REVIEWED:Nice Weather by Frederick Seidel. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 112pp., $24.00.
Frederick Seidel has been a large but shadowy figure in contemporary poetry for nearly forty-five years. He publishes with the most prestigious press of the 20th century, but remains mostly outside of the limelight. He’s never won any of poetry’s major awards, and he doesn’t really go in for the poetry business—the endless readings, contest judging, and paneling—that has built up around America’s leading poets. Since his first book, Final Solutions, was chosen for a prize sponsored by the 92nd Street Y that was subsequently revoked because of a possibly libelous poem and anti-Semitic rhetoric (but then published by Random House), Seidel has been the straight-shooting, if at times utterly unlikable, outsider of contemporary poetry.
Seidel has never shied from noting differences between social and economic groups, races, or sexes. I say noting and not describing or investigating because he never seems all that interested in those larger forms of querying or critique. Seidel is a poet for whom the world (or, at least, his world of New York and Europe) are tools with which to make poems, rather than poetry being a tool to question the stratified world.
Seidel has made a career out of his poetical surrogate, who is Ducati-driving, fancy-pinstripe-suit-wearing, and unapologetically white, rich, and male. His poems, when successful, drive a hard balance between requiring readers to let go of their disgust about what a lot of the speaker says and just enjoy the prancing, casually fun rhythms and rhymes in which he speaks. Occasionally, slivers where the reader gets to see something more tender pierce the façade and reveal the insecurities of the speaker, which are, in some ways, the insecurities upon which the entirety of 20th-century white- and male-dominated culture are predicated.
Nice Weather, Seidel’s fifteenth collection, vacillates between these two extremes. Though there are some indisputably disgusting lines and poems in this collection, where Seidel gets into the most trouble isn’t when he’s using the most abrasive language, it’s when he’s being lazy, when he isn’t pushing the images he uses at all but letting them sit there as shock. Unfortunately for Seidel, in 2012, when we’re years past the torture porn movies like the SAW franchise and real torture in our news, casual misogyny in poems is not nearly enough to elicit the response these poems seem to want. A poem like “iPhoto” that begins, “The second woman shines my shoes. / The other takes my order, curtseys. Thank you, sir. / Others stand there in the rain so I can mount them when I choose.” and gets no better from there, doesn’t end up feeling like it’s challenging the reader with this imagery; it just feels like the sad attempt of a weary old uncle to get in with the teenagers with a dirty joke that ends at the ankles.
“School Days,” a six part reminiscence of famous people Seidel knew at Harvard and one interjection about how he’s fucking the daughter of a woman he fucked in school (again, gross, but in the grander scheme of things still pretty bland), ends with these stanzas, supposedly inspired by the beauty of Nelson Aldrich Jr. (longtime friend of George Plimpton and author of George Being George):
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!
What is the point of any of that? Perhaps tangling with the possibility that every one of his moneyed and privileged white, midcentury Harvard boys engaged in, or worried about, homosexuality might be a touch interesting to explore (if also incredibly outdated) but Seidel doesn’t even go there. Nope, neither he nor Aldrich was gay, or worried about it. Ever. Just in case you were wondering. Even worse than the lazy sentiment here are the incredibly lazy poetics. Seidel often likes to undercut his poems at the end, concluding with a imagistic whimper that makes you question all of the run-up; that can be a powerful poetic tool, but here there’s just nothing. No image, no poetry whatsoever.
Worse, however, than the simply bad poems, are the poems where Seidel seems to have a small trigger of an idea that would get at something, only to toy with it and then toss it away, like in “The Terrible Earthquake in Haiti.” Obviously, here, Seidel is attempting to “use” the speaker he’s created to make some sort of overt commentary on white, American privilege. The speaker begins, “I think the truth is I have to go to the dentist. / That’s what that quaking and shaking was all about.” But the poem is only sonnet-length, limping ploddingly from the speaker in the chair to calling out the “usual liberal bs” to placing him under a fallen building in Haiti having his arm amputated. But here’s the problem; it feels more like the poem is using the earthquake, just as these poems casually use countless anonymous young women. There are all sorts of readers who will find such quippy and fast-paced poems funny and engaging, but they really are disgusting, not in their language but in their disdain for how and why language matters. A poem like this ends up feeling like those ads that leverage a stock photo of a child with a hairlip for a solicitation—but the money is actually going to construct a big building in Atlanta and pay some executive director’s inflated salary.
Many readers would, perhaps rightly, cast aside this book and say that it’s just casual racism, sexism, and, often, lazy poetry. But as the poems begin to accumulate, something a bit more complex emerges, as it often does in Seidel’s poetry. Seidel is getting old, and this collection is a battle against aging, a battle against not only the speaker’s own death, which is closer and closer, but perhaps even more important to Seidel’s speaker, the slow, ongoing death of his importance. Those he surrounded himself with, the boys of his privileged Harvard days who subsequently became privileged politicians and literary elites, are dying. His own body is falling ever-more-swiftly into decrepitude. The most misogynistic poems in Nice Weather seem to be a case of the speaker, almost hysterically, objectifying women before they can discard him—illustrating his almost pathetically grim grasp on his masculinity with lines like, “My girlfriend is a miracle. / She’s so young but she’s so beautiful. / So is her new bikini trim, A waxed-to-neatness center strip of quim.” Who, in 2012, hasn’t come across a bikini wax? We’re not startled, we’re just a bit uncomfortable and sad.
At other times, we get, more successfully, an almost keening adolescent whine at death, like in “One Last Kick for Dick,” which begins, “Old age is not for sissies but death is just disgusting”; or in “London,” a lovely poem where the speaker describes the scene as two daughters are overseeing their mother’s assisted suicide, and delivers these wonderful, plaintive, lines: “Please die. Please do. Her daughters don’t want her to die and do. / The world of dew is a world of dew and yet / What airline will fly someone this sick?” The speaker backs away from the scene with that lovely rhyming play on do and dew, but his little reverie is almost immediately broken in the bald, unpoetic line about the airline. Not even poetry can fully distract Seidel from the ugly facts of death.
And it’s when the poetic mask falls aside that we get to feel something in this book. Seidel writes in “Lisbon,” “It’s heaven up there above the sky. / Hey, it’s heaven down here, too. / I love the future I won’t live to see. I don’t know why.” That final “I don’t know why” is why Nice Weather is worth reading. Almost every poet in existence would be happy to leave the first phrase of that line alone, the almost stock but still touching “I love the future I won’t live to see.” Seidel takes it one step further. Why should he love the future he won’t live to see? That’s an amazing question, a rare question, and above all, an early 21st-century declining baby-boomer question. The Seidel of Nice Weather may not be an endearing poet, and he may not even be a nice poet, but he’s the poet who most embodies the decline of a uniquely American era, when we fully embraced our selfishness, but now have to live through the same loss as everyone else.
And Seidel is still, when he puts his mind to it, an incredibly fun poet—not necessarily in his subjects but in the staccato jump and whimsy of his poetry. It’s just fun when, in “The Yellow Cab,” Seidel cribs the rhythm of the children’s book Brown Bear, Brown Bear, what do you see? with: “Yellow cab, yellow cab, where have you been? / I’ve been to the mirror to try to look in . . .”) Or, in “Rome,” it’s just fun to have the bravado of saying about his orgasm: “I ought to warn the concrete that my passion dooms the dam.” Or even those single, amazingly literal turns, like in “Night” when he states, “The garbage trucks come in the night and make noise and are gone.”
Seidel can be, and often is, misogynistic and casually racist, and has been called out for both, although I wonder if his shock would feel more epic if the references to quim and “A Latin-looking woman in the outfit of a maid” didn’t seem so quaint and out-of-touch. Seidel is at his best when he’s balancing his most lilting brazenness with insecurity, when he’s an old, male version of Sylvia Plath, couching incredibly biting and blatant images of the world around him in the most childlike rhythms and hardest rhymes.
In Nice Weather, Seidel ends up seeming like a poet from another era desperately trying to remain hip and relevant. To his credit, though, and where the power of this collection lies, is in the occasional moments where we see that he knows that isn’t possible. That not only life will end, but his place, the central place that America and poetry made for him and men like him, will end as well. But Seidel, like the white-male domination of culture that defined his era, doesn’t plan on ending quietly, which makes Nice Weather as disgusting, humanizing, and incredibly sad as looking into the mirror and realizing you’re never going to be beautiful again.
CJ Evans is the author of A Penance, published by New Issues Press, and The Category of Outcast, selected by Terrance Hayes for the Poetry Society of America’s New American Poets chapbook series. He coedited, with Brenda Shaughnessy, Satellite Convulsions: Poems from Tin House, and his work has appeared in journals such as Boston Review, Colorado Review, Indiana Review, Pleiades, and Virginia Quarterly Review.
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