September 2012 Discussion Guide

Ghost Writers

Matters of life and death in the September 2012 Poetry

Ghost Writers

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Death is a live issue in the September 2012 Poetry. James Longenbach contributes a poem called “Opus Posthumous.” Mary Karr offers an ode to a suicide. A.E. Stallings visits the First Cemetery of Athens. “Nobody plans to be a ghost,” writes Jane Hirshfield, and in his suite of meditations on mortality, Frederick Seidel seems to make such plans only to reconsider them: “They’ve cast me as Pompeii / The day before the day,” he writes in “The State of New York,” but then again, his is a “lifelong month of May."

In “Victory Parade,” he alludes to his age by focusing on the presence of a youthful woman, a “miracle”—“she’s so young but she’s so beautiful.” What’s more:

So is her new bikini trim,
A waxed-to-neatness center strip of quim.

Now there’s a word you haven’t heard for a while.
It makes me smile.
It makes me think of James Joyce.
You hear his Oirish voice.

Notice how fluidly he moves between “I” and “you”—and old and new. Her bikini trim is “new,” but he uses an obsolete word to describe it—“quim,” which we “haven’t heard for a while,” but might remember from a 90-year-old book. What do you make of Seidel’s assumption that we share his reference points—and of his more general conflation of writer and reader? (When he thinks of James Joyce, we hear his Irish voice.)

While he draws similarities between us, he and his girlfriend seem ever more distinct. “My girlfriend’s amazing waxing keeps grinning,” he writes, referring not just to her cosmetic procedure, but also, slyly, to the process of aging: while she waxes, he is on the wane.

Seidel then crafts a second comparison that may trouble us—unless, of course, it tickles us:

It’s enough to distract
From the other drastic act
Of display today — Osama bin Laden is dead!
One shot to the chest and one to the head,

SEAL Team 6 far away from my bed
Above Broadway — in Abbottabad, Pakistan, instead.
Bullets beyond compare
Flew over there.

Seidel suggests that bin Laden’s death is just as much for show—“an act / of display”—as his girlfriend’s come-on. Listen for the echo of Frank O’Hara in Seidel’s announcement of the news: “LANA TURNER HAS COLLAPSED!” roared the New York School poet in 1964. This association with Turner, an actress, further enforces the relationship between the terrorist’s demise and show business. So does the phrase “Above Broadway”—which hints at the Broadway theater tradition—followed quickly by “Bullets,” a juxtaposition recalling the Woody Allen film “Bullets over Broadway.”

Note Seidel’s tone in addition to his references. He uses childlike, imprecise language: “far away from my bed,” “bullets beyond compare / flew over there.” Later, he describes bin Laden’s murder in sexual terms, “a type of ordnance that exploded / Inside the guy.” He thus further trivializes the event—and, despite his claim that the bullets are “beyond compare,” compares it to his own bedroom drama.

How do you respond to these complex and provocative stanzas? Do you agree that an element of showmanship marked the killing of bin Laden, or do you find such a suggestion problematic? Do you take Seidel’s casualness at face value, or do you think he’s critiquing the attitude that he appears to espouse? Does his approach to bin Laden’s death reflect his approach to his own?

Similarly intricate questions arise from another Seidel work, “What Next”:

So the sun is shining blindingly but I can sort of see.
It’s like looking at Mandela’s moral beauty.
The dying leaves are sizzling on the trees
In a shirtsleeves summer breeze.

But daylight saving is over.
And gaveling the courtroom to order with a four-leaf clover
Is over. And it’s altogether November.
And the Pellegrino bubbles rise to the surface and dismember.

As he shifts from the first stanza to the second, Seidel moves from summer to fall, from dry leaves to Pellegrino water, from Mandela (that archetype of justice) to the termination of justice, and from too much sun to the end of “daylight saving”—a metaphor for death. All these small changes hint at that great final change.

Again, Seidel juxtaposes a major figure with his personal experience: Nelson Mandela follows a casual comment about sunshine. Do you read the remark as a joke? If so, what is the purpose of the joke? Perhaps making light of mortality is a way of, in a sense, “saving daylight”—of protesting death in all its heaviness. And perhaps the gorgeous sonics of this poem—“saving” and “gaveling,” “over” and “courtroom” and “order” and “clover,” “November and “dismember”—do the same. Notice how the rhymes crowd into those popping final lines, as though poetry itself is announcing its presence before it, too, dissolves into thin air.

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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