Frederick Seidel’s gabby, gallivanting poems have come a long way from his indentured servitude to Robert Lowell. His first book, Final Solutions (1963)—the title just the sort of toxic pun to which Seidel became addicted—was in hock to the master without being overwhelmed. Few of Lowell’s acolytes could say as much. The younger man broke free to become the confessional poet Lowell never could: ungainly, embarrassing, self-indulgent, silly beyond mere mannerism. However maddening and offensive, Seidel’s later work has a dash and élan hard to dislike.
Peaches Goes It Alone is another episode in his long-running drama starring a dinosaur from the land of privilege who favors Savile Row suits, Cleverley shoes, and a fire-engine-red Ducati (which eventually, I believe, he became too old to ride).1 Seidel’s a bon homme stranded in the world of Au Bon Pain. With a sharp eye for the hypocrisies and dutiful silences of the day, his great virtue is to give voice to thoughts few would say aloud.
Cape Coast Castle in Ghana
Is literally whitewashed white.
The building moans like a ghost under the enormous African sun.
The dungeon holding pen for slaves is a sacred place.
At the so-called Door of No Return, tourist African-Americans pose.
Every single African head of state is corrupt.
The ironies cut more ways than one.
Poetry has a long history of ironists (without irony, long vistas of Shakespeare and vast duchies colonized by the Augustans and Romantics would vanish), so Seidel is laying claim to old ground rarely traveled now. Like Ishmael, the Bible’s Ishmael, his hand is against every man, and every man’s hand against him. “Bring back the all-girls boarding schools for pedigreed girls,” he writes, “Where, morning and night, girls dressed and undressed”:
These ball gowns were tomboys who curtsy and bow.
These tigers were geldings life milks like a cow.
In life’s cotillion, girls had to learn how
To be kapos at Dachau.
The leap from Foxcroft and Miss Porter’s to Dachau is boorish but, once said, difficult to forget. It might have been applied more exactly to the all-male days of Choate and St. Paul’s. (I’m not sure Seidel understands the sex of a gelding.) The roots of fascism probably lie elsewhere; but Seidel, a product of St. Louis Country Day School and Harvard, is an apostate deep inside the church, as most apostates are.
If he’s willing to speak the unspeakable, Seidel’s great defect is to sound like a jerk when doing so. He’ll begin a poem, “Every woman who wants to be spanked should be/ Spanked for wanting to be.” Can it get worse? Indubbiamente!
She should be put on a pedestal so you can look up to her
From below and get outstanding news and views
From beneath and see what you want to see.
Look at her clean machine, her beautiful guillotine!
Erect as a hooded cobra about to strike, exactly what a hissing vagina looks like!
Those exclamation marks look a bit erect themselves. Even were this in persona, the poet takes entirely too much relish in it.
Like Frank O’Hara, Seidel has become a poet of dogged dailiness, just angrier—and, sadly, often writing in a doggerel that might have embarrassed Ogden Nash. (I’ve made the comparison before, and I’m afraid Nash would have every right to be offended.)
Every time I sleep I leave a stain.
When I wake up, I climb out of a drain
And step into my feet and it is plain
That when I walk away I leave a lane
Of garbage on the carpet in the train.
Few poems have been written about the incontinence of old age; after this, few seem more than enough. When Auden tried to write doggerel, he couldn’t help but be half-good—Seidel is trying to be all bad.
Humani nihil a me alienum puto, said Terence, a long while back—“I suppose nothing human is alien to me.” Seidel’s Addendum goes, “Let nothing human be human to me, either.” Every small beef and every trivial slight becomes an opera, and every opera an opéra bouffe. Poetry has gone a long while without a decent Pagliacci, and it’s a pity that our Pagliacci has too much of the Three Stooges in his makeup.
There comes a time when a poet has his style on tap, barrels and barrels of it, and all he has to do is turn the spigot. Seidel opens his mouth like some creature from Dante’s malebolge and bile comes spewing forth. His comédie humaine never seems quite humane—indeed, he’s our contemptuous Brueghel, his world a nightmare made flesh, the monsters hiding in plain sight. Seidel has become a town crier retailing the sordid gossip of the day while occasionally wailing, “Bring out the dead!,” a grouchy old white man in a grouchy old white-man body, delighted to piss and moan whether the subject is global warming, or global economic collapse, or global halitosis.
And yet. And yet. Seidel has the breadth of Whitman, a hunger for being, a gift of outrage, as well as what Whitman mostly lacked, a painful cloddishness and a taste for bad verse rarely seen since the days of William McGonagall.
Ursula K. Le Guin, the most distinguished science-fiction writer of her generation, died this year at eighty-eight. Whenever anyone grumbled that science fiction wasn’t literature, a voice in the corner would pipe up, “What about The Left Hand of Darkness?” I took some adolescent comfort in science fiction, but then I grew up and had friends. I tried to read Le Guin’s novel half-a-dozen times, but I could never get past “It starts on the 44th diurnal of the Year 1491, which on the planet Winter in the nation Karhide was Odharhahad Tuwa or the twenty-second day of the third month of spring in the Year One.” I’d burst into laughter and be unable to get any further.
Le Guin was also a poet from time to time, publishing nine volumes and a number of chapbooks. After a Kickstarter campaign that raised more than $65,000, her publisher has seen fit to issue a posthumous collection, So Far So Good: Final Poems, 2014–2018.2 The title happens to be the punchline to a joke about a man jumping off a tall building and halfway down shouting out the title (not the “Final Poems” part). I’d like to be able to say that for a science-fiction writer Le Guin was a pretty good poet, and for a poet a pretty good science-fiction writer; but I couldn’t do either with a straight face.
It’s a given that, when a writer is eminent enough, someone somewhere will publish virtually anything that falls off his desk—high-school English papers, complaints to the irs, or, well, poems. If Jimmy Carter was allowed to publish his poems, and Jimmy Stewart his, and Tupac and James Franco and Viggo Mortensen and Leonard Nimoy and Charlie Sheen and Suzanne Somers theirs, there’s no good reason Le Guin shouldn’t have added hers. Every Le Guin poem has the force of wisdom, the sort no doubt found on the planet Winter in the nation Karhide; but if so the worse for Karhide:
where’s my little fleeting cat
a year a year an hour a day
where’s my little girl at
fleeting away sleeping away
found the way clear away
nowhere far nowhere near
a day a day an hour a year
downwelling waters all-washing, wider
than cities, softer than sisterhood, vaster
than countrysides, calming, recalling:
return to us, teaching our troubled
souls in your ceaseless descent
to fall, to be fellow, to feel to the root,
to sink in, to heal, to sweeten the sea.
Looking at you over on that other side
of the rift that you decreed
between us, I’m scared to see
how hard, how fast the run of years
scours such a channel. Miles
across now. I can’t tell how deep.
There’s a breathless bit of Zen, a dash of lardish sentiment, and a lot of pure idiocy on every page. They’re better poems than Leonard Nimoy’s or Charlie Sheen’s, which isn’t saying much. Hers are mostly grammatical. Over three hundred people contributed to have this book published. I won’t say they were heartlessly swindled. I’ll say they got just what they deserved.
Over three hundred people contributed to have this book published. I won’t say they were heartlessly swindled. I’ll say they got just what they deserved.
Max Ritvo died of Ewing’s sarcoma at the age of twenty-five. Just sixteen when the illness was diagnosed, he endured devastating radiation and chemotherapy. The disease went into remission, only to return while he was at Yale. He finished college and married. Four Reincarnations, his first book, was published two years ago, weeks after he died.
The Final Voicemails, a cheeky title by a man given to sly, cheeky poems, has been dredged from work written in his last years, some of it probably unfinished.3 Pieced out with a selection from his senior thesis, the book has been assembled by Louise Glück, his teacher and thesis advisor. Her editor’s note can be forgiven for treading a little carefully on his grave: “Nothing he wrote was without flashes of brilliance, but many of these late poems would surely have been revised or jettisoned.” Such an admission preempts much of what criticism can say, even if it must be said.
These scrapings and leavings, the sadder for having been written with death at the poet’s shoulder, often consist of half-thoughts strung together by a man who had every right to be distracted. There’s a good deal of trivia here, poems with titles far better than anything that follows. Much of what Ritvo wrote owes a debt to cancer narratives no less affecting for there being far too many. Soft-spoken, almost apologetic, unembarrassed for being embarrassed, the most telling poems struggle to find words for a life winding down:
I am too weak for sexual urges anymore
but I yearn to be naked
all the time.
I want to urinate without
having to pull off
This is plain speaking better for being plain. Ritvo has borrowed a little from the playbook of his teacher, whose desolations have made her a Plath without tinsel, without rhetoric, but with far more nervous glances. He describes a life in constant pain, verging on dissolution. “Who wants to cuddle a skeleton?” he asks. It’s a joke without a punchline—or a joke that, skeletally, is only a punchline.
Ritvo was a furtive, crafty poet, hard to pin down. Most of his poems are scattershot pieces skittering image to image like a water bug. This wasn’t just whistling in the dark; it was whistling before the firing squad, and these notes from the dead thrive on black humor:
The black night is a sea urchin.
The sea urchin is my mother
moving on spiny feet,
meat clotting with her desires.
I’ve been keeping the doctors in line
on a little tan balance beam—
Whenever they reach the end I pluck them
up by the collar.
Alas, too often Ritvo lets the poems straggle along until the ideas are played out. He grabs a stray thought, dresses it up with a few dopey metaphors, and leaves it smaller. The imagery is a way of fighting back, no doubt; but the poems are half-baked, more form than substance, not devilish enough to be memorable or dark enough to be haunting. At best they possess a spunkiness and buoyancy that belies the illness Ritvo suffered; at worst they seem overworked and tedious. They’re American surrealism lite, Tate without the slapstick or Simic without the mournful comic gravitas.
Glück describes the second half of the book, drawn from his thesis, Mammals, as a “reminder . . . that the work of twenty-year-olds is not necessarily practice work.” I’m not sure who needs reminding, since just before he turned twenty-one a poet named Keats wrote “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” and when not much older one named Pope The Rape of the Lock. Ritvo’s undergraduate poems have their flaws—there are airy fables without much point, Millennial squibs where any commitment is a commitment too far. The most seductive, however, are more deeply mired in the world than his later work.
Slept in loft,
Frenchmen fucking each other in sleeping bag next to me,
Oh, Antoine! Antoine! Michel! Mon dieu!
Opened window, it was stifling.
French believe cold air causes malaria.
Ritvo was developing into another latterday O’Hara, but with a cutting eye and a chip on his shoulder.
There’s little doubt that these poems would never have been published had Ritvo not died so young. The immature work here and in Four Reincarnations is the dispiriting shadow of a future never to be. Introducing the poems of a student who died even younger, Joan Murray (his first choice as editor of the Yale Series of Younger Poets), W. H. Auden wisely hoped that readers would “not be distracted by sentimental speculation about what she might have written.” Perhaps Ritvo’s was a grand career cut short, but half a century ago I knew at least two Yale undergraduates who wrote as well or better. As a poet neither made it very far.
Describing himself as a “queer jewish writer and educator,” sam sax has a fetish for the lowercase, as if flinching from some unnamed terror.
Describing himself as a “queer jewish writer and educator,” sam sax has a fetish for the lowercase, as if flinching from some unnamed terror. The poems in bury it, like his name, are uniformly set in minuscules, which makes them look shrunken and faux-naïf in an E. E. Cummings way.4 Letting your name shrivel toward nothingness might be considered a form of modesty, an act of contrition or apology, or just plain shyness, if it didn’t call attention to yourself with a flourish—or a vengeance.
A P. T. Barnum of visual effect, sax is also a Cummings fighting it out using the garden tools of avant-garde poetry. His poems run rampant through typography—lines staggered or double spaced, set as prose or scattered shotgun-style. Part of one poem falls down the page like a skinny downspout. Another is plastered up like a billboard, intralinear breaks marked by virgules. Modesty can be a way of showing off.
Why not go further? Make each letter a different color or decorate the poems in DayGlo finish? When the poems are all show, it’s hard for the words to get a word in edgewise. Most of the poems never grow into the form—the form seems slapped on like a bumper sticker, not for what it offers the subject, but as a way to broadcast the poet’s hostility to convention. The forms of experimental poems long ago became conventions themselves.
Many of sax’s poems are about sex (generally oral), and a good deal of the rest are about language (oral, too, in its way)—his favorite subject is the anguish of being young and gay. The poems have been so amped up visually and verbally, however, only rare quiet moments are memorable:
when i say history i mean what lives in us,
i mean the faux gold chain around my neck,
the diseases passed from generation to generation
dating back to a time before christ, i mean any word
traced to its origin is a small child begging for water.
Though his metaphors press the limits of sense, they at times make me pause in admiration: Neanderthals “didn’t possess a written language,// which points toward interment// as a form of document.”
The problem comes when sax tries to make a big-top show of fairly ordinary things. He starts one poem with a violent incident from the Odyssey and a disturbing one from World War II (Resistance fighters “fed infants// opiate-laced breast milk”), then moves straight to memoir:
josh & i held
each other trembling below the stairs
as my brother & his friends rampaged
through the house, liquor a rampage
The comparison to Odysseus strangling a man inside the Trojan Horse or the Resistance, in fear for their lives, drugging babies into silence makes the pack of drunken adolescents weaker, not stronger. The poet has entirely misunderstood Odyssey IV, where Odysseus silences Antiklos by holding his jaws shut—perhaps he has confused it with the strangling of Laocoön and his sons by a serpent. The tale about the Resistance fighters seems far-fetched, and a historian of the Resistance I consulted had never heard of such a thing.
If sax possessed an ounce of irony, he might have gotten away with it; but irony has mostly been squeezed out of the poems. Too often, despite the dread that lies beneath, they are an annoying mixture of juvenile daring and adult silliness:
in college we began to prepare for
the coming devastation, it was always kind
of a joke, still we learned the basics
of farming dead soil, ate each others’ [sic] semen,
argued over the acquisition of firearms,
built little utopias from our books’ imaginations.
Hang on. Is the semen-eating part of staving off the apocalypse or just a lapse of syntax? (That should have been “one another’s,” not the twice-mistaken “each others’. ”) Are “he’d bare it” and “i could not/ bare it” in one of the sex poems giddy puns or just misspellings? Is his confusion elsewhere of “o” and “oh” calculated or hapless? How is a writer so entranced by arcane fact and etymology capable of writing, “the stars hanged dead/ in their sky”? Does Wesleyan no longer employ a copy-editor?
If Narcissus is the guiding muse of sax’s second book, the illuminating moments are lost in metaphors so intent on exaggeration they don’t know how to let the agon of agony speak (“skin transforming into floor boards/ muscles into cobwebs”). There’s talent on almost every page, a real feeling for words and the way they can bend to suit the poet; but sax might do better with civilized yawps, not barbaric yelps.
Hold it—jos charles has gone one better, not just writing a book in minuscules but translating it into faux Chaucerian English, double-spaced:
thees wite skirtes / & orang
sweters / i wont / inn the feedynge marte /
wile mye vegetable partes bloome /
inn the commen waye
Or, roughly, “These white skirts / and orange// sweaters / I want[?] / in the feeding mart [supermarket?] / // while my vegetable parts bloom / // in the common way.” As a trans poet, charles almost inevitably seeks to test or even destroy expectation. Whether the transcription enhances meaning or simply makes it exasperating is a difficult question. Does appearing en masque reveal strengths unseen or expose weaknesses better ignored? Her prolonged unhappiness with the meaning and measure of English suggests that language itself is the culprit—or the target. A language as fluid as gender is a way to be seen without being known.
Such muddles come at a cost. The poems in feeld—think “field” or perhaps “felt” [“feeled”]—are so busy alienating the reader from the pleasurable ease of reading that the contortions, as with much experimental poetry, can be justified only if the gains are greater than the labor expended or the irritation caused.5 Though much of the idiosyncratic spelling can be found in any Middle English dictionary, the poet’s attempt to straddle the gap between two worlds creates monstrosities like “tellavision,” “masckulin economyes,” “sintacks,” “ontologicklie,” and “vagynoplastycitie.”
You could transcribe English poems into the Cyrillic or Greek alphabet without improving them in any way. Frustration is no act of hostility toward the reader, charles might argue, just a duty intimate to meaning—it erases conformities the world demands. The heavy lifting needed to decipher the poems (they’re better read fast, taking the spelling at speed) unfortunately buries more than it grubs up, losing much of her shifty sense of metaphor (“i see mye trama lit lik/ candie in ther cotten mothes,” “u// rite long enuff inn 2 its sirfase// / it rites inn 2 u”). Transcription serves only to intensify the bleak language of trauma in which the poems have been composed (“trama lit is so hote rite nowe,” her friend says). This is one of the unhappiest books I’ve ever read, full of hurts long abiding and deeply felt; but the attention required by this foreign tongue, near kin to the cryptophasic language of twins, is debilitating and almost pointless. It reminds me of José Garcia Villa’s Volume Two (1949), where every word was followed by a comma.
Very few poets have conveyed so well the pain of existence, though the poet’s allusions to what may be transgender surgery are partly in code (“a tran lik all metall is a series of sirfase in folde / wee// call manie of thees foldes identitie”). There are a lot of references to “holes,” “foldes,” “sirfases,” and perhaps other refugees from topology; but it can be difficult to see what she’s getting at. (The sixty numbered poems are roughly the same idea repeated fifty-nine times.) It doesn’t help that the sham Chaucerian, with a little text messaging added, is full of faux amis—“i am hors” might be “I am hoarse” or “I am horse.” The line following (“i am sadeld / i am a brokn hors”) might tilt the reader toward the latter, but the former could still be in with a shout, as it were. Is “i stair inn 2 the eather” “I stare into the aether” or “the either”? Bonne chance. I’m going to guess that “feemale depositrie room” is the ladies’ room—or is it the vagina? Or just an elusive metaphor? The poet seems a little too pleased by the ambiguities her original orthography allows. Whether the tremors of unmeaning are calculated puns is another thing.
These poems are besieged by existential loneliness, illustrated by a poem ending, more or less, with the line from Job that heads the epilogue to Moby-Dick: “i a lone hav scaped 2 tell u this.” (Thank goodness charles didn’t rewrite the whole novel in the language of Richard II.) Her task is to create a trans philosophy in the constricted space of constricted poems. Philosophy and poetry have always made uneasy bedfellows—Lucretius and Erasmus Darwin turned out more sludge than decent verse. The labors in feeld elide difficulties faintly sketched out or smuggled into metaphor. For all the suffering, there’s very little poetry—the book is more a condition than an achievement, but it’s hard not to sympathize with a poet whose cri de coeur is “u who unforl me / how manie// holes wuld blede / befor// u believ / imma grl.”
Freed from the fancy dress or formaldehyde of Middle English, will charles become a worthy inheritor of Chaucer or just another Jorie Graham imitator? The poet does provide a brilliantly loopy author’s note as part of the publicity, full of quotations from the likes of Derrida, Gayatri Spivak, and Robert Grosseteste (you can’t get more medieval than Grosseteste—or Derrida, for that matter), a note full of academic dog-whistles:
To deprivatize is not the same as to make public. A field is only natural or private after so much hurt. Setting aside where an inside begins and ends, we run into an old problem: how many surfaces, how much ground, must be covered and owned, before a fold in its heart, before an inside, before it’s authentic.
A little of that goes a long way. The poems have a lot more to say that remains unsaid.
Ada Limón’s casual, stitched-together poems in The Carrying, her fifth book, are charming but troubling. The vices are so ordinary, at first it’s hard to see the virtues.6 The poems are prosy as a Peterbilt ten-wheeler, now and then lapsing into the tedium of a non-disclosure contract. She’s in love with the verb “to be” more than any reader of Strunk and White should be, once using it nine times in ten lines, and so wedded to prosy line-breaks you wish she’d just set the poems in newspaper columns and be done with them. Worse, she tosses in such a legion of lists (“leaving a slice/ of gas station moon pie,// rye, a nickel-plated acorn, ladies/ picnicking in the shade of a pine”), I can’t even make a list of them. Some possess an Audenesque puckishness (“a bottle top, a man’s black boot, a toad”), but most just stop the poem cold. “I’m always making a list,” she says, and you believe her.
As you become accustomed to the roughness and readiness of the poems, however, the flaws drop away, like the exasperating idiosyncracies of a new acquaintance that come to seem just a touch of personality. Limón is a poet of the natural world, never founding an animist religion like Mary Oliver, just finding fear and desire reflected there. A poem begins, “On my way to the fertility clinic,/ I pass five dead animals,” and ends,
The white coat has said I’m ready, and I watch as a vulture
crosses over me, heading toward
the carcasses I haven’t properly mourned or even forgiven.
What if, instead of carrying
a child, I am supposed to carry grief?
The great black scavenger flies parallel now, each of us speeding,
intently and driven, toward what we’ve been taught to do with death.
Limón’s poems live in the midst of detritus, her lines painfully intimate, as if the reader had caught her unawares. Most poets make the world smaller by making themselves larger; but she’s content to be lost in the woods, letting the reader overhear her arguments with herself. The poems come closer than any poems have to Annie Dillard’s essays (nearer, as a poet, than Dillard ever did). Limón is an adult the way few poets are—and an innocent the way fewer would even dare. She lives almost without skin.
Her diary jottings sometimes unfold like episodes of a peculiarly dark sitcom. The moments of fracture and vacancy are analyzed, embedded, even laughed at—in Elizabeth Bishop’s phrase, they’re awful but cheerful. The splendor comes almost accidentally through the elegant fractions of the natural world: “The big-ass bees are back, tipsy, sun drunk/ and heavy with thick knitted leg warmers/ of pollen.” Or:
I lie down among them,
in my ripped pink tank top, filthy and covered
in sweat, among red burying beetles and dirt
that’s been turned and turned like a problem
in the mind.
Nature for her is one giant thrift-shop full of hand-me-downs no one would ever wear, though someone once did.
of the sharp-shinned hunters, the Cooper’s,
the Swainson’s, how hawks are both serene
and scary as hell, scary that is, if you’re
the mouse. That’s the trick, we say,
isn’t it? Don’t be the mouse.
The trick in her poems is that there is no trick. They’re skimmed off the surface of thought, even if cunningly composed. Who wants to be Charles Lamb looking at the draft of Lycidas, devastated that it wasn’t written in one go? Yet Limón is a poet of second thoughts—cross-examining, self-prosecuting, full of jangled nerves and cryptic disappointments.
Alive to the passing moment, she can pick up some scantily clad scrap of today’s cant and make better of it, whether she finds “newbie/ leaves tucked in black soil” or confesses that “it’s almost romantic as we adjust the waxy blue/ recycling bin until you say, Man, we should really learn/ some new constellations.” The comedown is also a putdown, but who would have imagined that Lowell’s garbage pail in “Skunk Hour” would half a century later become a recycling bin? She’s the rare poet who can get away with saying, “I am in a raging battle/ with my body, a spinal column thirty-five degrees/ bent, vertigo that comes and goes like a DC Comics / villain nobody can kill.” (DC and Marvel both, as it happens, had a villainous or quasi-villainous character named Vertigo.)
Given her quiet, angular appeal, I’m ready to forgive the dreary stretches, the shopworn inventories, the dropped commas, and the like. Speaking of “like,” if Limón weren’t such a dandy shaper of sentences, her brutish use of the word wouldn’t matter (“there’d be nothing left in you, like/ how the wind shakes a tree”); but it strikes a dead note every time. Often, unfortunately, she can’t let an ending alone; instead of leaving the reader in suspension, she ties it up with silk ribbon and adds a pink balloon.
There are foxes who have trouble finding an idea, so natter on about nothing; and hedgehogs who have just one idea, so natter on about nothing else. Give me the first—it takes a certain genius to do nothing well. Limón lets her subjects find her: a day out at Churchill Downs, the cats inherited from her husband’s dead ex, why she doesn’t have tattoos. You shouldn’t be able to make poems from such flotsam and jetsam, even if they washed up at your door; but Limón turns light things into dark revelations. She’s that rarest of beasts, a poet who can take you by surprise.
- Peaches Goes It Alone, by Frederick Seidel; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 101 pages, $24.
- So Far So Good: Final Poems, 2014–2018; by Ursula K. Le Guin; Copper Canyon Press, 102 pages, $23.
- The Final Voicemails, by Max Ritvo, edited by Louise Glück; Milkweed Editions, 86 pages, $22.
- bury it, by sam sax; Wesleyan University Press, 89 pages, $14.95 (paper).
- feeld, by jos charles; Milkweed Editions, 69 pages, $16 (paper).
- The Carrying, by Ada Limón; Milkweed Editions, 97 pages, $22.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 4, on page 67
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