Andrea Selch & George Elliott Clarke's Succory & Gold Indigoes
J. W. Bonner
These two chapbooks are the first offerings from the redesigned Carolina Wren Press. The press has initiated a new chapbook series, pairing the work of a new poet with an established writer. These elegantly handsome poetry collections, designed by Dave Wofford of Horse & Buggy Press, are wonderful objects in themselves, from their letterpress covers to the type and layout. But the contents of George Elliott Clarke's Gold Indigoes and Andrea Selch's Succory are most impressive. Each poet deals in some manner directly or indirectly with states of physical desire, what Clarke writes as the "wine-sodden way of all flesh— / expiring, expiring, but desiring" ("Gato Negro"), and with memory's own pull toward "being" and "wanting" ("Self-Portrait at 31: As Persephone").
Clarke's aesthetic is clear from the acknowledgements in which he quotes Kathy Acker: "Beauty will be CONVULSIVE or will not be at all." Many of these poems feel convulsive in part, aftershocks from the pens of Baudelaire and Rimbaud. In the very opening poem, "Secret History," Clarke evokes Baudelaire. Beauty becomes a "film / noir waist, belle époque glory." Indeed, "Art neutralizes our pain / 'til only strong Beauty's left. / The weak flesh withers, the maker / putrifies [sic], then pales to diamonds."
The poems are self-referential; the activity of writing the poem is connected to drinking, sex, desire. Excess and sharpness exist within lines of each other: "My welling heart, / Brimming at heaven like a word-swamped page, / Brooking a delirium that banks clouds / (Their liquid palimpsests), so that the soul / Steeps under unadulterate beauty." The image of the "word-swamped page" and the parenthetical aside are concrete. The image of the heart and soul—conventional as they might be—work more successfully as a result of the specificity of Clarke's language. The fusion of poetry and desire is best evidenced in "April 1, 1996": "Unused to beauty, I / watch the blush of stars, // run my brain along / a line's razor edge, / Basho being sharpest— // or her arrogant thinness."
Some of Clarke's strongest poems are homages of a sort: Miles Davis, Nietzsche. The poem "Naima" has a strong blues voice as sung by Rimbaud or Baudelaire. But these are largely poems of obsession: for a woman and women, for 19th century poets, for sensual pleasures.
In some way, Selch's Succory is both let down and relief. Whereas Clarke's poems are intensely lyrical, Selch's work is often more akin to prose. The first section of poems, six total, are the most prosaic. Yet, the two best poems in this initial section, "Of My Mother, In Middle Age" and "Song for Late Spring," open up: both spacing of the lines and interpretative range. The first of the two, "My Mother," depicts a mother shutting herself down from sensual experiences; she has "pleasures . . . [that] are few / and highly perishable." One remaining pleasure is honeydew melon. As the daughter cuts the melon, she notices "how the toothy mass of seeds / looks like my insides—luscious, / easily thrown out." The mother doesn't "like sex," and the daughter's own sexual organs then appear readily discarded, even "at only thirty."
The second section of the book may be the stronger of the two. The poems, as with Clarke's work, grow self-referential in nature: "I'm an old pet, well-versed in everything but love"; a poem is composed while stuck in a bathroom; undone with longing for a lover, a pining lover claims to have "lost not only sense but syntax." And yet Selch moves outward in her work as well. The next to last poem, and the collection's longest, "The Field-Biologist's Girlfriend," ranges from love and loss to global issues. The poem's six parts cover the progress of several relationships over the course of a bit more than a year: a woman who loves a married field biologist on location in Sumatra, the boyfriend of the woman who walks her dog back home in the States, the end of the two relationships, and the woman's embracing (perhaps) a "life in forest conservation." Then in the final poem of the sequence, "Global Responsibility," the four voiced lines open up a range of additional meanings: "You know, Echo had it better than I did— / when it came to saying I love you, / at least there was a boundless forest / for the words to warble through." Finally, after these words, the poem ends with three addresses: Wildlife Conservation Society, The Nature Conservancy, Wildlife Preservation Trust International. This ending recasts much of the previous sections; amidst relationships forming and dissolving and the calls of the animals are woven references to the building of houses and the cutting of forest. Selch's poem works the global into the personal and suggests there is no more mythic, poetic past with "a boundless forest / for the words to warble through."
Poems like Selch's "The Field-Biologist's Girlfriend" suggest paths for fruitful new directions. The expansiveness of this poem hints at possible new growths and directions, an almost boundless abundance. In contrast, Clarke's solipsistic poems seem almost formal narrow alleys, possible dead ends in themselves and for others. But for now, both of these collections provide immediate pleasures in look and language.