(Faber and Faber, 2012); hbk, £14.99
The first poem in Frederick Seidel’s latest collection,Nice Weather, is “Night”. The objective yet disconnected tone of this poem prepares the reader for what follows. Blunt, stoical and in some cases cynical, Seidel rarely embellishes his imagery; instead he simply tells it as it is, as straightforwardly as if he were reading from a list:
The city sleeps with the lights on.
The insomniac wants it to be morning.
By keeping his work sparse, he allows the reader space to create their own images:
The prostitute suspects what her client might want her to do.
Something is going on. Something is wrong.
Meanwhile, the customer is frightened, too.
This sparing style also works well alongside Seidel’s cynicism and sarcasm, perfectly demonstrated in “Track Bike”, where he lists the sights to be seen in New York:
We’ll walk into the first church we see,
Which is to say the Apple Store.
And let’s check out
The Upper West Side Apple Store next door.
It’s one more crystal-clear Apple cathedral.
For Saint Steve Jobs, who discovered America.
In this poem we are not only confronted with the materialism and spiritual bankruptcy of modern society and its obsession with technology, but are also allowed a wry smile as Seidel writes with his tongue lodged firmly in his cheek.
Seidel’s imagery is, at times, starkly simplistic, particularly in his poem “Snow”. However, although the poem may contain clear imagery, the language itself is deliberately vague and imprecise, enough for us to create our own specific images and even our own narrative.
Snow is what it does.
It falls and it stays and it goes.
It melts and it is here somewhere.
We will all get there.
The final line of “Snow” also shows Seidel’s ability to evoke emotions in a few words. This is achieved with imagery that is not only visceral and clear, but at times also brutal and unashamed in its ability to make the reader feel uncomfortable. For example, in “Night” again:
The prostitute – whose name is Dawn –
Takes the man in her mouth and spits out blood,
In “London”, a poem which concerns a dying woman and the question of euthanasia, the last lines of the poem are disarmingly honest;
Please die. Please do. Her daughters don’t want her to die and do.
Many of Seidel’s poems read like inner-narratives (most are written in the first person), as in “Lisbon”, which documents some of the sights of that city:
That’s where you find the statue.
That’s where you pay homage.
He sits at a little bronze table outdoors
At the edge of the busy cafe tables, having an esspresso
Made of bronze.
However, the poem’s tone quickly changes to something altogether more thought-provoking and challenging:
The wrath fucks froth against the cliff.
Waterboarding makes the cliff stiff.
I voted for Obama and I ask Obama if.
One of Seidel’s most effective technical devices is his use of repetition, creating a strong rhetoric which works particularly well when discussing political issues:
Though I’d have to say,
I had a pleasant stay.
The breadlines in America will eventually go away,
And we will live to see another day.
A great leader lasts longer than a day.
Ultimately, Seidel’s work is strong, unashamed and unwilling to be anything other than brash. This particular style of poetry, with its powerful inner-narrative and blunt and clipped tone, may not be for everyone, but there is one key element of Seidel’s work that cannot be denied – its ability to provoke.