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It has gotten harder and harder to write well about Iraq and the current administration. One feels helpless, and furious. One jeers not to weep or become apathetic. But none of these responses makes for good poetry. Politics tends toward sloganeering, solutioneering, and declarations of right and wrong; good poems generally require ambivalence and irresolution.
One of the poets I’ve been reading a lot of recently, though—Frederick Seidel—solves the problem by writing the way he always has, attacking pieties and simultaneously declaring his own culpability. Seidel’s poet-persona seems half-crazed, quite dire. The first poem in his 2006 book, Ooga-Booga, “Kill Poem,” seems like one of the best things written in at least the last 25 years. Here’s a piece of it:
Winter, spring, Baghdad, fall,
Venery is written all
Over me like a rash,
Hair and the gash,
But also the Lehrer NewsHour and a woodfire and Bach.
Equal parts Skeltonics, jump rope rhyme and New York Review of Books personals ad, that bit is not much like other parts of “Kill Poem” in terms of tone or prosody, but is as good an excerpt as any for giving a sense of the changeable strangeness of Frederick Seidel. Grotty, frank, silly, scary, gorgeous, punning and comic all at once, “Kill Poem” touches on fox and stag hunts, Iraq, Paul Valery, ticks and lice, elegant clothes and the assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King. Scenario leads to scenario, observation to observation. Early on, we get a description of Savile Row hunt clothes, which leads quickly to “the chased-down fox bleeding its stink across the snow.” The frightening beauty of wealth and the hunt—in which the poet-speaker is a participant—conflates with the weird beauty of death. “I am civilized in my pink,” writes the poet, referring to both his skin and his red hunting coat. “Civilized is about having stuff.” A muttering outburst later in the poem is unexpected:
Get rid of poetry. Kill poetry.
Label on a vial of pills. Warning: Kill kill kill kills.
Unexpected also is the tragic vision of violent, dying, killing America, with the Kennedys and King as antler trophies mounted on walls:
Bobby Kennedy announces to a nighttime crowd
That King has died, and then quotes Aeschylus, and then is killed.
Kill kill kill kills, appalls,
The American trophies covered in tears that deck the American halls.
Who kills? Who is appalled? Everyone? No one?
Here’s the thing about poetry about guilt: For our own culpability to register with us readers, and this is important, Seidel has to be—be, not feel—guilty. As he presents himself in Ooga-Booga and elsewhere, guilty he is: rich white guy, American—and even worse, in some eyes, sexually viable male!
In “Il Duce,” the speaker declares that sleeping with more than one woman at a time is fascist, then seems to admit, without bragging, to doing exactly that. In one series, terrorism and the pudenda of Japanese school girls are twin preoccupations. Every now and then Seidel reminds me of Frank O’Hara, with his forthright sexiness, strings of seemingly unrelated assertions, and passing allusions in personal poems to the larger world. Especially the jingly O’Hara of Poem [“At night Chinamen jump”]:
At night Chinamen jump
on Asia with a thump
while in our willful way
we, in secret, play…
Only, in O’Hara, the sex is cooperative. To Seidel’s speaker, sex is like speeding on his Ducati motorcyle (about which he has written repeatedly) perfectly enjoying a perfect machine. Of course, Seidel’s nothing if not self-aware. In “Climbing Everest,” it’s as if he stumbles on a thought that many men may have had: “A naked woman my age is just a total nightmare.” Seidel (who is 72) apparently finds himself so interested in the thought, perhaps so surprised by uttering it, that he takes up the theme again in a second poem, “Broadway Melody.” Not surprisingly, some reviewers complained about these lines. But in neither poem is the line gratuitous, though the poems seem to take pains to appear gratuitous; certainly they offer the opportunity to enjoy or detest them as such.
“Climbing Everest” is an account in rhymed quatrains, using the mountain as metaphor, of an old (possibly dying) man having sex with a young woman. The poem is creepily funny, deeply embarrassing, self-mocking and curiously beautiful all at once. “My dynamite penis/Is totally into Venus,” writes the poet, then makes an outlandish tribute to the young woman which could be seen as a version of the exaggerated praise poem of the Renaissance sonneteer: “The mania in her labia can inspire/Extraordinary phenomena and really does cure colds.” The act finishes surreally, down from the mountain, with “an oxygen tent/In a soft pasture of cows and clover.” The sex act, which might or might not be pure fantasy, turns delirious— “Happening girls parade around my hospice bed”—and concludes:
A naked woman my age is just a total nightmare,
But right now one is coming through the door
With a mop, to mop up the cow flops on the floor.
She kisses the train wreck in the tent and combs his hair.
That malicious first line of this final quatrain does not obviate the tenderness of the next three lines, nor do those lines obviate the first line’s malice.
Meanwhile, weirdly gorgeous “Broadway Melody” begins with the line and repeats the sentiment a third time in slightly different language. Meditating on what he’s just said, the poet is almost apologetic: “One doesn’t say it out loud because it’s rare/For anyone to be willing to say it,/Because it’s the equivalent of buying billboard space to display it.” But he doesn’t take it back. The poem continues:
I hate the old couples on their walkers giving
Off odors of love, and in City Diner eating a ray
Of hope, and then paying and trembling back out on Broadway,
Signature Seidel: the act of “giving” isolated at the line’s end balances out “hate,” but turns out, in the next line, to be “giving/off odors.” Not aromas or scents, but dubious odors: odors of love, a love horrible with physical decay. The phrase saturates the poem with ambivalence about love, hate, attraction and disgust; the phrase “paying and trembling” seems a superb characterization of being old and American of either sex. The final long-line couplet swerves the poem again. The old couple is
Drumming and dancing, chanting something nearly unbearable,
Spreading their wings in order to be more beautiful and more terrible.
That scary vision of—what, death? or, scarier, life?—takes the poem somewhere else entirely. But—and this is important—it couldn’t do that half as well if Seidel didn’t begin in malice.
Or, as in “On Being Debonair,” end in violence. Seidel—or his speaker—is repetitive, even obsessive, about his wealth—about his custommade Ducati motorcycle, his gorgeous suits, his epicurian wine-and-dining, his pots of money. (Writers about Seidel can’t help writing about these things too, as much a product of our own bourgeois fascination with wealth as of Seidel’s manias—I suspect Seidel knows and plays on this.) Take “On Being Debonair”:
I use myself up being fine while I dine.
I am a result of the concierge at the Carlyle.
I order a bottle of Bordeaux.
I am a boulevard of elegance
In my well-known restaurants.
A series of I-statements worthy of a bling-dazzled rapper, in both its rackety rhythms and comic self-fascination, though the tone and proper-noun paraphernalia in the poem are those not of a striver but of a world-weary person who may never have had to strive. Soon enough, though, comes a bit of lyrical surrealism—“The moon comes over to my table.”—followed by the deflating: “Everything about her is typical.” That tonal modulation moves us toward the final stanza, and one of Ooga-Booga’s major preoccupations:
The desert at this time of year
Is troops in desert camouflage.
Bring in the unmanned drones.
I dine with my Carlyle smile.
Very important, this sodden, unapologetic smile, which the war does not wipe off the poet’s face. Important the way that it’s important that the poet wears the killer’s pinks in “Kill Poem”—and calls them pink, in insider’s argot, instead of red.
After the Bordeaux and the concierge, the moon, the desert camouflage, after anchoring the poem with his refusal to apologize, or to blink, Seidel allows the poem to—well, to flip out at the end, in a moment of sexualized fantasy violence that has something to say about art, having money, eating lobster, and being American:
I will cut your heart out
And drink the rubies and eat the coral.
I like the female for its coral.
I go to Carnegie Hall
To make her open her mouth onstage and scream.
Seidel’s own art doesn’t scream. It’s too well-educated and cultured and mannered (as in mannerism, as in mannerly) to perform that way. It might make us want to scream. “You can’t like Seidel’s poems…” wrote Seidel admirer Calvin Bedient in the Boston Review a few years ago, of an earlier Seidel collection. “…[You] can only gasp at their skill and daring, their sickening warp, their mercilessness.” I think Bedient’s only partly right. You certainly can like Seidel at his harshest if you can admit to yourself that you have laughed at offensive jokes, are drawn to car wrecks, and found even the slightest bit of prurience amid the televised horror of 9/11 and other awful events. Which is to say, if you can admit you’re human, and—not guilty-feeling, but culpable.