My Heart on a Stick
- Poems 1959-2009 by Frederick Seidel
Farrar, Straus, 509 pp, $40.00, March 2009, ISBN 978 0 374 12655 1
A popular clip on YouTube shows a local news reporter trying to interview a costume-shop owner who’d been charged with cyberstalking. The woman is dressed as a giant rabbit and refuses to take the reporter seriously. When he asks her to remove ‘the bunny head’ she complies, only to reveal that she is wearing a vampire mask under it. My recent interview with Frederick Seidel, ostensibly for the Village Voice, was marginally less successful than this. In keeping with his perverse ways, Seidel agreed to answer only two questions. One of my questions ponderously involved the received sense, here in the States, that poetry is no longer a vital cultural force, a feeling encouraged by the recent announcement by the National Endowment for the Arts that over the previous 12 months almost 92 per cent of American adults had read no poetry at all. What role, I wondered, can poetry play in such an environment? I had in mind something like Allen Grossman’s admission that he is uncertain what poetry ‘can now mean in the context of the actual human task’. But Seidel simply responded with Samuel Johnson’s line, borrowed from Sidney (who got it from Horace), that poetry must please and instruct. Fair enough: so what are his poems instructing us? ‘That’s for you to say.’ At least I think this is how the conversation went: when I sat down to transcribe the interview, I discovered, not without a sense of relief, that I had inserted the microphone cord into the wrong jack on the tape recorder. Only my questions had been preserved.
A friend suggested I should just have asked: ‘Why are you a monster?’ For it is wonderfully apt that this particular interview should have crashed so spectacularly: Seidel is, as everyone notices, a terrifying poet, and the garish new edition of his collected poems is a terrifying record of unembarrassed privilege. If you can think of a taboo, Seidel violates it somewhere in this book. ‘Mr Delicious’, one of the new poems gathered at the beginning of the volume under the title ‘Evening Man’, is characteristic of Seidel’s perspective:
I stick my heart on a stick
To toast it over the fire.
It’s the size of a marshmallow.
It bubbles and blackens to
Campfire goo –
Burnt-black skin outside
From the 20th century’s
24/7 chimneys, choo-choo-
Train puffs of white smoke rise.
The trains waddle full of cattle to the camps.
The weightless puffs of smoke are on their way to the sky.
Ovens cremate fields of human cow.
Ovens cremate fields of human snow.
One has to go back to Sylvia Plath, born just a few years before Seidel, to find such nose-thumbing at atrocity. Sex is another subject Seidel treats with delicacy: ‘I hate seeing the anus of a beautiful woman./I should not be looking. It should not be there’; ‘A naked woman my age is a total nightmare’; ‘A flock of Japanese schoolgirls ready to be fucked/ In their school uniforms in paradise.’ And, as Christian Lorentzen has rightly noted, no other poet records so frankly the casual air that until recently typified American racism: ‘One of the sovereign experiences of my life was my joy/Hearing my father in a fury call the man Boy.’
But there is much more to Seidel than transgressive gusto. He is not wearing a vampire mask – or if so, it is vampire masks all the way down. The lines from ‘Mr Delicious’, for instance, enact the loss of what Yeats called ‘radical innocence’ (Seidel, unlike Plath, is a Jew). The 20th century has tainted language itself, cremated it. The seemingly innocuous word ‘campfire’, with its connotations of Scouts munching marshmallows, glints off the gold teeth of corpses reduced to ash. Seidel, despite all his rage, is just one more rat in a cage.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.