In Anne Lesley Selcer’s Sun Cycle, Selcer calls us to nouns, wraps them next to statements, uses them as verbs “her bible pinks heavy,” pastes them into litanies, makes us remember that words are sounds, are songs, are soft and subtle signifiers of other objects. Her use of nouns is revolutionary because a noun is the part of language that is the most dead. It does not have the speed of verbs; nouns are big, dead weights. In part four of the poem, “Sun Cycle”, Selcer compiles a series of nouns for the 2014 University of California murderer-terrorist, Elliot Rodger, “body is/sun is/vehicle is/frenzy.” Selcer takes the nouns from French writer, George Bataille’s surrealist essay, “L’anus Solaire” and interrupts the list of “noun is” with the phrase “the only rain was falling stones.” This line disrupts the safe, static ordinariness of nouns with, what I imagine as, an image of bullets falling from the sky. Her poems rock us to sleep only to startle us awake, asking us to rethink domestic terrorism as a surreal atrocity. A noun that shouldn’t get a verb. A frenzy that shouldn’t be allowed to be.
In Sun Cycle, Selcer fascinated us with notions of visibility. She begins with the feminist French author, Monique Wittig words, “I too am unseen by you.” The first section of the book is subtitled “Appearing.” Selcer shines the gaze on her reader: “you awaken to ornate, administrative violence, a hundred boy eyed arpeggios.” Introducing us to first the male gaze, but later to a gaze more powerful than men. In the poem “An unaccountable beauty” women are “caryatids . . . chaste girls encased in silver . . . caratydis with broken necks” and then finally “that receptacle of shameful secrets sealed in her own beauty.” Again, she rocks us to sleep with the beauty of her language and then startles us; have women become not just statues, but statues that carry the weight of buildings? Is the most important part of women still their beauty? In the poem, “Go on,” she shows us an exotic dancer “or some kind of exhibitionist.” Someone who seeks being seen. At first, we think of the male gaze, but then it changes to the gaze of computer and movie screens: “What if I were to click on her/how far down does death go, I wonder / into being the opposite of mother?” Women turn from innate statues into images, appearing before us that we can click. Selcer asks, have women just become clickable objects? Later, she disrupts the static noun, “caryatids” and gives it the perverted affection that is clickable attention, “I find you looking at Tumblr porn / I still have a link to your likes.” Here, we are both the clicker and the clicked. We are part of the gaze. It is not just the heterosexual male attention that is the male gaze, but all technology-using humans. And concurrent with this gaze, is another gaze, the ever crushing gaze of the sun, the ultimate and most powerful source of energy, “every object emerges by way of its own negation in the light.” This book invites us to look closely at constructions of power.
In “The Picture of Sasha Gray,” Selcer takes nearly all the lines of the poem from the myspace page of pornographic actor, Sasha Gray. She gives voice to the clickable woman, unbreaks the necks of the caryatids and tells us a few pages later, “beauty is a way to appear.” Questions of visibility are answered. Beauty becomes the form which allows us to be seen. It is the attractor of the gaze, the “link to your likes.”
Selcer’s second section, entitled, “Treatise on Form,” starts with, no longer nouns, but statements, “Everything within the formal field becomes form. Form feels / tactile to the formless, which is unseen, without name, / unaccounted for numerically. This is what is meant by economy, / the market is everything.”
Form is what is visible. The formless is unseen. Again, we see Selcer exploring visibility; beauty no longer gives visibility, rather, markets. Money is intricately woven with form. And, so I wonder, with art making? Is it a kind of prostitution to associate money with art? It changes artist into commodifer. In our digital age, where words and story are referred to as “content” and writers have become “content makers,” it feels somewhat sickening to associate art and the market so closely. And, yet, Selcer connects money to beauty to visibility. Money is the light that shines on us. If someone pays for your work, it is seen. Selcer seems to be pointing out the problems with this.
Later in this same section of the book, she lists names of people and their art degree. The names become historical. The same feeling one gets from looking at an old photograph of a group of people. On a website, Selcer mentions that she is intrigued by a photograph of a group of Jewish people during the Holocaust who are being forced to have their photo taken. In the photo, some are smiling. As a viewer, we know their fate. We know the genocide that is happening and yet we can’t stop them from becoming the object of our gaze. The list of people with their art degrees creates a similar feeling. Here, I become both the modern person viewing the list of people, but also the name on the list. And maybe that is somehow a point of this book, to show that we are always navigating somewhere between viewer and viewed. We are both the gaze, unseen behind the screen, and the viewed, the person in the photograph.
Finally, when I read poetry, I like to understand what definition of a poem the poet uses. It, of course, can change over the course of a book. But, for Selcer, I feel her poems are operating under two definitions. One, a poem is “a camera in which I compose myself,” and two, “a list strung on a fishing line, of irregularly cut shapes.” For Selcer, I believe that the poem becomes the form of communication most disconnected with markets and power, most able to make silent women speak, and a form that can best capture the distance between all the things that are seen and unseen in our myriad of invisible universes. It is the simplest expression of the complexities of our humanness.
Sun Cycle, by Anne Lesley Selcer. Cleveland, Ohio: CSU Poetry Center, September 2019. 90 pages. $16.00, paper.
Alexis David is a poet and fiction writer who holds a BA from Hobart and William Smith Colleges, an MA in education from Canisius College, and an MFA in fiction from New England College. She has a chapbook called Animals I Have Loved, published by Dancing Girl Press in 2019. She has also published in My Next Heart: New Buffalo Poetry (BlazeVOX 2017), Green Mountains Review, Qween City, Ghost City Review, Adelaide Literary Magazine, and Thimble Magazine.