Editor Michael Prior reviews Claire Kelly's debut chapbook, Ur-Moth.
Frog Hollow Press, 2014
Page Count: 35pp
In Sophocles’ Ajax, the titular Greek prince is incensed that the dead Achilles’ armour is given to Odysseus, and therefore vows to kill the other Greek leaders. However, before he can do so, Athena intervenes, causing Ajax to hallucinate that a group of sheep and cattle are the other Greeks. Later, when Ajax realizes he’s spent an awful lot of time trying to get a cow to apologize, he decides to kill himself by planting his sword in the ground and falling on it. In one sense, Ajax dies for his imagination—yes, he dies for his own pride, and yes, he dies because of divine intervention, but Ajax also dies for what he cannot imagine: his inability to see the world through any of the other Greeks’ eyes, his inevitable failure to retain control of his mind when Athena decides to substitute sheep for soldier.
It’s fitting, then, that Claire Kelly’s highly imaginative and allusive chapbook Ur-Moth (Frog Hollow Press, 2014) opens with a poem called “How to Fall a Sword: A Step-by-step Guide,” replete with an epigraph from Ajax and mention of the “grievous imaginations” to which Ajax succumbs. While Ajax fails to disengage himself from his singular and self-centered point-of-view, Kelly’s poems engage with a plurality of perspectives and diverse subjects, often reaching via ekphrasis or ode towards other artists and other lives (some of the more obvious inspiration comes from Gwendolyn MacEwen, van Gogh, and several species of mushrooms). Kelly is also formally explorative and Ur-Moth contains glosas, anaphora poems, and poems that drift across the page, unanchored from the left margin.
The best poems in Ur-Moth are composed at the intersection of ekphrasis and ventriloquism, where Kelly’s speakers seem simultaneously familiar and strange—an intersection fruitfully explored by many poems in the chapbook’s first half. “How to Fall on a Sword,” for example, is a striking tongue-in-cheek examination of the foibles of a rigid code of masculinity, the speaker’s tone wavering between outright ironic (“Why trust the gods?”) and coldly instructional (“Forget your wife and child. Your body was made for battle, not comfort”). The poem is written in long lines and in list form. Such structural decisions run the risk of unfurling into prose, but Kelly’s careful rhetorical flourishes, blunt diction, and keen grasp of what should be left unsaid emphasize the divide between tone and subject matter, adding a subtle tension to the lines:
8. Call to death. Tell him how water tasted when you were a child and where you skipped
your first stone.
9. If someone’s listening, remember: honour is a precarious business.
The first and last commands in these lines flex a tight-fisted concision, while the second command to “Tell him how water tasted…” is less directive than permission to remember. Sonically, the lines are carefully considered with parallel prepositional clauses, an intensifying caesura, and the consonance of the “w” that recurs every three to four syllables in the second sentence, as if recalling the insistent ebb of the “water” itself.
Such syntactical and lexical acuity are also demonstrated in “Morning Gods on the Day of Enlightenment,” a lush glosa whose four recycled lines/epigraph are taken from Gwendolyn MacEwen’s “The Breakfast,” (originally published in her collection, The Rising Fire). The poem is filled with striking images and associations: the opening lines compare “crowds rustling papers,” to the sound of water evaporating in a hot pan—a sound that suggests to the speaker “the entire world could dry up in an instant.” Both MacEwen’s and Kelly’s poems meditate on the individual’s internalization of the external world (MacEwen: “by eating the world you may enclose it.” Kelly: “comfort yourself // knowing that it will soon be inside you). But whereas MacEwen is swallowed up by the overwhelming cosmos in her attempt to grapple with the vastness of the inhuman world, Kelly implies that the world is only as vast as one allows, and that the small, domestic space of the kitchen may be made to contract and expand through the power of imagination—not the other way around. Thus, MacEwen’s speaker holds a spoon up to marvel at the way it is swallowed by the sky, while Kelly’s speaker measures her and her partner’s hands against another spoon to confirm their “small[ness]” and intimacy.
“Morning Gods on the Day of Englightenment,” in its insistence on the pleasures of the small and particular as connected to—but not overwhelmed by—the larger, often incomprehensible world, allows Kelly to cleverly frame the poem as an unconventional aubade, where her speaker may “whisk” the early morning “moon” around her and her partner, as if their love were “galactic madness.” Kelly’s astral conceits, however, turn slightly “topsy-turvy” and “fragile” by the poem’s end which returns the reader to the darker astral pandemonium of MacEwen’s imagination. The final lines’ relative ambiguity is cleverly contrasted with the sonic closure of the stanza’s ending rhyme that incorporates the MacEwen source material: “Even my imposing frame has grown unstable / with the measurements of a momentary breakfast table.”
The latter half of the chapbook contains a series of poems that derive inspiration from the names of various mushrooms. Rife with puns, the mushroom poems are slighter and more purely descriptive than the poems in the first half of the chapbook, yet they still display Kelly’s lexical flair and penchant for surprising comparisons. Take the compact “Devil's Snuff Box,” excerpted below in its entirety:
Spiny bumps, gem-studded, kinky.
A pale knob poking from fallen leaves.
When touched, a spray of spores
spits like an insult, a curse.
Poor men’s sweetbread:
Fry until golden and crack an egg,
or with a well-honed knife,
cube the white flesh for soup.
Ignore the misnomer,
the wicked exterior, all that sex.
Battered and sautéed, a perfect side dish.
Mushrooms cannot sin.
The poem balances purely descriptive appraisals with an extended sexual conceit; Kelly takes delight in the use of suggestive imagery such as the “pale knob poking” up from a bed of leaves, as well as adjectives like “kinky” and “wicked.” The conceit playfully contrasts with the actual asexuality of the mushrooms that reproduce via spores, populating their surroundings with identical copies of themselves—a solitary cycle in opposition to the "sin" of animal reproduction. The poem isn’t ambitious in its scope, never moving far beyond its descriptive and metaphorical focus, but within its concision Kelly demonstrates a nuanced understanding of sound as an intensifier of sense (the last four lines are particularly memorable). While some of the mushroom poems don't quite match the memorability of "Devil's Snuff Box," the majority are satisfying metaphorical explorations of myth and allusion (at points, Kelly evokes Ovid, Dickens, and the constellation Ursa Major) via Kelly’s deceptively diminutive fungal tenors.
Claire Kelly’s Ur-Moth is a carefully-wrought chapbook by a talented writer. Throughout its pages, Kelly restlessly and confidently interrogates her own myriad influences, gifting the reader surprising turns of phrase and thought. Like Shelley’s moth desiring the star, Kelly’s poems turn and flutter in unexpected ways, often reaching higher than they would appear to on first read—the products of a luminescent imagination.