Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Review of Frederick Seidel’s poems in latest issue of Paris Review

The five poems by Frederick Seidel in the latest issue of Paris Review were a bit of a disappointment. Perhaps I should say that in a punnier, over-the-top rhyming sort of way which would be more like his poems. I’m an admirer of his work in Ooga-Booga, and because of that, I was expecting a lot. The rhymes in the new poems such as “Store Windows” seldom move the poem in a new direction—or—and this is something that Seidel manages to succeed in and I’m not sure why—resist the new direction to the point the line warps into something else entirely, similar to a support bar buckling into odd shapes from too much pressure. For the most part, however, the new poems didn’t present much that was fresh to me. Here are two stanzas from the poem “Store Windows” which is a lyrical meditation on what he humorously calls “citywide narcissism”:

I’m so proud!

It’s so ridiculous I have to laugh.

The technician is very well-endowed.

I’m a collapsible top hat—a chapeau claque—that half

The time struts around at Ascot but can be collapsed flat just like that. Baff!

Till it pops back. Paff! Oh yes,

I find myself superb

When I undress.

A lovely lightbulb is my suburb,

And my flower, and my verb.

Seidel’s unabashed penchant for writing about conspicuous consumption, narcissism, lust, greed, and good-ol’-in-general-nastiness makes him a poet many can, ironically, stand behind. But in this example the rhymes are expected within this narcissistic persona. We go from “proud” to “endowed.” The “laugh” to top “hat” that then collapses “flat.” “Baff” is right. And “paff” is right behind it. Seidel is at his best when his rhymes create what my husband, Adam Prince, describes as a “new sense from the nonsense.” He pointed out this poem, “Mother Nature,” as an example of what Seidel does so well:

Mother Nature went to China,

China the vagina.

Wet dreams conceive there,

Where no one wants a daughter.

The perfect rhyme with “China” and “vagina” highlights that there is not any relationship between these words other than sonically. (Insert any other body part and you can hear how the couplet dies.) Yet, the stanza moves on to the last statement about daughters (the “there/where” rhyme also forcing a syntactical as well as sonic connection), and suddenly one sees a stanza that takes shape, that through force has found some semblance of sense. And it’s surprising. There is little surprise in the five poems that Seidel has now in Paris Review. But I do mean “little” as there is some freshness as one can see with the end to the stanza I quoted earlier: “A lovely lightbulb is my suburb, /And my flower, and my verb.” And my verb? I wasn’t expecting that—and I like it.


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