One of my more interesting reading experiences last fall was provided by Frederick Seidel's Ooga-Booga (2006). I don't know much about Seidel except he's rich, was born in 1936, published his first book of poems in 1962, and didn't publish another book until 1979. His Collected Poems, 1959-2009 was released a few months ago. I'm hoping to dawdle through it this summer. Whatever we expect a poet to show us, it's rare that he shows us a lifestyle to which only that elusive 5% of the population with 37% of the wealth are accustomed. In Seidel's case, as in "Barbados," there is an outrageous tendency to be as rancid as anything he might witness. Poets with political axes to grind do, of course, give us glimpses of brutal acts and consequences to jar us out of our literary complacency. But Seidel somehow seems to suggest that all he's grinding is his pencil, to make it sharper. Whatever the outcome of the chaos we live in, he seems to shrug, I was there.
But what makes his writing so hard to fathom is its childlike simplicity. Or, rather, its simplicity is so arch, so tongue-in-cheek, so craftily artless, that one always waits to be slapped or jabbed by the inevitable line that arrives with all the specific, precise density -- drowning in acid -- of Robert Lowell or T. S. Eliot when they suddenly drop the right phrase into its inevitable place.
Huntsman indeed is gone from Savile Row, And Mr. Hall, the head cutter. The red hunt coat Hall cut for me was utter Red melton cloth thick as a carpet, cut just so. One time I wore it riding my red Ducati racer -- what a show!-- Matched exotics like a pair of lovely red egrets. London once seemed the epitome of no regrets And the old excellence one used to know Of the chased-down fox bleeding its stink across the snow. --"Kill Poem"
Yeah, and "a savage servility slides by on grease." To me, the echoes of Lowell's "Skunk Hour" dance through a poem that strikes me as a Charles Bukowski poem for an uncannily different demographic. But Bukowski came to mind while reading Seidel, not only for the "fuck you if you can't take me" ethos that these poems exude, but for a sense of the poem as the only possible response to a life of this tenor. Once your lines become this spare, they spare nothing.
But look at how the diction does whatever it wants -- the beautiful balance of line 3 ends with that hanging "utter" that is itself pretty damned utter. And then the "what a show!" interpolation in a flash makes speaker and poem as cartoonish as anything -- or at least as any inconceivable commercial for Ducati racers(!) could be. Then the "matched exotics" of "egrets" and "regrets" so funny and so baldly bad, as we veer into "the old excellence" that ends with a line worthy of Lowell and an image that suddenly brings in the death and blood that lurks so smugly behind all our diversionary tactics. Gee.
What I like about Seidel is the way he plays our banalities back at us, but first subjects them to a sea-change that causes the acrid brine of his own peculiar vision to cling to them:
The young keep getting younger, but the old keep getting younger. But this young woman is young. We kiss. It's almost incest when it gets to this. This is the consensual, national, metrosexual hunger-for-younger. --"Climbing Everest"
What is said is what anyone commenting on how the rich old court the fresh young might say -- but it would be said in a wagging finger way, or at least with mockery of the jaded, fading oldster trying to ignite himself via youth. But Seidel says it with a kind of rueful surprise at being the oldster accepted by youth in his "hunger-for-younger." In other words, it's not jaded at all, but almost charmingly surprised by the mores of "almost incest," where the words "consensual, national" do the job of making both old and young part of a machine that operates simply because it operates. "My dynamite penis / Is totally into Venus" Seidel quips, the intonation of youth appropriated by age to make the sex act partake of "the moment" as, we tend to think, only youth can. The insinuation of the poem -- that such sex acts, like that Ducati racer, are grandiose acts of death-courting -- never stops asserting itself after that first verse of foreplay, and each joke gets a little edgier, stripped of any self-satisfaction, but gripped by the vanity of vanitas, which is to say that being vain is a vain endeavor, that the grave is grave, and that "the train wreck in the tent" is addicted to all the tender mercies he can get.
Judging by Ooga-Booga, Seidel is an acquired taste that I'm on my way to acquiring because his poems confront me in a way that the poets I end up living with for awhile do. Bring on those Collected Poems.