Twist of Address (Shearsman Books, 2007) by Spencer Selby
The title poem of Spencer Selby's Twist of Address appears last in the book—a window onto a series of recurring themes easily missed in the beautiful abstraction of these poems. Their shifting "terrain of fabric" is an open weave pierced with losses predicated by war and consumerism. In his eighth book of poetry, Selby's language remains rich and elusive, twisting both toward and away from the reader in a complex montage. He continues to explore the limits and material qualities of language, as he does in his visual art, but the book has a particular emphasis on communication; as the title suggests, questions of address are central to the work. In the title poem, the speaker is so hermetically inclined he has locked himself out of his own poetry: "Familiar space in which / I am taken by surprise," he writes, wary of being "voice immediate that shows / the mask of self spinning/ a tremendous web." The literal twist of address comes in the final stanza in which a "you" suddenly appears. We can't identify this person, although it is tempting to identify with this figure who evidently wants a way in (or back in) to the poem:
wondering what happened
to those totally resigned
by the time you read this
and get a locksmith out of bed.
Possibly, this poem praises the reader who hasn't "totally resigned," who has toughed it out to the final poem, finding a way in to the poet's labyrinth, thus taking him by surprise. But this poem might also be a confession: Selby spins language into a web to keep trespassers out, changing the locks to prevent connection.
The shifts between abstraction and concretion depict an author who keeps disappearing into and emerging from language like the rider in a grove of trees in Magritte's Carte Blanche or, more pertinently, like the words and images of Selby's visual art, where texture often trumps meaning. These pieces feature text degraded by copying, wrinkling, and distortion, layered with found images and washes of color. Like Selby's art, Twist of Address is a book that revels in the material of language. Each of his web-like poems is, as one title suggests, "Abraded yarn," simultaneously twined together and rubbed away like the words in his visual art. It is a poetry that makes palpable the poet's "Burden of style acute / Going through mountains of / Clothing while you are / Trying to get undressed." This is a poetry that attempts to cast off language's flashy apparel without sacrificing stylistic innovation. Such dualism results in a highly varied poetic landscape in which we sometimes find ourselves simply enjoying the surface of language, as in "Section A," an alphabetic poem in which nearly every word begins with A (the line "Alms offered an alphabet altar" aptly describes the project itself). Others peer deeper into the world of a poet trying to strip himself of language.
There is indeed much beauty to the surfaces here, even at their most abstract. Selby's images are often revelatory, whether "one is tethered with flames that ascend" or hearing "the hum of electric moth forest captured in quiet stone." As the word "Twist" in the book's title implies, there's a kind of trompe l'oeil aesthetic here, a turn on the predictable use of language. It is a book about shifting realms—crossing the verbal and the visual. The poem "Third Opinion," for example, reads like a series of titles for paintings:
Occluded leap of swamp mud
pulling chroma from shower
hubris at back of refrigerator
literal abstract curtain
reprobate with sliding scale
toothpick trailing steam
cinnabar sent to Chicago
stag antler and juice of fig...
The poem continues in this vein for two pages, and each line, or diagnosis, manages to conjure an image (or wash of color) in its abstraction. This occurs in part because Selby is committed to nominalization, carefully forming each grammatical structure in order to name. The long poem in parts "Text From My Visual Book" delves into Selby's preoccupation with the interpenetration of verbal and visual, which for him results in a self both guarded and unguarded by language. The poem's sixty sections, each titled for a page in the imagined "Visual Book," provide short, abstract meditations on communication, war, the media, art, and love, among other themes. In making the visual verbal, Selby reverses the tactic of his visual art, in which language is made material. "Page 23" encapsulates the book's linguistic method:
Technique invented to explore material within range
adapted to system entirely closed, a universe that has its
own laws and is self-sufficient through force of habit, by
virtue of authority conferred upon writers and readers
who have been most disturbed by all the upheavals taking
This sequence explores, as he writes in "Page 27," the "texture of language," demonstrating the "closed-system" technique that permeates the text. In order to delve into the internal "material within range," this poet creates a world with its own linguistic rules, one adapted for self-preservation against an outside world that is rapidly unraveling. Here, Selby suggests, it is "arrogance to chase the beast of meaning." Instead, he renders language almost recognizable, but not quite. Self-enclosed as an ouroboros, these poems startle with their many attempts to reach out to the reader. Selby masterfully creates satisfying twists in which language doubles back on itself, rendering these poems difficult to follow, yet strangely satisfying in their optical effects.