Reading Frederick Seidel
October 1, 2001
Oct 1, 2001
12 Min read time
The Cosmos Poems and Life on Earth.
The Cosmos Poems
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $13.00 (paper)
Life on Earth
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $22.00 (cloth)
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 butvrroooms 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 stanzas:
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 gods.
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 Hamlet:
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 pâté."
Help fund the next generation of Black journalists, editors, and publishers.
Boston Review’s Black Voices in the Public Sphere Fellowship is designed to address the profound lack of diversity in the media by providing aspiring Black media professionals with training, mentorship, networking opportunities, and career development workshops. The program is being funded with the generous support of Derek Schrier, chair of Boston Review’s board of advisors, the Ford Foundation, and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, but we still have $50,000 left to raise to fully fund the fellowship for the next two years. To help reach that goal, if you make a tax-deductible donation to our fellowship fund through August 31 it will be matched 1:1, up to $25,000—so please act now to double your impact. To learn more about the program and our 2021-2022 fellows, click here.
October 01, 2001
12 Min read time