Ever since Walt Whitman in Song of Myself declared “the scent of these armpits aroma finer than prayer,” American poets—Allen Ginsberg, Frank O’Hara, and Sharon Olds come to mind—have pushed the boundaries of what is acceptable in poetic diction and subject matter. Frederick Seidel certainly belongs to this aesthetic, and despite the banal title of his new book of poems, Nice Weather, readers will be shocked, offended, and even angered:
Patent leather makes my shoes
Easter eggs by Faberge.
The shoes say New York is still run by the Jews,
Who glitter when they walk, and aren’t going away.
Tree-lined side streets make me lonely.
Many-windowed town houses make me sad.
The nicest possible spring day, like today, only
Ignites my inner suicide-bomber jihad.
(“The Yellow Cab”)
A poem entitled “The Terrible Earthquake in Haiti” begins “I think the truth is I have to go to the dentist. / That’s what that quaking and shaking was all about.” And Seidel continues his career-long pursuit of fresh metaphors for genitalia: “His penis was a frosted cocktail shaker pouring out a cocktail, / But out came jellied napalm.”
Long-time readers will not flinch at Seidel’s insouciance and insensitivity. They will be familiar with the persona in Nice Weather, one that Seidel has cultivated over many collections: a literary dandy in a self-absorbed pursuit of pleasure, the flâneur strolling the world’s major cities with his eye, heart, and mind tuned to the multiplicity of urban experience. Seidel’s poetics can evoke the light verse of Ogden Nash: “Welcome to South Waziristan. / I’m the Taliban. / I wrote their poem ‘My Poetry.’ / I meant it as an IED,” or the linguistic wordplay of Gertrude Stein: “I’ll stay in bed under the red bedspread. / A Turkish flag of red soaks the bed. / I’m better red and dead. / I’m full of bull in Istanbul.”
With these approaches the poems in Nice Weather display ironic detachment more often than any emotional intensity. “Art after all is lies,” Seidel concludes in his ars poetica, “News from the Muse.” With the oft-repeated “I feel” and “I remember,” however, this collection does carry a sense of impending mortality. This aging persona recalls his youth and endures the passing of friends and colleagues, though at times these poems fall short of depicting much emotional range. The first few stanzas of the poem “Charlie,” written in memory of Charles P. Sifton, chief judge for the Eastern District of New York, plod along in a casual chattiness: “I remember a particular color of / American hair, / A kind of American original orange, / Except it was rather red, the dark colors of fire, / In a Tom Sawyer hairstyle, / Which I guess means naturally . . .” Words like “except,” “rather,” “guess,” “naturally,” read like the speaker working out details in his head about a subject I imagine most readers would not grant such leeway or interest.
At his best, Seidel is a quick-jabbing satirist, more Juvenalian than Horatian, and he possesses the remarkable ability to write poems about contemporary events, from President Obama’s inauguration to the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, seemingly as they occur. Thought titles will often intimate a consistent subject (“Downtown,” “Midwinter,” “Rain”), Seidel’s poems spring from association, rather than sequential narration, and his store of referents—Arnaut Daniel, Paul Mellon, Nelson Aldrich, Reinhold Niebuhr, Edouard Vuillard, Aldo Moro, and Hans Memling to mention only a few—is incredibly vast. The poem “Sweet Day, So Cool, So Calm, So Bright,” references Gandhi, George Herbert, Harley-Davidson, and Homeland Security. Another entitled “Victory Parade” begins in lustful admiration of his girlfriend’s bikini waxing and ends with the assassination of Osama Bin Laden.
But for all of the irony and satirical barbs at consumerist culture or American partisan politics, the poems give off a pervasive anxiety about the current affairs of the “Western world.” Humans tend towards destruction; politicians are crooks; voting day is a farce. The book’s opening poem “Night” begins, “The city sleeps with the lights on,” and this childlike fear builds into an ambiguous paranoia: “Something is going on. Something is wrong.” Concluding with an ironic allusion to a Homeric epithet, the poem suggests that every great civilization, be it Greek or American, is bound to fall: “Summer thunder bumbles in the distance. / The prostitute—whose name is Dawn— / Takes the man in her mouth and spits out blood, / Rosy-fingered Dawn.”
In an interview with the Paris Review, Seidel said of his work: "I like poems that are daggers that sing. I like poems that for all the power of the sentiments expressed, and all the power to upset and offend, are so well-made that they’re achieved things. However much they upset you, they also affect you."
Readers who prefer poetry propelled by quick cuts and surprising juxtapositions, who find pleasure in a well-executed rhyme and exhilarate in reading the explicitly illicit, will love many of these poems (“Palm Sunday,” “Track Bike,” “Rain”). These poems neither propose any solutions for the world’s ills nor are they a call to action. They are a singular consciousness witnessing contemporary times and relishing the freedom of speech and creative spirit:
Oh black-and-yellow-moonlit sea,
Oh fattest black-and-yellow August bumblebee,
I struggle to shut my snout.
I burst out in the street like someone just let out.
(“Sweet Day, So Cool, So Calm, So Bright”)