While I won’t reveal where I come down on the question of whether Frederick Seidel is “the best poet we have” in contemporary American poetry, I think anyone familiar with his career would grant that he’s one of its most enigmatic figures.
A millionaire from his father’s St. Louis coal company, Seidel Coal and Coke, he took time off from Harvard in the 50’s to visit T.S. Eliot in London and Ezra Pound at the hospital in Washington, D.C. He caused a scandal at the Unterberg Poetry Center in 1963 when they awarded their poetry prize to his first book, Final Solutions (a reference to the Nazi’s plan for systematic genocide). He didn’t publish his second book until 1980. But now for more than a decade—when not driving custom-built superbikes around Manhattan—he has been steadily producing book after book of the most interesting contemporary poetry around, and he’s out with his latest: Nice Weather.
Nice Weather isn’t Seidel’s finest. He delivers fewer moments that blend the intensity of image and the poise of sound and rhythm than in his best work. But they are here to be found. A few of the longer poems in the second half of the book remind us of his recent sprawling masterpieces:
In sixteenth century Portugal, there were thirty-two thousand African slaves.
They came overseas in waves.
They sailed over in their graves.
It comes over me in waves.
They died and went on living. At Cabo de São Vicente, the black Atlantic
Spanks the gruesome cliff at the outer edge of Europe and gets sick,
Throwing up white.
The white is made of night.
The wrath fucks froth against the cliff.
Waterboarding makes the cliff stiff.
It voted for Obama and I ask Obama if.
Seidel has always been interested in history and the brutality it contains. His books are intentionally placed in their historical moments. Nice Weather, more than ever, addresses the politics of the current moment, with references to the Greek debt crisis, the Arab Spring, the presidential race in America, and Lady Gaga.
Readers of Seidel will be surprised to find that this book is also balanced by self-reflexive, contemplative, and even nostalgic modes; one senses that Seidel is writing after the publication of his Poems: 1959-2009. A poem that shares its title with this collection starts, “I turn into the man they photograph./ I think I’ll ask him for his autograph.”
Many of the poems in the book are dedicated to or about friends of his who have passed away. But even at his most nostalgic, Seidel continues to treat his subjects with his characteristic cheek. In “They’re There,” he writes, “At least the dead don’t have to die./ Everyone you see is dead, but it’s the Hamptons, so get over it.”
What has always been one of the most compelling things about reading Seidel is his ability to move effortlessly through vastly different registers of emotion. “Moto Poeta,” a poem to his late friend Stephen Aaron, closes:
I ride the cosmos on my poetry Ducati, Big Bang engine, einsteinium forks.
Let me tell you about the extraterrestrial Beijings and New Yorks.
You are dear planet Earth, where my light-beam spaceship will land.
I’ll land, after light-years of hovering, and take your hand.
Repetition is another theme throughout Seidel. He has included in the same book poems that share a title, and even substantial portions of the text. Certain characters continuously re-emerge. Dr. Holly Andersen is a character who has served repeatedly as a figure for meditations on the contemporary Western relationship to death: “Something about a doctor who can cure, or anyway try,/ But can also cry,/ Is some sort of ultimate lullaby, and lie” (“For Holly Anderson,” Ooga-Booga, 2006).
In “Dinner with Holly Andersen,” the reader expects another meditation on death, but the poem opens, “My fourteen books of poems/ Tie a tin can to my tail.” Admirers of Seidel will appreciate these moments of witty reflection on his career. It is a career well worth reflection.
Michael Robbins, who borrows much from Seidel, is right to bemoan American poetry’s current state in his recent review of Nice Weather; it does seem to be in an odd place. Poets increasingly write for themselves. The few with wider appeal don’t seem willing to take many risks. Seidel—though woefully underappreciated even within the cloisters of the poetry community—offers some relief, with a voice that is remarkably clear, honest, and hungry.
The mummy in the case is coming back to life.
It sits up slowly. I can’t bear it.
The guard pays no attention. He knows it is my wife.
Her heart sits blinking on her shoulder like a parrot.
– “Do Not Resuscitate”