Ooga Booga by Frederick Seidel
“Winter is wearing summer but it wants to undress for you, Fred.”
On one hand, Frederick Seidel seems to be the Dominick Dunne of the poetry world -- teeming and oozing with celebutante status, dropping names, sucking on a pinkie finger over an espresso. On the other hand, Seidel’s poems are so self-consciously in such a persona that they become little mood pieces, documents of a character. Certainly, Seidel’s notion of self is toyed with (even fondled, perhaps) on the page. An interview in New York Magazine quoted him as saying: “Everything in the poems is true [...] You should take them at face value [...] What you’re struggling with is that the man in the poems is the real man, while the man behind the poems just wants his privacy.” “The man in the poems” of Oooga Booga admires the figure he cuts on his “red Ducati racer” (that’s a motorcycle) and then experiences strange pangs of vanity, existential crisis: “I am civilized but/ Civilized life is actually about too much.” “The man behind the poems,” of course, is irrelevant -- except that he has determined, in part, what the man “in” the poems can come to be. This is interesting about Seidel. In part, that is because the poems themselves are so specific to their creator.
I often go to bed with a book
And immediately turn out the light.
I wake in the morning and brush and dress and go to the desk and write.
I always put my arm in the right sleeve before I slip into the left.
I always put my left shoe first and then I put on the right.
There is something presumptuous about these lines. Again: on one hand, the poet seems to be merely a navel-gazer (making dull, but specific, lists of the minutiae of ordinary life). On the other...? Seidel’s details -- listed in such charming and meticulous meter (this is an over-riding element in all the poems of this collection) and ringing with sadness -- come to represent a delightfully Prufrock-ish weirdo.
There are elements here of a believable, if luxurious, life. There is a jeweler friend allowing Seidel to momentarily don an enormous diamond ring over a meal. “I look down at my finger/ And field-trip an alternate universe.” There are endless lovers (including, it seems, designer Diane von Furstenberg and excluding, apparently, women Seidel’s own age -- “A naked woman my age is a total nightmare”). There are artist friends; Greek seas; hotel rooms with barely-legal prostitutes; apartments in New York and Florence; trips to the Sahara; birthdays; a “tiny Cartier wristwatch;” lobbies; “swollen rivers;” many, many things of trivial or typical beauty; and many things of exceptionally specific, daring beauty (like a hilarious mention of CIA men helping to re-attach Jackie Kennedy’s slipping hairpiece).
The sadness Seidel creates is unlike any person I can attest to knowing in real life. He doesn’t live in a world I know. There is a haunting absence of things like macaroni and cheese, scraping ice off your car window, bouncing a check, getting a paycheck, doing the laundry. By no means am I suggesting that the quotidian existence of schmucks like me is necessary fodder for poetry. But because Seidel spends such time with these bits of the everyday, it becomes noticeable that his existence is textured with a creepy decadence (something most of us only play at). And this is the real meat of the poems. Frederick Seidel’s work seems to be all one giant project: a cataloguing and documenting of his perceptions and passage through time, tainted by a personality startlingly dreadful. “I’m sucking on the barrel of a crystal pistol/ To get a bullet to my brain./ I’m gobbling a breast/ drinking myself down the drain.” And it must be this heavy, eye-rolling gloom that allows the various gems of Seidel’s verse to come pouring out. “The violin of your eyes” is a nice one. “We lived like hummingbirds on nectar and oxygen” (this is the von Furstenberg one). “Lightning with a noose around its neck... /Drops into space.” “The sprinkler system hisses kisses on a timer.” “My satin skin becomes the coffin/ The taxidermist got it off in.” “Open the mummy case of this text respectfully. / You find no one inside.”
Ooga Booga by Frederick Seidel
Farrar, Straus and Giroux