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BOOK REVIEW

'Poems: 1959-2009' by Frederick Seidel

March 22, 2009|George Ducker | Ducker is a writer in Los Angeles.

In September 1968, a wide-ranging New York Times lifestyle piece headlined "Central Park's New Era: Fun for Everyone" took the measure of several New Yorkers, including a college student from the Bronx, two girls riding a tandem bicycle, a fashion executive and the poet Frederick Seidel. While in the zoo, looking at the seals, Seidel says, "I once wrote a poem about a girl I was in love with. I compared her to a seal. . . . It was a poetic problem," he explains, "to connect the two -- the girl and the seal -- because it's really almost preposterous."

This is perhaps the least preposterous comparison to be found in Seidel's work. Long regarded as a kind of elegant cult figure in poetry circles, Seidel has a reputation that precedes him into every room: decadent, name-dropper, sexual dalliant, Ducati enthusiast, son of privilege. This runs counter to the man himself. He doesn't do poetry readings and has, for the most part, shunned interviews. There is no doubt that Seidel is one of the best poets alive today, and now, with the release of "Poems: 1959-2009," his collected works can be taken at their measure: They are haughty, funny and terrifying, with plenty of delicious contention throughout.

"Women have a playground slide / That wraps you in monsoon and takes you for a ride." The couplet has the kind of smug, playful confidence that is apprehended by the poem's following lines: "The English girl Louise, his latest squeeze, was being snide. / Easy to deride / The way he stayed alive to stay inside / His women with his puffed-up pride. / The pharmacy supplied / The rising fire truck ladder that the fire did not provide." The poem is called "Sii, romantico, Seidel, tanto per cambiare," and it is characteristic of much else in his canon that it reads like verse produced over a dinner of 19th century French symbolists hosted by Ogden Nash.

Unlike poets who write in the first person, disguising the "I" as someone -- anyone -- else, Seidel adheres to a strict regimen of personal disclosures. In "Darkening in the Dark," Seidel, now 73, warns, "No one my age can go on living for long. / No one the color of a turnip." Both poems are from "Evening Man," a new collection that begins the book. "Poems" lines up his collections in reverse chronological order; Seidel has turned the telescope around, forcing us to peer back at the very beginning. In 1963's "Final Solutions," it's startling how already practiced the young poet is at feeling old. Starting with the memories of his childhood bedroom decorations, Seidel moves from the upper-floored apartments of moneyed New York to the wards of Bellevue; he touches down on a black judge, a widower whose bathroom "cradles him like a wife" and an "old man's dream, terminated by a heart attack."

There is a careful weight to the whole business and a fondness for combining rhyme schemes and free verse, and it should come as no surprise that Robert Lowell was one of Seidel's early champions. Seidel interviewed Lowell for a 1961 issue of the Paris Review, and Lowell helped Seidel get "Final Solutions" published after it was turned down at the last minute for the Helen Burlin Memorial Award (sponsors' concerns that the collection may have libeled Mamie Eisenhower came to naught).

His next book, "Sunrise," wouldn't appear for another 17 years, but Seidel must have gotten younger in the interim. Following Frank O'Hara's dictum from "Personism" that "if you're going to buy a pair of pants, you want them to be tight enough so that everyone will want to go to bed with you," the poems take their ease more crisply, with a less prefabricated concern about mortality. He recalls the "oyster glow" of a post-Manson Los Angeles. He takes walks through the Arizona desert with Antonioni and pursues a motorcycle-riding paramour "with breasts of Ajanta -- big blue-sky clouds." In the nightmarish title poem he envisions a countdown involving "Organizations of gravity and light, / Supremely mass disappears and reappears / In an incomprehensible -1 of might."

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