My Heart on a Stick

Michael Robbins

  • 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
Gooey Jew.
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.

A very, very rich rat, it’s true, whose cages include the finest hotels and restaurants: ‘I am a result of the concierge at the Carlyle.’ The son of a St Louis coal magnate, he has never had to work for a living; his habits of consumption are, in his poems, most conspicuous. The six-figure superbikes Ducati Corse custom builds for him are his Beatrice and Laura, except that his amorous hope is requited:

A Ducati 916 stabs through the blur.
Massimo Tamburini designed this miracle
Which ought to be in the Museum of Modern Art.
The Stradivarius
Of motorcycles lights up Via Borgospesso
As it flashes by, dumbfoundingly small.
Donatello by way of Brancusi, smoothed simplicity.
One hundred sixty-four miles an hour.
The Ducati 916 is a nightingale.
It sings to me more sweetly than Cole Porter.
Slender as a girl, aerodynamically clean.
Sudden as a shark.

Seidel’s first book, Final Solutions, caused a minor scandal when it was chosen to receive a small award from the Young Men’s and Young Women’s Hebrew Association in 1962. The national director of the YMHA asked that some possibly libellous references be removed from the manuscript; Seidel refused; the prize was revoked, the original publisher withdrew, and the judges quit in protest over his treatment. One of them was Robert Lowell, whom Seidel had interviewed for the Paris Review the previous year. Final Solutions, which was eventually published by Random House, is laboriously indebted to Lowell, though the poems often resemble what Randall Jarrell described as the ‘academic and clumsy’ lines of ‘The Mills of the Kavanaughs’ rather than the febrile inventiveness of Life Studies or History. The best of the work is competent and even beautiful, but in light of the corpse paint to come, much of it sounds like a classroom exercise in a familiar mid-century American style:

Once, while a breeze
Feathered the sapling laurels, I found a bee the mild
South wind had injured, which, while my palm
Softly lifted it to its hive, woke from its calm
And stung its puny life into my hand.

It took Seidel 17 years to produce another collection, Sunrise, and though many of the poems remain under the influence of Lowellian anxiety, the distinctively sui-Seidel note (to borrow a pun from the poet himself) is audible for the first time:

It was autumn. It rained. His lies drooped down.
It was a Year of the Pig in Vietnam,
In Vietnam our year the nth, the Nixonth,
Sometimes one wants to cut oneself in two
At the neck. The smell. The gore. To kill!
            There was
The child batting her head against the wall,
Beating back and forth like a gaffed fish.
There was the wife who suspected they were nothing.
There’s the head face-up in the glabrous slop.

The suspicion that one is nothing appears throughout Seidel’s work, the consequence of political horror. ‘I isn’t anything,’ he writes in Ooga-Booga (2006); ‘And I is the first one hacked to pieces.’ To avoid this fate, a poem in Sunrise has it, ‘Step one is to be rich.’

Still, much of Sunrise seems to strain after a demotic idiom it doesn’t quite understand: ‘A football spirals through the oyster glow/ Of dawn dope and fog in LA’s/Bel Air, punted perfectly. The foot/That punted it is absolutely stoned.’ The poems in These Days, published in 1989, are more assuredly exhibitionist (‘My penis/Rises, hearing its name, like a dog.//I ought to cut it off/And feed it to itself’), but it is with 1993’s My Tokyo that Seidel sidles into his mature style, replacing the rigid diction of the earliest work with a globalised strip-club-neon vernacular minted ten minutes in the future:

Tokyo is low
And manic as a hive.
For the middle of the night they have silent jackhammers.
Elizabethan London with the sound off.
     Racially pure with no poor.

Mishima himself designed the stark far-out uniform
His private army wore, madly haute couture.
      He stabbed the blade in wrong
And was still alive while his aide tried in vain
To cut his head off as required.

Moshi-moshi I can’t hear you. I’m going blind.
Don’t let me abandon you, you’re all I have.
Hello, hello. My Tokyo, hello.
Hang up and I’ll call you back.

You say to the recyclable person of your dreams Je t’aime,
And the voice recognition system,
Housed in a heart made from seaweed,
Murmurs in Japanese Moi aussi.

Here the hacking, red-throated voice is finally unrestrained. Going Fast (1998) is even better, the datebook of a playboy savage who bites off umbilical cords and paints his face with history’s viscera. The hilarious tune-up of Ovid’s tale of Myrrha begins, ‘A daughter loved her father so much/She accused him of sexual abuse,’ which nicely indicts the sexual hysteria of our predator-catching moralism. Seidel knows the veneer of civilisation is thin:

A 20th-century
Power outage brings the darkness back
In the vicinity of Jesus Christ, a Caucasian male.
I want the General Assembly to know
How China greets the day.
They don’t like blonds and they don’t like blacks.
The smell won’t go away.
The smell of sperm on the edge of the axe.

The judgment of the poet, as of history, is final: ‘Fuck the muse.’

This disquieting bass note of leering and lament thrums throughout the staccato quatrains and lurid, drawn-out doggerel of Poems 1959-2009, as lines, stanzas, motifs, even entire poems repeat from book to book. The American invasion of Vietnam is only the Nixonth iteration of an imperial project whose Orwellian contours fascinate Seidel: the title of ‘Freedom Bombs for Vietnam’ (in Sunrise) expresses a contempt for ‘military humanism’ that receives its ultimate articulation in Ooga-Booga’s ‘The Bush Administration’:

The Bush administration likes its rain sunny-side up.
I feel a mania of happiness at being alive
As I write you this suicide note.
I have never been so cheerily suicidal, so sui-Seidel.
I am too cheery to be well.
George Bush is cheery as well.
I am cheeriest
Crawling around on all fours eating gentle grass
And pretending I am eating broken glass.
Then I throw up the pasture.

Both Plath and Lowell practised something like this detonation of historical pain in the service of intense and unseemly self-regard, and both were attacked for it. Like them, Seidel has anticipated his detractors. He is only too aware that he is ‘pretending’ to eat broken glass, that he will never be hacked to pieces, as in the opening of ‘Barbados’, from Ooga-Booga, which still seems to me Seidel’s best poem:

Literally the most expensive hotel in the world
Is the smell of rain about to fall.
It does the opposite, a grove of lemon trees.
I isn’t anything.
It is the hooks of rain
Hovering with their sweets inches off the ground.
I is the spiders marching through the air.
The excellent smell of rain before it falls overpowers
The last aristocrats on earth before the asteroid.
I sense your disdain, darling.
I share it.

He senses your disdain, and shares it. And he goes out of his way to provoke it. There is no more relentless pronoun in English-language poetry than Frederick Seidel’s ‘I’. ‘Everything in the poems is true,’ he told New York magazine in 2006. ‘You should take them at face value.’ The de rigueur response to such a claim is provided by Richard Poirier: ‘Fred’s created a character named Frederick Seidel that has little to do with who he is.’ In a review of The Cosmos Poems, Calvin Bedient obligingly clears his throat before contending with the unpleasant poetry: ‘However fictive and hyperbolic his poetic “I” . . .’ Such assurances are merely comfortable seats from which we may safely enjoy Seidel’s Guignol, remnants of an academic orthodoxy with no room for extreme autobiography. It has been almost 60 years since Cleanth Brooks wrote that ‘the typical professor of literature in the graduate school’ would find the severance of a poem ‘from its author and from his life as a man, with his own particular hopes, fears, interests, conflicts, etc . . . bloodless and hollow’. If there is one thing the typical professor knows today, it is that the author of a poem is not identical with its ‘speaker’. Seidel worries us in part because he refuses us this plausible deniability.

Autobiography reaches cosmological proportions in the three canticles collected in 2003 as The Cosmos Trilogy, a reverse Commedia that begins in the ‘pre-universe’ not yet subject to the laws of space-time, when ‘None of it/Does not make sense.’ The suspicion that we are literally nothing is confirmed:

It is the invisible
Dark matter we are not made of
That I am afraid of.
Most of the universe consists of this.

The trilogy ends in a literal inferno on a Tuesday morning in September, when ‘One day I went downtown but it was gone’:

I am the sword of sunrise flying into area code 212
To flense the people in the buildings, and the buildings, into dew.

These demonic aubades give a new sense to ‘sunrise’, as Seidel’s abhorrence of bromides allows him to become the only documentarian of 9/11 to capture the full tragic absurdity of the attacks:

In the airplane blind-dating the south tower,
People are screaming with horror.
The airplane meeting the north tower
Erupts with ketchup.

Only Seidel could make a word like ‘ketchup’ offensive – but it’s directed against the terrorists as well as those who would use their crime to venerate their own holy wars, and also against the poet’s own incommensurability to the occasion.

These are the valentines of a stalker who hates everything too much to let it go without a fight. ‘I want to date-rape life,’ he writes in an earlier poem, ‘I want to drive into a drive-in bank and kiss/And kill you, life.’ In the poems that follow, in Ooga-Booga and now in ‘Evening Man’, Seidel has become a generator of adrenalised weirdness, rewriting Larkin’s screeds against ‘unresting death’ – ‘Not to be here,/Not to be anywhere,/And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true’ – as scatological comic books. In ‘Barbados’, Seidel riffs on African politics:

The former president completely loses it and screams from the stage
That someone fucking stole his fucking phone.
The audience of party faithful is terrified and giggles.
This was their man who brought the crime rate down
By executing everyone.
The crocodile staged a coup
And ended up in prison himself
And then became the president.
He stood for quality of life and clitorectomy.
But in his second term, in order to secure those international loans,
The crocodile changed his spots to free speech.

‘Kill Poem’, which opens Ooga-Booga, makes a similar point in a different way:

We follow blindly, clad in coats of pink,
A beast whose nature is to run and stink.
I am civilised in my pink but
Civilised is about having stuff.
The red coats are called ‘pinks’. Too much is almost enough.
No one knows why they are. I parade in the air
With my stuff and watch the disappearing scut
Of a deer. I am civilised but
Civilised life is actually about too much.

Every document of barbarism is at the same time a record of civilisation. John Ashbery might write like this if he were a character in Gossip Girl.

The best of Seidel’s new poems are weirder and stronger than ever. Only Stevens and Ashbery, among American poets, have settled into old age with comparably candy-coloured gifts intact. In ‘Poem by the Bridge at Ten-Shin’, as ‘Democracy in Baghdad makes men think/Monstrosity was not so bad,’ the nursery-rhyme playfulness achieves a sick imagistic resolution:

I knew a beauty named Dawn Green.
I used to wake at the crack of Dawn.
I wish I were about to land on Plymouth Rock,
And had a chance to do it all again but do it right.
It was green dawn in pre-America. I mean
Great scented forests all along the shore, which now are gone.
I’ve had advantages in life and I pronounce Iraq ‘Irrock’.
The right schools taught me how to tock.
I’m tocking Turkey to the Kurds but with no end in sight.
These peace tocks are my last. Goodbye, Iran. Iran, good night.
They burned the undergrowth so they could see the game they hunt.
That made the forest a cathedral clear as crystal like a cunt.
Their arrows entered red meat in the glory
Streaming down from the clerestory.

These recent poems travel through indignation to tastelessness and finally arrive at poignancy. Seidel’s willingness to let the whole creature out is a kind of innocence, a refusal to be bounded that is almost sentimental in its desire to go on until every possible violation has been explored. For Seidel seems to be consciously writing against time: ‘No one my age can go on living for long.’ No recent poet has raged so movingly against what Philip Roth has called the ‘massacre’ of old age: ‘Here’s a pun – It took my breath away! Lung cancer? Breath away?’ But Poems 1959-2009, doorstop though it is, doesn’t feel like an epitaph. ‘I spend most of my time not dying./That’s what living is for.’