I’m a poet.
But I don’t read much poetry, other than what I read here at No Record’s blog. I used to read more. You know, some of the classics. In high school. I grew up typing my father’s poems, so I’ve read those. I’ve read some more or less contemporary poets as well, mostly the big names and laureates. (Sarah would kick my ass in a poetry who’s-who contest.) So when I say that Frederick Seidel’s Ooga-Booga is the best book of poetry this decade, you can decide for yourself what exactly that’s worth.
I haven’t been this excited about a book of poetry since discovering Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems a decade ago. I was rummaging through some old Gary Snyder books last year in DC’s summer; I heard about Seidel’s new book. I hadn’t read any of his previous stuff. The first thing I read was lead poem, “Kill Poem”, and I couldn’t stop reading the book until I finished all the poems. And then I read them again. I haven’t read Benjamin Kunkel’s review of Ooga-Booga (from the Sept. 2007 Harper’s), but from the back jacket of the Seidel’s book, it seems like it was a positive review. And a piece from the recent n+1 discusses Seidel at some length. (n+1 seems to be solidly behind Seidel; damn you, always one step ahead.) Hell, I haven’t read any reviews of this book, but again, from the back cover, they all seem pretty positive. He’s won a ton of awards for the book, but he didn’t claim the big fish. I don’t know anything about Native Guard by Natasha Trethewey, but I hope it was damn good.
Seidel has an attitude that I don’t see often enough in poetry. Perhaps it’s a product of his independent wealth — he’s not suffocating in a university classroom, not slaving away on book tours. His poetry, therefore, is raw and emotionally challenging. He isn’t afraid to say “Shit with a cunt!” or “Cunt with a dick!” He also isn’t afraid to take on race issues while saying “My noble Negro statue.” In short, there’s no hand-wringing in Ooga-Booga. As he writes in “Broadway Melody”, saying such things is “the equivalent of buying billboard space to display it.” His poetry is unapologetic even when it is sad and elegiac. For all of it’s forward movement and it’s Freudian death
march race obsession, one would be tempted to brand Ooga-Booga some new kind of futurism.
But it’s more interesting than that. Even when there are notes of sarcasm, poems on politics, there’s an equal emphasis on the author’s material joys. These joys — his Ducati racer, fine clothes, and travel — are not without complications. But what’s unique about Seidel is that his poems don’t have a sense of regret, even as he sees life barreling toward death. There’s a stateliness about his poems, echoed by their presentation of him, that gives a calming effect. In “Racer”, one of my favorite poems in the collection, Seidel, in his characteristic casual tone, writes of seeing the Ducati racing bike being manufactured for him in Bologna. He opens, “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.” Life, Seidel argues throughout, is a cycle. A motorcycle that carries you to your death. He doesn’t worry about this, that we are all headed toward death. His poems carry the same full-speed ahead attitude. There’s a certain self-aware masculinity in this attitude, more so than resigned fatefulness. “I bought the racer / To replace her”, he writes in “Dante’s Beatrice”. “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.” Apart from the frank subject matter, the poem maintains a very strong, almost rock and roll, sense of rhythm. He might be straddling the motor-cycle, but his lines are nearly all end-stopped, creating a sparse, Hemingway feel to the verse. The rhymes, in addition to propelling the reader ever forward, simultaneously lighten his subject matter as it intensifies it. It’s a fascinating technique, and it left me with a feeling similar to one I had after seeing The 4th Graders Present an Unnamed Love Suicide, a play “written” by a 4th grader who kills himself; the play is then presented to the audience by his classmates. There is playfulness throughout, much like in Seidel’s Ooga-Booga (as even his title suggests). In the play, the humor comes from awkward and recognizable 4th-grade diction and staging. The humor is tempered by the extremely dark subject matter, which covers suicide, anorexia, and sour relationships. I laughed through my tears, as Seidel does throughout Ooga-Booga. Hearing him read the poems at his website, listening to his straight delivery, adds another layer to this joyful yet dark composition.
The layering of the serious and playful is an good technique to catch today’s zeitgeist. America is becoming ever infantilized; our desires, we are told, deserve to be met. At the same time, we are in the fifth year of an unjust war, our country’s economy is probably in a recession, 47 million Americans are without health care, and many are losing their homes. The simultaneous display of both sides of our society is powerful. Most of us would prefer to deal with these independently, but Seidel’s perspicacity sees them as linked. He forces us to see the violence and decay that’s always lurking on the edges of our decadence, like a contemporary Death in Venice. In “The Black-Eyed Virgins”, he combines terrorism and porn-like lust, writing about a train underwater containing a terrorist and “a flock of Japanese schoolgirls ready to be fucked”: “The terrorist swings in the hammock of their small skirts and black socks. / The chunnel train stops in the tunnel with an announcement / That everyone now alive is already human remains.” The poetry of The New Yorker this is not; but then again, I stopped reading The New Yorker awhile ago.