For the past half-century, no American writer has had his finger on the pulse of the zeitgeist quite like Frederick Seidel. Since the publication of the alarmingly titled Final Solutions in 1959, Seidel has cut an isolated figure in contemporary poetry, with his idiosyncratic voice speaking to a range of themes that most writers go to great lengths to evade. No subject is off limits in Seidel’s poetry; no idea too obscene or profane; no line too self-concerned or ambitious — that is, he is the poet who most accurately presents the coarse and indulgent realities of our modern existence, embracing and articulating what we know is common in everyday life but seemingly taboo in literature: the crass, often vulgar aspects of sex and desire, money and power, history, status and the self.
This unflinching explicitness is most commonly associated with writers who speak up to power from a position of disenfranchisement — who have little or no skin in the game, and therefore little or nothing to lose by taking such risks. What makes Seidel truly distinct and utterly enthralling, and at times disturbing, is that he writes securely from the lap of comfort and connectedness in his Upper West Side apartment, a custom-made Ducati in the garage, bespoke suits in the wardrobe, drinking at the Carlyle Hotel with federal judges and famous surgeons. When, in early 2016, he published Widening Income Inequality, there was no doubt as to which side of the divide he was speaking from.
But the brilliance of Seidel is that he does not shrink from any of this extravagance, enabling him to explore from a position of unique privilege what is equal, if not uniform in its variety, among us all: the unrelenting gravity of desire and the black hole its sating unfailingly throws us into, no matter what our station in life. The refinement of appetites, Seidel shows us, in no way suppresses them. “Too much,” he writes in the astonishing “Kill Poem” from 2006’s Ooga-Booga, “is almost enough.”
Seidel’s poems can open with the intention to shock and appall. It is not uncommon to see references to incest, rape and masturbation placed next to more quotidian images, such as the speaker of the poem being fitted for a suit, or dining out at a New York restaurant. The tone of the poems — Seidel’s use of the iambic pentameter and constant rhyming — , give the impression that the poet treats these themes with levity or flippancy. However, as the poems develop, they most often approach a place of innocence or profundity, or both, converting what was first read as scandalous into something akin to heartfelt. It is a place that more earnest poetry rarely ever reaches. “Autumn Leaves,” for example, opens as follows:
Plop the live lobster into the boiling water and let it scream.
You both turn red.
Of course you have to eat it dead.
There can be unfertilized roe
That will turn red also, maliciously delicious, called coral.
At various points throughout the rest of the poem, Seidel compares the lobster’s incontinence to falling autumn leaves; a mouse still alive stuck on a glue trap to a man standing on the roof of his submerged car; both the mouse and the man to a woman masturbating in front of a mirror, “Little shrieks from you as you try to get unstuck from you.”
These images, disparate and crude, all circle around the idea of transformation, and their crudeness allows Seidel to smuggle in moments of true vulnerability. “It’s agony to be turning into something else — / And when you certainly weren’t intending to.” Of course, we are all turning into something else, at all times, without intending to.
The innocence in Seidel’s poetry is not fraudulent: We live in a world where catastrophic and catastrophically stimulating images and events are thrown at us at hyper-speed. To live with them we do our best to make light of them, but no cloak of humor is impenetrable, and like a knife, an image can cut through and wound us, flashing a sense of the profound through our souls, only for the next image to cauterize it closed a fraction of a second later. This is the poetry of Seidel.
Seidel’s work has garnered him a range of fervent critical responses. He has been labeled “the most frightening American poet ever.” But if Seidel was, as one critic wrote, “the poet the 20th Century deserved” (that is, unscrupulous, divisive, a highlight-reel of eviscerating images), then the 21st century is very much the century that Seidel’s poetry foretold. All the crassness and vulgarity of our most-private, splenetic moments — which were once concealed with tremendous care, only to become fetishized on reality television — have now been let loose in the public square by a gaudy, uncouth president who is the antithesis of the Poet: unusually incurious, phenomenally inarticulate, amazingly uncultured, fantastically uneducated and apparently very proud of all those things.
Seidel’s first post-Trump book, Peaches Goes It Alone (increasingly, Election Day 2016 will be seen as a watershed in contemporary literature), is a breathtaking account of the current zeitgeist, and the pulse Seidel diagnoses is dangerously close to extinguishing itself. However, the world isn’t going out with a whimper, but a throbbing rush of blood that is careening faster towards disaster than a Ducati on an ice-slick road.
“I wear a suicide belt I detonate,” Seidel writes in “Paris,”
And make my City of Light
A coprophagic tomb.
This is the End of Days.
This is what we’ve been waiting for always.
I walked over to the Hudson River, heading for Mars.
Each poem of mine is a suicide belt.
I say that to my girlfriend, Life.
Peaches Goes It Alone is a book that deals with collapse, often violent collapse: collapse of culture, of the environment and of Seidel himself, in the form of both the breakdown of his body and the disintegration of his spirit, that is, his faith in those things that had, if not fulfilled him, then at the very least sustained, amused and excited him. “The endlessness of America is ending,” he notes in the tersely titled “Trump.” “And what an ending. / A second-stage booster rocket ascending / From the one below that’s downward trending.”
In the book’s opening poem “Athena,” Seidel juxtaposes what has long been considered the birthplace and apogee of Western culture — ancient Greece — with the destruction that the excesses of our own evolution of that culture have made on the natural world. (Seidel also frequently draws lines between ancient Greece and modern-day Queens, the birthplace of Trump, with its large Greek community.) Athena, the goddess who so patiently shepherds Odysseus safely home to Ithaca, is now keeping watch over the polar bears, “Who these days have to walk on snot, / Global warming underfoot. / Snot, not snow, is now their natural habitat with climate change / and oceans rising.” The crucial distinction is that, unlike Odysseus, the polar bears did not leave home; their home has left, having been taken from them. There is no home to which Athena can guide them.
Much like the polar bears, Seidel’s world has been taken from him, too. America has been Trumped; London, which “once seemed the epitome of no regrets,” has been overrun by Brexit yobs; Paris has been hijacked by religious zealots; and Seidel’s own body, the aging of which he compares to having your horse shot out from under you, is eluding his will: “My silly body fell down a set of stairs. / My big body doesn’t always know who I am. / Doesn’t recognize who it’s with or how or why.”
As Seidel’s body collapses, so does America and Western culture writ large. Because of this, for the first time in the poet’s writing there is a depressing sense of resignation. Seidel may have always known that “civilized life is about having too much,” and been able to “see the silence” within the void of that excess, but the past few years have shown unequivocally that the alternatives to a refined excess are far more injurious and far less enjoyable. In “Now,” which reads almost like a eulogy for America, Seidel writes:
And wasn’t America often quite generous?
In fact, my understanding is the Western heart is leaking pus
And the Western brain is near the end.
The Prophet Muhammad and his evil double have started to blend.
But this resignation has in no way dimmed Seidel’s talent to provoke and amuse. Trump is a frequent target. Seidel compares the president to the “madly inane” General Franco (“Make Spain great again!”) and describes Trump Tower as “a tower of global-warming gold. / The traffic situation midtown is possibly the end of the world.” Nor has that resignation blunted his ability to collocate images and ideas around a central theme: desire, most often driven by the libido. Take the speaker from “England Now,” who conflates his Brexit vote with his manhood:
Somewhere down south,
In the tropical humidity and heat
Of my brain below the belt,
Is where I vote.
Or how about Seidel’s take on the Me Too movement? In “Modigliani” he writes, “Masturbating in front of women who work for you or want to, / Women who have plenty to gain or lose in this, / Seems to be a new thing men in power do. / It’s as big as the White House.” When the men pull out their genitals, the poem continues, “They think they’re performing / On a nine-foot grand piano.” Elsewhere, he opens the poem “Abusers” with the lines, “Every woman who wants to be spanked should be / Spanked for wanting to be.” Seidel has often been accused of wanting to have it both ways. But as graphic and lewd as Seidel can seem when writing about lust and sex, he has always appeared in his writing to be a worshiper of women, not an exploiter. And in an exhilarating passage, which is perhaps the climax of the collection, Seidel pays the ultimate tribute:
When I’m laid out naked on the slab,
And here comes God — who’s of course a she —
Who removes the ring,
And slides my corpse
Into her big hot thing
It is a fitting way, perhaps the only way, we can see Seidel ever shuffle off this mortal coil — for him to be cremated in his ultimate obsession. But we also hope he does not find his last resting place anytime soon, because the poet’s work is as essential to the zeitgeist as the zeitgeist is to the poet’s work.
Peaches Goes It Alone might be the most accomplished collection of poems by Seidel, who must now, at this moment, be considered the greatest living American poet.
Peaches Goes It Alone by Frederick Seidel (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)