“I don’t read. / I read Rilke and bleed. / In Dido’s cave, they do the deed. / And then she peed and then he peed,” writes Frederick Seidel in “Aeneidos Liber Quartus,” a poem from his latest collection, “Widening Income Inequality.” Here — in the mixture of self-assertion and negation, of the seemingly poetic and the seemingly scatalogical, of the sexual and the textual — is the nexus of Seidel’s poetry. He’s a collision of contradictions, and his poems explore the ambiguities and implications of the slender spread of ink known as “I.”
Seidel forms a constellation of “I”s: wealthy heir from St. Louis, lover of Ducati motorcycles, depraved old man, Harvard graduate, Manhattanite. These are all known; they’re the common details of his personal mythology and the materials of his poetry that he exploits so effectively. He’s known, too, as a disciple of Robert Lowell, famous for his role as the proprietor and purveyor of confessional poetry. Lowell sponsored his early efforts, and after serving on a committee that selected his controversial first book, “Final Solutions,” in 1962 to award it publication, he resigned in protest when the publisher rejected it. Lowell’s influence on Seidel was significant. But Seidel, as Michael Hoffman writes in a review of Seidel’s collected poems, wiggled out Lowell’s influence, and instead of doing Lowell, Seidel started doing Seidel.
And doing Seidel seems a lot like a deconstruction of the confessional mode. Confessional poetry, even at it’s most brutal and honest, always affirms the self’s authenticity. Confessional poetry strives for the authentication of the self, whether it’s the pain of the poet or their failures against others. The honesty of a confessional poem can work as its own front, the claim of authenticity cloaking its absence.
At times, Seidel’s poetic persona can feel almost Trumpian. He can read like an id sprouting arms and legs and learning to write. Seidel writes the self — the main tool of the confessional mode and, basically, all lyrical poetry — into absurdity. He can be blasphemous (like when he writes “In God’s department store at Christmastime are many choo-choos / Chuff-chuffing to their death are many Jew-Jews”), and he’s licentious to a point beyond mere debauchery. A perfect example: “In my astronomy, I lick her cunt / Until the nations say they can’t make war no more. / Her orgasm is violunt. / I get the maid to mop the floor.” But his poems are often comic and even funny because of this evident immorality. They rely on the tension between the apparent absurdity of the fictional persona and the irony that the persona might not be much of a fiction after all.
In “Widening Income Inequality,” Seidel tackles contemporary America in all her frightening glory — Obama, Ferguson, NASCAR, Macbooks, airplanes. Hell, even Ted Cruz, “Smiling his ghastly Joe McCarthy swarm,” makes an appearance. But tackling isn’t quite right — they’re there, but only insofar as they refract their author. Seidel’s poems always turn toward the private self. Even when he’s foregrounding public issues, that private, lurking self shadows the whole of the poem.
Nowhere is that self more apparent in a political issue than in class. “Widening Income Inequality” doesn’t quite laude the one percent’s excesses, of which Seidel is a notable agent. Seidel’s poems never land on either side of the gap; they never quite condemn nor embrace his Ducati-filled life in Manhattan. His poems tally the surfeits of his class — he loves to name drop, whether it’s a brand or a famous friend — which form the foundation of his entire persona. Even when imagining the violent, peacemaking possibilities of a woman’s orgasm, that thought ends with the cruelty of a man who has never known anything other than wealth. But he realizes and renders the difficulty of writing a poem from a position of immense privilege: he’s either an asshole or a hypocrite. What’s he to do? To condemn his position and to continue to enjoy its advantages is as great a moral aberration as unapologetic embrace. For a poet who renders himself in a luxurious, gold-plated caricature of his class who constantly marks the divisions between rich and poor, he renders the complexity of his position with startling complexity.
At the beginning of his career, Seidel was controversial. But, despite the persona, there’s no more controversy. He’s a strange, great poet. Read “Widening Income Inequality,” get lost in the Seidel’s strangeness and enjoy.