by Daniel Bosch
A dialogue on the poems of Frederick Seidel, especially
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012, 112 pp.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009,
Late morning. Faint sound of thunder and light rain falling on the roof, will fade to a stop in a few minutes. The modest home of Fidelis, a mile uptown from the Agora. Faux granite pilasters recede from downstage left and right. Piles of bound books and manuscripts, a low table, a chair or two. Torches on stanchions give Fidelis, wearing a clean white toga and seated on the floor at center, plenty of light to see scraps of paper arrayed on tiles in front of him, and a copy of Nice Weather flat on the floor at his side. Enter Skepticus, cautiously, his toga somewhat worse for wear and damp from rain. parting a curtain draped across a doorway furthest upstage center. Seeing Fidelis, Skepticus tiptoes downstage, deliberately, so as not to disturb his host, who is deeply involved, arranging and re-arranging the scraps. Skepticus passes slowly, unnoticed, downstage of Fidelis, then leans over Fidelis’ shoulder for a moment, to read the scraps and the cover of the book.
Skepticus: (Reading, in a booming voice)
Two women start their hour by moistening.
Fidelis: (Startled) Skepticus! For gods’ and goddesses’ sakes! How many times do I have to tell you? Do not sneak up on me!
S: I couldn’t resist—I wanted to be a bad boy, like Frederick Seidel! Nice Weather he’s having, isn’t it? Have you culled the highlights? (Reading, again in a booming voice)
Her caterpillar with a groove
Waits for love
Between her legs. The crease
Is dripping grease.
My word, Fidelis! What are you up to?
F: I’m making a cento. That snatch is from Life on Earth. Seidel is a professional bad boy! His work makes me want to put new, exciting things in poems—crudity and urbanity at the same time, like the meat with the cheese. Who else would make a bawdy allusion to Spain’s occupation of the Netherlands? (Reading, loudly)
The muleta in the mirror between her thighs.
She sits down naked in front of herself.
Arouses her. Her fury
Flattens Holland and then floods it.
S: Ah, yes, the little boy who knew what to do!
F: I think it’s genius. A poet who has no occupation—
S: Thus, one of the most gifted poets of our time—
F: Refers to a centuries-old occupation, while he exercises his preoccupation!
S: You don’t mean that all of these scraps…. (Reaching to gather them, then reading, in a booming voice that gradually trails off)
…she was so excited she was almost sick,
So excited she let loose a lake (Pause)
And rowboats you can rent for a trip you can take.
…From under her skirt.
I see a delightful little hair shirt.
I see a valley of moist Montale plus myself plus George Herbert.
(Pause, begins to walk downstage, reading even more slowly)
She feels the moisture of desire.
(Pause, then brief pauses in the lines that follow)
You’re a miracle in a whirlpool
In your blind date’s vagina
At your age. Nothin could be fina.
…the slopes of Vesuvia saying
Her effluvia are nearly in overflowing mode.
F: Seidel’s been developing his vaginal lubrication topos for twenty years. The first fragment you read is from 1993. The last four are taken from Nice Weather.
S: (Tossing fragments down) Eww!
F: Oh, don’t be so fussy! (Gathering the scraps up again.) There’s one more. If I can work out a transition, this could be the big finish:
I move my body meat smell next to yours,
Your spice of Zanzibar. Mine rains, yours pours—
O sweet tectonic fault line and sweet lips
Exuding honey that the cowboy sips.
I float in fluid to the other shore…
…America keeps waiting to begin.
Its sunrise dripping from my chin.
S: America is waiting for a lot of things, Fidelis, but a cento of snail-track jokes? It’s so sixth grade.
F: You say you want to be a bad boy, but you’re a goodie-two shoes, Skepticus! I’m sick of reading and writing pietry. A lot of poets are. Part of what I find so powerful in Seidel’s work is my sense of his freedom. If he says things that are “sixth grade,” at least he’s completely honest. And if I want to pay him an homage, I don’t need your permission.
S: You’re not a bad boy like Seidel’s a bad boy. You have more freedom than he does.
F: Don’t condescend to me, Skepticus. I can be as bad as I want to be.
S: Make any cento you want! But try to make it as good as you want it to be. You don’t really want Seidel’s freedom. His poems are licensed by privilege, prestige and money — lots of all three. His deliberate transgressions look like power — to poets, any use of power looks like freedom. But I just read all Seidel’s work, straight through, and I think he’s wearing golden handcuffs. I’m wondering why isn’t his poetry more powerful? Why isn’t it more free?
F: To what standard are you going to hold him? (Reaching for book) Look at the back of Nice Weather. Wyatt Mason says Seidel’s are “our most serious, beautiful and essential poems.” Michael Hofmann said he’s a carnivore among the vegans. Michael Robbins, the Alien vs. Predator guy, he wrote that Seidel’s “the best poet we have.” (Handing book to Skepticus)
S: Since when do bad boys give a shit what critics say? Michael Robbins wrote what? (Pause) Critics wave Seidel’s work around like a banner, but they keep his work at arm’s length because there’s something about it that smells.
F: Wait. (Rushes to pile of books stage left, grabs Seidel’s Poems 1959-2009, flips pages, finds poem.) Listen. It takes poetry balls to write a poem like this: (Reading)
I sat in my usual place with my back to the corner, the precious corner table,
Where everyone wanted to sit, to see and be seen.
Even the celebritariat were not automatically able
To sit at that particular table, never mind how desperately keen.
I sat in my solitude, a songbird that can’t be bought.
Look at my solitude, white meat deep in thought.
This was the look of fat dressed slenderly by Savile Row,
My tailor in those days being Huntsman, in those days long ago.
But can Mr. Rilke be alone if there are always servants in the castle? Not really. No.
In a minute, I would be visited by the restaurant owner, the superb madman Elio,
Who’d been a Marxist once: “Shit, at the five other front tables tonight sit
A billion dollars! And then there’s you. I just noticed it.”
I sit at my regular table in a restaurant I favor,
Napkin tucked into my collar, eating dirt and a stone,
Stooped over in a La Tache stupor. I know it’s disgusting but I savor
My African-American antipode with her hand out outside the window, my clone,
Begging just outside on the sidewalk. I’ll buy her and take her home. We’ll eat dirt.
We’ll grovel in the grass and bat our eyes and flirt.
Look at this poem, a set of dingy teeth hailing a cab.
Look at this poem, kissing the hand of that woman’s brown frown.
I’m always ready to use my mouth, though my teeth may be drab.
Lord Above—starless sky above the high-rise—here I am, look down.
But first open your eyes. The cruel overseer is brutally whipping a slave
While the slave yawns over an after-dinner poire. Don’t behave. Be brave.
S: No question, Fidelis! “My Poetry” is a good poem! It’s smartly self-referential, and I wish I’d come up with that “white meat deep in thought” bit! Seidel’s got poetry balls — and a schtick to rattle them around with! But this poem is political in a way that’s impossible to parse.
F: You mean you want something from him you think he’s not delivering.
S: I mean that the poem, and it’s like a lot of Seidel’s work, dresses his poetry in all the accoutrements of deliberate engagement with issues of class and color and need and responsibility, of inequity and iniquity, and all that equipment ought to be used. The speaker shows no indication that he knows what he’s talking about or why he’s talking about it. He notices a bunch of angles on ethics, but settles for a minimally competent aesthetics, when he could have had both. He’s a compulsively yapping set of dingy teeth.
F: Vegan! You want poems to behave. I want poems to be brave.
S: A dirty cento is brave? My friend, don’t we agree at base? No poet of the highest caliber will perform his or her moral or political “goodness” over and over, the way Mary Oliver does. Likewise, no poet of the highest caliber gets stuck and performs the same badness — moral and aesthetic — over and over, the way Seidel has.
F: You think he’s stuck? In sixth grade?
S: Yes. And I think you can choose a better bad boy to borrow lines from. There are vernacular poetries, like “the Dozens,” Fidelis, that make Seidel seem both long-winded and obfuscatory. Get a load of H. Rap Brown — no one could misunderstand what matters to that bad boy. (Reciting from memory)
I fucked your mama
Till she went blind.
Her breath smells bad,
But she sure can grind.
I fucked your mama
For a solid hour.
Baby came out
Screaming, Black Power.
Elephant and the baboon
Learning to screw.
Baby came out looking
Like Spiro Agnew.
F: Unfair, Skepticus! “The Dozens” is folk poetry. Seidel doesn’t have “a people” whose struggle he’s singing. And Brown’s “Dozens” don’t create an individual, not the way Seidel’s poems do. H. Rap Brown didn’t actually fuck my mama. But Seidel really did a lot of the things he says he did in his poems. He’s giving us private access to what is usually censored. This is how Seidel’s poems have enlarged the scope of American poetry. In his work we hear what the Man says when the Man talks to himself.
S: Oh yeah, when the Man talks to himself, he says, (Booming again) “Nothing could be fina…”
F: I asked for that. But fuck you anyway.
S: I don’t buy it, but let’s say Seidel is the Man talking to himself. Does that make what he’s saying worth listening to? “The Dozens” break with broadly but not deeply-held moral conventions to express truths with greater reach than any that might be found reading a Seidel poem. The artistic conventions he breaks with are narrowly- and deeply-held—by the literati. In order to know what’s at stake in Seidel’s bad boy persona, you have to decode his poems. If you can’t do that—and it’s too hard to decode “My Poetry”— you’re left with the shock of what he’s said, and a vague feeling that somehow the poem you just read is smart about race. I think Seidel literally doesn’t know what he’s talking about in “My Poetry.” By contrast with Brown, that makes him a bad boy in a bell jar.
F: Well how would you compare Seidel to a bad boy who came up from privilege, like Robert Lowell?
S: Seidel has consistently encouraged this not very flattering comparison. Lowell was a shape-changer who explored different modes and took up different personae. And Lowell was ten times a better craftsman than Seidel is. “For the Union Dead” is public and personal in ways not entirely alien to “My Poetry.” But Lowell’s poem is immediately legible in its complexity, decades later, because it’s built out of simple, memorable images. “The old South Boston Aquarium stands / In a sahara of snow, now” combines documentary clarity with ironic hyperbole. The similes in “For the Union Dead” refreshed the language: “(M)y nose crawled like a snail on the glass,” is new because no one had seen a nose that way before; and “the drained faces of Negro school-children rise like balloons” — one of the first televisual similes in American literature — makes permanent the artificial circumstances of how so many Americans saw race questions in a virtual, fuzzy black and white.
F: You see, Seidel learned to write about race from Lowell, at the same time he picked up the aquarium window motif.
S: If you’re right, Fidelis, Seidel learned to do something without learning how to do it. Race has to come up in Lowell and Seidel because both foreground their positions of privilege. But Seidel’s work in general shows how little he learned from “For the Union Dead.” Seidel doesn’t give readings, but maybe he should. He can’t be listening very closely to the effects of his own prosody. To anyone who has no memory of Ogden Nash, Seidel’s lines sound distinctive. He says he likes to hear the sound of form being broken, but that doesn’t make his clunky lines less clunky.
F: What you hear as clunky, others hear as liberated from the tradition.
S: You can’t liberate yourself from a tradition you haven’t mastered. End rhyme works for Seidel like a drummer works for a stand-up comic: every couplet and quatrain ends with a rim-shot. His haute monde image register is rare in American poetry, but he uses it in a clubby way. Lowell’s allusions to art and literature expand the range of his poems; Seidel’s allusions deliberately shut out the 99.78% . He doesn’t use any similes in “My Poetry,” but when he does resort to similes they are usually dull or question-begging. Fire-fighters, for example, are “Like elephants raising their trunks trumpeting,” or a girlfriend’s question is “as hidden as an Israeli agent’s gun.”
F: The hidden gun simile is specific and clear, Skepticus. The question the speaker’s girlfriend wants to ask is the one you know is always there, like you know an undercover Mossad agent is always there and that will keep you from doing certain things.
S: In what world are Israeli agents always there? What certain things is the speaker kept from doing? And how could the hidden-ness of a Mossad agent’s gun could be more or less significant than the hidden-ness of a C.I.A. agent’s concealed gun, or a Ku Klux Klan member’s concealed gun? Seidel’s being pseudo-specific. Or he’s emitted something less than a poem, a tantalizing tweet from behind the scrim of privilege — the polyester curtains between business and first class. American poetry is better for the bad breath Seidel has blown into it. But qua bad boy, I don’t think he’s got the reach of an H. Rap Brown, and qua artist, you can’t put Lowell and Seidel on the same plane — not even a Concorde.
F: If I follow you, Skepticus, I shouldn’t follow Seidel. But who’s being difficult to parse now? Seidel’s good when he’s bad, but the ways he’s good are bad, because they keep him from being really great?
S: Listen, if you want to follow Seidel, you have the freedom to emulate him the way he’s emulated his masters.
F: What do you mean?
S: I mean that Seidel told the most truth about his poetry, and what I take to be his lack of freedom, when he emulated the work of a rich good boy. For my money, the keys to Seidel’s codes don’t lie in how he comes to terms with Robert Lowell, but how he grapples with James Merrill — the WASP, Amherst, gay, meticulous, genteel anti-Seidel.
F: Seidel rewrote a poem by Merrill?
S: Yes, one of the sonnets from Merrill’s brief autobiographical sequence “The Broken Home,” published in Nights and Days in 1966, in which the speaker recalls being led by the family dog into the sanctuary of the Odalisque/Mother, who is ill, hung-over, drugged, maybe all three.
F: I’ve always loved that sequence. But I hope you’re not going on another one of your poem-as-psychological-portrait rants. The title pokes bitter fun at the bourgeois presumption that the rich do not suffer in childhood — that only middle- and lower-class children can be irreparably damaged by the behavior of their parents. We hardly use the term nowadays, since so many marriages end in divorce. But “broken home” was used to explain the behavior of a difficult child, one who could not be expected to behave any better, as his nuclear family had been detonated. (Rain and thunder have stopped.)
S: Precisely — we used it to explain bad boys. But Merrill’s sequence tilts the playing field, as the speaker’s father is much worse than the son, a metaphorical serial killer: “Each thirteenth year he married. When he died / There were already several chilled wives / In sable orbit-rings, cars, permanent waves.”) In Merrill’s hands the sonnet is an ideal container for memories of childhood and the powerful and conflicting sentiments they conjure. Listen: (Rummaging in his toga for a piece of paper, then reading)
One afternoon, red, satyr-thighed
Michael, the Irish setter, head
Passionately lowered, led
The child I was to a shut door. Inside,
Blinds beat sun from the bed.
The green-gold room throbbed like a bruise.
Under a sheet, clad in taboos
Lay whom we sought, her hair undone, outspread,
And of a blackness found, if ever now, in old
Engravings where the acid bit.
I must have needed to touch it
Or the whiteness — was she dead?
Her eyes flew open, startled strange and cold.
The dog slumped to the floor. She reached for me. I fled.
It’s a sonnet, but Merrill draws out the volta across the last three lines, as if to question the notion that in this case there can be any single turning point. The storyboard is as expressive as Merrill’s rhyming — “satyr-thighed” with “door. Inside,” and “bruise” with “taboos.” If this primal scene of revulsion and desire did not happen in real life, Merrill would have had to have written it for his biopic.
F: It’s so amazingly direct.
S: With a moment like this one, who needs showy effects? The irregular line-lengths (an unusual choice for Merrill) convey the speaker’s sense of the intense “irregularity” of this visitation, in which the Odalisque/Mother is presented as if it is only the depressed dog’s timing that has prevented Merrill from encountering an actual primal scene (i.e. Michael and James stand bedside at primal scene plus n minutes.) In Merrill there are no random line breaks.
F: I’ll admit you can’t say the same thing about Seidel.
S: For me, the curt but elegant tetrameter lines — only two ten-syllable lines occur before the last line’s twelve syllables — give the final two words a mimetic force.
F: Just a second. (Using fingers to count syllables) Nine, ten, eleven, twelve. I know where you’re going. When the speaker says, “I fled,” syllables eleven and twelve are extra syllables, and Merrill escapes from the bounds of the measure he has set for this particular poem.
S: He escapes, but not unscathed! Rhyme gets the last word! “Fled” recalls five preceding end-rhymes to evoke a true crime story: “red,” “led,” “bed,” “outspread,” and “dead.” The “-ed” sound puts some closure on the gravity of the Odalisque/Mother. The speaker’s flight from the wreckage of his parents’ marriage must take place both inside and outside of the bounds Merrill’s set for this poem.
F: I’m afraid your sense of prosody, Skepticus, is once again too psychological for me. But tell me, (Picking up Poems 1959-2009) which poem of Seidel’s is his revision of Merrill’s sonnet?
S: It’s called “That Fall,” Fidelis, and it’s not just a revision, it’s an inversion. (Fidelis searches index, locates poem) It’s made of four more or less regular but heavily-substituted iambic pentameter quatrains. The rhyme scheme is irregular, ABCB/DEDF/GHGI, if I remember right. Seidel’s title evokes both a season of particular year and a moment of general moral collapse: fallen “leaves” — like printed pages of poetry — are “burning” in the final judgment of the last stanza. Will you read it?
F: With pleasure. (Reading)
The body on the bed is made of china,
Shiny china vagina and pubic hair.
The glassy smoothness of a woman’s body!
I stand outside the open door and stare.
I watch the shark glide by…it comes and goes—
Must constantly keep moving or it will drown.
The mouth slit in the formless fetal nose
Gives it that empty look — it looks unborn;
It comes into the room up to the bed
Just like a dog. The smell of burning leaves,
Rose bittersweetness rising from the red,
Is what I see. I must be twelve. That fall.
By goddess, the poems are amazingly alike, Skepticus.
S: Seidel’s inversion of Merrill is fiendish! It’s no rose bittersweet nostalgia. In Merrill’s first line, narrative banality ends in quasi-classical synechdoche — the dog is no satyr, only “satyr-thighed.” But the already-racy and alliterative first syllables of Seidel’s opening line reach an unexpectedly foreign terminus at “china,” which hovers at the line-end as at the edge of the known world, and then all hell breaks loose.
F: In Seidel’s poem the speaker is the badder boy, not his father! At and over this first line-break, the tongue-twister “…china, / shiny china vagina” is the speaker’s wishful stand-in for cunnilingus!
S: But the little boy who knows what to do is stuck. The poem’s language goes insane, but the child Frederick stands still in the hallway.
F: No one helps young Frederick approach the Odalisque/Mother.
S: Because it’s not safe. The speaker even conjures an imaginary shark to patrol the deep end. The shark smells blood; its “fetal” nose sounds “fatal,” yet to the speaker this predator-double yet looks “unborn.” Young Frederick is clearly unprepared to live in the world of the Odalisque/Mother, which is so deep and wet and saline. He stands at the rectangular door frame, looking into a neo-natal ICU, or through the glass aperture of an aquarium dream-tank.
Seidel’s bad boy poems seem so positively negative, so deliberately ramshackle, so adamantly pitched against everything that Merrill said and wrote!
F: How closely he adapts Merrill’s memory! Yet surely you give Seidel credit for how vividly he re-imagines the scene. For Merrill’s speaker, memory seems a transcript.
S: A transcript he is able to clarify, develop, refine, and put to use, over a long course of time. Merrill wrote the first draft of this poem when he was eight years old.
F: But the really great poem came only when he had fled far enough from the scene.
S: Do you know what I find most astonishing? Seidel’s revision of Merrill’s tender sonnet, refuses even to feign a volta, and halts two lines short of a sonnet. It’s as if Seidel is saying: “I’m not going to try to get away. I’m never going to get as far as Merrill.”
F: He doesn’t even mention flight. But he does echo Merrill’s use of “-ed” rhymes—
S: An echo is all he can pull off.
F: I think I see. When Merrill’s childhood home broke, its covalent bonds were loosened, and the speaker eventually achieved his freedom.
S: And we find in Merrill’s oeuvre a corresponding freedom of the imagination, a much larger emotional and referential scope, and a more fluent, less compulsive engagement with prosody, than we find in Seidel’s.
F: You know, “That fall,” is about as sentimental a phrase as Seidel allows himself. According to your reading, it’s a coded sentimentality. We have to read “That fall” as “the Fall.”
S: An original and permanent loss of grace. But the forbidden fruit is never juicy ripe and sweet for the bad boy Seidel; it always has the tang of autumnal smoke and fire.
His oeuvre expresses over and over again, with a sixth grader’s relentlessness, what it feels like to be on the outside looking in at the Odalisque/Mother, whom he can never quite disturb enough, whose attention he can never quite get, no matter how badly he behaves. She is always always china brittle. Her lack of responsiveness, and Seidel’s desire for her to respond — either to admit him or to dismiss him — helps to explain why he so often figures himself as looking through or being looked at through a frame or window or mirror, so often asks us to watch him, or to watch Frederick watching Frederick.
F: Remember how in Area Code 212, he even imagines the destruction of the Twin Towers as if he sees it through a window at his own birthday party sixty years before. What is the line? (Rifling through index) I think it’s “On the other side of the aquarium glass is September 11th.”
S: Yes. Always a shark or airplanes intervene, so he has to stand back from the disaster.
F: You think that’s why Seidel can’t leave the bad boy persona behind, and why he so rarely spends the time to make less clunking and cumbersome lines and rhymes? Because he never got properly scared away by the Odalisque/Mother, as young James Merrill was?
S: I don’t know. (Pause) What I know is that even though his work is more powerful and more interesting than compared to most of what is published in America today, Frederick Seidel isn’t among the best at anything other than being Frederick Seidel. And you know what, Fidelis? He had a very privileged shot at that, and it seems a very sad thing to be.
F: I don’t want to make my cento anymore.
S: Good man. There’s freedom for you. Let’s get outside. The weather is really nice.
About the Author:
Daniel Bosch lives in Chicago. His alter egos Skepticus and Fidelis will tango again at The Rumpus on January 30, 2013.