Last summer was filled with the poetry of Terrance Hayes and notably with his Friday: Poem. Like the outrageous conceits of Donne’s The Flea, it’s hard not to fall in love with Hayes’ fabulous erection: ‘There is no escaping / Spring’s drug. A young man will take the escalator / to the scalp of a ten-story building / lured by petals of a skirt, the scent of wonder.’ When language pushes the limits of priapic desire you’re buoyed by its wellspring. Seidel’s New York also oozes desire but he cuts it with a compelling political and moral urgency.
Do Not Resuscitate’s title evokes geriatric care and the moral nightmare surrounding assisted dying. The poem’s imagery’s lifted from classic horror movies, as ‘The mummy in the case is coming back to life. / It sits up slowly. I can’t bear it.’ There’s a Gothic quality to this: something buried wants to come back – a secret demands to be told. Whatever it is, Seidel’s ‘it’ makes us hesitate to see it as human. Surely it’s a monster, or Shelley’s creature? Then, with grotesque comic timing, the speaker unleashes the force of his misogyny: ‘The guard pays no attention. He knows it is my wife.’ Yet, like Donne’s To His Mistress Going To Bed, where, in the final line, the speaker’s coup de théâtre reveals that he’s already naked, Seidel too ups the ante as the speaker’s health has fared no better: ‘I get up from my bed, woozily embalmed, and it’s / Another gorgeous New York day to try to live. / I loved my wife to bits in fits. I loved her tits. / Her bandaged mummy mouth had nothing else to give.’ Young bucks like Byron and Baudelaire give us youthful, engorged ennui but Frederick Seidel gives us the poems these bad boys might have written as septuagenarians. Perfect rhymes like it’s/tits highlight the crude immaturity, the base simplicity of male desire. In the final stanza, the perspective shifts again and a new speaker comments upon the activities of the aged Lothario: ‘The man can’t stay awake. He wakes and sleeps. / It’s either age or it’s his medications,’ and now the phrase ‘woozily embalmed’ has more pitiful, less Bohemian connotations. ‘He’s giving me the creeps’ turns the poem’s opening conceit upon the poet himself. Are we listening to the ramblings of a dementia sufferer or, more tragically, to the words of someone who just cannot reconcile who he is with who he was?
Arabia offers a thrilling reboot of To His Mistress Going to Bed. Donne, however, was a virile young man, whereas Seidel’s speaker describes the ‘Sex tropics as a way not to be dead. / I don’t know who we are except in bed.’ Sex becomes more than an expression of love but also a staving-off of dementia. In Seidel’s new-found-land, the President is caught between the tectonic plates of the Republican and Democratic parties and he riffs on this rift, on this ‘Mine of precious stones’: ‘O sweet tectonic fault line and sweet lips / Exuding honey that the cowboy sips.’ This yonic imagery casts Obama as Earth Mother and unites him with the American landscape with audacity and humour: ‘America keeps waiting to begin. / It’s sunrise dripping from my chin. / It looks like spring out there on Broadway meant / Barack Obama to be president.’
Victory Parade uses ‘A waxed-to-neatness center strip of quim’ as its conceit – as a symbol for the American state. The values of the speaker, casually misogynistic, imply that anything other than a waxed center strip is unkempt, as if there was anything clean about the tyranny of porno aesthetics. ‘It’s enough to distract / From the other drastic act / Of display today – Osama bin Laden is dead! / One shot to the chest and one to the head, // SEAL Team 6 far away from my bed / Above Broadway – in Abbottabad, Pakistan, instead. / Bullets beyond compare / Flew over there.’ Seidel’s couplets resonate with childish glee as summary execution morphs into Broadway musical. Indeed, the footage of the revellers in Times Square demonstrates yet again that everything’s light entertainment and that a bullet in the head’s just a different kind of money shot.