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.
If you have read Seidel before, what strikes you about The Cosmos Poems is the apparent reticence of their author. “Fred Seidel,” as described in earlier lyrics such as “Milan,” is not a character you could miss, though he is hard to keep in your sights:
Combine a far-seeing industrialist
With an Islamic fundamentalist.
With an Italian premier who doesn’t take bribes.
With a pharmaceuticals CEO who loves to spread disease.
Put them on a 916.
And you get Fred Seidel.
These pieces cannot all belong to the same puzzle–that is one of the jokes–but their individual outlines, at least, are clear. We know what Islamic fundamentalists and Italian premiers look like, even if it is difficult to imagine them riding the same motorcycle. In The Cosmos Poems Seidel’s presence is comparatively more diffuse; he seems to be everywhere and nowhere at once, as St. Augustine describes God in his universe. Here, rather than offer self-definitions, Seidel celebrates the fleshy wobble that precedes all definitions and the flux that goes before the Big Bang. In almost every poem the universe is reinvented through metaphor, now as an oyster, now as a ballet. It is like watching a potter at his wheel, forming and re-forming the cosmic clay. In the same way, the speaker of The Cosmos Poems is not an identity that has staked its claims but a fiction of boundless possibility. These are poems of the pre-self, to which the laws do not yet apply. Ventriloquizing the voice of a very young and enthusiastic astronaut whose desires have outpaced her grammar, Seidel claims, “We can do anything we want./We can turn somersaults all day long./I also want to star in a movie but I want to sing/By being a scientist and being my brain.”
The poems of Life on Earth, the second volume of the trilogy, are more frantic. I think they are also better, because more urgent and detailed. Rather than holding his ambitions in abeyance, Seidel lets them take center stage:
I wanted to have
A monocle and stick–
Put on my top hat,
And be a grain
And radiate a stadium with my act.
The speaker is a dandy, which makes “act” a particularly appropriate pun: His doing is indistinguishable from his role-playing (“I do everything to keep active,” is how Seidel puts it in the first poem of Area Code 212). In other lyrics from Life on Earth, Seidel performs a series of quick changes, costuming himself as a doctor, a Confederate scout, the Caliph of paradise, Ahab on the launch pad, a Jew named Hamlet and, finally, in the astonishing last poem of the book, “Frederick Seidel.” (The opening couplet is particularly fin de siècle: “I live a life of laziness and luxury,/Like a hare without a bone who sleeps in a pâté.”) The point of writing a poem titled after oneself is not just to remind us that lyric poetry is a kind of theater but to acknowledge that all performance entails real, if also incalculable, risks. In “Doctor Love” Seidel describes a film script, written by him, whose protagonist turns out “eerily, by/Pure coincidence,” to share her name and profession with a real person. We may intend for our characters to end up in Hollywood, or in a book of poems, but their actual fates are usually more mundane, and more frightening: “My//Fiction trampolined/Herself right off the treatment page,/Landing not on a movie set or a screen at the multiplex,/But at a teaching hospital in Los Angeles.” In the same way, these poems suggest that the self you invent–attentively or unthinkingly, for a particular purpose or simply because you can–is often the one you end up with.
Area Code 212 is explicitly about the self you end up with, which is one way of describing hell. Milton’s Satan knew his prison was not an actual place but a state of the soul: “Me miserable! Which way shall I fly/Infinite wrath and infinite despair?/Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell.” Rimbaud, who knew France was hell but still had to return there from Abyssinia to die, echoes that sentiment in his own Saison en enfer: Je me crois en enfer, donc j’y suis (I believe myself in hell, so that’s where I am). Seidel’s 212, which he rather creepily calls “the Area Code of love,” is also a place of self-bondage: “Wonderful to stalk/The Upper West Side midday,/Between the Hudson River and Central Park,//Looking for a self to put the handcuffs on.” A peculiar type of bondage is a consistent trope in 212, and it points to a larger argument. In “In Cap Ferrat” the poet strolls along a promenade where “dogs are walking women.” One of these women is, somewhat ironically, wearing a fur, which provokes the poet into a rude little couplet: “The fur/Trots behind a cur./The mongrel sparkles and smiles/Leading her by the leash.” In another, more surreal instance, the poet sees a baby elephant running along the edge of a New York apartment building and further observes: “What must be the young woman handler desperately gives chase,/Which has a comic aspect as she hangs on by the rope.” The easy comedy here lies in the notion of a topsy-turvy world where people are dragged helplessly around by their pets–the world of New Yorker cartoons. A darker comedy lurks in the analogy between that world and our own, where selves are leashed, just as helplessly, to animal and dying bodies. That is a sly sort of gallows humor, but Seidel is not always so oblique. In another poem, he makes brutal acknowledgment of the body’s treacheries: “Every November is one more.//I’ve used up my amount./I’ve nearly run out./I’m out of penis.”
Seidel, however, is a poet who insists on going out with a bang rather than a whimper: Failing, he brightens, like a fever patient. Many of the poems in 212 have to do with motorcycles. Seidel writes about bike rallies the way Hemingway writes about bullfights: He is an unapologetic connoisseur, standing close to the action. And just as Hemingway describes the Spanish toreador as a version of the writer, so Seidel writes about Italian-made MV Agustas as though they were poets (more specifically, his kind of poets): “The champions have no idle, so not/To die they have to/Roar. They roar like the lions in the Coliseum./They roar like a pride of blood-red hearts in the savannah.” The extravagance of this rhetoric–the repetitions, similes and cued line-breaks–is a kind of vulgar mimicry; it is poetry revving itself up. The desperation of that gesture is affecting–a poet who has no idle, who goes at things freestyle and on full honk, is a figure of great pathos. Because in the end, as we already know, he is going to run out of gas. A similar point is made, in more obviously comic fashion, by the last lines of “Fall”:
One hundred ninety horsepower at
Going two hundred miles an hour down the straight
Is another motorcycle death
From Viagra in October.
Seidel’s world is our world. Not because of his references to Viagra, bike rallies, Skyy vodka and postcolonial genocide, but because of the manner in which these references are made. The tendency among literary writers to assert their relevance by commenting on media culture is bad strategy. Riffing on pancake houses does not make you contemporary; on the contrary, it proves that you find the world an essentially unfamiliar, if occasionally diverting sort of place, which is only estrangement disguised as street-savvy. Instead of fetishizing the objects and brand names of our increasingly self-conscious modernity, Seidel uses them (because what else is there to use?) to build a self. That is why, I think, his trilogy is mostly written in the present tense–it is a way of placing the self exactly on a par with the world and acknowledging its vulnerability; or, to cite one of Seidel’s early key words, it is a way of going “unarmored.”
Many of the poems in Area Code 212 first appeared in the Wall Street Journal, where they were published on a monthly basis for almost two years. September 11 occurred near the end of that run, and Seidel’s poem “The War of the Worlds” appeared on November 29. The danger of writing “about” 9/11–or the fall of the Berlin wall or the Kennedy assassination–is that the poem may end up being a response to the event, which immediately condemns it to failure since no response could ever be adequate. “The War of the Worlds” is not a response, because Seidel believes the only event that happens in poetry is the poem. Here are the first two stanzas:
The child stands at the window, after his birthday party,
Gray flannel little boy shorts, shirt with an Eton collar,
St. Louis, Missouri, sixty years ago,
And sees the World Trade Center towers falling.
The window is the wall
The wide world presents to prepubescence.
People on fire are jumping from the eightieth floor
To flee the fireball.
Here is the last:
Why bother to live when you will die?
Visitors are peering through the thick glass and taking photographs
Of ground zero–of Allah akbar in formaldehyde in a jar.
God is great. Love is hate.
The child wears an Eton collar for the same reason a dog wears a leash: Somebody put it on him. It means that after St. Louis he is bound for Harvard, where he will learn to mispronounce “artist”; this is part of his fate. But he will end up in New York, standing at another window (or is it the same?), peering through the glass with the rest of the visitors. Trying to avoid that fate is like running away from the fireball when you are already on fire: It is the only thing to do. The poem also suggests that taking the idea of fate seriously–and the question in the last stanza is not rhetorical –threatens our sense of time: In a tragedy, the future has already happened, just as in a photograph or formaldehyde, the past happens forever. In Seidel’s poem, where all times are collapsed into the present tense, the child is already the man and the towers will always be falling. “The War of the Worlds” is, in this sense, not so much a contemporary of the Events, as we used to call them, as it is of itself. The poems of 212 do not aspire to be up-to-the-minute; for Seidel, along with everybody else who lives in the area code of love, there is no other way to be.