Chaos Baby: On Velvet Hounds

Design by Karela Palazio

I have always felt sorry for the Iliad’s unsparing treatment of Paris. Saddled with the burden of divine judgment; scorned and overshadowed by Hector; hated among the ranks of Trojans, Greeks, and readers all; I’ve nursed a soft spot for the beautiful coward. But the centuries have not provided him a more forgiving audience (myself excluded). In the first poem of Aimee Seu’s March 2022 poetry collection Velvet Hounds, “Family Portrait with Cadillac Engulfed in Flames,” the prince’s timeless derision reappears, modernized: “What a pussy, my brothers say of pampered / Paris / in a Hollywood remake of the mythic history.” Seu sympathizes, taking her own contentious place in the family portrait:

We watch

him fall stupidly through a gnashing


as brave men are shredded around him. 

Like me passing through my youth somehow

unscathed. And now I come to you, reader, 

coward soldier, youngest sibling, baby

of the royal chaos, last to rush from the trench

Fanning out this series of titles, Seu establishes herself as the tortured, misunderstood inheritor of an epic drama. However, these black marks—coward, youngest, baby of chaos — gleam gold in the light of her unlikely survival. She exits the carnage of her upbringing “hung with medals, here to tell the story.” Though forced into the fray unseasoned and fearful, she emerges formidable and armed with intent. Unlike Paris, Seu answers her call to arms without hesitation, taking up the mantle of poet “because who will if I don’t.” Finality, rather than entreaty, punctuates the ending of this first poem. “Who” rests tauntingly within a locked enclosure—interrogative paradoxically nested in declarative. Seu does not solicit outside responses or contributors: “who” is a decoy and inaccessibility is its agent. She only feigns asking “who will if I don’t,” so that “.” may answer: nobody. 

In the tradition of Paris, Seu strikes her targets from afar. Like the archer with his bow upon Troy’s walls, the poet looses projectiles against those who besiege her: mother, addiction, desperation, disorder, late father. Her arrows sing across mortal, temporal, even generational expanses, and like the original “baby of the royal chaos,” Seu’s aim is true. She strikes with chilling accuracy at moments so far off and fleeting that we wonder how she spots them at all—in “Portrait of Boy Preserved in Chlorine,” she peers down from her lofty post of adulthood to espy a memory of her lover, at

fourteen, underwater on the day we met

floating in a turquoise near-silent pause,

ribcage raked with shadow, arms floating

aloft like wingspan

Her lines are not necessarily meant to puncture—rather, they dart their subjects to the ground, allowing Seu to examine them in granular detail and vivid color. They not only pin down remote hurts, but also gently secure past loves: a childhood best friend, a well-worn ribbon of memory. 

In “Love Letter to Myself at Sixteen,” Seu’s missile is a missive that interfaces past and present. Her current and adolescent selves meet, eye to eye, on the level plane of the page; the woman confides in the girl: “I still root for you, still worry / at your chances.” Addressing the past, Seu turns her back to the future at which her adolescent self gazes, so all the poet can offer is uncertain support. 

“Bulimic Soul Says to Bulimic Body” likewise puts Seu’s constituent parts in conversation; however, in this case hierarchy overrides the dialogue. Soul commands:

Hail the first course of milk

or broth or mashed up thing, to ease

the resurrection. Hail the battered 

poultry, Hail the twisted gummy

sweet, the frosting, the manna

of potato chip, Hail the awful sins

of bread and rice, O Hail

reversal: last thing consumed

Body is not allowed a reply, at least in words. It responds only in obedient genuflection. Seu, familiar with the church through her mother’s Christian fundamentalism and her late father’s role as a pastor, indicates the confusion of bulimia through religious imagery: in Catholicism, Hail Marys are said both in prayer and in penance. Worship and punishment overlap. “Hail” also proves Seu a savvy wordsmith with its homophonic double significance—hale, meaning to draw out forcibly, is apt. Spoken, Body cannot discern whether Soul bids her to praise food or expel it.

Hail’s conspicuous midline Capitalization visualizes the imposition of Soul’s order. Its presence feels both sudden and constant: Hail to kick off a line, Hail to cap another; Hail between poultry and twisted gummy; Hail after the resurrection; Hail reversal “in public bathrooms and janitors’ closets, / in sinks and showers and neighbors’ trash / bins,” as Seu later details in “Telling Your Best Friend.” Her use of staccato interjections recurs in “Cape May Church Retreat: Thirteen,” in which she embeds slashes within the text’s body. The mark which indicates a poetic line break appears counterintuitively midline, suggesting that the language, like its author, feels compelled to occupy as little space as possible. The poem recounts how Seu’s and a friend’s mothers pitted them against each other in an endurance race of hunger. The visibly truncated verse commiserates with the thirteen-year-olds—it too is not at liberty to expand to its rightful size.

Seu’s mother, a recurring subject, is apparently in notable company as her progenitor. According to Philip Metres, judge of the 2020 Akron Poetry Prize of which Velvet Hounds took first place, Seu is a “descendent of Sappho, Sexton, and Plath.” The collection teems with the queerness, darkness, and seduction of this trio. A reader delights in her nods to Sappho: as the great lyricist’s lover was “the sweet apple which reddens upon the topmost bough,” Seu’s is a ruby round fruit in “Ode to Pomegranates:”

Garnet jackpot packed tight

in this diction of foam.

Magenta honeycomb

of sluice & syrup.

I hold you up to the sun

& you glow. You are an edible jewel.

Through a less linear link than to Sappho, Sexton, and Plath, I find that Seu also has ties to Baudelaire. Her musings on beauty amidst the disillusionment of modern life, miscreancy, and lesbian sex (although hers are free of Baudelaire’s inherent voyeurism) harken back to his early work. The Frenchman wrote of wine, the American writes of benzos. Both poets flaunt a magnetic deviancy and draw inspiration from vice. Baudelaire wrote to his publisher that “All literature derives from sin—I mean this quite seriously.” Seu echoes, “[t]he knowledge of good bores me / but oh, the sugary knowledge of evil.” However, unlike Baudelaire’s original readers, we may savor Seu’s sugary knowledge in full. In 1857, a French court excised six poems from Les Fleurs du Mal for their explicitness. The court ruled that the poems, including “Lesbos” and “Femmes damnés,” would “necessarily lead to the excitement of the senses by a crude realism offensive to public decency.” Luckily, standards have evolved and Seu excites the senses unprosecuted; the public is free to appreciate her unabridged “crude realism” in poems such as “Clitoral” and “G-Spot.” Les Fleurs du Mal’s original title, Les Lesbiennes, came from those stricken sections on queer sexuality, and thus had to be altered. Seu’s title, however, has the freedom to center eroticism and in fact comes from “G-Spot,” in which the poet likens orgasm to “[v]elvet hounds unreined.” We may thus read the collection as an act of emancipation—Seu’s pack of loosed beasts, her dormant swell of feeling coaxed out word by meticulous word. Her poems are pains, frustrations, and pleasures released: let them overtake you.

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