Widening Income Inequality by Frederick Seidel

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I really want to believe that, paraphrasing Martin Luther King, Jr., the arc of history “bends toward justice.” I also want to think that there are many giants capable of “moving the world forward, ” as Seamus Heaney put it after Nelson Mandela died. Frederick Seidel makes this difficult, but I wouldn’t have it otherwise because he does so with blistering music and rhyme, most of the time. With or without rhyme, his poems have a prickly perfection.

A seventy-plus son of Midwest industrial wealth, Seidel went to Harvard and graduated, drank without destroying himself, and fell in love often, though not always with animate objects. His love for motorcycles and riding the machines made him feel more alive, and is the stuff of psychobabble. Except it isn’t in his case, as this fragment from “Montauk” demonstrates :

It’s exciting. Its exciting not to die.

The way i rode my motorcycle was a disgrace.
The Montauk Highway ripples violently with little hills
That want to launch you into space.
I did everything i could that kills.

I am ahead of myself, because this poem is toward the end of the book. I do it because it is hard to resist, though what comes before is no less chilling and thrilling even when it hurts. “France Now” is devastating, and the thrill isn’t cheap, because it’s from ingesting a slippery, slimed, sickened response to a situation more pornographic than his engagement with electronic porn, later in these pages:

I slide my swastika into your lubricious Place Clichy.
I like my women horizontal and when they stand up vicious and Vichy.
I want to jackboot rhythmically down your Champs -Elysees
With my behind behind me taking selfies of the Grand Palais.
Look at my arm raised in the razor-salute of greeting.
I greet you like a Caesar. HEIL! For our big meeting.
My open-top Mercedes creeps through this charming, cheering crowd.
I greet you, lovely body of Paris, you who are so proud,
And surtout you French artists and French movie stars who
Are eager to collaborate and would never hide a Jew.

My oh my how times have changed.
But the fanatics here have gotten more deranged.

The limits of space , and the desire to share more samples of his glittering, multifaceted gems, makes me stop about halfway through. You know where he is going, you have to keep going and it’s impossible here and on many pages not to think of Samuel Beckett. And weep. And keep going.

When he gets to “ The Ballad of Ferguson,’’ this Saint Louis native takes the “altogether fitting and proper” route, taking no prisoners :

The body of the man you were
Has disappeared inside the one you wear.

A few lines later he goes back in time , to a video of Bobby Kennedy :

Announcing to a largely black audience at an outdoor campaign rally
At night in Indianapolis
That Martin Luther King had been shot
And killed by a white man.
Martin Luther King is dead.

Skin color is the name.
Skin color is the game.
Skin color is to blame for Ferguson, Missouri.

The body of the man you were
Has disappeared inside the one you wear.

This poem, a three-pager, comes before “Hip Hop,” and both, and many companions, suggest possibilities in the hands of Lin Manuel Miranda.

Seidel’s sexual allusions are old news, but never stale in his work. When describing an encounter with porn, he’s never pornographic because his way of saying is finely wrought when he puts himself right into the picture. He is purely honest in his complicity :

At seventy-seven I reached my prime.
But seventy-eight was also absolutely great.
And then came fab seventy-nine and continuing to climb.
I upped my wingbeats to an even higher rate……

I’m looking at a video of my goddess,
One of a library of videos of love i have-
Her performance on the i-Pad, bursting out of her bodice,
And entering my eyes with some sort of sex salve.

Frederick SeidelThis is from “Winter Day, Birdsong,” and the word “maid’’ near the end is as important as any other. When you call your book Widening Income Inequality, and your privileged back story has been out for decades, the place of every worker feels rightly italicized. Poets with less stringent inner editors go on too long, but these last four lines are as necessary as the first:

In my astronomy I lick her cunt
Until the nations say they can’t make war no more.
Her orgasm is violunt.
I get the maid to mop the floor.

The middle lines are just as fine, but you’ll have to take my word for it. Seidel may be pushing eighty, but his angst is an edgy combo of youthful and wise, and when he’s rough on himself you want to ask him to treat himself as well as he has others. “My First Wife” is a gracious self-portrait.

My first wife, and last!
Nine lives ago, at least.

Forty-five years ago divorced.
Sleek sloop without a mast.

The sleek sloop Happiness dismasted,
Broken into sticks on the rocks.

The best wife I have ever had, the only!
One more than I deserved.

Irresistibly we regret the past,
Like scratching a delicious itch.

By the end of the poem he’s thanking friends for their kindness. By the end of the book one should thank Seidel for his never mellow, always elegantly distilled spirit. The title poem is the last, and it’s as edible as he wants it to be, especially in the final lines :

Open your arms like a fresh pack of cards
And shuffle the deck.
Now open your heart.
Now open your art.
Now get down on your knees in the street
And eat.

When we join him, we’re closer than we were before, to getting a grip on a worldwide malaise. He hasn’t abandoned everything he grew up with. Which is good , and makes me wish him a gig reporting on the Republican slugfest in Cleveland.

Barbara Berman's poetry collection, Currents, has just been published by Three Mile Harbor Press. More from this author →