'Poems: 1959-2009' by Frederick Seidel



Frederick Seidel

Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 510 pp., $40

In September 1968, a wide-ranging New York Times lifestyle piece headlined "Central Park's New Era: Fun for Everyone" took the measure of several New Yorkers, including a college student from the Bronx, two girls riding a tandem bicycle, a fashion executive and the poet Frederick Seidel. While in the zoo, looking at the seals, Seidel says, "I once wrote a poem about a girl I was in love with. I compared her to a seal. . . . It was a poetic problem," he explains, "to connect the two -- the girl and the seal -- because it's really almost preposterous."

This is perhaps the least preposterous comparison to be found in Seidel's work. Long regarded as a kind of elegant cult figure in poetry circles, Seidel has a reputation that precedes him into every room: decadent, name-dropper, sexual dalliant, Ducati enthusiast, son of privilege. This runs counter to the man himself. He doesn't do poetry readings and has, for the most part, shunned interviews. There is no doubt that Seidel is one of the best poets alive today, and now, with the release of "Poems: 1959-2009," his collected works can be taken at their measure: They are haughty, funny and terrifying, with plenty of delicious contention throughout.

"Women have a playground slide / That wraps you in monsoon and takes you for a ride." The couplet has the kind of smug, playful confidence that is apprehended by the poem's following lines: "The English girl Louise, his latest squeeze, was being snide. / Easy to deride / The way he stayed alive to stay inside / His women with his puffed-up pride. / The pharmacy supplied / The rising fire truck ladder that the fire did not provide." The poem is called "Sii, romantico, Seidel, tanto per cambiare," and it is characteristic of much else in his canon that it reads like verse produced over a dinner of 19th century French symbolists hosted by Ogden Nash.

Unlike poets who write in the first person, disguising the "I" as someone -- anyone -- else, Seidel adheres to a strict regimen of personal disclosures. In "Darkening in the Dark," Seidel, now 73, warns, "No one my age can go on living for long. / No one the color of a turnip." Both poems are from "Evening Man," a new collection that begins the book. "Poems" lines up his collections in reverse chronological order; Seidel has turned the telescope around, forcing us to peer back at the very beginning. In 1963's "Final Solutions," it's startling how already practiced the young poet is at feeling old. Starting with the memories of his childhood bedroom decorations, Seidel moves from the upper-floored apartments of moneyed New York to the wards of Bellevue; he touches down on a black judge, a widower whose bathroom "cradles him like a wife" and an "old man's dream, terminated by a heart attack."

There is a careful weight to the whole business and a fondness for combining rhyme schemes and free verse, and it should come as no surprise that Robert Lowell was one of Seidel's early champions. Seidel interviewed Lowell for a 1961 issue of the Paris Review, and Lowell helped Seidel get "Final Solutions" published after it was turned down at the last minute for the Helen Burlin Memorial Award (sponsors' concerns that the collection may have libeled Mamie Eisenhower came to naught).

His next book, "Sunrise," wouldn't appear for another 17 years, but Seidel must have gotten younger in the interim. Following Frank O'Hara's dictum from "Personism" that "if you're going to buy a pair of pants, you want them to be tight enough so that everyone will want to go to bed with you," the poems take their ease more crisply, with a less prefabricated concern about mortality. He recalls the "oyster glow" of a post-Manson Los Angeles. He takes walks through the Arizona desert with Antonioni and pursues a motorcycle-riding paramour "with breasts of Ajanta -- big blue-sky clouds." In the nightmarish title poem he envisions a countdown involving "Organizations of gravity and light, / Supremely mass disappears and reappears / In an incomprehensible -1 of might."

From then on, Seidel is gleefully making up for lost time, fashioning a recognizable fingerprint of imagist perversity, first-name associations and tales from the traveled class. "These Days" appeared in 1989, followed by "My Tokyo" and "Going Fast" in the '90s. He inaugurated the 21st century with "The Cosmos Poems," a trilogy of 100 poems commissioned for the opening of the Hayden Planetarium. It's a terse set of verses that work in broad strokes. There are winking titles like "Feminists in Space" and the sighting of a baby elephant "running along the ledge across / The front of an apartment building ten stories up." The Frederick Seidel of "Frederick Seidel" is ensconced in pâté; having ". . . lived a life of laziness and luxury. / He hid his life away in poetry." Sympathy too is a recurring mode. Although he comes ". . . in from the whirl / To a room where he does yoga / High above the homeless," his preoccupation with those below travels through a simply curious guilt into a kind of religious identification.

By 2008, "Ooga Booga" and its companion "Evening Man" are ringing the last bell for dinner. "You have to practice looking like thin air / When you become the way you do not want to be," he writes in "Evening Man." His friends are dying of diseases like lung cancer and Stage 3 multiple myeloma, but the old seducer rages while considering his life and his lovers in "Do You Doha?": "Act your age. / I don't have to. I won't. You can't make me. I'm in an absolute rage."

Finally, there is the wistful, powerfully managed "Poem by the Bridge at Ten-Shin." Announcing "My darling is a platform I see stars from in the dark," he then recollects: "I knew a beauty named Dawn Green. / I used to wake at the crack of Dawn. / I wish I were about to land on Plymouth Rock, / And had a chance to do it all again, but do it right. / It was dawn green in pre-dawn America. I mean . . ."

If the whole justification of poetry can be broken down into a rhymed scheme of convincing women into bed, then still, with lines like these, he is at his most puckish and persuasive. "Ten-Shin" is the kind of poem one could use to pick up a girl on a bus, or at a bar; but as Seidel himself would affirm, she would have to be just the right kind of girl: the kind that appreciates a preposterous gesture.

Ducker is a writer in Los Angeles.