Reviews -- The Garden of Distances

...the work as a whole grows, thematically as well as structurally, out of many...diversions, which nonetheless intertwine to form a coherent...fabric. Brigitte Mahlknecht has contributed a good three dozen drawings to the text-image correspondence with Robert Kelly. Some are hastily scribbled, some carefully worked-out pages, which--while all have a reticulated or grid-like basic structure--are at times executed purely ornamentally, sometimes marked by figuration or elements of script. This image conception corresponds to Kelly's meandering poem, which in the book edition spans over 200 pages in the most various forms and textures, including lyrical cycles and diary-like notes, scenic and narrative sequences. The poem elegantly synthesizes urban and romantic themes, reflections on nature and art, as well as philosophical and punning aphorisms; it also does not shy away from the quotidian if not sentimental kitsch that embraces both the trivial and the sublime. Kelly wishes to have his poem understood as a "message against messages," thus as a point of resistance in the constantly rising torrent of information--as an attempt critically to stem the flood of signs and significations, to counteract them by means of direct sense perception.
-- Neue Zuericher
It's been some time since poetry and visual art have worked in close intimacy--say, since the era of Dante Rossetti. In The Garden of Distances Robert Kelly and Brigitte Mahlknecht have revived the tradition in a tour de force display. Kelly works from drawings by Mahlknecht, creating a circular system. The poet writes from his feelings about the drawing, sends his verses to the artist, who, guided by her feelings about the poetry, makes the next drawing, and so on. The accomplishment is formidable on both sides, but to many readers it may seem that this is especially Kelly's book. It demonstrates his trememdous force as a poet on every page. He seems able to pull big profound lines out of the mental atmosphere at will. Many of the poems are uniquely memorable in the sense that the reader immediately feels that he or she will want to read them again--and again and again. Mahlknect's powerfully conceived and rugged drawings ring resonances from shorthand copy to scribbling to cartography to city-scape, and Kelly draws from their density his heavily atmospheric poems that seem sometimes to overtower the drawings and claim a life of their own. Yet he does use the drawings, does not simply ignore them and write his way onward. it's as if he has used the drawings along the lines of a passage from one of the poems ("A Geography of Mind,2"):

I want to rent a whore
and just have her stand there
and let me touch her skin
till my hand is real.
till I think I am really here,
then let her go.
-- Thomas McEvilley
Collaborations are often reflective and suggestive rather than direct responses--allusive rather than confrontational. The Garden of Distances is remarkable for its call-and-response marriage of images to text. Since Mahlknecht's etchings are cityscapes as seen from above, Kelly's poems use the city metaphor as a keynote:

Because a city is whatever rises up
between a self and a self,
a city is what rises
between any person and its self.
The best you can ever be is street.

This approach leads Kelly to historical figures like Antonin Artaud, playwright maudit: "So Artaud was mad to dream/ the sex in Paris ateliers/ was aimed at him./ a city can't help but be everyone./ we sex at everyone." Like good jazz improvisation, the collaboration between poet and artist in The Garden of Distances takes the reader on a magical trip limited only by his imagination.
-- Woodstock Times, Michael Perkins

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