Frederick Seidel of St. Louis, Missouri, is probably the last American decadent–certainly he is the most distinguished. The decadent is not a native species, and his posture of heavy-lidded exhaustion is at odds with our more wide-eyed philosophies. While the American is forever young, the decadent is already old:
Cold drool on his chin, warm drool in his lap, a sigh,
The bitterness of too many cigarettes
On his breath: portrait of the autist
Asleep in the arms of his armchair, age thirteen
These are the opening lines of Seidel’s “A Dimpled Cloud,” from These Days. They recall another of his poems from the same collection, about an art teacher with an exotic accent named Mrs. Jaspar: “We used to pronounce her name to rhyme with Casbah,/Mimicking her fahncy Locust Valley lockjaw.” Taking the two poems together, though, the joke is less on Mrs. Jaspar than the speaker himself, who has learned to confuse the pronunciation of “autist” and “artist,” an extravagance that even the most inveterate Long Island Brahmin would not reach for–or stoop to. Seidel’s best laughs come at the expense of the self rather than its society: He is not a satirist, though he can be very wicked, and the comedy of his poems is not the comedy of manners. Instead, it is the more desperate, more affecting comedy of belatedness, in which the poet finds that his voice is only an accent, and that all accents are only echoes. What makes Seidel stand out among American poets, however, is not just his air of early-blooming ennui but the fact that he is uniquely contemporary.
Area Code 212 is the final book of a trilogy that includes The Cosmos Poems and Life on Earth. The topology of the series is borrowed from Dante’s Divine Comedy, but the itinerary is rather different: Seidel’s trilogy begins in the heavens and ends in Manhattan. The excessiveness of that gesture seems whimsical at first, but it is seriously meant. Over the course of his trilogy, Seidel makes a broad and complex argument about the history of the self in poetry. The history begins from a point where everything is still possible, including even innocence, and it ends, roughly, with the destruction of the World Trade Center towers. For Seidel, however, 9/11 is not the date that America lost its innocence–is there any idea more innocent than that one?–because to a decadent, innocence is only one posture among many: It is not something you lose but something you assume and discard for present purposes.
The Cosmos Poems was commissioned for the reopening of the Hayden Planetarium in early 2000. Several of the poems are, I think, most effectively read as mimicries of the Planetarium’s host (before it became Tom Hanks)–that anonymous and stubbornly unfazed voice that somehow reaches us from beyond the stars: “The opposite of everything/That will be once/ The universe begins/Is who it is.//Laws do not apply/To the pre-universe./None of it/Does not make sense.” To pretend that the pre-universe is a “who” that either makes sense or does not make sense is an amusingly large pathetic fallacy, which reminds us that the only one making sense here (or not making sense) is the poet. It is a poet, moreover, who claims to be on unusually intimate terms with the cosmos. In another poem he confidently asserts, “The wobbly flesh of an oyster/Out of its shell on the battlefield is the feel/Of spacetime/In the young universe.” This is especially nice in its precision, and typical of Seidel’s poetry, which avoids the coyness of similes in favor of telling it like it is.