Gerald Schwartz

Life On Earth

Frederick Seidel
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
$22.00 / 80 Pages / ISBN 03 74186855

Way back in 1998, when the century was ending and had yet given way to our collective millennial anxiety, Frederick Seidel cast a backward glance and wrote in Going Fast, "God begins, the universe will soon." As the century evaporated, Seidel established an ecosphere to spawn a new world. His writing was epic, with a giant sweep, concerned wholly with endings and mourning. He filled his poems with a yearning for a less technocratic world, and they brimmed with a remarkable array of nostalgia, set in the ostentatious milieus of London, Milan, Paris, Tahiti.

Overwhelmed as much by a kind of jet-lag, you often got the sense that you, the reader, had been cast in some film by Michelangelo Antonioni, and that in the very next "scene" you would be trading quips with Yitzak Rabin or Bennett Cerf. And always, Seidel, the ironic, acerbic-tongued narrator (never persona), distinctly, but in hushed tones, was giving direction: observe cautiously, look but don't touch, exercise your power whenever possible, substitute simulated pleasure for the real thing, and, above all, never let your guard down. Mostly, the poems read like some kind of hetero-aggro Warhol.

Since then, first with The Cosmos Poems, and now, with Life On Earth, billed as the second in a trilogy, Seidel's trimmed his "over-budget" panorama down, trading in his ice-maker for passion, giving us a cycle of expressions fully alive, charged, and involved.

"What is happening / Is blood in the urine." This message is as bold as are these quick, short poems, and as blood in the urine, they meet you head on, clothed only in a poignant patois. Here's 33 poems, each forged as eight speedy quatrains, invoking life on earth, asking our belief. This is life offering us a money-back understanding, costing us too much in how and what it shuts away of all awareness. Cashed out with the gift of emptiness, we then learn the reaches of our ignorance. We hear it again and again, best represented by lines like "You don't know what you mean/ And that's what I mean," and "I pursue Moby Dick to the end of the book." The book's shot-full of them. And you can't read these lines as remotely intended as expressing anything approaching a common truth. In fact, they may not even be a view Seidel holds, but an untruth identified as such-something which our street sense is tempted to smell as true. And, stylistically, I wonder if this kind of telling is a product of Seidel's many years penning multi-viewpoint teleplays for the European market.

Employing the psychological distilled from the political, the poem "Joan of Arc" rises abruptly from our landscape of Columbine, cable-news cycles and abject cruelty, as we read "Nobody wants her / On their side in games at school / So the retard / Is wired to explode." Today's time-stamp on it, this poem leaves you with the impression, as it were in passing, that the terror in our society is biotic, relentless. As perhaps echoed in the stark image on the dust-jacket, all is either a mantis or prey being devoured. Certainly, Seidel seems acutely aware that life on earth is precarious and dreadful, no matter what.

But the poems also revel in the life on earth they mirror, making them into potent and charismatic dispatches, as in "Countdown to Midnight":

Finally I go

Back to where the only place to go is far.
Ahab on the launch pad—I'm the roar
Wearing the wild blazer, black stripes and red,
And a yarmulke with a propeller on my missile head."
Giving high-octane meaning to our lineal language, in fact, a vivid, strategic one, the poem continues:
There she blows! Row harder my hearties!—
My United Nations of liftoff!
I targeted the great white whale black hole.
On impact I burst into stars.
A striking moment of revelation, a booming furious epiphany, cross-hatching Melville, booze, diplomacy, and faith into a compact, strongly consonantal idiom. It's language making itself an insistent part of the subject, calling into question how we tell ourselves about all we know and don't know all the time. It is rare to read anything so plain and dense and strange, and beautiful. A galaxy apart from the detached work of a decade ago, that place of ages ago last night, these poems will stop and startle you. Seidel may not have solved the riddle of the all-too familiar at the brink of the new millennium, but with Life On Earth, he at least has made new ways to shock us back from the fog.



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