Problem Pictures

Buy this book from Amazon.comSpencer Selby
Sink ($15)

by W. B. Keckler

Verbo-visual poetry, or whatever designation you choose to use for those works which integrate or conflate text and images, is often given short shrift in American literary criticism. Critics such as Bob Grumman, Johanna Drucker and Richard Kostelanetz have tried their best to rectify this situation, but there is still a sense of stonewalling, if not an outright ghettoization of the art form. Spencer Selby—one of the most accomplished and visible practitioners of verbo-visual art, who has also published many celebrated books of textual poetry—once authored a book on film noir, and I'd wager this fact occurs in most reviews of his verbo-visual works, since the noir aesthetic seems to appear passim in these books of black-and-white palimpsests of text and image. Noir is by no means the predominant atmosphere in Problem Pictures, however, which consists of more than 100 pages of alarming configurations of ink (not all of which are truly verbo-visual productions, as some pages consist of images sans text). The predominant atmosphere is one of politically-adrenalized wariness; the collages of Rodchenko come to mind, or some of the verbo-visual works of other Russian Futurists, like Mayakovsky.

Attempts to rationalize the meaning of these productions is probably defeatist, since Selby's art wants to destabilize the complacency of meaning, our poorly bartered peace with meaning. He wants to show us the ground of meaning, which isn't really pretty. These poems, and I do consider them poems, sucker-punch the reader, especially when they directly engage the violent American zeitgeist by re-presenting past acts of inhumanity and vile repression. Stark images of car crashes, people drowning, protesters being herded by police, are placed under jingoistic and exhortatory phrases (often handwritten) such as a few bars of a joyous hymn, and the contrast often achieves a grim, literally black humor. Science and scientific hubris are often targets; many images look like they come from Cold War-period science textbooks that were actually thinly veiled propaganda. There seems no doubt that we are now living Under Empire, and Selby backtracks to show us where this all began.

Texts are rarely given in complete form, since fragmentation is the prerogative of power and the motif of our age. We see on Selby's page what a condemned man might have time to read in the moments when a sentence is handed him on paper just as he's being led out to stand against the wall. Reading down his pages, we find phrases like "watched / doorway / of writing" and "is alive / implies / universe" and "gaping / cover / motive." These are words of different sizes floating in space over images so the use of virgules is a modified convention here. There are a few images excerpted from Un Chien Andalou, usually different stages in the razorblade slicing the eye. (One senses Selby is summing up the 20th century by selecting one image to represent it; if this is indeed the case, I could hardly think of one more apt.) This book really has to be held in your hands to be fully appreciated. You have to be able to read it almost as a flip book, to get that sense of testimony that the works build through conscientious, disquieting accretion. One is fairly certain Oppen and Reznikoff would recognize their legacy in the works of this unflinching artist. This is an age of problem pictures. Selby is one of the few who refuses to look away.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2003/2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003/2004