Hide your lyricals, your tenders: Frederick Seidel is coming. Ogre
to what used to be called (without a sneer) sentiment, grim beyond
Gothic contrivance, the most frightening American poet ever—phallus-man,
hangman of political barbarism—Seidel is the poet the twentieth
century deserved. (But why stop there, the poet the millennium deserved.)
Which is his brilliance, his grief. How he has given himself to our
terribleness! Four and a half million years ago in the woodlands arose
an ape, the males of which, bonding, raided and killed for the hell
of it. Only human beings, their descendants, have improved on their
abomination. Professor Richard Wrangham of Harvard calls the type the
"demonic male," a label that stirs religion into biology. Seidel's namings
are cleaner. Seidel guts our malignancy of all echoes of exalting theology.
Spokesman and scourge of marauding testosterone (in These Days, he
says of "my penis" that "I ought to cut if off / And feed it to itself"),
he points poems like guns at his unforgivable knowledge. If he learned
harshness and directness from Robert Lowell, one of his earliest admirers,
he left behind Lowell's magnificence like so much dress-up clothing
dumped into the trash. You can't like Seidel's poems—they're
deliberately virulent; you can only gasp at their skill and daring,
their sickening warp, their mercilessness.
His program of shameless self-revelation became pronounced in his third
book, These Days (1989), ("My life. / I live with it.
/ I look at it. / My spied on, with malice," he writes in "Gethsemane"),
but its engine didn't warm-up until Going Fast (1998), a book
that all but vrroooms with motorcycle noise, being among other
things an ode to the poet's various fancy bikes, his power companions.
Who else would begin a poem called "Spring" with the line "I want to
date-rape life. I kiss the cactus spines." or end it with the balefully
sibilant sentence "This shark of bliss / I input generates a desert
slick as slime." This "I" is the death-drive with puckered lips and
a nuclear bomb in its fanny pack.
However fictive and hyperbolic his poetic "I," Seidel's exhibition
of himself as a caution, as an example of the dangerous Male of the
Species, progressed in Going Fast to the point where it had nowhere
else to go, short of a bath in mayhem. Already as ambitious as any poet
in his range of social and political portrayals, Seidel hit on the idea
of writing a trilogy that begins with the cosmos, then goes on to earthly
life, and ends (still with money in the bank) in Manhattan. (The final
volume has yet to appear.) With his burn-out lines, he could
do it like nobody's business. What no other American poet (except perhaps
Robert Pinsky) would likely ever feel juiced to attempt, Seidel threw
his leg over, gave a practiced twist to the throttle of, and roared
away on—toward Manhattan via the galaxies at the speed of contempt.
Even so, the cosmos as a subject—minus the Zeus of Aratus ("From
Zeus let our beginning be"), minus Milton's God and angels, only a bunch
of strings, eleven screwy dimensions, and big and little bangs—doesn't
give Seidel the material he needs to be convincingly terrible and terribly
sudden, his specialties. He bounces around in the eight stanzas
of each poem as if he were in a space suit, suspended from the unvarying
structure of the series on an umbilical cord, and somehow there's a
big wind out there! A bumpy discursiveness was always his method's mark,
even his forte, but here it shows excessive wobble. These Days
and My Tokyo, even Going Fast, for all its posturing,
are stronger work.
For instance, "That Fall" in These Days takes us from "Shiny
china vagina and pubic hair" on the bed, to the mouth-slit of a shark
("that empty look—it looks unborn"), to the shark coming up to
the bed—after which, what innocence? "The smell of burning leaves,
/ Rose bittersweetness rising from the red, / Is what I see. I must
be twelve. That fall." Compare the exact knowledge of cruelty and vulnerability
in this poem to the maundering speculation in "Universes," the fourth
of The Cosmos Poems. I quote the first and last two of its eight
Think of the suckers on the tentacles
Without the tentacles. A honeycomb
Of space writhing in the dark.
Time deforming it, time itself deformed.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Each invisible eyelet is a black hole
Highway out of time.
Think of the universe as a beanbag
On a bobsled on a run under lights at night.
Inside are universes.
It is incompletely dark inside.
There is motion.
There is the possibility.
Here, Seidel insists on other universes as unthinkably elsewhere,
or as beans as yet unseeded, with the doggedness of a man who can't
stomach this one. His imagination knows better than most how to take
hold of a subject in a large way and by surprise. But in these lines
it struggles to bring home—all the way down to honeycombs, eyelets,
beanbags, and bobsleds—a speculative sublime. It means to awaken
wonder, but anchors itself to the commonplace. It thus reassures. At
the same time, it betrays its guesswork. The images look around at a
loss. The suckers stick and suck, but the honeycomb writhes. Eyelets
hold, but highways spill into distance. The bobsled is under lights,
whereas the universe is self-lit. The figures go under (crunch, ouch)
before the enormousness of the subject. But the poem is even weaker
when it ditches them: "There is motion. / There is the possibility."
Seidel's determination to run the cosmos through the wringer of eight
quatrains in poem after poem results in unnecessary strain. Those drops
flying off are his sweat as he cranks and cranks to meet his line-quota.
The mathematical recurrence is (it seems) symbolic: in "Everything,"
Seidel adjusts a side mirror on his spacecraft and affords a glimpse
of its design:
The same poem over and over
You are witnessing, the swelling of the universe
Into the rose
Which it will give.
With an eye to laws (though not an ear to meters), the poems enact
the rhythm of swelling from speck to spectacle. From root to "rose"?
The shift in the stanzas is additive, not red. And that rose! Reader,
beware. You mustn't accept a rose from Frederick Seidel! It has to be
a momentary lapse, or pink air, or a ruse.
This new Seidel, the occasional softy—"feel the joy / Most days
bring." he writes in "Happiness," the next poem—may be a little
embarrassed by the rose. He may be only jokingly, thus appeasingly,
optimistic: "The universe is in a skillet / Cooking into something yum."
But damn if the softy isn't back in "The Birth of the Universe":
And the ice cream is infinite
Above the cone
The small hand holds
Dripping, holds the torch
Seidel in Pope's clothing? It can't be. It musn't be. "Dripping" almost
saves the lines. It hints that you can't eat the ice cream cosmos (a
cosmos that's anyway also a torch!) before it melts on you. What is
worse, given the ambiguous syntax, the hand itself may be dripping.
Facing the cosmos, then, Seidel, even Seidel, reaches for something
with which to buck himself up. But his skepticism is a very old habit;
pops out, looks for victims. For instance, his characteristic hard-edged
tongue pokes around in the cheek of "Galaxies": "But how many of you
know / That the jellyfish // You see in the picture on page 8—
/ Everybody open your book— / Is eleven million light-years wide?"
More scarily: "The blackness of space / Is simply the everything we
are, / Subtracting the light." How's that for yum?
The impulse to be affirmative (if not uplifting) cannot be ignored,
however, and "Starlight" probably gets it as right as can be in its
embrace of tragic self- consumption:
To live your life
You have to use it up.
A star performs its nuclear core.
Beautiful Kate Valk of the Wooster Group
Of actors does the male title role in The Emperor Jones
In blackface till she is so much
Starlight she stops.
What's convincing here is the characteristically direct way the poet's
voice uses itself up. You can't mistake an accent, miss a pause,
blur the precision. You hear clearly how the typical whip-snaps of the
first three lines ease into a luxury of praise with the pentameter "Beautiful
Kate Valk of the Wooster Group," despite its two unbeautiful words ("Valk,"
"Wooster"). "So much / Starlight she stops." pauses first at the line
break, then more weakly in caesura after "Starlight," to anticipate
and make inevitable the breathheld final stop.
Seidel's rhythms are a study in themselves—uniquely nervous,
uncomfortably edgy, but (once that is understood) beyond objection.
They mix it up in order to mix you up, churn up complacency. No mold
grows on the lines; they spray themselves with industrial bleach as
they get on with it. Many poets remain somewhere north of their
words, while dreaming through them of a warmer climate. In Seidel's
lines, the man himself is there, fearless, a point-blank voice. Like
young stars, he illustrates "the mania of being always / On," ("It Is
the Morning of the Universe"). He holds nothing back. Rather, stepping
forward, he punches twice for every feint. Whom you are with you will
know by the smoke coming out of your ears.
In Life on Earth, Seidel is back in top form—or back on
the ground of his form—except in the few poems on the cosmos.
He stays with the scheme of eight quatrains, but he is insolently masterful
in relation to each stanza, a spitoon he dead-rings from ten feet away
without taking his eyes from everything going down in the Pol Pot Saloon.
His art is above all brassy. (Seidel has some of Lautréamont's
bad-boy genes, his bullying repetitions.) It's rough being a page on
which Seidel performs his (in Michael Hofmann's phrase) "trashy stomp."
But just this unlovely get on with it method allows him to stay
enough on the surface and on his toes and in movement—enough to
travel widely (here, Bali, French Polynesia, the New York hospital,
the White House, Paris, the Château of Fontenay, etc.) without
seeming willing to be anywhere.
Here Seidel can be what he most likes to be and is best at being: theatrical.
As Barthes said in his essay on Baudelaire's theater, theater is reality
"assigned an emphatic accent." Reality, à la Seidel, is condensed
and glowing with ultra-violet light. Seidel has the knack, or fatality,
for making almost everything appear artificial, sick of itself, fevered,
grotesque. In "The Seal," the quatrain
What did the vomit of a god
Smell like? Like no one else
And there were clouds of it
In the White House
is only a supersaturated moment of the sort of abjection that streaks
through even "Chiquita Gregory," which is evidently an act of homage
to a dead friend. On the edge of a hurricane, lightning outside "Shazams
you back to life," Seidel says to Gregory—drawing on Captain Marvel
comics for a suitably bammy word—with the result that the "Irreplaceable
trees on Sagg Main" are "davening / Themselves to the ground. They /
/ Rend their clothes and tear their hair out out / Of joy." But what
kind of welcome-back is formed by the poem's closing lines?
The ocean bursts into towering flames of foam.
The lobsters in the pot are screaming
Inside the reddening roar.
Your aproned ghost keeps boiling more, keeps boiling more,
And turns to serve the gore.
Chiquita Gregory is a playboy bunny version ("Very long legs, / Very
short shorts, a chef's apron in front, so that from / Behind…")
of what Schlegel called "the original chaos of human nature." Also of
death. Welcome to Seidelian theater. In the wings wait the most violent
But not all in Life on Earth is, at worst, murderous and, at
best, sacred chaos. "The magnolias…vomiting brightness // In the
mist" are not everything, not everything is the "book of nothingness
[that] begins / At birth." Of course, there is the one hand that, in
reaching for the other, finds "a knife in it to cut the head off." But
not all that "is happening / Is blood in urine"—the heart is not
only "a dog collar on all fours." Nor is the last word necessarily
to be found in the schizoid "Letter to the Editors of Vogue,"
on the order of "My daughter squeaks and squeaks / Like a mouse screaming
in a trap, / Dangling from the cat who makes her come / When he does
it to her." There is also an ailing Seidel who is worried about his
heart ("The body is the beating of the / Tom-tom. / Living dot com—
/ How many hits on your site?"), who doesn't "know / How long I have
the / Future for," ("Green Dress, 1999"), and for whom, consequently,
life ("To live. / The bay is blue / To me means that." he says in "Blood"),
is intensely desirable. "I confess: / I do love / The sky above." he
says in the closing words of the book. If this is not the Seidel who
writes a beastly poem on Joan of Arc, "the retard," he's the feeling
man who, in his hospital rounds as a play doctor doing research for
a film scenario, says to one "Holly Anderson": "We are made of tears
/ That as your doctor I can't cry." He even writes a poem—a moving
one on a French aristocratic couple who "Have faith, give hope, show
charity"—called "Goodness." Seidel always had a heart. It was
just that he couldn't bear it. Often, he still can't. Here he is as
I have been thinking, instead of weeping, tears,
And drinking everybody else's, for years.
They taste amazingly like urine. Cheers!
I tell you this—(But soft! My mother nears.)
Life on Earth is mean as hell, a hole with just enough blue
sky over it to set it off. Dip a stick into the twentieth century and
it comes up dripping the sort of sludge Seidel has had the courage never
to forget to taste, word by word. He lurks around like an ugly conscience.
His artistry is justly fierce. He has bound one resource of modern poetry,
vernacular speech, in a smoking sheath. It's no use trying to end a
review of his poems on a pleasant note. It has to be dirty work. Let
him do it: "He hid his life away in poetry," he writes in the final
poem, "Frederick Seidel," "Like a hare still running from a gun in a
Calvin Bedient is author of several books of criticism and a
book of poems, Candy Necklace. His second book of poems will
appear next year.