Boy Returning Water to the Sea: Koans for Kelly Fearing
by Andrea Selch
Cockeyed Press, 30 pp., $15.95
With the partnership of Andrea Selch and William Kelly Fearing in Selch’s Boy Returning Water to the Sea: Koans for Kelly Fearing, the form of the ekphrastic draws back to the minimal and concentrated image. As koans, these sparse poems flex with subtle movements, the quiet nods to consciousness and the connection seen between what we view as the observer, and what we gleam in its wake. It’s interesting to note in this collection that the mediums of these works vary from conte conte on cameo paper to oil on canvas to found parts like metallics and opals. This variety, coupled with the terse language of Selch, gives these poems an organic tug of war that heightens their relationship. The poem and the painting coincide, but with their own borders, their shapes still distinct.
In recent years the span of conceptual and arc-driven collections has grown, and with it, like any movement or tradition, there is the fulfilled and unfulfilled. Selch’s work in this gathering grasps that fullness in the true koan moments, ones in which the image is almost left behind for a new vista as in the opening poem, “Man Doing Isolation, Horseback”:
The cameo paper is filled
with the noise of a thousand birds.
Or in “Poet and Bird Before an Open Cave”:
Even though it’s a fantasy,
they don’t speak
the same language…
But through the cave
another sky is visible.
Where Boy Returning Water to the Sea missteps is in its loyalty to representation. There are poems dotted through the collection that remark and observe, but hinge on that sense of “seeing,” without moving past. “Little Pink-Faced Owl with Butterflies” is one such poem. While its thoughts give voice to the luster and richness of the artist’s work, they don’t step outside of it, they stop before risking “the other” sight.
Most of these poems move directly in a short, lyric shape, but open a second door with their closing lines. The medium of the artist itself is brought into the language, becoming a part of the experience, another vessel to register with “the noise of a thousand birds” in it. There is a strength that is reminiscent of the ease of the haiku in its bareness, but with the arc of Fearing’s compositions, that ease has to contort and manage itself, giving more muscle to these small poems. Counter to most of the collection, “Holy Shell Waiting For the Return of the Soul (Homage to Hugo van der Goes), Shell Collage No. 7” is the longest poem, one that takes on the voice of an almost liturgical bent with its use of anaphora and lamentation, especially for the aging artist van der Goes,
for the paintbrush he could no longer clutch
for the painters whose work carries forth their predecessors
like aging fathers
It is in this circle of language and sentiment that Selch hits her stride as the poem, painting and the artists involved all become entwined in their own pursuits and their own mortality.
Andrea Selch chose a strong partner in William Kelly Fearing’s work. Their respective tones and palettes help to give Boy Returning Water to Sea: Koans for Kelly Fearing a sense of texture and classicism not often scene in today’s poetry, and that is something to preserve, not as a nod to the past, but as the ever-present element it is.