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Two From FSG

Littlefoot

Charles Wright
FSG, 2007

Ooga-Booga

Frederick Seidel
FSG, 2007

Charles Wright portrays himself as composing the book-length Littlefoot from the same place he’s written so many of his poems—“backyard, my old station, the dusk invisible in the trees”—over the course of a single year. The events are those of the mind and the natural world; there’s little of human society, save for the streetlights on empty streets. This is a poem depicting and collecting those still moments when the poet gives himself to reflection. His subjects are mortality, setting his mental house in order, and taking a far look.

The long poem turns out to have been Charles Wright’s form all along. He doesn’t have to quickly organize his images—or abandon them—in time to end the poem. He can fish around a little, try this and that, reach out somewhere different with each sprawling line.Which is not to say that his lines feel especially long, but they seem extended, stretched to their limit, because of the idiosyncratic way he lays them out on the page: indenting one line to the spot where the prior line ends, returning the carriage right beneath it, filling section breaks with typographical filler; his pages end up looking like prose nibbled by moths. His manner is as unpretentious as you like, and yet he is a writer clearly concerned with the way a poem looks on the page. The effect of his lines sticking out against the white is like a series of ripples, white light, say, on black water.

This idiosyncrasy has the added benefit of burying weaker lines—or lines that hover close to cliché—by rushing you headlong into the next. Below, the poet muffles the easy wisdom of the first line by dropping us into a description that moves our mind elsewhere in the nick of time:

At seventy, it’s always evening,

light diluted,

Breeze like a limp hand

the long-haired grasses, then letting them be.

In the next line, lest we suspect his invocation of “the dark decade” to be melodramatic, we’re presented with an image of the wider and deeper truth against which the poet’s own aging seems relatively small:

The dark decade, beginning its long descent

out over the black Atlantic

The ‘k’ sounds in black and dark dig themselves into the end of Atlantic.

The poem closes on a Halloween night, children marauding beneath the watchful eye of Mars. Seeing them dressed as skeletons, Wright reflects on “our hands like skeletal party gloves, / our masks future faces?” Should the dead rise and walk, and feel like talking, Wright wonders, what would we tell them?

That the moon looks good through the limbs of the chinaberry tree?

That the night air is as easy as oil on the skin?

That the children parading in their pathetic little costumes

have it right?

Wright may be the first poet in history to use the Green Knight’s head as a metaphor for the setting sun, “rolling in slow motion toward its distant and dark corner.” Or to describe peony blossoms falling “bigger than wren hearts.” This is nature poetry the likes of which Mary Oliver would sell her summer home to be able to write:

Deer huddle like cattle around the salt block,

then burst like flames in the air.

The white clouds slide from the south

Like an edge of ice.

The swallows harangue and arabesque

Over the lawn and lilac rim of the late lilacs,

Then dwindle against the dark green of the evergreens.

He also sounds more and more like his contemporaries, the great Wasp school of ’35. If we concede that there are lines that seem to speak in the voice of Mark Strand—”The waters of childhood are unimaginable”—we must then admit that Strand’s abstract style couldn’t accommodate: “The French Broad and Little Pigeon Rivers, the Holston / Hiwassee and Cherokee Lakes.” This school of poets, at their best, attempt to reconcile our here-and-there humanity to the cold cycles of nature and the unknowable mystery of the Great Out There, the “front yard like a windowpane / Into the anteroom of all things untouchable” and the “absence of saints on Sunday morning streets.”

The winter leaves crumble between my hands,

December leaves.

How is it we can’t accept this, that all trees were holy once,

That all light is altar light,

And floods us, day by day, and bids us, the air sheet lightening around us,

To sit still and say nothing,

here under the latches of Paradise?

Wright admires the old Chinese poets and he emulates their transparency. “A good writer,” he writes, “is like a wind over meadow grass.” A good writer, then, is only visible in what he writes about. “Among the winter trees, his words are fixed to music.”

Frederick Seidel is not that kind of writer. Indeed, it’s often quite difficult to determine what his poems are attempting to do at all. They impress us mostly on the virtues of their voice. Seidel is one of the few poets writing today who openly embraces standard meters and rhymes as often as he doesn’t. He can blend a trochaic line straight into an iambic and make it look like nothing: “Martin Luther King, at bay in Memphis, exhausted, starts to cry.” He can rhyme too, often well. The difficulty comes in what he chooses to rhyme about:

I bought the racer
To replace her.
It became my slave and I its.
All it lacked was tits.
All it lacked
Between its wheels was hair.
I don’t care.
We do it anyway.

That’s from a poem called “Dante’s Beatrice.” The poem makes a few gestures toward depth, too. The poet refers to his beloved’s face as one “that launched a thousand slave ships,” which would be interesting in the context of a social critique, but is less so in a poem about a wealthy man in racing leathers comparing himself to one of those same slaves. Seidel’s tongue is in his cheek, of course, but I suspect he genuinely wants his reader’s sympathy. The poem ends with a flashback to the poet’s youth in Paris where he and a friend compare “Muses’ noses.” This memory arrives from nowhere and dissolves back into nowhere with the poem’s final image of “the fireball of Jet-A… / Only to turn catastrophe into dawn.” I have no idea why the catastrophe of Seidel’s imaginary motor crash might breed any kind of metaphorical “dawn,” except to glorify his suffering, nor do I know why his Parisian friend is called by his full name—the same name as a well-known screenwriter with whom Seidel has worked professionally—unless as an in-joke or a name drop. This poem, whatever its virtues, ultimately tips over due to Seidel’s most frequent fault: self-indulgence.

“In Dick and Fred,” we begin with an image of Fred Astaire and a ticking bomb/dick and sing-song our way:

Debonair,
Tap-dances the monomania and mania
Of Napoleon Bonaparte’s tiny penis, the up,
Fred flies, fappingly, bappingly,

Tick-tick-tick-tick-tappingly
That athletic nonchalance that Fred Astaire defined.
A penis in a tuxedo is flying all over the place
With the white cane of the blind!

At the end of the poem, for no real reason, we’re told that the planet is “frozen.” Wherefore? Who cares? What fun! But as the pages turn the reader begins to suspect there is a bit too much pure jive and not enough substance to these poems. They seem not only uncategorizable but dispensable. New York Magazine, in a recent puff piece about the rich and stylish writer Frederick Seidel, uncritically called “Dick and Fred” a “hymn to the tyranny of the penis.” So maybe that’s what it is.

Seidel is a master of meter, but he is not often enough a master of his material. He mimics the meter of Hiawatha (and The Kalevala) for a pleasant stretch in the poem “Mother Nature,” only to divert it into a strange, impressionistic odyssey of global cruelty which leads the reader absolutely nowhere:

Mother Nature went to China,
China the vagina.
Wet dreams conceive there,
Where no one wants a daughter.

I pin the throttle on the straight
Toward China all night,
With the moon out and the stars,
And reach Kabul.

The nightclub bombing in Bali
Shattered Baghdad.
The hotel temple dancers hold the sky up.
The elephant lifts his friend the tiger to safety.

There’s a lot of this borderline-embarrassing stuff in Ooga Booga, too much. Real people died in that Bali nightclub. All’s fair in art but if you’re going to use their deaths for some aesthetic aim, make sure you’ve got one.

Seidel’s poems are unpredictable, often unpleasantly so. They tend to begin in one place and end somewhere else for no real reason, intuitive, rational or otherwise. Take “White Butterflies,” for example. The first of the poem’s three parts is a beautiful evocation of white butterflies: “In white kimonos, giggling and whispering.” The second describes a long drought breaking in rainstorms: “The ocean runs around barking under the delicious rain, so happy.” In the last part, we learn that the poet has just put down his beloved dog, “Jimmy my boy, my sweetyboy, my Jimmy.” Knowing that Jimmy has passed away, and that the poet would be grief-stricken, we can well understand why the narration hints at what happened (the barking ocean) before he finally breaks down and tells us. But why the butterflies? Why spend the whole first third of the poem on them? We never know. It never feels connected. It’s just there. If a poem has no external logic, it must have internal logic. If it has neither, it must intuitively feel like a single, effective work of art. If this last is subjective, it is also a last resort. Many of Seidel’s poems fail on all of these levels. There are excellent moments in this collection, but there are no excellent poems.

“The Castle in the Mountains” begins with a portrait of the narrator curled up in pain with the stomach flu. Snow is falling and he decides, “I will try to eat tonight: steamed cauliflower.” The poem actually begins, as far as I can see, in the next stanza, where he writes, “You would like the Emperor / Some days the joy is overpowering.” Does the poem mimic a letter home? Well, no, because it quickly shifts to a monologue in the Emperor’s voice. The monologue is better and more intriguing by far than anything that preceded it, and we can clearly see in its creepy beauty the sort of poems Seidel would do well to explore further, if he could sustain the effect for a whole poem’s length:

“Prehistoric insects were
Flying around brainless
To add more glory to the infant Earth.
Instead of horrible they were huge and beautiful,
And, being angels, were invincible.
Say the Name, and the angel begging with its hand out would
Instantly expand upward
To be as tall as a building…”

But Seidel instantly diffuses this with a description of one of these creatures (or the Emperor, or both) as “four heads on one neck like the four heads carved on Mt. Rushmore.” Whatever he’s trying to evoke here will have to remain in darkness. He ends, “Hold out your hand / Take my hand.” Why? And why here?

Halfway into Littlefoot, Charles Wright asks, “What does one do when you find out your thoughts / are the thoughts of everyone else?” And one of the pleasures of reading Wright is experiencing just that. Frederick Seidel’s thoughts are not like our thoughts, or at the very least, they’re not expressed in the same language. Seidel paints himself as a man of the world, jaded opulence in the air he breathes. The Griffin Trust, in the citation for its shortlist this year, praised Seidel’s refusal of “complacency and the inertia of despair, whether from trajectories of loss, war, movies, hunting, cocktails at the Carlyle or superbike racing.” Yes, and “mounds of caviar before dinner,” or the poem which begins:

The Master Jeweler Joel Rosenthal, of the Bronx and Harvard,
Is Joel Arthur Rosenthal of JAR, Place Vendôme.
The greatest jeweler of our time
Has brought to Florida from his safe
A big Golconda diamond that is matchless…

Where does the fourteen-line poem go from here? Seidel admires the diamond, borrows and wears it around town: “I followed it on my hand across the Pont des Arts / Like Shakespeare in a trance starting the sonnet sequence.” Yes, these are the poems (like Wright’s) of an aging man setting his memories in order. Yes, he’s probably poking fun at his own Epicureanism as much as he is celebrating it. But if you want to have your cake and eat it too, you’ve got to have the chops.

Of these two books from Farrar, Straus, and Giroux Charles Wright’s is by far the more enjoyable to read, but it must be admitted that it leaves very little aftertaste. Two hours after setting the book down, I had forgotten most of what he said, although I’ll remember the experience of reading the book as a wonderful one. Seidel’s poems are decidedly undercooked and (to stretch a metaphor) overspiced, but you can’t get the taste out of your mouth. That may be something. Whether you’ll want to read Ooga Booga may be another thing entirely.

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John Cotter is Executive Editor of Open Letters Monthly.