Judith or Salomé? Ambiguity & inequality in the poetry of Frederick Seidel

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Matthew Halliday

 

It is not always easy to distinguish between Judith and Salomé in the Western art tradition. Are we viewing Judith’s faithfulness to God in a state of exaltation or jealous and vindictive Salomé, with the sobering head of John the Baptist staring right back at us? Our appreciation of what is before us, ethically and aesthetically, is predicated on our interpretation of the interrelations of such signs that are necessary for us to appreciate and evaluate it. In order to read the images that are presented to us we must expressly call upon our knowledge of how one reads: what are the accepted conventions of art that give us the necessary preliminary information in order that we may see. The art historian Erwin Panofsky used this problem of interpretation as evidence of the importance of knowledge for accessing art.

Frederick Seidel’s poetry explores similar aesthetic questions in the realm of language. His work proceeds to offer morally ambiguous situations and linguistic paradoxes such that the reader keeps bifurcating interpretations in mind as they wade through the history of Western imperialism, contemporary capitalism, inequality and injustice; desperately embarking on a quest of sense-making and evaluation. Seidel’s work feels urgent. I cannot think of any other poet who seems to take Walter Benjamin’s statement seriously that every document of civilisation is simultaneously a document of barbarity. In a world of blinding cruelty and hypocrisy this is art that attempts to teach us to see.

So who is this Seidel anyway? The story of Judith and Holofernes is one that comes up frequently; he borrows other characters from the bible and Ovid et al. here and there. But strikingly most of his mythic figures, like John F. Kennedy or Fred Astaire, come from the present or recent past; and the most prominent character of all in his work is Frederick Seidel.  Seidel is a sort of self-styled Augustine in the desert wearing tails and sipping a cosmopolitan. He is white, male and very wealthy. He resides in the Upper East Side of Manhattan, was educated at Harvard and counts Diane von Fürstenburg among his inner circle. From the vantage points of either identity or class politics he epitomises power and privilege. This is a fact that one is always aware of when reading his poetry, whose content is not frequently associated with the art, particularly the lyrical tradition of which he is an inheritor. It is often violent, bloody and horrible. He talks about class, race and gender. From such a précis alone it should be clear that he is a controversial poet. His reputation is large enough such that he may on occasion sneak into mainstream papers, where the vague consensus of the likes of The New York Times or The Guardian seems to be that he is provocateur or a bürgerschrecker. But to call him the first is to attest to the hypocrisy or selective sight that are Seidel’s primary concern: the refusal to acknowledge the moral crimes that underpin our society and civilisation. To call him the second is to understate the case. What exactly Seidel is, and wants to communicate, is a question that an intelligent reader never stops asking themselves; as indeed Seidel explicitly and ostentatiously does himself.

And yet understanding Seidel’s persona is essential to understanding the poetry. As ‘good readers’, after Panofsky, we search for a solution to the problem of how we should be reading and interpreting in the work itself – we look to the art to discover the state of receptivity we should be in when we receive the raw content inside. But this is poetry that seems to dump mounds of offal in front of us and curtsey, with impeccable diction. It is hard to read. The language is emotionally distant. The content of the poetry, often unpleasant, is a hunting ground for Seidel to explore the relationship between the ‘truth’ of the world and its beauty. Our understanding of Seidel’s poetry is predicated on knowledge, primarily in two areas; the first is the broad Western cultural tradition of the humanities, including, for example, the products of European modernism in visual art or classical music, the second our understanding and knowledge of contemporary politics and global conflict. A central tension of Seidel’s body of work is contained within the fact that our ability to apprehend the hypocrisy presented to us is predicated on how educated we are, how cultivated we are. Our appreciation of its beauty increases in proportion with our appreciation of the iniquities of the world.

Seidel’s first book, Final Solutions, was released over fifty years ago in 1963 and was awarded a prize judged by Louise Bogan, Stanley Kunitz and Robert Lowell. Due to controversy about the poetry – it was accused of anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism (Seidel himself happens to be Jewish) – the prize was revoked and publication delayed for a year until it was picked up by Random House. By all accounts the poetry didn’t make an enormous critical impact on publication, probably due to the overarching influence of Lowell which distracted from the original features of the work. Formally they are indeed similar; both adopt a hard-boiled, macho voice which they use to deliver short, punchy lines, with big clean rhymes, and both are ostensibly confessional, if we provisionally allow for the unqualified use of such a vague descriptor. But whereas Lowell uses this to tell us of his important ancestors or his own mental states, in Seidel’s work they operate quite differently – Seidel talks primarily about inequality. This is evident in Final Solutions, although it is only later in his career he takes full advantage of the productive capacity of these tools to attempt to transform our political understanding.

‘Wanting to live in Harlem’ is a good representation of Seidel’s early poetic method. It is very much Lowell on the surface, but already this poetry is capable of doing much more than Lowell’s. The first stanza begins:

 

Pictures of violins in the Wurlitzer collection
Were my bedroom's one decoration,
Besides a blue horse and childish tan maiden by Gauguin­–
Backs, bellies, and scrolls,
Stradivarius, Guarnerius, Amati,
Colored like a calabash-and-meerschaum pipe bowl's
Warmed, matured body–
The color of the young light-skinned colored girl we had then.

 

This is an almost textbook program of orientalism (and highly conscious of what it is doing). It’s ambiguous what is ‘childish’ here; the maiden, the depiction of the maiden or Gauguin’s notion of the maiden herself. What is here is the exotic, from the Gauguin painting, illustrations of century-old violins from Italian master craftsmen of Cremona, the ‘calabash-and-meerschaum’, and, of course, on the other side of the racial gulf of 1950s St Louis, the maid employed by the Seidel family. The language contained in the small quoted section contains words that are Latin, Italian, French, German and Persian in origin. These lines are about the erotic appeal of the family’s maid to the young Seidel, and how this is connected to her status as the exotic other. The poem proceeds to mention Seidel’s dying mother, and those familiar with the poetry of Lowell may be forgiven for assuming this will descend into self-aggrandizing verbiage, but actually the focus is elsewhere; outwards. The ninth stanza describes Seidel’s attempts to find furnished rooms in Harlem, how he hears Bach’s famous Chaconne in D Minor drifting from a high window, and the African-American residents’ blackness becomes overlaid with militaristic Nazi (or at least fascist) imagery:

 

No violin could thaw
The rickety and raw
Purple window I shivered below, stamping my shoes.
Two boys in galoshes came goose-stepping down
The sheer-ice long white center line of Lenox Avenue.
A blue-stormcoated Negro patrolman,
With a yellowing badge star, bawled at them. I left too.

 

The poem is about the world, specifically 60s New York, as divided into white and black, and the violence that is concealed behind this hegemony of white supremacy. It pivots on a moment of epiphany for the child, subsequent to the child and maid screaming in unison: ‘What a world of mirrored darkness!’ It is this mirrored darkness that echoes Benjamin’s vision of civilisation, the fruits of which pile up in the poem (Bach, Harvard etc.) and seem inextricably linked to the savagery of imperialism and dispossession, the maid that serves the Seidel family, and of course to the privilege and persona of Seidel himself. We are constantly presented with this world full of signs, such as blackness of skin, and these signs are connected to socio-political reality. What is important here is what paradoxical discourse achieves: the poetry undermines the authority of the existing language and pulls at its moorings. The signifiers of whiteness and blackness are revealed to be amorphous and unreliable indicators of a moral nature under constant exchange, the maid is described using words such as ‘colored’ and ‘light-skinned’, discussion which undermines the predominant, essentialist worldview of a black-and-white world.

The final image in the poem ‘The Coal Man’, from the same collection, presents the protagonist (young Seidel) of the poem witnessing the poor black workers of St. Louis swallowing coal whole ‘and vomiting slick eels / of blackness’. The division of race appears once more, displays its conceptual instability, and yet the blunt socio-political reality of the coal workers’ plight is demonstrated in contradistinction to the author’s whiteness, the very real differences and inequalities between the two positions being manifestly divided along lines of whiteness, blackness. The poem ends with an epistemological claim: ‘I can see this.’ Seidel’s eyes see the connections between violence and the disadvantaged socio-economic group containing the poor black workers, and he communicates this scene through the repulsive image of the slick black eels.

What language can and cannot do, and what we can and cannot know is one of Seidel’s central themes, and yet this philosophical problem is revealed to have far-reaching ethical implications rather than being mere abstract and abstruse epistemology. This is evident in the remarkable The Cosmos Trilogy, originally released in separate thirds from 2000-02, but composing a coherent whole. The centralising subjects are the frontiers of modern physics; that is cosmology, particle physics, space-time, relativity, and the almost ineffability of the universe’s workings to us: the only slightly effable world. This world occasions some of Seidel’s most brilliant and sensitive metaphors, and stretches language’s capacity to communicate conceptually, illustrating at turns an alternatively cosmic enormous universe, and the human-scale drama going on inside of it. The tools he develops to think about the universe he later uses to interrogate social inequality.

 

A can of shaving cream inflates
A ping-pong ball of lather,
Thick, hot, smaller than an atom, soon
The size of the world.

2. Mirror Full of Stars
A little red
Sea horse is eleven-dimensional
Spacetime. It unicycles
Upright in space

In all directions
At once.

24. Edward Witten
Think of the suckers on the tentacles
Without the tentacles. A honeycomb
Of space writhing in the dark.
Time deforming it, time itself deformed.

4. Universes
Except you are. I wonder what
Cosmologists don't know
That could be everything
There is.

12. Invisible Dark Matter

 

It is not clear to what extent we can understand the notion of eleven-dimensional space, although we may be able to write down equations which define the geometrical rules of such an arena, much as we may have trouble imagining an intricate skeletal seahorse moving in all eleven dimensions simultaneously (and upright on a unicycle at that). Further, the distortions and singularities of space-time, approached by analogy to a sucker on an absent tentacle, or indeed the hexagonal building blocks of a beehive writhing, are formidable attempts to conjure analogies for the theories of inflationary cosmology and non-Euclidean space. But these resourceful attempts to comprehend these distant notions – and the use of a can of shaving foam to find something in our world experience that corresponds to a first-there-was-almost-nothing-which-then-became-a-big-something is particularly inspired – are also shrouded in doubt. They writhe in the dark (we cannot see them) and indeed could even comprise little worth knowing or be of unclear utility (‘everything there is’). These quiet meditations on our understanding of the universe and its etiology/future, expressed in hard-to-grasp metaphors and instructions slowly shift from space-time itself, inflation, the life and death of stars; to the more immediate universe of our experience, and the sets change to hospitals and hotels, to lunches with friends in restaurants and the twin towers on 9/11. This abstract poetry, ruminating on the value and nature of empirical observation, begins by attempting to comprehend the cosmic and ends up very much back in socio-political reality.

Seidel is preoccupied with language’s capacity to communicate through the non-literal. In particular, he uses irony and paradox to such a great extent that they become constitutive of meaning, and this exploration reaches its apogee in Ooga Booga (2006), the strongest collection of his late career. Seidel, the ‘I’ in the poems, is more prominent than ever. Seidel booms out this I’s privilege, that is his wealth, his not-of-colourness, his his-ness and straightness, his Americanness. The possession of these privileges is again depicted in contrast with the majority of his more wretched subjects. But this persona also now plays an additional role of exploring to what extent the author can ‘speak’ out of his poetry, from behind the persona-mask, and the puppeteer increasingly becomes the subject as much as the puppet play. This is gestured at in his earlier work – for example, ‘I give birth to the man / I grow out of’ in ‘Milan’ from Going Fast (1998) – but here it reaches fruition. Seidel, at this late point in his career, is now increasingly faced with the reality of mortality. His pronouncements about death have more urgency, his voice gains a more elegiac tone. The raconteur is less comfortably ensconced in his dinner jacket and the port is running low.

The poem ‘Barbados’ from the collection has a claim to be one of the greatest poems of the new century. It starts with a program of confusion, a typically Seidel-ian series of paratactic statements existing beside each other and, at first, having no clear relation to each other, being ambiguous, paradoxical, ironic. But as the poem unfolds themes begin to emerge. I present the first stanza and a half here:

 

Literally the most expensive hotel in the world
Is the smell of rain about to fall.
It does the opposite, a grove of lemon trees.
I isn’t anything.
It is the hooks of rain
Hovering with their sweets inches off the ground.
I is the spiders marching through the air.
The lines dangle their bait.
The ground will bite.
Your wife is as white as vinegar, pure aristo privilege.
The excellent smell of rain before it falls overpowers
The last aristocrats on earth before the asteroid.
I sense your disdain, darling.
I share it.

The most expensive hotel in the world
Is the slave ship unloading Africans on the moon.
They wear the opposite of space suits floating off the dock
To a sugar mill on a hilltop.
They float into the machinery.
The machine inside the windmill isn’t vegetarian.

 

The first couple of lines are prima facie non-sense, and demonstratively so, with that ‘literally’ deployed at the start. After claiming ‘I isn’t anything’, we are then told ‘I’ is something else, and then finally, after gesturing towards the world’s destruction, the reader is informed that their disdain, accorded to the flood of incoherent information being sent them, has been perceived; he hears us, feels with us, and then we are told that this is a feeling that ‘I’ shares. Whatever this ‘I’ represents seems unstable, the individual becomes effaced, elided. The next stanza opens with a similar first line that takes a new turn. This is poetry reminiscent of cinema, with short, vivid cuts. Suddenly Seidel tries to evoke the experience of the enshackled looking out at this new world, this coerced discovery, and their simultaneous understanding of their own terrible fragility in it. Utterly unlike someone wearing a space suit, this subject is utterly vulnerable. The enshackled African experiences the opposite of this experience, the I of a suit designed to protect the wearer from the harsh elements and nourish with oxygen; he experiences revelation in a violent and exploitative world. The subaltern indeed may not speak much in this poetry, but it certainly looks, and we look, and perhaps feel, with them. There is no attempt by Seidel to voice the other, nor to purport to describe their lived experience of this revelation as they think/experience it. Rather, Seidel uses a strange and surreal metaphor, from an entirely different epoch, to communicate to the reader an analogous experience from within the bounds of our own understanding. It is tools like this which allows him to be politically challenging without being appropriative. What’s more, we ourselves are implicated in this, by simply being a reader, comprehending the poetry and existing in the contemporary world. The poetry is teaching us to see this. The insouciance of the voice is in stark contrast to the violent content. To understand the pain and pathos of the poetry we have to be able to read and understand the poetry, we have to be suitably civilised. This is a horrorium for the feinschmeckers of our civilisation. The third stanza rolls on:

 

A cane toad came up to them.
They’d never seen anything so remarkable.
Now they could see the field was full of them.
Suddenly the field is filled with ancestors.
The hippopotamuses became friendly with the villagers.
Along came white hunters who shot the friendly hippos dead.
If they had known that friendship would end like that,
They never would have entered into it.
Suddenly the field is filled with souls.
The field of sugarcane is filled with hippopotamus cane toads.
They always complained
Our xylophones were too loud.
The Crocodile King is dead.
The world has no end.

 

In a stanza the approximate length of a sonnet, we have a remarkably nuanced description of the violence of colonialism and globalisation. The incoming white man is presented as a cane toad, the invasive species par excellence, alongside, again, the observation that the sight of this approaching, advanced, civilisation must be remarkable, extraordinary. Then the Cambrian explosion occurs, and suddenly the fields are filled with souls or ancestors and hybridities abound. The passage also captures how the colonialism destroys what came before it, and sucks everything in in an irreversible process. This is the world that has no end: this is relentless ‘civilisation’. The whole poem reveals itself to be a meditation on the process of colonialism and slavery, and their legacy in the modern day Caribbean.

One major reason for the significance and productive possibility of Seidel’s persona is because by occupying the role of the great white male, the conquering, patriarchal phallus festooned with the stars and stripes, swaddled by trust funds on a cloud in the Upper East Side; Seidel’s persona can represent power. We may not as readers experience or participate in every one of these privileges, but we certainly do enjoy the privilege of cultural education and intelligence: whatever forces have conspired for us to be in position to be able to read, and engage with, a book of contemporary poetry, with all its cultural indicators and shibboleths.

The critic Michael Robbins says of Seidel: ‘It should be impossible to write poems that simultaneously recall Ashbery, Lowell, and Larkin – probably the three most influential British and American poets of the post-war period.’ This observation astutely reflects the versatility of Seidel’s voice, but he forgot to include the most influential poet of the nineteenth century – Baudelaire, Seidel’s closest analogue. Like Baudelaire, Seidel’s primary concern is the relation between aesthetics and ethics – how the darker aspects of our world and experience relate to beauty, which he articulates through lyric poetry. Like Baudelaire, we have a poet who is privileged enough to experience ennui, and is addressing his reading public through his poetic persona.

Unlike in the case of distinguishing between Judith and Salomé, whose moral significance is dictated by the church or bible, readers of Seidel have no clear index by which to assess what is before them. The contemporary world is much more muddy and grey, populated by dubious and ambivalent forces, characters and social codes. And this painful, complex ambiguity is what makes reading Seidel’s poetry such a challenging experience. As life goes on, we continue to look, we continue to see, and Seidel’s poetry helps us make sense of this experience. Like a Pandora’s Box replete with many characters from the nightmare of history, with much voluptuousness and a luxurious satin lining, his ambivalence blooms. And like Baudelaire, hypocrite reader, to continue to read Seidel as simply a privileged upsetter is a failure to appreciate we are ourselves embroiled in this messy and violent history of subjugation, and the more intelligent a reader we are, the more civilised we are, the more barbaric and beautiful Seidel’s poetry appears, the more we see, and the more we should do something about it.

Matthew Halliday

About Matthew Halliday

Matthew Halliday is a former physicist turned poet based in South London. He is interested in the modern, history, society, politics and how we may interrogate these poetically, as well as the relation between living and aesthetic experience. His pamphlet 'The Jude Poems' is coming out with Seam Editions this autumn. You can find him on Twitter @mattmattmatt54.