Life on Earth by Frederick Seidel. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2001. 68 pp. $22 hardback.
As Reviewed By: Preston Merchant
After the World Trade Center towers were destroyed, the New York Times, New York magazine, and other media devoted significant space to the state of the arts, wondering if the usual banalities that pass for American cultural life had now, finally, been rendered null and void. “What is the role of the arts in the present crisis?” the Times asked, “and how will the arts change in response to the new circumstances in which we live?” The questions, I suppose, make some sense in these weeks following the tragedy, but do we really believe that our artists had been faithfully responding to the circumstances in which we lived prior to September 11? Had the world changed utterly that morning, or were we simply forced to realize that America’s comfortable detachment had been a lie? The editors of the Arts & Leisure section (note that pairing) did not invite a poet or fiction writer to contribute to its forum, perhaps because literary matters are the purview of their colleagues at the Book Review. In any case, the assemblage of dancers, choreographers, composers, film directors, and musicians revealed a longing for art that partakes more of the world we live in, art that is not just the exorcism of some personal demon.
Poetry. Has American poetry ever sought to respond to our collective times? Does anyone truly read poetry for its engagement with the wider world, believing it a criticism of life or a momentary stay against dreadful, unfathomable confusion? Any zeitgeist that has blown through American poetry has usually been filtered through the English departments, rendering it–and the poetry–inert. Robert Lowell certainly positioned himself as a public spokesman for each decade of his career, all the while throwing up the shades on many a lurking demon. Indeed, Lowell believed that his conflation of the public and the private was unavoidable. As a Lowell of Boston, his family’s history was intertwined with the nation’s. Few modern poets have assumed a public stance (Yeats is the winning exception, Pound the losing one), and American poets have always felt uneasy in the role. With no volunteers after Lowell (and Frost, a ham), we are forced to appoint them to the Washington, DC, office of the Poet Laureate and pitch them, startled and sweating, to the media.[private]
But poetry that cogently engages the here and now need not be delivered from the dais at a presidential inauguration. Though Frederick Seidel was long a devotee of Lowell, he has not sought to position himself as a public poet; indeed, his cultivation of clubby elitism makes him less a spokesman than a figure of late capitalism, where wealth provides insulation from the unpleasantness outside the window.
Life on Earth is the second installment in Seidel’s project to write a contemporary Divine Comedy, though any reader trying to press the analogy will be disappointed. Life on Earth is no Purgatorio, though is does offer some poems that, viewed in light of September 11 (or not), resonate strongly with our life and times. Seidel can be prescient. In Going Fast, which appeared in 1998, he wrote: “The most underrated pleasure in the world is the takeoff / Of the Concorde and putting off the crash / Of the world’s most beautiful old supersonic plane, with no survivors, / In an explosion of champagne” (the British and French Concordes have only recently begun flying after the accident in July 2000). Seidel styles himself as the consummate globe-trotter, breezing through five-star hotels and gentlemen’s clubs with casual access to foreign ministers and presidents–a kind of André Malraux without a diplomat’s pouch but a copy of The Economist under his arm and an American Express card in his wallet. As the flow of consumer goods has amplified ideological and cultural debates, his poems are elegies for the West: flights of the self, usually abroad, as he had noted in earlier books, among “the haughty perfect ease of haute couture,” as it seeks “the most beautiful terror.”
Few poets deliver casual brutality better than Seidel, and he relishes the ease of it, which becomes the thrust of the poem. In “At New York Hospital,” Seidel imagines himself as an observer (and a poet) in the operating room as “a murderous head of state with beautiful big breasts” undergoes surgery: “Her crimes against humanity / Will be lasered.”
The dentist’s drill drills a hole and
The drill slips and whines out of control,
But no matter. The electric saw cuts
Out a skullcap of bone.
The helicopter descends from Olympus to within an
Inch of touching down
On the wrinkled surface, when a tool falls incredibly
To the floor and I pick it up and am thanked.
The anesthesiologist for my benefit joyously
Declaims Gerard Manley Hopkins.
The surgeon recites a fervent favorite childhood hymn.
He slaps the monster tenderly to wake her up. Wake up, darling.
Seidel’s casualness, and the beauty of the language, magnify the terror. Though it might seem so, is the scene really that preposterous? We know that dictators propped up by CIA money or oil kickbacks do come here for surgery. Why not then have it performed by doctors reciting Hopkins while a poet, scrubbed and sterile, contributes to the enterprise? Seidel is a poet of extremes, but those extremes usually coexist (as they do in real life). His point is simply that the juxtaposition of the beautiful and the terrible is not ironic but part and parcel of the way we live.
Seidel can also be sly, even withering. In “Song,” he takes up the most American of obsessions:
From the carrier deck
We climb to altitude
With an attitude, with
Our laser-guided bombs targeting
The white enormous whale.
We need the sperm oil to light
Our lamps, have to stop
The huge white life for whalebone stays to cage
I’m inclined to call this a poem more about Gulf oil than whale blubber, references to Melville notwithstanding. Seidel’s anachronisms and absurdities come with a bite, as so much expensive technology is put in the service of vanity. Though the book was published well before September 11, it’s still easy to recognize that the gap between a smart bomb and a whale is equal to the gap between the high-tech West and the Third World target. The poem is about the “attitude” that creates such divergence.
But I don’t want to give Seidel more credit than he deserves. His musings about life on earth are scattershot, usually interesting and deft but rarely sustained. “Song,” for example, begins, “How small your part / Of the world is when / You are a girl” and interjects, “I wanted to have / A monocle and stick– / / Put on my top hat, / And be a grain / Of radium, / And radiate a stadium with my act” before the poem mounts the carrier deck. I could offer any number of postmodern critical apologies for those turns, but the poem overall is weaker than its components. His material usually partakes of “high seriousness,” as Matthew Arnold would put it, but Seidel refuses to present it with the same degree of seriousness. The glibness of the poems here, indeed in much of Seidel, is part of his method, as if to compose otherwise would be to expose himself to a different kind of criticism. There is a willful lack of formal technique as well, the freest of free verse suggesting it’s all been scribbled on the back of a cocktail napkin at the Pierre.
Yet Seidel possesses some great gifts. His range of information and reference is unmatched in contemporary poetry. Who else would note the vitarkamudra gesture of a Balinese temple dancer or would posit a submarine engaged in surveillance the day when “the world took off its shoes and disappeared / Inside the central mosque”? Who else would argue that it’s “de rigueur for French aristocrats to name their dogs in English” and that the “crocodiles choo-chooing around. . .are the snouts / Of your ancestors”? Who else would compare “milky moonlight” to “an egg without cholesterol” or state that “Death is loading in the van / The women and camels of King Solomon it is repossessing”? The myth of Frederick Seidel, like the myth of Lowell, is vital to the poetry. Seidel’s breezy business-class shtick gives him access to a real wealth of imagery. Most American poets are afraid to adopt this swagger, as their muses are stay-at-home moms. Seidel’s muse is a European heiress in the South Pacific, fleeing an overbearing father and his book of polite appointments–and she can be as engaging as she is lethargic. Seidel fails when his glibness and world-weariness get the better of him, when the poems remind us that they are just, well, poetry. . .
Still, if it’s all just poetry, if it’s just art, why not uncouple it from leisure? His best poems are uncompromising. Here is “Letter to the Editors of Vogue” in its entirety:
I’m seeing someone and
I really want to,
Am stuck in glue.
I would go anywhere
To be near
The sky above
And smell the iodine
Wine of the port of Algiers,
Or for that matter the freezing
Nights on the dunes
Of the Sahara are blood
That you can drink till dawn
Under the terror of
Make you blind.
I am drinking gasoline
To stay awake
In the midst of so much
My daughter squeaks and squeaks
Like a mouse screaming in a trap,
Dangling from the cat who makes her come
When he does it to her.
Her killer goes out into
The streets to join his brothers
In the revolution
Who don’t have jobs.
The plastic packed beautifully
Inside a tampon box that I carefully leave in the loo
At Café Oasis goes rigid and the
Unveiled meet God.
The mingling of lonely-heart letters in a fashion magazine with plastic explosives lodged in a tampon box in a café is the stuff the contributors to the Times forum would be clamoring for. Seidel locates us in the world of women: Vogue, the sexualized murder of the girl, the tampons (which are a decidedly First World device). The “port of Algiers” and the “unveiled” meeting God bring the focus to the Islamic sphere. In the poem, the route from Vogue (with all its sexual allure) to paradise is death, but Seidel is vague on how it comes about. Are unveiled women in the café killed in a terrorist’s explosion (punished for their self-indulgence and immodesty), or are their veils removed in the blast itself? The net result is the same. The terrorist-speaker is inured to killing as, one supposes, are the readers of Vogue.
The book’s final poem, “Frederick Seidel,” begins, “I live a life of laziness and luxury,” and the author compares himself to a similar fellow who “hid his life away in poetry.”
A perfect example in his poetry is the what
Will save you factor.
The Jaws of Life cut the life crushed in the compactor
My life is a snout
Snuffling towards the truffle, life. Anyway!
It is a life of luxury. Don’t put me out of my misery.
I am seeking more Jerusalem, not less.
And in the outtakes, after they pull my fingernails out, I confess:
I do love
The sky above.
What will save Seidel the poet is that he has chosen a momentous time to seek “more Jerusalem.” Which Jerusalem? The shining City on a Hill, or the one where helicopter gunships and suicide bombers fight for supremacy among the refugee camps? In his blurb for Life on Earth, Richard Poirier proclaims, “It’s as if the poems emerge from what can be recognized as our future.” Seidel may not have any answers and he may be too offhand to be taken seriously at times, but nonetheless the stuff of his poems is the stuff of our world.[/private]