Magazine article The New Yorker

Luxe et Veritas

Magazine article The New Yorker

Luxe et Veritas

Article excerpt

LUXE ET VERITAS

Frederick Seidel's poems of age and experience.

Encroaching death gives Seidel's blasphemy a ballsy elan.

If the id had an id, and it wrote poetry, the results might sound like "Widening Income Inequality" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), Frederick Seidel's sixteenth collection. The title borrows a current meme, while also suggesting Yeats's apocalyptic poem "The Second Coming" ("Turning and turning in the widening gyre / The falcon cannot hear the falconer"). Seidel's satanic refinement is expressed in poems at once suave and vengeful, their garish pleasures linked to the many splendid goods--Ducati motorcycles, bespoke suits, Italian shoes--that they describe. To encounter a poem by Seidel is therefore to be co-opted into his Ricardo Montalban aesthetic of creepy luxury. American poets like to think of their art as open, democratic, all-embracing; few aside from Seidel have imagined the lyric poem to be an exclusive haunt of self-flattering, hedonistic elites. Seidel is securely on the winner's side of the widening wealth gap; the implication, if we're reading him, is that so are we. He is the Phi Beta Kappa poet of doomsday, happily escorting the world's fortunate to a well-appointed abyss, then cannonballing in alongside us.

Whenever Seidel publishes a book, a portion of his readers recoil in offense, while others celebrate his courage and cunning. The dispute arises from passages like the following:

I live a life of appetite and, yes, that's right,

I live a life of privilege in New York,

Eating buttered toast in bed with cunty

fingers on Sunday morning.

Say that again?

I have a rule--

I never give to beggars in the street who

hold their hands out.

The "buttered toast" and "cunty fingers" come courtesy of the English novelist Henry Green, who was quoting an old butler's musings on life's great pleasures. There's something predatory about both the undisclosed allusion and the "life of privilege" it's made to illustrate. With their deeply literary brand of shock, these lines orchestrate a specious conflict between two inadequate responses. You can take the bait and say, "What a jerk! Wow--that thing about the fingers!" Or you can mount a kind of A.P. English defense of them: the speaker isn't Seidel at all but a "character named Frederick Seidel," as the critic Richard Poirier put it, "that has little to do with who he really is." Robert Browning didn't kill Porphyria in "Porphyria's Lover." T. S. Eliot wasn't the one "pinned and wriggling on the wall"--that was Prufrock. The louche vampire who sniffs his fingers and spurns the poor isn't Frederick Seidel--even though, as we learn elsewhere, this "character" who has so little to do with Seidel lives in Seidel's apartment, socializes with his friends, and shares his tastes in wine, shoes, and motorcycles. In photo shoots, Seidel stands in his Upper West Side living room, dressed up like "Frederick Seidel," surrounded by decor whose provenance we have come to know from his poems. The troubling power of this work isn't its distance from its author but its stifling proximity.

Every time I read Seidel, I'm bowled over by the brilliance of individual lines and images, and baffled by the narrow culvert through which he has forced such an enormous and unruly gift. His style favors successive tremors of bile and animus, often crudely rhymed so as to suggest doggerel or ad copy:

I'm looking at a video of my

goddess,

One of a library of videos of

love I have--

Her performing for the iPad,

bursting out of her bodice,

And entering my eyes with

some sort of sex salve.

That's an old man looking at porn, and it makes you wish that Philip Larkin or W. H. Auden had lived to see the Internet and plot his own libido on its continuum of sublimity and sleaze. In the stanza that follows, Seidel allows his fully fledged Lothario persona to take the reins:

In my astronomy, I lick her cunt

Until the nations say they can't

make war no more. …

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