Poems 1959–2009, by Frederick Seidel.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $40.00.
Frederick Seidel has always been interested in taboos. Only no-no’s need apply. Everything in him is sex, politics, religion, race, and class. A gentle giant of a black doorman remembered from childhood—
He wore a visored cap
With a high Gestapo peak
On his impenetrably black marble.
Waits out there in the sun to open the car door.
My noble Negro statue’s name was Heinz,
My calmly grand George Washington.
—is to him a full house by any other name.
From the beginning, Seidel was always a bogeyman, a Bürgerschreck, an épateur—a carnivore if not a cannibal in the blandly vegan compound of contemporary poetry. He is a purveyor of picong, a Trinidadian term, “from the French piquant, meaning sharp or cutting, where the boundary between good and bad taste is deliberately blurred, and the listener is sent reeling.” (This, as good a description of Seidel as inadvertence or serendipity can come up with, is from The World Is What It Is, Patrick French’s outstanding new biography of V.S. Naipaul, and what a lot the authors of Ooga-Booga and A Bend in the River have in common: both of them Insider Outsiders, traveling compulsively on all five continents; sharing an unspeakably deep attraction to a sort of eighteenth-century squirearchy that may or may not be England; a fascination with Africa, with Joseph Conrad, with Islam; both are students of the remorseless spread of global capital and culture, the Gulf Stream of development and the countervailing El Niño of terror; both are equally at ease in fiction and non-fiction, and in a blurring of both; and last and far from least, both exhibit, and are proud of, an insouciant erotomania. Surely Seidel, never a professional poet, never a reviewer, reciter, promoter, or teacher of poetry, could put his name to Naipaul’s boast: “I have never had to work for hire; I made a vow at an early age never to work, never to become involved with people in that way. That has given me a freedom from people, from entanglements, from rivalries, from competition. I have no enemies, no rivals, no masters; I fear no one.” Both are barbed, solitary, aloof, alarming figures, becoming, if anything, less mellow with age, and more like their intrinsic fossil selves, jagged and serviceable, “sharp / And meek,” Seidel says somewhere—he does love his noses—“like the eyesight of the deaf.” Thomas Mann’s term Greisen-Avantgardismus—meaning something like “the experimental progressivism occasionally found in the very old”—suggests itself. We as readers are uneasily privileged to witness their bold, inflammatory, defamatory gestures—gestures we know there will never be time or second thought or pusillanimousness to take back.) Typically, Seidel’s splendid ketchup, piccalilli, and black Poems—its featly five hundred pages covering fifty years of writing—runs backwards, to that beginning, to the slim volume Final Solutions, which shared its author’s initials and was published to no little controversy in 1963 when Seidel was twenty-eight, and reasonably fresh out of Harvard. Now Final Solutions stands at the end of Poems 1959–2009, as if it was always going to be there.
Nor is it just the running order that’s a distinctive feature of the book. If Poems is a man doing a headstand, then it’s a man in a bowler hat, wearing a chalk-striped four-piece suit, with a kerchief in his top pocket and a natty carnation in his buttonhole, giving you an eyeful of his heliotrope spats. Seidel’s way with poetry has always involved terribly high specifications. Try dates. If one takes the title’s opening 1959 at face value, then Seidel published just one book of poems in his first twenty years of writing; his second, Sunrise, didn’t hit the bookstores till 1980. (And how often does that happen in a poetry world characterized by facility and over-production, by, so to speak, conspicuous production.) Conversely—Greisen-Avantgardismus again, or at the very least a late flowering—in the last ten years Seidel has published six books, three of them in the form of the three volumes of The Cosmos Trilogy, a Dante-based ninety-nine canto job, with the experimental physicists’ metaphor-happy concepts of Big Bang and Deep Space—
A little red
Sea horse is eleven-dimensional
Spacetime. It unicycles
Upright in space
In all directions
—standing in for Paradise, Seidel’s familiar fast world of film shoots and Italian bespoke racebikes and tropical lagoons for Purgatorio, and Manhattan for Inferno—each canto written in a specially devised form of eight blocks of four that frames his poems of the early millennium in rather the same way that Robert Lowell’s unrhymed sonnets, or John Berryman’s eighteen-line dream songs framed their poems of the sixties and seventies. Very nearly two-thirds of this big book is from the last ten years, and it subsumes an opening section of almost fifty pages, Evening Man, that is all new.
Or try resources, style, attack. Probably one wouldn’t think of going arse-y verse-y if one wasn’t very convinced of one’s newest work—but just as much of one’s oldest, which of course becomes, under this dispensation, not a launching-pad but a destination. And accordingly a great deal of Seidel is there from the start: the first poem in his first book is the tour de force of adolescent desires and disloyal affiliations called “Wanting to Live in Harlem” (he liked it so much he reprinted it in his second volume, so we get it twice in Poems; that’s how far the prevailing ethos of the book, and of Seidel, is from prudence, economy, sense, concession: it’s all auteur-ial hauteur, as if Seidel were to say, “I repeat myself, very well, I repeat myself.” Later—earlier—“The Walk There” is done over as “Rilke,” with the simple expedient of the protagonist’s original name of “Levy” being given as “Rilke”—“You can be needed by someone / Or needy, thinks Rilke”—and the poem “The Hour” is the same as “The New Woman,” with one three-word sentence changed, while “Racer” loses four stanzas and a dedication and turns into “Fog”). The newspaper-fueled “The Beast Is in Chains” has the terrific pun—and there’s no shortage of awful ones elsewhere!—“The West has bombed and bombed.” Seidel’s aggressively schizophrenic vocabulary, old and new, Classical and Yankee, is already fully present. On the one hand: syncope, galliambic, vaginismus, vespertine, pablum, anosognosia, dysprody, pseudocyesis; on the other: loved up, Kotex pads, bluebook-blue, down-easter, fairy bars. Proper nouns and historical and news references stud the texts: the drugs Seconal and Thorazine (Seidel likes his pharmacopoeia), the rotten airplane of those days, the Electra (but no more than he likes the idea of going out in a blaze of glory, as witness the deep pun of his fifth book title, Going Fast), the headlines and personalities and atrocities, Kennedy, Gagarin, Oran, Spellman, Hadrian, Mather. There are acrid poem-portraits (“A Widower,” “The Coalman”), monologues articulating the high-octane and emblematic misery of the decade of Eisenhower, Cheever, and Plath (“Thanksgiving Day”), notes from abroad (“Americans in Rome,” “Spring”). All this Seidel had from the beginning.
What he also had was an incredibly highly developed ability to “do” his teacher, Robert Lowell—including styles Lowell in his own evolution had yet to reach. For instance, this off-kilter couplet, a sort of backward sidestep, at the end of Seidel’s “After the Party” (1963) surely would have been perfect for Lowell’s last book Day By Day (1977): “Convinced life is meaningless, / I lack the courage of my conviction.” In Final Solutions and to some extent in Sunrise, published a couple of years after Lowell’s death, Seidel beautifully, consummately, and mystifyingly “channels” Lowell. It’s as though Lowell were a fairy-tale pen that had fallen into Seidel’s hands, or a foreign language or birdsong in which he had attained complete mastery. The mid-length female monologues would make a sort of bootleg Mills of the Kavanaughs (1951)—with “Thanksgiving Day” to set beside Lowell’s “Thanksgiving’s Over.” The first “you” addressed here is Seidel’s pregnant speaker’s unborn child, the second is her husband. The bells and persons and relationships are overlaid in a truly nightmarish way, until in the catastrophic final image the “perfect bird”—utterly Lowell, this, like his skunk with her “column of kittens”—morphs into a different bird (“goosepimpled”), and a cold and nauseating corpse takes its place at the heart of the game of happy families:
I feel you. The oven bell
Dings, and you call—the front door bell;
And in the hall, Papa and your mother
Gabble about our unborn daughter or son.
A perfect bird. Fatty sweat
Gleams on its bursting goosepimpled breast.
After, as I see it, channeling Lowell, Seidel took to channeling—Seidel. During the seventies and eighties, the flavor or aura of his poems switched imperceptibly but completely. Lowell is still there, as a similitude, or a point of reference, but the product itself is now pure Seidel. The difference shows in an element of excess, of taunt, of trash, of (Les Murray’s word) “flaunt,” a sort of F. Scott Fitzgerald that is three parts Roy Lichtenstein:
The most underrated pleasure in the world is the takeoff
Of the Concorde and putting off the crash
Of the world’s most beautiful old supersonic plane,
with no survivors,
In an explosion of champagne.
—From A Gallop to Farewell
It’s the world of American attitude—“Give me Everest or give me death / Give me altitude with an attitude” Seidel says in “Climbing Everest”—from the people that gave you Marilyn and the plastic saxophone and the aluminum baseball bat, and the others that went out and played with them. What’s interesting here isn’t Seidel “finding his voice” as the benign cliché goes, but the fact that the poems seem to originate from somewhere as far away as ever. As I say, the writing keeps its “channeled” feel. One can’t take lines or scenes or sentiments and, by adding them up, arrive at “the poet” in the way one might, with Wordsworth, say, or for that matter, with Lowell. There is a strange distanciation—a coldness, a deliberateness, a caricatural warp and yawp, a cartoonishness—that always interposes itself, a distanciation that has grown stranger and more confident and more pronounced over the years. In an interview he gave to Wyatt Mason in the New York Times in April, Seidel acknowledges something like this:
Looking at these poems [. . .] is sometimes an extremely strange experience, as if . . . who the hell wrote this? What’s odd is that, at the same time, I also remember alternative possibilities and associations at the time of the writing of the things. So it’s interesting, that one should have that going on as well. It’s rather a surprise, almost as if it were a surprise that they managed to get done at all.
Seidel’s poems go against most prevailing trends of poetry. There is nothing photographic about them, they don’t home in on detail, they don’t seek feeling, go in for tolerable introspection, or try to make an unassuming music. One might go so far as to say that the impulse behind their making has nothing lyrical about it. That probably is why reactions to them are so strong, why—apart from a small but persistent minority of supporters and admirers—readers and critics are so often outraged, want their money back, call Seidel all sorts of names. Where’s the pissy beauty, the undemanding truth? Conditioned to the sort of poetry where the poet tries hard to be precisely the “bundle of accident and incoherence that sits down to breakfast,” readers are no longer able to understand what happens when—in the rest of the Yeats tag—a phantasmagoria imposes itself. Lines like these, that come from a catalog of historical and cultural possibilities, from tall tales, from sprezzatura, from an exuberant, nettling Byronism, are read dully, literally, confessionally, and of course come out sounding merely obnoxious:
Combine a far-seeing industrialist.
With an Islamic fundamentalist.
With an Italian premier who doesn’t take bribes.
With a pharmaceuticals CEO who loves to spread disease.
Put them on a 916.
And you get Fred Seidel.
It’s important to understand that the poet is not in the lines. We’re not talking advanced self-scrutiny and truth-telling here. The lines are stuff, material, mortadella, it doesn’t greatly matter. The poet is the meat-slicing machine. In the same Wyatt Mason interview, Seidel says:
It’s very much to do with the sense you develop, in the writing of a poem, that at a certain moment it has its separate being from you to which you have your obligations. You’re you; it’s it; and eventually, it really will separate from you and be absolutely not yours anymore—even if you made it. It is, of course. But it isn’t. It’s a thing out there.
Accordingly, there is a trend in many of the newer poems for Seidel to offer disclaimers. It’s even less fourth wall / bourgeois theater than ever. “I’ll supply the art part,” he generously offers. Alternatively, he claims: “I’m a liar with a lyre,” or, more confoundingly, “I am the crocodile of joy, who never lies”—if a crocodile’s tears are false, does that make its smiles more or less worthy of our belief? Where he says, beautifully, “My name is Fred Seidel, / And I paid for this ad,” does that accept or refuse responsibility, or is it really most like the dubious modern conflation of the two? The last two lines of Ooga-Booga warn the reader: “Open the mummy case of this text respectfully. / You find no one inside.” And still people queue up to say what a cad Seidel is, what an unpolitically correct bounder.
I said I thought Seidel replaced Lowell’s influence with his own, some time in the seventies or eighties. In point of style, I think that’s true, but Lowell continues to assert himself in one crucial way: he supplies Seidel with his structural model or blueprint. To put it another way, whatever poem Seidel is writing, it’s more likely than not to be “For the Union Dead”: even stanzas, uneven lines, occasional heavy rhymes, occasional heavy rhythms, coexistence of private and public themes, the poet in the poem in a cramped or slightly histrionic way (“I crouch to my television set”), the juggling of six or eight different tropes or images, like so many plates kept airborne; in “For the Union Dead” it would include, in no particular order: bulbousness; cars and machinery; the color orange; fish and the marine world; the ditch and digging; shaking; etiolation; the role or possibility of change; race relations; animation and dis-animation. Seidel has written this sort of long-ish, ambitious, polygonal poem many times now: the first time was in the earliest poem, “Wanting to Live in Harlem,” in which he makes an Entwicklungsroman of his own life: pictures of violins; the “colored” maid; Somerset Maugham-ish lusts; Jews and Romans; Lutherans and Jews; a Gauguin-like palette; a dying mother. He does it differently, less organically, more mechanically. The themes and images tend not to bleed into each other as they do in Lowell, they are checked, kept apart, the effect or the technique is more that of a collage, the lines—it seems—really are sliced off. With Seidel, there is something that feels machined about the writing. Even within his poems, he tends to present himself as a sort of centaur, most often an homme-machine: on a Ducati, in a hotel, on a Eurostar train, on a plane, on a woman (where he often sounds deliriously mechanical: “Women have a playground slide / That wraps you in monsoon and takes you for a ride”); encased in accoutrements for hunting, or tropics, or formal evening wear; always something crisp and token-ish and apart and comme il faut, like an Action Man figure. Lowell—“one life, one writing!”—made a sort of mulch of words, from which he himself was practically inextricable, in which he wallowed as much as worked at, the “crackled amber moonscape” left to “ripen in sunlight”; Seidel followed him neither into the obsessive revising nor the lowercase line-beginnings (from Life Studies on). The lines are as they are: provocative, sensationalist, injurious, red-top, flawed. I often have a dreamy sense of Seidel’s poems being produced on a fifties (I think) gadget called a Dymo Label Maker, mostly used for pricing goods in stores, where letters were pressed out onto a sort of plastic ticker tape, like so: “My name is Fred Seidel, / and I paid for this ad.”
Late in The Cosmos Poems (2000), form takes command. Form is valued in a Seidel poem for its externality, its invasive obtrusiveness. These poems are written from the outside. (Hence their non-lyrical and anti-lyrical quality.) Paradoxically, what one notices is the ever-more amped-up content—the needle rarely leaves the red zone—but that is merely entailed and made possible by the hypertrophic form. Form in Seidel doesn’t mean sonnet, triolet, villanelle, so much as poem-DNA disassembled and put together in new, unpredictable, and threatening ways. Form becomes a version of self-governance in the poem, of disobedience, a riot of primary instructions. Itself done to excess, it contributes to the poem’s general air of excess. When a thing rhymes it doesn’t get out of rhyme, it stutters in rhyme. Seidel’s bouts rimés jingle like a fruit-machine spitting out coins. It’s no surprise that Seidel has written at least one mono-rhymed poem, “Sii romantico, Seidel, tanto per cambiare,” thirty lines on the syllable “ide.” An only slightly more measured rhyme scheme (for the first fourteen-line stanza of the poem, “Do You Doha?”) might go: abbbbbaaaccccc. Similarly, when a poem scans, it tramps. In trochees—no wonder “Mother Nature” segues into Longfellow—or in demented iambs (“A coconut can fall and hit you on the head, / And if it falls from high enough can kind of knock you dead.”) Few poems are not built—or jerrybuilt—in stanzas, though stanzas may be four, five, six, seven, nine, ten, twelve, fourteen, or seventeen lines in length. “Everything in art is couplets” one poem solemnly says, but then the following line goes “Mine don’t rhyme,” and the poem, in any case, is in quatrains. Most decisive of the lot, though, and all the more effective because so rarely used outside skipping-rhymes and primers, is sentence-length (further emphasized because it is often coterminous with line-length):
I stand in the field opposite the airport.
I watch the planes flying in and the planes flying out.
My proud Irish terrier takes pills for his cardiomyopathy.
Before we bark our last,
Our hearts enlarge and burst.
George Plimpton went to bed
And woke up dead.
I write this poem thinking of the painter David Salle
Who wants to make a movie
About the poet Frank O’Hara.
A beach taxi on Fire Island hit Frank and he burst, roll credits.
—From East Hampton Airport
The sentences are pruned back as though to prevent them from ever bursting into individual flower. (Technically speaking, it’s probably the prime source of Seidel’s detachment.)
Other mechanical handlings of language—interventions, one might call them—play their part: puns, repetition, word games, vocabulary stunts. Jargon and prefab phrases abound: “to die for,” “metrosexual,” “cremains,” “stem cells,” “train wreck,” “total nightmare,” the computer-enabled six-day weather forecast, “this is a test.” “Happy days are gone / Again,” he says somewhere, crushingly; and in “A Song for Cole Porter,” “Ride around, little dogies, ride around them slow,” and “I knew a beauty named Dawn Green. / I used to wake at the crack of Dawn.” Words and lines are swapped about between poems like hot money used to be. Intensifiers are ten a penny: literally, really, utter, incredible, pure, actually, totally. Especially troubling is a derisory streak of aphasia in some poems: “A flavorful man can, and then he is not,” the smuttily Shakespearean “He licks to play golf,” “Winter, spring, Baghdad, fall,”
Winter is wearing summer but it wants to undress for you, Fred.
Oh my God. Takes off the lovely summer frock
And lies down on the bed naked
Freezing white, so we can make death.
It is epic stuff, all bleak, jaunty, scathing, and utterly contemporary:
To Ninety-second Street and Broadway I have come.
Outside the windows is New York.
I came here from St. Louis in a covered wagon overland
Behind the matchless prancing pair of Eliot and Ezra Pound.
And countless moist oases took me in along the way, and some
I still remember when I lift my knife and fork.
The Earth keeps turning, night and day, spit-roasting all the
Tired icebergs and the polar bears, which makes white almost
The biosphere on a rotisserie emits a certain sound
That tells the stars that Earth was moaning pleasure while it
The amorous white icebergs flash their brown teeth, hissing.
They’re watching old porn videos of melting icebergs pissing.
The icebergs still in panty hose are lesbians and kissing.
The rotting ocean swallows the bombed airliner that’s missing.
—From Evening Man
Thank God for Fred Seidel.