Review Essay: Gavin Selerie, Collected Sonnets, Shearsman Books, 2019 371pp

 

Gavin Selerie’s Collected Sonnets is a substantial and attractive volume with cover lay-out dominated by Joseph Albers’ painting ‘Variant of Related’: two flickering shapes rising out of a frosted blue, deep red and then deeper umber rectangles. Depending on the way you look at it, each upright oblong resolves into three or more visually resonating forms, evoking the idea of multivalent energies rising out of bounded poetic structures. It supplies an elegant visual cognate for sonnets and sonnet-forms, manifesting how layered and fluid patterns can arise out of poetic structures and how dynamic energies are involved in their shaping.

These collections range from sections titled: ‘From Early poems/ Azimuth and after 1969-1986’ to ‘Tuning Tomorrow 2018-2019’, comprising fifteen sequences, including those sections which feature material extracted from longer books embodying, in all, fifty years’ work.

Amongst other highlights, one of the qualities which impresses in the early poems is the way Selerie switches swiftly from precisely-observed details of rooms and landscapes to mental inner and overviews, from:

            An oak armchair and red oriental rug, a candle
            On the marble mantelpiece, a pile of books

            (‘Translation’)
to:

            I am something looking at myself, skull solid and smooth
            as a peanut

            its case opens and plunges up, a cloud silk white
            that hovers over a vast plain.  
         
             (‘Translation’)

That surprise transformation of the person to ‘something’ then face to skull to the finely-judged and droll miniaturisation of peanut to case, that flow of images and similes and then the almost Metaphysical flow (reminding of Henry Vaughan), of white silk-like cloud emerging are captivating. There’s a sense of imagined pre-birth morphogenesis here, a zero-ing on ‘the slow soft trail of her voice / that holds me inside’. Like bird, leaf or snake, the speaker is realised ‘in a glowing tract’ where ‘each thing has their place.’  This almost-simultaneous seeing of many views and sliding out of self is a recurrent motif in the sonnets, glimpsed also in oneiric dream-states as we see in ‘Crack in Space’ at the other end of this book. The poem starts seemingly casually and companionably enough with:

            We were holding a house-warming party in a place
            with a passage that ran the length of the ground floor

but then:

                                           I fell over a crate, knocking my head
            in the dark. Something seemed to stroke my skull
            and the sutures parted, letting another self rise
            into the air.
                                             
Engaging with a multiplicity of selves in such lines manifests not only Selerie’s familiarity with Freudian and Jungian thought but also his deep knowledge of how voices and viewpoints have been enrolled in contrasting ways in different ages of sonnet-writing. The poet will take on, explore this process revealingly and also challenge it in multivalent ways.

I read this fluidity of viewpoint as one manifestation of the intimate torsion which the writer finds in sonnet-forms, the freedom which compression creates, and within these poems contours of perception often waver and open and change. The author has written:

I see the sonnet as a form for wrestling with issues, with torsion created in a limited space. There is not always a ‘volta’ but generally there’s some complexity of argument and development. As I’ve said on various occasions I tend not to write about subject-as-such, but let features slide into one another. Where I pick out individual themes or strands in the discussion below these are a part of a weave and within each text are not isolated.

The ideas of wrestling and torsion bring to mind the muscularity, bending and plying of some of these sonnets, the way they are turned, shapes and forms sometimes deployed contrary to expectation, perhaps reminding of the power of the unconventionally-shaped architectures such as the scissor arches at Wells cathedral.

In Elizabethan Overhang 1987-1988 and Tilting Square 1988-1991, Selerie brings a postmodern engagement with Elizabethan & Jacobean Metaphysical poetry to the fore. He is also aware of the ways in which e.e. cummings, Dylan Thomas, Jackson Mac Low and Ted Berrigan among others have altered our perceptions of the poetic possibilities of sonnets and there is more than a hint of William Empson’s wit and Hart Crane’s gem-like linguistic textures in these poems.  

In ‘Make-Up’ (simultaneously conjuring cosmetics, a reconciliation and the fashioning of artifice), the first poem in the former collection, the ‘text of ourselves’ is imagined as the ‘text / of an eye beyond’ which phrases are themselves key and hint at Selerie’s gift of projecting and embodying other selves, other seers and readers. This is a poetry of multiple viewpoints almost in a Cubist sense, moving away from simply confessional strategies and an acknowledgement that existence involves complex selves and others: opposed ways of seeing.

It is a plurality of vantage he returns to in ‘Privily’:

            But behind the wordface is another
            made up, a tone which trades with the stuff
            it creates, subjecting flesh by a sleight
            which hides how one leads back to many.

In this poem dealing with exposure in print and fidelity to experience, it is acknowledged that words and poetic forms subject flesh, by many ‘sleights,’ to a kind of anonymity; that is, language structures in general mean that living people in all the particularity of their individual loves and affiliations are often fashioned into versions of themselves with conventions which are centuries old. Yet, in expressing intense love at all in poetry, especially in postmodern terms in a poetry which engages with and goes, layer below layer, beyond the erotic lyric, we become conscious of a love which joins us together to ‘many’, poet and readers alike. 

This poet is also fascinated by how looking and seeing are characterised in different cultural contexts and for example, how ‘male’ and female’ gaze and gazes have been represented, enrolled and sometimes misrepresented. ‘Phantom Mannequin’ (Days of ’49 outtakes 1997-1999) focusses on the famous Sheila Legge costume at the 1936 London Surrealist exhibition: ‘a woman with a head of roses’ facing ‘the gallery beside a lion’, right at the sculptural centre of late empire:

            the column notes a gaping hemline
            and peep-toe shoes

            your sometime object
            walks a day mark in a painter’s night box

which is a wonderful way of embodying linguistically the way that Legge’s ‘phantom’ not only brought the suppressed energies of dreams and the subconscious into daylight, but re-structured the often restrictively gendered language of visual perception. She breaks through, the poet suggests, the ways in which women have been objectified by generations of mainly male artists. Through her costume of shock and affront, Legge and the poet are also:

            ready to turn pronouns round

            will open glittering handcuffs
            in the whoroscopic record

the lexical inventiveness and blurring of ‘whoroscopic’ subverting all attempts at prior definition, either sexual stereotypes or astrological readings.

Another aspect we discover as we progress through the different collections is that Selerie possesses a sinuous and adapting sense of the formal possibilities of sonnets in terms of lay-out and deployment of emerging word-shapes and lines. In ‘Mantic Strain’ from ‘example, the poet follows Ithell Colqhoun’s prose impressions of a woman meditating on female forms, the questing lines as spare as the start of a Robert Creeley poem:

                          she feels
                       her form
                     as rubbed
                   in the grain
                  of the door

                  knots in silken
                      skin
                           with flashing
                                aura

The sonnet which follows: ‘Hold Shot’ is laid out as an elongated diamond in two halves, ‘Wonder Notch’ , a poem evoking Georg Mayer-Marton’s art, strikes down the page in a double-spaced open zigzag, ‘Domain of Arnhem’ conjures up Magritte and Poe in ‘jagged pieces’ and ‘Blitzweed’ (the title, a reference to Buddleia davidii growing on bombed sites), sinuously glides down the page side-to-side:

                  where blown seeds
                  yield lunatic spikes and flowers

                         purple, pink

                with insect hum

                     it’s not the wireless, that’s

                           a redstart perched on a stack

                      whistling sweet hisses
                      arced to a crunch

                    so thickens   a chancy strike

This flowering weed also recurs in ‘Blood Vine’ increasing our sense of intertwining leitmotifs and smaller sequences ranged inside sequences including sections on the poet’s father, the mythological Wild Hunt and the English Civil War, throughout. ‘Parish Without’, an evocation of the sanatorium where saxophonist Joe Harriott was treated for bronchial pneumonia, also recalls in its arc the south-facing arc of the building and the surrounding layers of soil.

Selerie’s fascination with chance, aleatory procedures and indeterminacy is evident and emphasised throughout in lines such as:

                                                 Only a sure touch
            can set the calendar forward
            but you can write without knowing what.
                                                                     (‘Seed’)

            but now a pronoun turns to thistledown
            I don’t know, you can’t, you’ll never, I’ll go on.
                                                                         (‘Gaugeless’)

That last line takes up Beckettian strands of discourse and brings ambiguity to bear on dramatic presences in the poems. There’s excitement and risk in the fact that at times we literally don’t know where the poet is going next. Sometimes, all he has to go on, he tells us, is:

            A line to plunge and spin

                                   through memory pockets
                                                                      (Galvothermic’)

Selerie discusses his uses of indeterminacy in ‘Into the Labyrinth’ an interview with Andrew Duncan and there he recalls Keats’ ‘hate’ of ‘poetry that has a palpable design on us’ by rigging the rhetoric or pre-determination. Rather, Selerie speaks in favour of ‘a procedure that moves beyond semantics’ or which contains ‘a pure sound dimension’. These sonnets are characterised by an Olsonian open-ness of field and Selerie particularly identifies with Olson’s sense of the writer’s role as ‘Archaeologist of Morning’, that is of working through layer after layer of historical, cultural and geographical accretion to give us a sense of lived realities in different contexts around us.

While I have a familiarity with many of the poems included here in their original settings in longer works, this new arrangement of the sonnets has the effect of bringing them individually to the fore with a new intensity and focus. The poems ranged in sequences as they are here and away from other surrounding text set up new patterns and connections.

Particularly impressive are the thronged musics and musicality of the sonnets. The poet has not only been deeply immersed in early modern music (air and madrigal) but is a keen listener to folk, jazz and rock contexts. This is borne out in the elegy for Richard Manuel of ‘The Band’ in ‘Getaway’ with ambiguous use of ‘console’:

            Music stamps a name at the hub maybe turns to console

the wind-sweeping sounds of ‘Sounding Cylinder’ i.m. of Kate McGarrigle:

            Take me, blue sea
            toss and tear
            a packet pounded
            in hymnal rooms

and ‘Chrome Nun’ for Grace Slick:

            never a chick, she’ll stick out for no
            and do it – a fractured bolero

which pulls no punches in a vivid, at times staccato exploration.

I was also drawn strongly to the powerful verbal music and rhythms of the ‘Spanish poems’ of Twisted Circle 1994-1999. In ‘Portage’, for example, we have the opening line:

            I think of blue silk over a wrecked chancel
            and have to go back.

In my reading: ‘think’, ‘silk’ and ‘wrecked’ catch like sonic eyelets at the outset and, subsumed in the gentle ‘c’s of ‘chancel’, the effect is like a burst of music or a musician’s imagined hand stretching forwards over an instrument eventually confronted by the tidal need to return: ‘go back’. The lexical and musical evocation of (in this case) an eddying stretch of empty silk and materials in general is characteristic of Selerie’s work: cloth allows for and bounds forms, human and otherwise, and the beauties and this interplay of container and contained embodies a sensuous and billowing music. He follows with:

            A whelked curve breaks
            into a net of foam.

The Rococo image: the shell’s likeness of ‘whelked curve’ where water or the chancel architecture or both take on, metamorphically, the ribbed form which is dissipated in imagined foam is a fascinating transformation. The word Rococo itself was of course first derived from ‘Rocaille’, a decoration involving seashells and pebbles. Then we pass to the piercing:  

            What is allowed where words come
            in fragments

‘allowed’ that is in terms of emotion, evaluative statements and forms; what will then the reflexive medium of the sonnet with all its historical tensions allow and prove patient of? It is beautifully sensitive phrasing and scoring of questions, meanings and sounds.

The shaping and re-arranging of sonnet structures derive at base from the same impulses as the quest by humans to shape their environments and the need to display their shaping in the form of visual constructions. This is one of the reasons that street-plans and house-plans and territories viewed from different directions and in different dimensions recur in these poems. It is also a preoccupation of Modernist poetics to explore the grounds of our urban civilizations. The ancient Roman ‘groma’ surveying tool for measuring the grids of settlements, civitates and urbes dominates a section of David Jones’ Anathemata. El Greco’s View and Plan of Toledo is equally important for Selerie. His ‘View and Plan’ from Section III of Twisted Circle questions the whole notion of ways in which maps offer abstractions of country and cityscapes. We are offered an idealised tableau where physical and architectural features are shaped by political and religious power and by myths of supremacy. Additionally, the poet is just as interested in exploring that which the map-makers leave out as that which they include in order to distort the scene artfully and artistically:

            It’s not down in any map, true places never are,
            the teller could say, as one book
            sits on another with matter ready to ignite.
            The river girdles a green hill, or several
            that hold crowded behind a wall
            a fortress, monastery, houses. Language converts
            in steep, windy lanes but the patron healer’s base
            is thrust forward, a glistening model
            on a cloud, while an earthen jug pours profuse
            under swirling angels and a she that gives

Selerie references ‘the contradictions inherent in modes of representation’ here and draws attention to the way the city portrait is juxtaposed with a pictured map:

 El Greco’s View and Plan of Toledo in which a pictorial image of the city is juxtaposed with a map held by a figure in the foreground. There are allegorical or symbolic elements: the Tagus river god to the lower left, the Hospital de Tavera on a cloud, and the Virgin with angels and St Ildefonso’s chasuble floating in the sky. This sweeping panorama represents an interpretive approach. I considered this in relation to Gregory Bateson’s observations on the essential impossibility of knowing what a given territory is:

We say the map is different from the territory. But what is the territory? Operationally, somebody went out with a retina or a measuring stick and made representations which were then put upon paper. What is on the paper map is a representation of what was in the retinal representation of the man who made the map; and as you push the question back, what you find is an infinite regress, an infinite series of maps

The poem also anticipates the shifting layers of ‘Folio Version’ which is partly inspired by Wojciech Has’ film, The Saragossa Manuscript, one sequence of which has a map tilting to reveal the landscape traversed. There’s an interplay between the floating fantasies and transformations of Has’ film, Potocki’s  book and Selerie’s sonnets. We again see a merging of physical reality and modes of artificial representation—provisionally since each is conditional on habits of perception.

In my reading of this collection I found myself returning often to the Days of ’49 outtakes 1997-1999, their earthy, exact, exacting and darkly humorous views of Metropolitan life. The worlds evoked in these sonnets are those that I identify with English Film Noir, the poet as private eye, (Selerie is drawn to Noir’s mystery and enigma), the London pubs of Dylan Thomas, Julian Maclaren-Ross and Humphrey Jennings—particularly The Wheatsheaf in Fitzrovia. Selerie brings forensic insight and analytical detail to these thronging and sometimes unnerving milieus.  In these contexts the poet becomes our imagined observer on the hoof through a familiar yet strange terrain. It is testament to his skill in using this voice and outlook that he draws the reader in so deeply:

            6pm at the door: then through the Public Bar
            to the Saloon, always to the left end
            for service, rooted in a cluster of regulars
            soaking beer and scotch, never letting it show.

By the time we get to:

            Teddy-bear coat, silver-topped cane,
            Cigarette holder, he builds on an old anecdote

we are rivetted and ready to follow the ‘anecdote’ and anything else that might unfold here. It has taken the poet precisely six lines to hook us with his description of Julian Maclaren-Ross’ arrival. It might seem superfluous to indicate the exact pointing, the assonance and rhythm of ‘rooted in a cluster of regulars’, the pararhyme of ‘Bar’, ‘cluster’, ‘regulars’ and ‘beer’,  the mystery of ‘always to the left end’ and the strongly British social milieu of ‘through the Public Bar’ / to the Saloon’ and the serious wit and suspense of  ‘never letting it show’, but these are the signs of a master-craftsman working unobtrusively. Re-reading the poem, I become aware of how effectively the reader is caught up in this scene even before the ‘Teddy bear coat’ of the (we sense) sartorial and vaguely threatening wearer. The feelings below this masculine charade are just as fascinating and the pay-off is haunting:

            A hardboiled man holds his nerve in a game
            of Spoof, like when the other half bursts in
            to say she’s leaving, next month’s pay gone
            and rooms switched. ‘Really?’ as the heart dies.

The poem which follows: ‘Characters’, is a tour-de-force with the same sharpness of observation and acuity to where a catalogue of the assemblage might take us; the result is both uproarious and unsettling:

            One has an art magazine in hand, always due
            in a few weeks –he’s signed up
            the poet laureate and the dean of St Paul’s.
            Another is the King of Abyssinia, reclining
            in a white robe with his lady friend, a typist
            in the Ministry of Food

The sheer entertainment of such lines is obvious, perhaps redolent of the prominent theatrical background of some the author’s forbears.

                                 The yellow waistcoat fellow
            has a monk’s belly, can be tapped for a loan
            The doctor who performs abortions also plays guitar.
            Another is producing a film – he’s got several
            of the assembled under contract but they’ve
            never seen a clapper board. Fixed as the Pole Star
            a writer does his editing at the bar – anything
            to escape the average in strokes of what is near.

That shift from crowded bar and the related circles of intrigue to: ‘Fixed as the Pole Star’ comes with considerable aural shock. It is very different from the kind of sudden switch to focus on the writer we get, for example, in Basil Bunting’s Briggflatts, ‘Secret, solitary, a spy’ or George Mackay Brown’s ‘The Poet’ where the bard turns away from the jostling fair, his ‘cold stare’ returning ‘to its true task, the interrogation of silence’. One senses a kindred spirit between Maclaren-Ross’ goals in writing:

            to escape the average in strokes of what is near.

and Selerie’s own focus on that which is revealing, richly-suggestive and ‘near’.

Selerie’s texts also bear traces of slippage, adaptation and transformation.
As stated in ‘Debordering’, the text often:

            isn’t ordered, the lines laid out in a furrow

this poem based on Derrida’s term ‘débordement’, with its suggestion of ‘an overrun’ (Vents et poussières), but also perhaps Guy Debord’s Lettrist layering and fraying:

                                  It is frayed and foxed
            like lost remembrance

the borders, margins and spaces bearing dynamic agency, a veiled discourse in parallel to the text. Some poems possess a binary line structure, as in: ’Skin Fathom’, ‘Flete’, ‘Rig’, ‘Quake’, ‘Glossolalia’, ‘Devil’s Quoits’ and ‘Ludlow Castle’, imitating Anglo-Saxon practice. In ‘Flete’ for example, the medial spaces push our reading minds through weather and changing landscapes:

            but the years make fog    brook turns to ditch
            turns to drain that chokes    even as scoured story

There is no room here to explore the impressive range of Selerie’s translations featured in the collection: ‘after Goethe’, or versions of Pierre Reverdy, Montale, Pessoa or Baudelaire or the serio-comic extravaganza: ‘Jackson Mac Low turns Edward Estlin Cummings’, These are evocative, moving and at times very humorous renditions. The range of wit, conceptual tilt and verbal slippage is remarkable.

The range of visual and cinematic sources covered in the sonnets is another source of enjoyment of this book. In browsing such a multifarious and multi-facetted volume, one encounters the painter of multi-dimensional cityscapes: Helena Vieira da Silva and one can instantly the relevance of da Vieira’s teeming perspectives with Selerie’s sense of inhabited spatial vectors.  Elsewhere, we encounter another, more foreboding, locale in the opening of ‘Limbo Line’:

            A platform deserted, with wooden benches
            and curved white tiles. ‘Minadoors’, the only phrase
            a survivor has, wanting to connect.

As we read, we become aware that we’re sharing one of the first scenes of Gary Sherman’s film Death Line (1972), a very familiar and effective horror film, used both as visual after-image and ironic commentary on underground travel.

In ‘Night-stepper’, the poem which closes the present volume, we find the self-referential ‘maker’ who ponders that ‘he’s rocked / the level line’ and has steeped

                                             a beat
            to let all the voices
            ring their stuff, fa-la, la-la
            in bladderwrack and surf

As is so often in this gathering of sonnets, we hear different ages chiming; the language binds together contemporary musician’s street-wise demotic with sounds from the echo-chambers of English poetry.  Timeless and redolent of time past and simultaneously sounding out space at this very instant, this beat rises over ‘a desk apart’, the site of writing. ‘Night-stepper’ reminds me on one level of Ariel’s singing in The Tempest, the spirit’s foray from marine imagery into catches of song, pure sounds and word-play. In his Collected Sonnets Selerie has indeed rocked the multivalent levels of language, letting a vast array of polyphonic voices ‘ring their stuff.’ This volume is a timely, exciting and important collection, with great range for exploration of its sonic and phonic pleasures. It is a book to return to again and again.

 

Gavin Selerie and Andrew Duncan, ‘Into the Labyrinth’, Argotist ebooks (2019), https:www.argotistonline.co.uk?INTO%20THE%2020LABYRINTH.pdf, accessed 4 November, 2020.

Gavin Selerie, ‘Collected Sonnets – Some notes & reflections’ expanded from a talk given at University of Kent, January 2020.


 

[David Annwn is an Anglo-Welsh critic of book, film and magic lantern materiality and an innovative poet whose work appears in The Edge of Necessary anthology. Gothic Effigy, A Guide to Dark Visibilities (MUP, 2018) and Re-envisaging the First Age of Cinematic Horror (UWP, 2019) are among his recent critical books and his poetry includes Red Bank, Palimpsest (with calligraphy by Thomas Ingmire), and Resonance Field just out from Aquifer. The San Francisco film-maker Howard Munson has created seven films in collaboration with Annwn’s poetry, including Jeu de Marseilles (2019) and Microcosmos Stir (2020).]

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