(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2012)


Frederick Seidel’s Ooga-Booga was published in 2006. An undergraduate at the time, I considered myself sympathetic to, actually enamored of, several Seidel poems, including “The Death of the Shah” and “Barbados” (I was twenty when I relished the line, “Diarrhea in a condom is the outcome.”) Those poems and their author seem less convincing to me now, and Nice 

Weather (2012) even less so, but I am willing to concede, like a former lover, that something sweet and true once passed between us.* If you’re inclined to find fist-fucking either offensive or liberating, this poet will either offend or set you free. But if, like the me of today, you are neither scandalized nor exhilarated by his crudities, some scrutiny is in order. Here are two excerpts: the first from Ooga-Booga, the second from the new book. 

“The Death of the Shah”:

               Have pity on a girl, perdurable, playful,
               And delicate as a foal, dutiful, available,
               Who is waiting on a bed in a room in the afternoon for God.


“Arnaut Daniel”:

               Ezra Pound channeling the great troubadour poet Arnaut Daniel
               In St. Elizabeths Hospital for the criminally insane
               In Washington, D.C.,
               Thanksgiving weekend, 1953,

               I remember he sounded like he
               Was warbling words of birdsong.


Though not named, the girl “delicate as a foal” is one of Seidel’s most present presences. The pattern of “uh”-assonance and near assonance (“buhl” “fuhl” “fohl” “fuhl” “buhl”) forms a stepladder of sounds leading to the bed of the third line, and additional chiasmic assonances of “bed” / “room” // “-noon” / “God.” The lines’ sonic richness (consisting of vowel repetitions and variations) is their pathos. Not so in the second excerpt, whose prose doesn’t provide the resistance necessary to highlight the end-rhymes in lines three, four, and five. This poem is a report of another poet doing his poetry; it’s a sketch of what a poem could be. Indeed throughout Nice

 Weather, when poems attempt to deconstruct shallowness or illuminate depravity, they end up mimetically shallow and under-depraved. As one example,

                        I am hungry and unhappy and look and see
                        It looking at me

                        From under her skirt.
                        I see a delightful little hair shirt.
                        I see a valley of moist Montale plus myself plus George Herbert.

                                                                               (“Sweet Day, So Cool, So Calm, So Bright”)

And a corollary,

                       Between my legs it’s Baudelaire.
                       He wrote about her Central Park of hair.


                                                                      (“Poem by the Bridge at Ten-Shin,” in Collected Poems)

His penis is a poet; her vagina is three poets. A complex sexual-political distinction might lurk beneath, but I doubt it. Substituting “Andrew Marvell” for “George Herbert” would destroy the rhyme, but I cannot believe it would destroy the (nebulous) sentiment, thus Herbert’s inclusion is hermeneutically (if not sonically) arbitrary. We might celebrate Seidel’s “provocation,” but I get steamed more by his logical and descriptive laziness than by his puerility. In essence, Seidel the persona has become the “project” of his later books: his poems may be understood as instantiations of the category of Seidelness, therefore each might be read in the hope it satisfies some lack apparent in the previous. This shift in frame from poems to poetics, from lyric impulse to the implied person generating poems, is analogous to the basic move of conceptualism—meaning the poetry one talks about or thinks about, rather than the poetry one reads. It seems increasingly that Seidel’s poems are intended as anticipations of the conversations they will provoke, rather than as utterances demanding a reader’s (imagined, particular) response. If we are indifferent to his lines and their whimsies, we must, as consolation, make do with the idea of them and the abstraction of him.

                                                                                     —Chris Schlegel 

                       


* Michael Robbins, a fan of Seidel's, admits in his Chicago Tribune review of Nice 

Weather that Ooga-Booga was prob- ably a high-water mark. Robbins finds productive reasons for Seidel's “offensiveness,” but his analysis, like others, assumes umbrage to be the natural response to the work. 



 

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