Loads of Learned Lumber

Monday, September 1, 2008

Frederick Seidel, _Ooga-Booga_

HOW ODD THAT this should be the next book I finished after finishing Juliana Spahr's This Connection of Everyone with Lungs.  Spahr's awareness of injustice and oppression and her sense of responsibility and conscience are so acute as to be at times nearly painful.  Seidel seems...well...relatively slack in such matters.

"A naked woman my age is a total nightmare."  Yikes.  A good many poems here about the sexual pursuit, apparently often successful, of younger women,and almost as many about acquiring super-high-end Italian motorcycles and riding them too fast.  Without a helmet, I bet.

Then there's the phrase that provides the volume with its title.  It occurs in a poem called "Barbados," which evokes the island's history of slavery and the continuing effects of racism, racism which Seidel evokes without doing any obvious apotropaic gestures to clue us in that this racism is not at all his.  "You want to consider me racist? Hey, knock yourself out.  Be my guest," the poem seems to tell us.  Then, in "Mother Nature," he writes of native Americans in the meter of..."Hiawatha."  Then he quotes "Hiawatha" to make sure you got it.

Modern poetry is not supposed to rhyme, or at least not rhyme conspicuously, or at the bare minimum not rely on the unstressed-final-syllable rhymes that infallibly call to mind Dr. Seuss or Ogden Nash.  Seidel didn't get the memo:

Her spirited loveliness
Does cause some distress.
She makes my urbanity undress.
I present symptoms that express
An underlying happiness in the face of the beautiful emptiness.

The same poem ("For Holly Andersen") rhymes "cosmopolitan" with "Neapolitan." Whoosh.

Basically, Seidel breaks about every rule.  And the book is great.

Why is this?  I'm still wondering.  "The Bush Administration" and "The Death of the Shah" are as strong as any other contemporary political poems.  Again and again the language is just simply arresting: "My brain is the wrinkles of the ocean on a ball of tar"; "The F-16s take off in a deafening flock"; "Spreading their wings in order to be more beautiful and more terrible."
There is something bracing, too, in his just being as indifferent as he is to what people might think.

Apparently Seidel is and has always been independently wealthy -- that is, he doesn't need foundation grants, or prizes, or plum teaching positions in prestigious schools, or even good reviews (though to judge by the back of the paperback he gets his share).  So he can just let it rip.  (Merrill was in the same lucky position -- which is about the only thing the two have in common, I'd say.) There is something appealing in watching someone who is that free.

Have to admit, though, Adam Kirsch's approbation of Seidel worries me.  Adam Kirsch has the worst taste of anyone who publishes frequently about poetry, and he likes Seidel, it seems.  An ominous sign.