Robert Kelly (photo by Charlotte Mandell)

Sun Tzu’s Sixth Century treatise, The Art of War, is one of the precursors to Gertrude Stein’s How to Write (1931). Written in different epochs, under different dark clouds, war either in progress or just around the fork in the road, these manuals are invaluable to an understanding of writing and the written, but in dissimilar ways. The primary difference is that Sun Tzu believed in narrative, with its carefully constructed beginning, middle, and end.  It was an arc, though not a rainbow.

For Sun Tzu, the careful construction of a narrative arc — or arch through which the reader/writer passes — with its purposeful deceptions, was necessary to achieve a resolution to the text, wherever and whenever it was written. Obeying one or more of his rules, all numbered and set out in The Art of War, decisions were to logically follow one another as well as fit together, their seams not evident to the reader/writer sitting in the distance, whether on a horse or in front of his tent, watching his sentences move across – and mark — the earth.  Otherwise, London Bridge would collapse, as the children’s song insists.

Robert Kelly breaks rule 36 under the Section titled Maneuvering:  “When you surround an army, leave an outlet free. Do not press a desperate foe too hard.”

It is a rule that realist writers of every stripe have memorized, whether they know it or not. They do not want to write a sentence that stands by itself, with no outlet, isolated from home, and with no place to go to next. The realist gets on the uptown IRT at the bottom of Manhattan and minutes or years later he gets off. It can be 42nd street or El Dorado, a place made only of words but that is as real as any world is.

“I live in an old house that has no address,” Robert Kelly tells us at the outset of his prose meditation, A Line of Sight. The reader wonders what can possibly come next. How will the writer get himself out of this cul-de-sac? This is the question I asked when I first read A Line of Sight. The copy of it in my possession is from the “Second Printing, May 1974.” I know that I read A Line of Sight when it first came out, some months earlier, and that I bought both thin, stapled editions at the Grolier Poetry Book Shop, 6 Plympton Street, Cambridge, Mass, which is the “oldest continuous poetry bookshop in the United States.”  I learned of the Grolier when I was in high school — I believe there was an article on it in the Boston Globe — and the one person near my age that I met there was the poet and translator Ammiel Alcalay.

Gordon Cairnie, who was born in Canada in 1893, opened the Grolier in 1927. Cairnie was around seventy when I met him, and had been running the store for forty years. He was a friend of Conrad Aiken, who lived upstairs at 6 Plympton. Cairnie had gone to Harvard to study landscape architecture and ended up opening a bookstore that sold, as the hand-printed sign on the front door tersely announced, “only poetry, no text books.”

Landscape architecture and poetry rhyme, as Alexander Pope knew when he entered a hidden passageway from the cellar of his villa at Twickenham, walked past the grotto he had designed — it lacked only nymphs, he wrote a friend — and entered a tunnel that went under a road and emerged in his secret garden.

We live in time. A Line of Sight is different from when I first read it more than thirty-five years ago and, needless to say, so am I.  This is my first attempt to map a small territory of Kelly’s that I have explored many times over the years, but until now I have written almost nothing down about my travels there.

*   *   *

(manuscript photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

At the end of the first sentence of Chapter I of A Line of Sight, the reader is directed to “Note 1,” which begins:  “A road, but no street. A street, but no number.” According to the author, he has “computed that by the grid of the city down the river” (he is speaking of New York City, specifically Manhattan), he lives on 2097th Street, West 2097th St. “But,” as he goes on to say, “that city is no longer anybody’s system. The grid is more spacious now, builds up as well as out, comprises the nearer stars, has its roots in water.” “The nearer stars,” not the nearest stars. The former suggests a vastness that knows no end, while the latter points to an unstable limit.

“The house is dark most days,” Kelly tells us in the second sentence of Chapter I. The fact that it has no address doesn’t bother him because it doesn’t actually reveal where he is in the vastness, of which we know only a tiny, perforated sliver. Even the city down the river – its storied gathering of money and power, and institutions, such as the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim Museum — “is no longer anybody’s system.”

According to Kelly, who seems not to have left the house yet: “Years ago it had a name, 2, taken from the two lime trees that block the afternoon sun from the front windows, trees much sought by bees in May and June.” I finish the third sentence of Chapter I before turning to “Note 2: a name, Erwin Smith the postmaster lived in the house around the turn of the century, and called the place Lindenwood, from the two in front, one at the side, saplings all around.”

Kelly tells us

The tree is Schubert’s Lindenbaum, an aching song of nostalgia that summoned Hans Castorp back into the bourgeois world from the bourgeois dreamworld of Davos. I don’t know much about Erwin Smith, but pieces of hardware from the original house turn up in other houses round about. A characteristic door-hinge. A hasp.

The “dreamworld of Davos” was where those with lung ailments went in the 19th Century. Robert Louis Stevenson and Arthur Conan Doyle spent time there. It is the setting for Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain.  Ernst Ludwig Kirchner painted the mountains, before committing suicide there on June 15, 1938, five years after his works were condemned by the Nazis as “degenerate.”

Is there an occult power emanating from this house, in which a postmaster and a poet—individuals who puzzle over words and are concerned with messages, origins and destinations—have chosen to live? Kelly makes no mention of this because it is already there for us to read.  Some rhymes do not need to end in a rhyme.

*   *   *

A Line of Sight is five short chapters, none more than a page. Chapter I is the longest at four paragraphs. The twelve “notes” are divided among the first four chapters, with no notes to the last chapter. The longest note is the 5th to Chapter I, consisting of four paragraphs. You read back and forth, stopping at the end of a sentence to turn to a note, before finding your way back. You both return and do not return to where you were. Heraclitus is precise about this. Along the way the mind drifts.

On June 5, 1967, Kelly wrote the poem (Prefix:,

which ends:

Finding the measure is finding the
specific music of the hour,
the synchronous
consequence of the motion of the whole world.

I turned seventeen on June 5, 1967 and would graduate from high school before the month was over. By then, I spent nearly every Saturday going by trolley and subway from my family’s apartment in Brookline to Harvard Square, Cambridge, which was on the other side of the Charles River — always ending up in the Grolier. In my senior year, I met with my guidance counselor who advised me to join the army.  He felt that I needed to learn discipline, that I wasn’t ready for college and, though he hoped otherwise, may in fact never be ready for it.  I chose poetry instead.

*   *   *

“History,” Michel de Certeau writes in his essay “Walking in the City”,

begins at ground level, with footsteps. They are the number, but a number that does not form a series. They cannot be counted because each unit is qualitative in nature: a style of tactile apprehension and kinesic appropriation. They are replete with innumerable anomalies.

De Certeau goes on to say:

The act of walking is to the urban system what the act of speaking, the Speech Act, is to language or to spoken utterance. On the most elementary level it has in effect a threefold ‘uttering’ function: it is the process of appropriation of the topographic system by the pedestrian (just as the speaker appropriates and assumes language); it is a spatial realization of the site (just as the act of speaking is a sonic realization of language); lastly it implies relationships among distinct positions, i.e. pragmatic ‘contracts’ in the form of movements (just as the verbal utterance is ‘allocution’, ‘places the others’ before the speaker, and sets up contracts between fellow speakers). A first definition of walking thus seems to be a space of uttering.

Or, to see it from another angle, a first definition of uttering thus seems to be a space of walking, of moving from one place to another without necessarily moving, as Kelly writes,

“in an old house with no address,” where, “[e]specially at the foot of the stairs it is dark, bottom of a dry well. On the wall above the last few treads is a large map of the Kingdom of Bhutan (Druk Yul), showing in monochrome relief the ranges and valleys and way stations. In the uncertain light that at times fall on this map from the opposite room, the tan spread of Druk Yul (isolated from the uncolored surround, India, China, Tibet) sometimes resembles a large cookie, 4 at other times a fallen leaf, which before withering rumpled into the crests and gorges.”

Appropriations, realizations, contracts.

Everything Kelly observes is qualified, revealing that whatever place we consciously or unconsciously inhabit — call it a house or reality — is in a state of flux. The light that falls on the map is “uncertain.” Druk Yul “sometimes resembles a large cookie.”

Against this uncertainty Kelly juxtaposes another uncertainty:

In one corner of the map there is a smaller replica, in outline, of the map itself. This diagram is called a Reliance Index, and shows sector by sector the confidence, expressed in percentages, 5 that the viewer can feel in the information sketched or verbalized in the large map. It is to be wished that every map conceded in such a way the inevitable inadvertency of its parts.

A Line of Sight is a provisional map of a hallway and staircase in Robert Kelly’s house with no address. If there are other hallways and other staircases in the house, they are, for the moment, the “uncolored surround.” We are at the “bottom of a dry well.” In Note I to Chapter IV, we learn that “[o]ften it is stifling at the head of the stairs, the long hall to the bedroom lined with books and maps. By the doorless doorway, the heat is gentler. The bed is cool.”

*   *   *

Ralph Waldo Emerson observed: “I am not solitary whilst I read and write, though nobody is with me.” We learn from the five Notes to Chapter I that Erwin Smith, Franz Schubert, Hans Castorp, John Navins, Helen’s Great Aunt Malcha, Diane Wakoski, Beethoven, La Monte Young, Diter Rot, Richard Strauss, Rossini, and Pradyumna P. Karan, the “cartographer of the Druk Yul map,” are in the house with Kelly.

“Within the framework of uttering, the walker, in relation to his position, creates a near and a far, a here and a there.” (de Certeau). “There is no there there.” (Stein)

Within the framework of walking, the speaker, in relation to his position, creates a here and a there. (Yau, after de Certeau)

In the hall there the map of Bhutan is large, and under it the map of Yucatan 1 is small but colorful, with tiny pictures of temples and deities marking the sites. In that specific sense, the god was flayed in the hallway, in the halflight, or in the evening ugly yellow glare of the three overhead bulbs, Uxmal was built. [Kelly]

Uxmal means “built three times” in the Mayan language, although some scholars dispute this derivation.

At the end of Chapter II: “Note 1: Yucatan. The neighborhood has a number of spiritual links with Yucatan, and at least one unpublicized telluric nadi or geo-astral vein unites the two terrains.”  If, for the moment, you have lost where you are and are not sure where you are going, you might remember that you are looking into the dark hallway of a house on West 2097th Street, which is, as Kelly tells us at the end of Note 1: Yucatan, a “northernmost outpost of the Mayan Empire, a ruin like the rest, surrounded by dense thickets and a quiet swamp with very black water.”

The Mayan Empire and Manhattan share this house with no address. Arthur Machen is the one taxi driver who can get me there without the help of a GPS.  His cab is green and white with a red dragon painted on its sides. He directs my attention to the sign receding in his rearview mirror that says we have passed Millhaven and Castle Rock. He tells me not to worry, because many different people — the Manhicans, Wappingers, Irish, Hittites, Cimmerians, Varangians, Crusaders, Venetians, Genoese, Welsh, and Chinese — have all driven down these roads at one time or another, leaving a network of astral tracery. Kelly is waiting to see what other guests will arrive as the nearer stars begin taking their place in the sky.

*   *   *

Chapter III’s first sentence:

The point is, that these objects are not alone in the hall, by any means, but are the ones that can be seen, wholly or in part, from the yellow armchair 1 that stands at the end of the music room 2, close to the one window the sun reaches, but divided from window and sun by a square small table covered with cactuses, some living, some questionable, some dead.

In Note I for “yellow armchair,” I read: “The armchair is by the window. For my present purposes (if these discursions may so be dignified), this chair is important. For one thing, it is the one armchair in the house in which I’m comfortable.”

From where I am sitting in time and space — in a brushed aluminum chair in an apartment on 29th Street, Manhattan, across the street from a hotel — I see a man in his late 30s sitting in a yellow armchair. He is looking at what is in front of him. “To the left of the map, and somewhat above it, there is a fierce grinning bright polychrome demon mask of unspecified origin, clearly enough the product of some tantric intelligence of the mountains.”

(Across the street from my apartment, there is a blow-up of Allen Ginsberg’s black-and-white photograph of Harry Smith high on the wall just past the entrance to the lobby. Smith is the hotel’s official greeter. He is seated at a table, pouring a glass of milk, which in all likelihood he did not drink. He died in the Chelsea Hotel, which is six blocks south of here, on November 27, 1991. According to the autopsy, his death was due to “bodily neglect.”)

*   *   *

After talking with his dispatcher, Prince Zaleski, Machen assures me that we will be in Annandale-on-Hudson shortly.  Am I the only guest? Have the others already arrived? Or are they, like me, speeding through the thickening dark?

*   *   *

In his book, The Practice of Everyday Life, de Certeau appropriates two military terms, “strategies” and “tactics,” to distinguish between those who are in power, high above the city, and those who walk its streets. He defines “strategies” as repeatable methods (actions or Speech Acts) based on an overall narrative or totalizing viewpoint, such as “the author is dead.”

“Tactics”, on the other hand, are the anarchic individual’s use of any mode of action that is likely to gain an advantage or success.  The walker in the city goes his or her own way, ignoring the directions offered by the city’s grid. One stops to look in the windows of the stores closed up for the night. Another places chrysanthemums by the handprints of Anna May Wong pressed into the wet cement outside Grauman’s Chinese Theater.

(Dietrich felt that Wong repeatedly upstaged her in Shanghai Express, the train that traveled across a back lot in Hollywood. Josef von Sternberg, who directed Shanghai Express, gave Dietrich a Chinese doll, which she kept in her bedroom the rest of her life. There is a photograph of Wong standing between Leni Riefenstahl and Dietrich, taken by Alfred Eisenstaedt in Berlin in 1929. Walter Benjamin wrote about meeting Wong and Carl Van Vechten photographed her. As far as I know, the Benjamin piece has not been translated into English).

*   *   *

A few blocks from where I live is a hair salon that is open, the sign states, 24/7.  At night, walking the dog, I almost always see a woman sitting in a large upholstered leather chair getting her hair done, her back to me or to the window, preferring for the moment to face the mirror — it was both reasonable and practical for her to make an appointment at this hour. Across the street a large silver truck covered with pictures of steaming plates of rice and meat sells Styrofoam containers of halal food to the taxi drivers that have emigrated from Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh. My dog lifts his head, his wet nose quivering. Sun Tzu would have taken a different road to Bhutan.

When the dog and I pass between the hair salon and food truck we are a few blocks away from the Empire State Building, which was built on the land where a three-story manse owned by the Havemeyers once stood. Henry Osborne Havemeyer founded the American Sugar Refining Company in 1891. Louisine Elder, his second wife and niece of his first, was a friend of Mary Cassatt.

Henry and Louisine gave the Metropolitan Museum of Art many of its Impressionist paintings, including works by Manet, Degas, and Monet. According to the museum’s inventory records, nearly two thousand works in the museum’s collection were once in the house on Fifth Avenue.

“Believers identify the mask as the face of an adept holding back his semen, swallowing the world. The face is the brightest object in the hall at the foot of the stairs.” (This is the last sentence of Chapter I).

Whatever the address, every house — old or new, small or big — becomes a museum or what Robert Smithson called a sarcophagus, which comes from the Greek and means “flesh eater” because the limestone was thought to decompose the flesh.

Because of man’s sins he perceives the sphere as a circle. Reflected from its convexity, the items of the wall and hall arrange themselves, maps and beasts and masks, thermostat and architecture. The lintel says this is where the wall ends or the door begins. Or the door ends, and no man can pass by. Because of his sins. In the sphere of sight, every object becomes a surface, a surface becomes a word. The word, because of his sins, wanders down the centuries between what we laughably call its root and what we, half-ashamed, half-hopeful, call its obsolescence. The word wanders, meaning only one thing to him at a time. Because of his sins. Sin, says Clement, is inadvertency. (This is the first paragraph of Chapter IV, the second paragraph is less than half this length).

Let me pause for a moment before continuing.

Reading A Line of Sight is to accompany the author on a walk whose only destination is under the sign: Keep your eyes open and pay attention.  He seems to stay on the same street, but it keeps changing and diverging. Maybe the path is an illusion.

Tu Fu: “I set out to find you” and “I set out.”

One day the author walks to “the old Barrytown post office by the unused depot on the river” and finds in the “postcard rack a view of this very house, E. Smith’s Lindenwood.” He buys it for “a penny.”

Between its root and its obsolescence, the word (the author) wanders, meaning only one thing to him at a time.

Stein sums up the difference between Kelly and herself in the following sentence:

“I like a view but I like to sit with my back turned to it.”  Not all views (as Stein uses the word) are picturesque. In this instance she is conventional in the way she thumbs her nose at being conventional. She has left the path where the word means only thing at a time. A Line of Sight keeps opening new doors, keeps drifting and sprouting in unanticipated directions.

On the way to Annandale, Machen introduces the idea of the Holy Grail’s continued existence in popular literature. (In another story, Machen recounts how he, Javier Marias and Stephen King enjoyed a Mexican version of a hasenfeffer with bottles of wine from Chile’s Aconcagua Valley.) Robert Kelly is sitting in his yellow armchair, wondering for a brief moment why his guests are taking so long. He is reading the entry on Edmund Burke in the Eleventh Edition of Encyclopedia Brittanica, printed in 1910–1911.

“Burke could do nothing, his hand
so far from his head.”

The penultimate chapter of A Line of Sight is titled “Quintessence.” It begins: “It is the last hour of your life. Turn down the thermostat.”

Thank you for giving me a moment to catch my breath.

Beyond Bhutan, exactly where you can’t see it, is the cabinet of alchemic texts, the red telephone you can’t use, the painful manuscript, the airconditioner plugged into the circuit too lower in amperage to power it. The chemical lamp, all unseen things. The Brave Soldier has come at last to the bottom of the well. And finds himself in another house, just like all houses, every house. The wall. The wall might be the surface of what the Greeks, in nervous fear, ingratiatingly called the Hospitable, the Euxine Sea, a smiling most dangerous flatterer. We call it Black, and have forgotten to be afraid. The wall wants me to forget everything beyond its so casual opacity.

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the chapbook, Egyptian...