REVIEW: Intertextual Firebirds in Karla Kelsey’s Blood Feather

Updated: Jan 13

Blood Feather by Karla Kelsey.

Tupelo Press, October 2020. $18.95.


Through an examination of myth, art, theater, and film, Karla Kelsey’s Blood Feather transforms otherwise sharp, microscopic moments into multifaceted, omnidirectional narratives. The writer dons the personae of actress, thinker, and filmmaker, all the while engaging with those that came before, like filmmaker Maya Deren and architect Eileen Gray. The three main sections of the book—“Three Sprigs of Rosemary Bound with Red Thread,” “So Press this Fire to Me,” and “Let Us Be as Aperture”—are accompanied by epigraphs from Barbara Guest, Simone de Beauvoir, and Anni Albers, which speaks to the multidisciplinary mind of the author. These three main sections each fracture into four sections, each with its own six parts. The six subsections of each part run into each other as one long, continuous sentence, offering the reader no respite from her force of language, a highly allusive that enacts a multifaceted resilience against patriarchal threats.

Kelsey’s detailed allusion to the myth of the firebird in the book’s second section, “So Press this Fire to Me,” connects the speaker to the creature through a mythical indestructibility. The firebird myth has different variations, and in each one the firebird’s “feathers never cease glowing” (46). The speaker tells us that “if a / blood feather breaks you must pull / it immediately stop the bleeding heal / the wound” (45). The speaker’s mission is to heal wounds as she entertains prattling male conversation and her own fixation over birds: “perhaps I identify with objects too / much gaze out the window too // long repeating the word bird until…” (45). The speaker is caught in an extramarital affair like a tooth or claw fossilized in ever-crystalizing rock, but she seems more concerned with building things than tearing things down. The fossil survives tumult. The firebird is strong, fierce—a creature burning through the sky. While the speaker worries over her descent into the role of “the architect’s wife” (44) and claims to be “almost exclusively / concept and thought a little philosophical / story of experience” (51), she’s still standing to think, to imagine, to invent.

“So Press this Fire to Me” imagines and invents through an exploration of the thought experiment “Mary’s Room,” which is a knowledge argument, posited by philosopher Frank Jackson, that suggests that the universe is not entirely physical. Freed from her ‘room,’ ‘Mary’ identifies grass and a rose as green and red. The rose is significant in that it is a recurring image throughout the collection, first occurring in the lines, “from Mother’s view blue silk rose / pinned to her shoulder kohl etched / into lines around her eyes” (7). The rose, an organism of compelling, seductive beauty protected by sharp thorns, is not unlike the firebird in its destructive white-hot body. Other birds, meanwhile, are directed against the self-destructive act of “flying headlong / into their own reflections” (61). This sharpness is softened by the presence of jonquils, a kind of yellow, hopeful-looking flower (5, 15, 17). The presence of the jonquils adds a gentler touch to the collection, and provides a counterweight to the piercing and heavy mythological imagery.

A different myth weaves through “Three Sprigs of Rosemary Bound with Red Thread” in which Kelsey intersperses allusions to The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams with the famous “Leda and the Swan” myth in which Zeus turns into a swan. Throughout the first part of the collection, the actress persona takes on the role of Laura, a character known as—or is at least perceived to be—mentally fragile. The actress’s own fragility comes into play with her relationship to her body, as demonstrated in the lines, “…my waist measures / 17 inches because of the pills shapewear / and cigarettes the absence of Mother” (5) and “…is it / me or a character repeatedly checking / her phone for messages checking thighs / stomach chest for the evenness of / her tan…” (13-14). In these lines, we can see the speaker questioning her body and even her own existence. Is she there? Does she have too much body? What would she be or look like without a body? There is also the question, of course, of Hadley, the sexual partner—or perhaps aggressor. The character of Hadley propels the speaker into a subtle frenzy, settling in the liminal space between fact and fiction. The repeated mentions of swans (most notably in the form of swan boats, as seen on pp. 5, 12, 17, 18, and 23) call to mind “Leda and the Swan.” The sexual nature of the myth mirrors the sexual encounters between the actress and Hadley. Kelsey’s utilization of the myth reinforces the motif of transformation in the face of violence present in not only “Three Sprigs of Rosemary Bound with Red Thread,” but throughout the collection.

As I think more about the book, one line stands out in particular: “…cultivating herself as accessible legend / the starlet learns to enter the / ballroom…” (30). My first of multiple times reading Blood Feather, I marked on the page, in careful purple ink, “key to understanding collection.” And I still think that’s true. The writer guides her audience through the high art forms of various modes of performance (e.g., acting and filmmaking) and creation (e.g., art and architecture) by means of these three characters. Along with the high art forms, philosophers such as Aristotle appear; those appearances combined with Kelsey’s allusions to myth, folklore, and art make Blood Feather a stunning intertextual work. It’s a collection of staggering imagistic beauty, one that I put down just to pick back up again.

Remi Recchia is a trans poet and essayist from Kalamazoo, Michigan. He is a Ph.D. candidate in Creative Writing at Oklahoma State University. He currently serves as an associate editor for the Cimarron Review. Remi’s work has appeared in Columbia Online Journal, Front Porch, and Glass: A Journal of Poetry, among others. He holds an MFA in Poetry from Bowling Green State University.