My Frederick Seidel Problem: Ooga-Booga
by Elaine Terranova
What? "A naked [what?] my age is a total [what?]" and in case I'm seething so much I miss it, he tells me again in the second line, “A naked woman my age is a nightmare.” The poem is “Broadway Melody,” ironic allusion to the lighthearted song and dance movies of the '30s.
Doesn’t the poet want to add "a naked man"? Isn’t the speaker staring in the mirror of a possible partner his own age, sagging you-name-it staring back? In another poem, Seidel’s a lot gentler on the old Casanova, maybe because he sees his own reflection here. I’m reminded of that instruction in freshman comp: get the reader’s attention. Disarm him, her. Maybe this turn away from the older body, someone else’s, represents an icky fastidiousness on the speaker’s part. Or payback for rejection by an old (former) girl friend, wife, on the poet's. Otherwise this is a kind of brutal porn maybe anchored in a porn culture, where view and point of view count, and a woman is always the outsider, not included in the joke. We might consider the "my age" a softening of the blow. "My age" is not a good thing to be. And the end of the poem has old couples spilling out of a diner onto Broadway on walkers, as ready for death as love. So then, is euthanasia the recommendation?
This is rant poetry. We're familiar with rants. But a rant is like an itch. Something can be done about it. Being old is not fixable.
Seidel's polemics disturb the reader’s placid linear involvement in a set series of pages. Or is Frederick Seidel a persona as Stephen Colbert is for the ultimate wrong-headed character, the other other? Adorno said that to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. Seidel's first poem in Ooga-Booga, his latest collection, "Kill Poem," takes this one step further. It deals with the British blood sport and its objects, the fox, the deer. But it does not neglect the American blood sport of the '60s, with the death of our leaders, King, Kennedy I, Kennedy II.
The title is Kill Poetry
And in the book poetry kills.
In the poem, the stag at bay weeps, literally….
Get rid of poetry. Kill poetry.
That could be what Seidel is trying to do. If poetry softens, humanizes, it spoils the erection. O.K. Then I have to think of what his or any poetry is meant to be. Whether it needs to be lofty. Whether it can't be nonsense strung together out of nightmare, spinning out, teeth clenching on a rhyme. What is the worst thing you can say or even think and how do I put it in a poem?
Maybe Seidel is looking for a more virile poetry, without sentiment. "The moon stops by my table/To tell me./I will cut your heart out." That he doesn't want to be vulnerable. Poets now do seem to fear sentimentality. Or maybe what he writes is rhyming Tourette’s. Read "Dick and Fred" for a mix of sex and politics, a free association of dirty words. Seidel has a couple of Fred Astaire poems, alternately fascinated and horrified by the actor/dancer, his grace, his toupee. One is titled, "Death." "My own poetry I find incomprehensible," he says, in a poem.
Robert Lowell chose Seidel for a poetry prize when he was just out of Harvard. That prize was never given. The poems entered--undoubtedly too hot to handle--became part of his first book, Final Solution (the title should tell you something) and he didn't publish another for 17 years. Dan Chiasson, in the New York Review, notes Lowell's influence on Seidel, and I can see that undercutting of sentiment and adherence to rhyme as inspiration. But rhyme is a disease with Seidel. He can’t help himself. I’m reminded of a little autistic boy with this same compulsion, but gentle, sweet, who called down poems from a tree at a school where I once taught.
For many poets rhyme becomes a lingua franca. Say it as prose but just come down in measured lines on the echo. But that isn't what Seidel's doing. He's too good a poet for that, switching metaphor, identity, in midstream. The line lengths vary. Expectation is belied. An inventive poetry. A poetry of aphorism, of paradox. "A rapist's kisses tear the leaves off." Winter "Takes off the lovely summer frock/And lies down on the bed naked/Freezing white, so we can make death." Of puns,-uns, as in undoing. "Laudatio" is an ode to John Weitz, a—yes—Jewish SS officer and later, glamorous New Yorker and Warhol cohort, who is "full of goy."
"An indescribable act." This is one definition of Ooga-Booga, the title Seidel has chosen, as found in the on-line Urban Dictionary. There's also an Australian rock group that goes by a plural version of that name. More commonly we know it as an expression designed to scare someone, a threat of the primeval—you yell it as you jump out from behind a tree.
Despite the primitive connotations, Seidel is a sophisticate, a city poet, frequently riding in a taxi in the rain or with an apartment in a doorman building. In “Breast Cancer” the disease is sited amid side streets and sidewalks, sidestepped, you might say. The much older man you love, the second breast, repetitious. Wait, I read this book. It’s by Philip Roth. An elegy for a woman friend with Alzheimer’s, “Cloclo,” though, has a genuine tenderness. She has died and is remembered as a beautiful houseguest fallen asleep on his doorstep in a white mink coat. Is it beauty Seidel is trying to recall in so many poems, the stranded beauty of youth? Or maybe he wants to scare us with those bugaboos, old age, death. Ooga-booga!
The motorcycle is Seidel's vehicle of choice for tripping into the wild. It cuts through jungle. What is more virile than a man on a motorcycle? The poem "Bologna" starts in a Fifth Avenue apartment that has a "Negro" doorman wearing a "nearly Nazi uniform" who turns into a motorcycle with a "fat smooth black shine." Offensive enough? The poem moves on to Bologna, where the Cadillac of motorcycles, the Bugati is made. I've read that Seidel owns four.
You need a danger to be safe in
Except in the African bush where you don't,
I believe it, travel is a danger to be safe in. And the speaker is safely returned to NYC—what a whirl—"The only problem is the bongo drums at night."
There’s more darkness and jungle in “The White Tiger.” Like a nursery tale, a child’s darkness, where the wild things are, but also pointing outward to the world, political.
The Israelis and the Palestinians are by no means exaggerating.
The carcass is hanging from the darkness, waiting.
The building is a million human stories high
The moonlight is going to die.
In the corners of our little room,
The large-bore guns go boom boom.
The attitudes expressed, conservative to the point of reactionary—strike that, outrageous—can't be characterized as traditionally conservative, Republican, that is. George is representative of the bush, the uncivilized, the jungle. This is how Seidel characterizes living under the Bush administration:
I have never been so cheerily suicidal, so sui-Seidel.
I am too cheery to be well.
George Bush is cheery as well.
I am cheeriest
Crawling around on all fours eating gentle grass
And pretending I am eating broken glass.
Then I throw up the pasture.
Painful nursery rhymes. No impulse control. But who would deny Seidel is in full control of his peculiar poetry? Captured, you keep reading as he twists the knife. He makes you uncomfortable. Isn't that, in a way, what poetry is supposed to do? Glare out at you from the cover of a book? Dare you? Riding on the back of that bike is scary.
The ooga-booga, loose in the world, is coming after everyone.
The sunlight doesn’t go away.
It causes cancer while they play.
Precancerous will turn out bad.
I had an ice pick for a dad.