Frederick Seidel
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $24 (cloth)

Here is a curious thing: in his publicity shots, Frederick Seidel usually comes across less as a well-regarded poet than as a banker or CEO slogging his way through a cocktail party, rattling the ice in his drink for a top-off. Stranger still, Ooga-Booga’s cover photo does not entirely conform to this pattern. In what looks more like a mug shot than a portrait, the bald poet’s eyes round in shock at the photographer’s flash. Here, Seidel is Rimbaud caught in the act. His slit of a mouth seems pursed with confessions to come.

In some small way, reviewers have no choice but to judge Seidel’s books by their covers, so clearly are they linked to the personas created therein. In each of his 11 collections, Seidel has developed personalities—Fred or F.S. or simply Frederick Seidel—who, like Philip Roth’s Zuckerman, sit in as the author’s avatar. In Seidel’s first book, Final Solutions (1963), this scion of a self-made immigrant family in St. Louis launches himself at Harvard as a faux WASP: “I had given up being Jewish, / To be at Harvard just another / Greek nose in street clothes?” Fast-forward to Going Fast (1998) and Area Code 212 (2002), and his poetic “I” is a hummingbird sipping a nectar of caviar, private jets, and frisky heiresses in fur coats. In his latest work, however, Seidel is more like a dinosaur facing an inexorable ice age. Or, to put it another way, he is “going fast” toward the safety of a gilded world that is itself “going fast,” surrendering to a new class of rapacious opportunists, for whom the invasion of Iraq is dessert “without the courses that normally come before.” He admits that he finds wealth as inspiring as the huge diamond he follows “on my hand across the Pont des Arts / Like Shakespeare in a trance starting the sonnet sequence,” but he is also “Despairing of art and of life” and contemplating “sui-seid.” Seidel measures this world with joyful ardor and biting irony, a sympathetic Satan indulging his appetites even as he sings of the venery of the nouveau riche. “I am civilized,” he confides in “Kill Poem,” “but / Civilized is about having stuff.”

Seidel’s poetry is self-consciously not for everybody. Readers may gloat as he skewers his hosts and shocks our sympathies, as when, in Final Solutions, he makes a snide reference to the Holocaust and opens the volume with a poem about a sexy black maid. Some readers will recoil, others be seduced by a voice that finds its power in accumulated detail. But Seidel uses everything to dramatic effect: the trees in traffic islands, anecdotes about “the duck and duckess of Windsor,” pressed duck and custom-made Ducati motorcycles. His world is a movable feast, and his language is both prodigious and contradictory, as he seems to tell us in “Spring” (from Going Fast): “I want to date-rape life. I kiss the cactus spines?/ This shark of bliss / I input generates a desert slick as slime.”

Seidel’s love of death is redolent of Rilke and Rimbaud. But in Ooga-Booga, we also hear the jazzy couplets of T.S. Eliot, the misanthropy of Anthony Hecht, and the self-involved yet skilled syllabic rhythms of Robert Lowell. Here are a few lines from “Fog”:

I spend most of my time not dying.

That’s what living is for.

I climb on a motorcycle.

I climb on a cloud and rain.

I climb on a woman I love

I repeat my themes

Devoted readers of Seidel will recognize not only people and places, but such recurring themes as the woes of Milton’s Satan—a “soul bereft in its torment”—and the gifted “American in Paris” who, like Henry Adams, assimilates but remains apart, casting a puritanical eye on the merry-making. Also found here is a mirroring of bifurcated selves, slaves and masters changing places, as we see in “The Death of the Shah”: “Here I am, an admirer of Mahatma Gandhi, / Ready to praise making pots of money / And own a slave. / I am looking in the mirror as I shave the slave.” This is the poetry of the old-boy network: Ovid, Milton, and The Wall Street Journal, yet the poet’s eye is humorously jaundiced. Moments earlier in the same poem, Seidel says:

An English royal is taught to strut

With his hands clasped behind his back.

A racehorse in West Africa kept as a pet

Struts the same way the useless royals


Nodding occasionally to indicate he is


His coat has been curried until he is


Would you rather be a horse without a


Than one winning races being whipped?

The pleasure of reading Seidel rests in the realization that this poet—and here is another curious thing—doesn’t really want to be liked or even admired. He has made himself a creature of a particular present and past, a poet of simultaneous self-denigration and self-aggrandizement. Seidel eschews the Mother Nature didactics of Mary Oliver, the warm working-class humor of Billy Collins, the angry wisdom of Stanley Kunitz, and Philip Levine’s songs of the sufferers. Instead, he sings of speed, of poetry laid down like tire slicks on a road, a scribbling mark on the canvas of life. He’s rich, and he doesn’t give a damn about the literary world’s approval. He happily refers to himself as the poet who is writing “Bologna” in the poem “Bologna,” even as the poem refers to the poem: “I find the poetry I write incomprehensible, / But at least I understand it. / It opens the marble / And the uniforms of the lobby staff …”

One senses that Seidel has become the kind of poet he always wanted to be: the gifted amateur. His books have none of the taint of most poets’ working worlds, whether the academy or the workshop. Like Rilke, he writes in elegant settings, but unlike Rilke, he needs no Princess Marie von Thurn and Taxis; he is his own wealthy patron, befriending the likes of Bernardo Bertolucci, Nelson Rockefeller, and Diane von Furstenberg. These characters lend nothing but magazine flash to the poems, but the poems they inhabit are ambiguous, complex in attitude, language, and experience. Doorways abound, and the poet who is both outsider (Jew, American, nouveau) and insider (“I dine with my Carlyle smile”) moves fluidly from one address to another, as in “A Red Flower”: “We are in France. We are in Italy. We are in England. We are in heaven.” He is Don Giovanni stopping in his heedless trajectory to appreciate a woman or the fine lines of a motorcycle—“All it lacked was tits”— indistinguishable as poetic vehicles for his flight from the void.

The casual reader might mistake the disarming frankness of Seidel’s poetry for the traditional confessional mode of, say, Anne Sexton or Sylvia Plath. Seidel, however, is too canny for that; he lacks the Protestant impulse for moral self-improvement. His persona is a shape-shifter who tells all but reveals nothing: “I am civilized but / I see the silence / And write the words for the thought-balloon. /…/I write disappearing scut. /I write rut.” Readers must grasp after the few hooks of real emotion, the few occasions uncolored by self-disgust. There is, for instance, a fascination with otherness that is almost Faulknerian, and Seidel proves his “haut” by dividing his world between the white elite and the dark-skinned peoples of the servant’s quarters. The elites may rape and pillage— “Winter, spring, Baghdad, fall, / Venery is written all / Over me like a rash? / All will be revealed. / I am in a killing field.” — but the economically oppressed are imagistically (and offensively) linked with vermin: “They really are everywhere. / They crawl around in one’s intimate hair? / They ferry Lyme disease? / In Paris I used to call the Sri Lankan servants ‘Shrees.’ / I am not able not to.” Servants have expertise—they do things with their hands—and they feel things, becoming depositories for emotions hidden from and by their employers. In Seidel’s poetry, emotion is vented as an aside, or in the privacy of the locked bathroom. (The cover of The Cosmos Trilogy is a picture of a toilet-paper dispenser.) In a poem published in both Final Solutions and in Sunrise, the poet remains dry-eyed as “The maid would come from mother’s room / With my mother’s tears shining on her arm.” The maid responds with a sympathy the poet cannot summon. In this way, Seidel’s work broaches uncomfortable, even shameful, feelings, but associates them with members of an underclass—“As to the inner life: let the maid”—who are forced to deal with the leftovers, literally and figuratively. In “Bologna,” one of the strongest poems in Ooga-Booga, Seidel elegizes Heinz, the black doorman who taught him to ride a two-wheeler, essentially putting him on the road to “go nowhere fast and get there.” Heinz takes his hand, as Virgil took Dante’s, and leads him from the outside to the inside. In his doorman’s uniform, which for Seidel is reminiscent of the Gestapo, Heinz is the antithesis of the Aryan ideal, a fetishized object, and like Seidel’s own poetry his hand moves the boy from boyhood to manhood, from reason to unreason, meaning to meaninglessness. Or vice-versa.

“Bologna,” “The Death of the Shah,” and “Kill Poem” are some of the best poems of Seidel’s career, but such praise does not fall equally to Ooga-Booga as a collection. Too many of these poems seem to be drafts of other, better poems, sharing not only characters and places, but also lines and metaphors. The inclusion of lesser poems that share material with stronger poems forces the reader to wonder why Seidel included them at all, whether he deliberately disregards his own craft or feels himself near the end of his career and must publish the dregs as well as the fine vintage of his art.

To end with the title—for titles in Seidel’s work are like clues in a scavenger hunt—“Ooga-Booga” might be what your drunken uncle crowed as he poked his fingers into your childish belly. Perhaps Seidel is again thumbing his nose at his reader and at lyrical poets of the past and present. Would James Wright or Seamus Heaney or even Billy Collins call their book Nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah? By openly negating the importance of his artistic goals and accomplishments, Seidel places himself on the side of those who discount poetry as so much “baloney” (or “Bologna”). His work casts the poet as a kind of Prufrock, who “was not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be.” And while Seidel is neither prophet nor angelic singer, his paeans to a society that is, like himself, toward some final solution may continue pushing us to divine profound meanings from adventures on the cocktail circuit.