Necromancer: On Frederick Seidel’s “So What”

Erick Verran reviews Frederick Seidel’s “So What.”

By Erick VerranJune 25, 2024

Necromancer: On Frederick Seidel’s “So What”

So What by Frederick Seidel. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 160 pages.

WITH HIS UMPTEENTH COLLECTION, Frederick Seidel—half Catullus of the Upper West Side “still stalk[ing] sex at eighty-six,” half perverted Lear (“Black straps of the garter belt zap the zoo / Between her stockings into honeydew”), and tragically without a Twitter account—slouches toward apocalypse. Compared with the at times insane banality of 2016’s Widening Income Inequality, with its Christmastime model train “Chuff-chuffing to their death […] many Jew-Jews” and air-conditioned daydreaming, So What (2024) is streaked with actual sadness, even if “Everyone thinks I am the finest and couldn’t be finer,” which Seidel displaces onto morning jackhammers and Manhattan’s all-hours ambulances. The man who can hardly be googled in anything but a suit seems almost mortal here, a creature of parents and experience, though the fond looks backward have a tendency to be their own joke. Seidel, raised in St. Louis, likes to invoke T. S. Eliot, a fellow Missourian who ended up English (English-passing, in Seidel’s case), and, perhaps inevitably, Mark Twain. Eliot is caricatured as a Disneyesque crocodile with a periscope, while out of the latter comes one of Seidel’s characteristic twists:

Once upon a time, when I was seven or nine,
There was a memorable sign
On the way to the swimming pool
At the Piping Rock Club in Locust Valley, New York:

When I was seven or nine
And barefoot like Huck Finn
And brown as a violin.

With So What, as with Hannah Sullivan’s Was It for This (2023), a question is implied but, cunningly, left unsaid in favor of what is actually declarative. It’s as though he were asking, like John Donne or First Corinthians, whether Death will ever get off the pot. It may be said that Seidel’s title is an admission of boredom (“The world is entirely doorknob— / But without a door— / But what in the world for?”), that American poetry’s bogeyman is through with his toys; the Ducatis stay cold in a Dallas showroom, and despite the fact that he’s now the owner of a luxurious Purdey hunting shotgun or two, no one is seriously worried that a devil-may-care octogenarian is stalking fowl in Central Park.

More surrealism than satire (satire’s jabs are usually too obvious—you see where the spear is pointed, and the target is a lot of straw), albeit of an illicit kind, the latest from Seidel’s late style smacks of what Cormac McCarthy termed “death hilarious.” Take the impossible comedy of his lung cancer “springing up and down / On a diving board above an empty pool.” Keeping mum about one’s illness leads, for Seidel, to poetry, which “doesn’t matter in the least,” while others (Frank O’Hara, for instance) “died with as they say everything to live for.” And though he ranks his formative years—“bulletproof and murderous, / With” an adolescent’s mixed impulses and tensity (“I was talkative and silent, up on the balls of my feet”)—with those of Rimbaud, the Symbolist-cum-gunrunner who, as John Ashbery definitively put it, died by spiritual suicide, it is fairly halcyon stuff until you catch the sour note:

Do you remember out in the country in summertime St. Louis
Eating amazing fried chicken at the Green Parrot restaurant
Under the dreamy, blissful starry night sky?
There was a green parrot with a big beak in a cage.

So What is haunted, quite literally, except without the wound-tending and emotional low blows a reader of contemporary poetry might be used to. Seidel is certainly fond of the morbid, only he tells it wryly. I’m reminded of Book 11 of Homer’s Odyssey, which concerns an act of “nekyia” at the mouth of Hades and wherein famous shades, summoned by honey and a blood sacrifice, per Circe’s instructions, advise the tired wanderer about the remainder of his journey. In one poem, living ghosts—Seidel’s younger self and a coterie of presently dead or dying friends—continue their drinking in Italy as a former college roommate’s deceased ex-wife, between “gulping down a papaya juice of nowhere,” is seen eating a hot dog at the corner of 72nd and Broadway.

Plenty evident is Seidel’s impish desire to always riff on the truth, or, as he calls it, “to mix in nonsense / While there’s time left.” But just when you fear he’s gone all requiem on the sentiment, dies iræ, dies illa:

We come from America, the wack job.
We come to Afghanistan with names like Bob.
Flyswatters are the wrath and rod
Of the Almighty handheld God
Whose drone strikes catch houseflies
Flirting on the kitchen table
And smush their sexual filth to rubble.
A fly is what men’s pants have in front, in English.

In “St. Louis Blues,” Seidel the dinosaur awaits, in comic anticipation, the asteroid of his particular extinction (“Soon of course it would be dark”). The dirt thrown up is that of his father’s sooty business and what an analyst has succeeded in dragging from the lake of Seidel’s mind. One of the collection’s more puzzling aesthetic choices is its extensive redundancy, which will, midstream, paste in long blocks you’ve already read. Cruelly, two differently titled poems of the same text each celebrate the memory of “the most beautiful woman who ever was.” (Another poem begins “The last time I saw Paris,” followed in the subsequent stanza by “The next time I saw Paris.”) Artists have a habit of rarefying their dying into myth. Franz Wright, in his hospice-scented F (2013), pined for his mother’s womb; Philip Larkin promptly retired on the strength of “Aubade.” Seidel knows, as Larkin did, that the cure for terror is work: “This poem is the wah-wah mute in my trumpet— / Otherwise, I’d scream.” Grimmer than Whitman, Seidel is equally afraid for democracy as he is the body; but with him, Whitman’s bare-chested gutsiness—as feigned as Hemingway’s prowess as an amateur boxer—becomes brazenly priapic in spirit, “Having reached the point / At which there is / Almost no point.”

Though Seidel dabbles in sincerity (“all that lovely talk”), occasionally when the poetry turns human his syntax spasms, as if in compensation for the momentary naturalness of the language:

Claudio and I visited the birthday cake of candles
For his Pharoah and beloved founder
And beloved father and visited
The dead dad.

So What’s political commentary, at least when it name-drops the living, is by turns as earnest as a Facebook post (“We need you back, Barack, God knows”) and coruscating:

The mob bulges down Pennsylvania Avenue
Toward the Capitol.
The bullying bulk of President Donald Trump—
Nero of Mar-a-Lago—
Fucks them from behind like a dog.

Neither is Seidel above grumbling about the “Soviet-style show trials” of liberals. “Ah men,” he concludes, feigning a sigh. Middle-class anxiety toward upwardly mobile demographics is also lampooned through a satire of frontier paranoia in a present-day United States that is “over and over / Over.” Meanwhile, the occasional sexist pastiche, too faux-macho to offend anybody under 65, is typically relieved in Seidel’s funny way, by a bit of stinging sing-song:

It’s true
A few
NATO leaders are women, true—
A few.

“[T]he poems,” Seidel admits, “are like dogs that stand up / On their hind legs and bark / To get your attention.”

Setting aside the anti-Trump rants, elegies and locket-sized portraits are So What’s bread and butter. When, in the latter, Seidel prioritizes the individual in miniature over his more typical spitballings of wit, the simplicity can make you cry, as in his account of the last breaths of his friend, the director Bernardo Bertolucci, which Seidel captures like François I at the bedside of Leonardo da Vinci. Or this empathetic tribute to Frank Conroy:

I lived on hotdogs as a boy,
The only thing I’d eat.
My all-American food phobia
Lasted till I got over it
When I was thirty-five or thirty-six.
I had a passion for my car.
Oh, did I ever love flying around in that crazy Jaguar.
I was a jazz pianist with a long handsome face keeping the beat.
I was a creature from the bottom of the ocean, a jawbone with thick lips,
Which you can see in the painting used on the cover
Of Stop-Time, my marvelous book.
I was the head of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop
When I got the news I was going to die.
I told the final specialist I hoped it wouldn’t hurt.

That is, unless what you get is a bit of biographical gossip, like when an unnamed Leonard Bernstein kisses a 26-year-old Seidel on the mouth. Buried in the concluding pages of this terminally long book is for once the author’s mother (“The lights before they go out go on”), with a passing mention of her schizophrenia. And in the balloon she holds on to, “Gaily bouncing along above her head,” is Seidel Sr. “Imprisoned in helium.” After so much braying about the second infancy of senility and, with an additional backward tick of the clock, “the coffin of being unborn,” the scarier prospect is raised as to whether Seidel is readying to pull a Woolf (“Why not walk out / Into the water until / You can’t”). Except he’s closer in every way to the French dramatist Molière, coughing bloodily on his paper stage while playing the thinnest of diseased characters: a bourgeois Lothario with coal wealth. And here we all are, applauding.


Featured image: Alfio Giuffrida/AG Sinnwerke, CD-Homes/Seitenblicke, Series 4, 2008, is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 by Alfio Giuffrida.

LARB Contributor

Erick Verran is the author of Obiter Dicta (Punctum Books, 2021) and a PhD candidate at the University of Utah. His writing is forthcoming or appears in Literary Matters, The Los Angeles Review, Rain Taxi, The American Poetry Review, The Georgia Review, The Drift, the Harvard Review, the Oxford Review of Books, On the Seawall, the Michigan Quarterly Review, The Cortland Review, Annulet, and elsewhere. He is also a scholar of aesthetics and digital games.


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