Reviewed by David King
Here’s what you need to know when you enter Frederick Seidel’s latest poetry collection, Nice Weather: He’s rich (“We hopped on the Concorde,/ Front cabin, seat 1.”), He loves women (“My face between your thighs is resting there./ I’m happy staring at what makes me stare.”), He went to Harvard (“That was Finley, magical, a bit fruity,/ Warbling like a bird while the snow outside/ Silenced the Yard.”). In the vast print and digital cosmosphere of contemporary poetry (or “poetry related media”), two of these points would be considered strikes while the third would be handled with vegan kid gloves.
What makes Seidel shine is that his admitted advantages in life become advantages in his poems, but not in the purely predictable way of namedropping famous friends and fancy hotels (“The Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul/ Has toothsomely been called the best hotel in the world.”). He does do this, but what may seem like braggadocio regarding wealth, travel, education and sexual triumph turns, in this collection, into laments (“I have a device./ In Paris, it had lice.”), obituaries (“Updike is dead.”) and, for readers hampered by the idea of a rich poet, the ultimately cumulative redeeming confession that for all his success and advantage, he’s been the mere spectator fly on the wall, experiencing his own life completely aware that he’s done hardly anything to earn such comforts.
Some might suggest that the self-deprecating nature of Seidel’s poetry isn’t enough to annul his frequent themes of abundance, gluttony, material possession, lust and womanizing, but who cares? On a completely superficial level, Seidel’s poems are plain fun to read. They soar into the air with lightness and delight then come down like a MIRV. In “News From The Muse,” Seidel balances themes of love and danger with the act of writing, and all with the playfulness of a seemingly simple monorhyme:
I have the weapon to love anyone who comes near.
I always walk back across the park from the Met at this time of year.
I walk back and forth in my study till I hear
The words pour into the computer like sunlight, in my ear.
One could (in fact, many do) go into all the ways in which he’s stolen from Lowell, borrowed from Berryman, slept on the kitchen floor after figuratively humping Sylvia Plath, but it doesn’t matter. In Seidel’s biography, you won’t find mention of him doing readings at Universities or poetry conferences. This might suggest that his work wasn’t written for academia the same way Shakespeare wasn’t written for the classroom. It was written for entertainment, enjoyment, delight, catharsis. He’s writing the world we live in, the way in which we live it. Seidel is a 76 year-old, deeply humane, totally contemporary and compassionate man, especially when he writes:
Every American boy worries
He’s a fag, at least in those days
Did. I figure every boy at one
Stage or another is.
I never was,
Even though he was called Nellie.
Not a nelly, but Nellie.
I call him Peter.
How rad is that!
Frederick Seidel crafts his poems like a man who’s genuinely surprised that he hasn’t died yet. His friends are dying. He’s watching them get plucked off one by one. Because of his love of motorcycles and his need to live fast, it seems that he writes about his experiences with the guilt of the sole survivor of a great crash. He’s alive, they aren’t. He’s still got money in the bank, they don’t. His penis still works sometimes… perhaps. He walks to the Apple Store fully alive… for now:
And we have tickets for the Bach at Lincoln Center.
And let’s check out
The Upper West Side Apple Store next door.
It’s one more crystal-clear Apple cathedral
For Saint Steve Jobs, who discovered America,
Where the deer and the antelope play
With the herds of touch screens on display,
Not far from Columbus Circle and pancreatic cancer.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, September 2012