Jesse Seldess’s work asks for time. It doesn’t demand time, it just gently requests it. A space to sit with it, a time to read it aloud, to perform it yourself in your own voice and body.
In his two books—Who Opens and Left Having (both from Kenning Editions)—Seldess writes short echoing, transmogrifying lines, separated often by large spaces on the page. The poetry is formed out of these minimal bits and their steady repetition: lines that subtly alter as they repeat in various forms over the course of the pages.
If I let the ending continue
If I left impending continue
If I left the end to you
We can meet in this place
Previous to seeing his books, I’d heard Seldess reading his poetry in a recording on Pennsound. I was blown away by the slowness, the paused rhythm, the continual stops. It felt daring to stand up and read in this glacial way, and yet his voice was so unassuming about his slowness. At the end of one reading, he says, “Thanks for your patience.” It’s an endearing experimentalism, an quietly apologetic foray into a different kind of poem. I like the playful timidity of his work, his awareness of the space it takes up in the world. An antithesis of (and antidote to) avant-garde bravado.
In all of Seldess’s work is an attention to the spaces between: “Incompletely binding // Little things / With.” This hanging preposition signals the silence that often serves as a super-structure for his work. In his readings, Seldess carefully matches the length of his silences to the size of the spaces between lines and stanzas on the page.
This very concrete relationship between page and performance appears to be one of Seldess’s central concerns: from 2000 until 2012, Seldess published antennae, a journal of experimental writing and language-based music and performance scores. (Issues 1-7 are available as free pdf downloads. Issues 9-12 are available for purchase. Issue 8 seems to be in limbo.) When work is so intensely aural, the page begins to function as a score for performance.
In one of his readings on Pennsound, Seldess says of his first book, Who Opens: “all the pieces in the mansucript in some way are concerned with the issues and dynamics of formation, sort of an awe, wonder, and appreciation of it, and at the same time a fear and skepticism of it, ranging through that spectrum.” I felt this powerfully in both of the books: an attention to how words build or fail to build, to how the mind is able or unable to form something out of words.
Some of the poems in Seldess’s first book emerged out of his work in social services with the elderly, specifically with those affected by dementia and Alzheimers. This awareness of the mind and its failures is powerfully present: all the time thinking about contact: “To be close // Near that mouth / From here instance.”
His work induces aphasia, as in “loss of power to understand written or spoken language, as a result of disorder of the cerebral speech centres” (OED). Seldess’s poetry provokes this failure to understand, this disordered language state. And yet, the rhythm is calming. Quiet. The words dripping off into (dangling prepositions). The words arise and emerge, without often linking up syntactically. And even a careful listener soon forgets where she’s been. It’s a poetry of the present moment. Meditative.
In Seldess’s second book, Left Having, the poet is writing out of four years spent living in Karlsruhe, Germany: a small city in the southwestern part of the country. In a reading, Seldess mentions that his mother’s father and other ancestors lived close to Karlsruhe prior to fleeing from Nazism in 1937. Seldess’s return to this familial territory occasions an investigation into a history freighted with meanings. What results is a series of poems that work against a clear division of past and present, often melding them and making it difficult to distinguish one from the other. His narrative isn’t about what happened; rather, he is living inside the memory as it emerges in the smallest of interactions and experiences.
“Regardless the echo that it takes
No matter being featured the distance
No matter of distance to the next creature
No matter of insistence”
This poetry develops its poetics within the ebb and flow of the poem, signaling certain points of return and points to be repeated. Echo is a constant: a line intoned returns, but twisted or changed by the space crossed on the page or in a room. And yet, as these lines say, it is not a matter of insistence, but rather, what I see as, an unstable accretion. An ever-present awareness that accretion occurs slowly and can be washed away quickly, in fact is constantly being swept away.
And would not be grouped further
Regardless of the research that had been done”
These lines return us to the history of Jewish flight during the Nazi era and to the subsequent decades of research and documentation into the Holocaust. The poem seems to resist plural groupings, it returns to the idea of one foot across time, that simple physicality of feet: “And names were called in the cold air.” We visit this moment when names were called, and suddenly the calling of names (which we can imagine as a Nazi soldier reading the names of those to be sent East to their deaths) becomes a metonym for poetry itself, as a perpetual calling out of names and words:
“Which words are strung together
When words are strung together
Stringing the words together to keep warm.”
These words strung together in poetry become a way of creating a more hospitable space both in the past and the present simultaneously. Even before I heard the Pennsound recording, I was already captivated by the poems, but reading them again in the light of history adds additional layers: “The other gathered as by some order / The others scattered as by some order.”
In these poems, I find a poetics of accretion: “And not stopping but the echo answering.” These lines and words grow one after another, gradually chaining themselves together within the poem. These bits adhere: drawn or attracted and altering subtly in the process as they settle. The accretion produces a different sense of dimensionality within the poem. The multiple iterations gradually build, calling attention to the process of writing, thinking and remembering, to the “I” that does the work, an often unreliable, mistaking “I.”
The mishearings or possibilities for mishearings are many: “confined” ends up sounding like “can find.” “Air” sounds like “error” in these lines: “Sometimes air didn’t get through very well / Sometimes an error didn’t get through.” “Liable” elides into “reliable” putting pressure on each syllable of the word. As Seldess writes:
Wishes belonging to be misspelled
Which is unequivocally misspelled
Left Having appropriately closes with a long poem called “End.” The poem begins with a list of 27 words and then a series of instructions for how to read their permutations on subsequent pages. Another poem ends up being a score for performance and an invitation to the reader to be active (not passive) and to perform the work herself. There is a beautiful video of this, performed by Seldess, in which he follows his own instructions:
I’m left thinking about how things end, about the lack of endings. Thinking about thinking itself, how we hear the words that Seldess does not read in the video, but simply taps. His work produces a pleasant, aphasic state: a loss of power to understand language that still feels good because of the careful, slow, calming rhythm. The poet’s interest in dementia, the mind and its failings dovetails with his historical probings: how to make a language that can live in the interstices of a horrific past and an always vanishing present.
Though Seldess has a habit of excusing himself in his public events—telling the audience how much longer the reading will last, being appreciative of their patience—the public always responds the same way: asking for more, encouraging him to continue, to read longer. It’s as if we could listen to these echoing, vanishing lines all night.
John Pluecker is a writer, translator and co-founder of Antena. His texts have appeared in journals in the U.S. and Mexico, including The Volta, Mandorla, Aufgabe, eleven eleven, Third Text and Animal Shelter. His most recent translation from the Spanish is Tijuana Dreaming: Life and Art at the Global Border (Duke University Press, 2012). Check out his new chapbook Killing Current (Mouthfeel Press, 2012).