Poetry. Through the tumult of our names, months, seasons, runs the line of the heart. The cordial, the central, the nerve that springs us into thinking, moving, speaking. Body, Speech, Mind—what else have we? The heart is the thread that links them together, the theme that runs through all the voices and variations of our fugue, our flight, our flight from Eden, from dependency, from servitude, towards freedom of mind and action. Towards being.I learned the name of the poem slowly, after hearing at Bard a performance of Lou Harrison's choral setting of the heart sutra, the radical Buddhist text that speaks to the primacy of mind. It made me think of the way Buddhists point to the heart to mean the mind. Sutra means thread, and that was my instruction, suddenly focused as I listened one afternoon to George Quasha's Axial Music ensemble in Barrytown, and I knew the name of the thread that held me, that I held.
Robert Kelly was born in Brooklyn in 1935, father an accountant who sang, mother taught grammar school. Where else could he go but poetry? He went to a Jesuit school then CCNY and Columbia, classics, linguistics. Came to actual poetry through Coleridge, Pound, Yeats, Rilke, Duncan, New York in the 50s sustained him with joyous comrades, Blackburn, Antin, Rothenberg. After working as a translator (German, technical) for a few years, he was invited to teach for a year at Wagner College, then for the rest of his academic life, sixty-one years at Bard College, where he was blessed with incredibly creative students who allowed him to urge them towards poetry. If he could list their names, it might be a truer index of his work. In any case, he has written close to a hundred books of poetry, fiction, essays, even a play or two, and has started several little magazines (Chelsea Review, Trobar, Matter). In the past decade the main work was the five volumes of poetry he called The Island Cycle (Fire Exit (Commonwealth Books, Black Widow, 2009), UNCERTAINTIES (Stationhill Press, 2011), The Hexagon (Commonwealth Books, Black Widow, 2016), HEART THREAD (Lunar Chandelier Collective, 2016), Calls (Lunar Chandelier Collective, 2018)), and in this past year a long poem The Cup, and Shadow Talk, a score of fairy tales.
Kelly lives in the Hudson Valley with his wife, Charlotte Mandell, translator of Proust, Enard, Littell, Nancy, Blanchot and so many more, and editor of Metambesen, a pioneering venture publishing books and chapbooks of poetry online.