“I’m coming in my hand and I’m rhyming I’m,” Frederick Seidel writes in “To Stop the World from Ending,” one of the best poems in his new collection, Widening Income Inequality. It’s fair to say that Seidel has been “rhyming I’m” since his first collection, the Robert Lowell-damaged Final Solutions (1963), or at least since his freer second book, Sunrise, published sixteen years later. After that his poetry began to trickle down to readers from on high, from the supply side, every two or three years. The only exception came in 2000, when The Cosmos Poems announced the coming horrors of the century across three books, which, taken together, formed a secular inversion of Dante’s Divine Comedy — it begins in the heavens and ends in Hell. That explosion of poetry is one of the best, I think, of the decade, and it took Seidel about a year to write each book.
Who is Frederick Seidel? What is the I’m that he rhymes? These are the questions demanded of (and by) his new readers. Among the known-knowns: he is a human vibrator, the “laureate of the louche,” a poet about town in New York City, a coal heir from St. Louis, a former Harvard graduate who once visited with Pound and Eliot, a rider of Ducati motorcycles — I’m just listing, off the cuff, common notes from Seidel’s mythology, items you can find in any review or profile or interview. Still, knowing these things doesn’t bring you nearer to a revelation — that he is one of the greatest lyrical performers of selfhood in English-language literature — that can only be had while reading his poetry over time. If you begin at the beginning (or the end) and work your way forward (or backward), it becomes clear that Seidel is also the principal destroyer of confessional poetry, or at least its synthesizer. And if his self is performed so consistently and to such great effect, it may be because he has scattered it in a dark cloud of symbols: the assassination of Robert Kennedy, the Shah of Iran, more Wordsworth than people think, the White House, Broadway. It’s as if he can’t dissolve so long as these cross-alluding names and things live on the page.
In the new book, his best since the evil Ooga-Booga, Seidel is yet new versions of the same self, which is to say that he is still a “marvelously elegant ghoul,” or the “most poetic of poets and their leader into hell.” Here Seidel could be shepherding all of the poets too evil for the Republic, or ordinary terrorists, or just his other incarnations — into oblivion. The last of these seems to me most likely: he is, in Widening Income Inequality, both Dante and Virgil, winding himself down the path to old age and death. After all, he turns eighty this month, and he has never shied away from his hatred of death and illness. All the same, this is probably the most fragile Fred we’ve ever read.
Fragile but not nice. “I’m no Saint Francis,” he writes in the title poem, “I’m in one of my trances.” The trances in Widening Income Inequality are of a kind: often, the speaker “takes flight” and spies himself in the process. Usually these flights are presaged by some kind of ridiculous bird image (pigeons, hummingbirds, birdsong), but the effect, across the book, is cumulative, strange, and beautiful.
Back and forth in the canyon between the two side of Broadway
With all the other pigeons flashing white in the sunlight.
I don’t know what I’m talking about as usual, but yes!
I settle on a ledge and, moaning, peer inside the room,
And there you are, old man at my computer, pecking away, cooing spring.
to “February, 30th,” the next poem:
Every day I don’t die is February 30th,
And more sex is possible.
Flocks of pigeons are whirling around and flash white
In the sunlight like they know something.
Seidel has always reminisced, usually as a way of bragging about his sexual conquests and partying, but now his recollections are hitched to an ekstasis, an out-of-body experience that is not without tenderness or pain. “It’s agony,” he writes, “to be turning into something else.” Even so, his finely-tuned brazenness, with which he blights all sanctimony, is still intact. He still rhymes “cunt” with “violunt.”
It’s in this ecstatic hovering between worlds (or bodies) where Seidel now most brightly “flames” (to use one of his go-to images). In “Model Trains,” an unbearably poignant and brutal poem, he notices the “moon is urinating yellow moonlight on Lake Michigan” and decides it’s “time to make a wish again.” And by wishing on himself he rhymes his I’m:
I wish I may, I wish I might,
Have the wish I wish tonight.
I’m is a streak of time.
I’m is a shooting star of wish-fulfilling slime.