better idea of what Kelen’s mystical understanding involves: a sense of being welcomed into a more inclusive order; an identification with the natural world; a loss of self; timelessness; and a strong sense of safety, in which ‘danger is outrun’. To put this into poetic language, as we have seen, he makes use of jagged syntax, ambiguity, and sound play. This is quietly complemented at times by a regular religious vocabulary (church, heaven, souls, prayers, resurrection, grace, gods, blessing), but it is primarily these devices that enable him to capture something of the excitement and unfamiliarity of such states. Although there are hints of joy and awe, the dominant note is one of spasmodic agitation. At the same time, the breakdown of syntax largely precludes any coherent formulation of the meaning of such experiences, and this, to quote from his book-length study Poetry, Consciousness and Community, works against ‘the need to make difference so as to make the world and life liveable’ (87). Finally, nature is depicted in strikingly general terms. Despite the assertion of oneness with trees and birds, almost nothing appears in the texts with any vivid particularity: the trees are generic trees, the birds are generic birds – and the same goes for the lichen, moss, and sky.
The majority of the poems in up through branches are short ones. On the whole, these make use of the same techniques as the longer poems, and many of them deal with the same mystical subject matter. In ‘what bird is that?’, Kelen’s apprehension of transcendence is given in perhaps its most compact and accessible form:
from foliage, light
no knowledge mastering
to be sung
drunk on being
high on here
best knows itself
The main elements of this view are the yearning for a state that goes beyond names, language, knowledge, and law. Here, a sense of self no longer exists. Instead, grammatical subjects fall away, just as Kelen’s phrase ‘invents itself’ omits any pronoun referring to the bird. The state is also characterised by simple metaphors of intoxication (‘drunk’) and elevation (‘high’). The invented compound-word ‘of-a-kind’ is meant, I believe, to echo the idiom ‘one of a kind’, and ingeniously increases the conceptual tension between linguistic and intellectual generalisations on the one hand, and a recognition of the absolute uniqueness of every single thing in the universe on the other. Typically, Kelen again resolves the poem with an ambiguity: the bird’s flight through the air is also, it is implied, a fleeing from fixed identities and cast-iron definitions.
In some of his other shorter poems, Kelen shifts his attention to everyday topics – a cup of tea, childhood, a honeyeater feeding from a banksia flower, gum trees transplanted to London’s Kew Gardens (‘you won’t see the seasons in them’) – but even here, his riddling, elusive style persists. What the style assumes is that the linearity of the English language, built around noun-things set in motion by verbs, is a limitation that needs to be bypassed. Many writers of poetry sense this restriction. In the latest issue of foam:e, for example, Elaine Leong composes lines such as ‘totakea breathwhenitis sowarm-ing / likeabeehiveswarm-ing’ to counteract the linear aspect of linguistic convention. This is not necessarily motivated by mere tricksiness; as Alan Watts reminds us in Tao: The Watercourse Way, ‘a universe of mere objects is objectionable’ because it justifies us in the notion that the world is here to exploit. Nevertheless, I think Kelen runs the risk of equating this breakdown of the limitations of language with a breakthrough in terms of our understanding of reality, a confusion that locks his approach into a fundamental destructiveness. The transgression of (merely) linguistic limits does not, of necessity, bring us any closer to mystery. At the same time, far from forcing the reader to abandon logic and rationality, his delight in such puzzles actively engage them. In fact, we are made to become more – not less – intellectual in the reading process in order to make sense of riddles such as ‘invents itself’ and ‘of-a-kind’.
It should be evident from what has already been said about Kelen’s poetry in up through branches that he generates most of his more striking poetic effects from elements difficult to reproduce in another language. Proof of this is provided by the Chinese versions. Most of the wordplay in ‘where was I’ disappears in the translation by Jo, You Chengcheng and Cui Yuwei. The phrase ‘but the moment’s / all time felled’ is simplified to ‘but this moment / is eternally felled’ (or ‘is felled by eternity’) [但此刻 ／ 被永遠砍去]. The ambiguity of ‘am I so swayed’ becomes ‘do I sway like this?’ [我就這樣搖曵嗎], with the verb yiu yai referring to the movement of a branch or the flickering of a light. And the phrase ‘green became me’ is rendered as ‘there the new green / turned into me’ [那裡的新綠 ／ 變成我], with no sense of the possible English sense of ‘green suits me’. In other words, the Chinese opts for clear meaning and commonsensical approximations in place of the writer’s ambitious innovations.
Even gentle Taoism has an aggressive aspect: ‘Exterminate the sage, discard the wise, / And the people will benefit a hundredfold’ (Tao Te Ching, Chapter Nineteen). It is perhaps precisely this aspect which encourages Kelen to engage in ‘boundarywork’ beyond discursive limits. However, the resulting violence to language committed in pursuit of this ideal can become a fixed style in its own right rather than a fluid, endlessly nuanced response to mystery. We live in an age that equates difference with newness and strangeness, and virtually all experimentation in poetry adheres to this view, so it is not surprising to find such a wild push towards experiment in up through branches. But why not experiment with a greater directness instead? Alan Watts reminds us in his book on Taoism that its main emphasis is on ‘remarkable naturalness’ and ‘uncontrived skill’. Language, too, has its Tao – its spontaneities and extraordinary modes of fluency – and an excessive working against its grain is likely to produce more friction that illuminating fire.
Simon Patton translates Chinese literature. He lives with his partner, cat, chickens and goldfish near Chinaman Creek in Central Victoria. Twelve translated poems were included in Two Halves of the World Apple: Poems by Yang Ke (University of Oklahoma Press, 2017).