Angele Ellis: Kelli Stevens Kane’s Songs of Innocence and Experience
Hallelujah Science by Kelli Stevens Kane
Spuyten Duyvil, 2020
In the photographic self-portrait on Hallelujah Science’s front cover, multiple exposures in black and white reveal the author gazing head-on at the viewer. At the same time, her ghostly fingers partly obscure her face, rendering it both secretive and sibylline. Lifted arms seem veiled in smoky gauze; long waving dark hair hangs free. In this photograph—as in her writing and public performance—Kelli Stevens Kane evokes historical images of Black women, while reshaping traditional narratives in new and startling ways. The author continually reminds her audience that the lines between past and present, living and dead, are subject to transformation.
Readers familiar with Big George, Stevens Kane’s nationally staged one-woman play inspired by her formidable grandmother, her oral histories of Pittsburgh’s Hill District, or her slam poetry, may be surprised by this first collection of poems. In fifty numbered verses—many with the diamond-like compression of Emily Dickinson—Stevens Kane explores how the daily reality of the body suddenly can become extraordinary, paranormal—and how the science of events—such as gravity—can give way to the spiritual:
when I was five
I used to rise up out of myself and watch me from behind.
I told my mama,
and she stayed calm.
I told my mama,
and she let me double.
The numbers of Hallelujah Science’s poems are not sequential, definitively marking date of composition. They are not all prime numbers, nor do they follow a precise mathematical formula, although some provide tantalizing clues (“(10),” in which the 5-year-old speaker “double[s],” is twice 5). Ranging from 1 to 86, the numbers are within the space encompassed by a human lifespan, but they also wrench the book from any conventional narrative. The numbers can provoke synesthesia: this reviewer sees the 10 of “(10)” as the silver color of a mirror.
Many of these poems—the bulk of which were drafted in the 1990s, when Stevens Kane worked as a nursery school teacher—were, as the author says in her liner notes, directly inspired by her students: “…their language was the amniotic fluid in which these early poems grew.” Like William Blake, Stevens Kane taps wonderfully into the child mind, in which anything inanimate can become animate, in which magical things can happen anytime:
chimney smoke and fog
look like relatives
the mama is the chimney
cranking out ghost babies
that become the fog
Yet “(51)” and other poems also evoke tales told around a fire and passed down through generations—mysterious stories of birth, struggle, and death that sustain the speaker like dreams, but do not lead to resolution (as the speaker’s recurring intimations of motherhood in Hallelujah Science refuse resolution). All of these sources unite poignantly in “(63)”:
these dreams I will carry with me
like waves in the air above heat or gasoline
awake in this flaunted house
all kinds of spirit guests walk through
and they’ll just have to watch me eat
because I’m not running a restaurant for the dead.
they can do like we did in preschool
and hand each other pretend food:
air biscuits, invisible hamburgers,
and double scoops of nothing.
I hunger for these dreams
I draw one in, and she curls up
pondering my stomach
tasting womb, deciding nothing
In an interview on the website the writer’s [inner] journey , Stevens Kane uses both words and symbol to respond to a question about the relationship between innocence and experience, as follows:
“In other words, what my writing process teaches me is that, as we’re writing—sometimes struggling uphill, sometimes sliding down—innocence is still there. It’s the through line—where insight and discovery happen—where words transcend language. So, I don’t think that experience is capable of destroying innocence. As we’re making our way around the figure eight, we can’t always access innocence, but we’re led back through it because it’s always there.”
This process of being led back through innocence shines in poems such as “(40),” in which the list of the things the speaker will miss when she dies includes “indentations left on noses from eyeglasses” and “shin splints and peeling the skins off steamed yams.” And in “(84),” a magic trick performed by the speaker’s father ends with a splat of joy:
and one time
the ceiling caught one.
the yellow yolk
In the poem that concludes Hallelujah Science, “(66),” the speaker’s repetition of the phrase “I cut” encompasses the mundane and the fantastic, spiraling to an ending that is a beginning: “(once upon a time) / where there are no / sharp things.” In this mind-expanding new book, Kelli Stevens Kane compels the reader to travel back and forth through time and space, dream and reality, body and spirit.
Angele Ellis‘s books include Under the Kaufman’s Clock (Six Gallery Press, 2017). She lives in Pittsburgh.