Tuesday, January 2, 2007


If the spectacle of an extremely rich man writing poems about his custom-made Italian motorcycle sounds unappealing to you, you probably haven't been reading Frederick Seidel. Rhian bought me his latest, Ooga-Booga, for Christmas, having been seduced by the title. The book is really superb.

I'm a bit embarrassed never to have heard of Seidel; he's 70 and has been publishing for more than 40 years; he's been a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize. Ooga-Booga is an extraordinarily confident collection of startling non-sequiturs, winking vulgarities, wry observations and bald assessments of sex and death. Here, for instance, is the end of the motorcycle poem:

Tonight Bologna is fog.
This afternoon, there it was,
With all the mechanics who are making it around it.
It stood on a sort of altar.
I stood in a sort of fog,
Taking digital photographs of my death.

The poems teeter between the debonair (a favorite word of Seidel's) and colloquial, the corny and the creepy. He'll chant like a child in the service of the disturbing, as in the terrifying "Grandson Born Dead":

Get up!
Get up, get out of bed!
Wake up!
Wake up, you sleepyhead!
All right. Go ahead.
Be dead.

The cloak of social respectability Seidel's narrator wears gives him a preternatural ability to shock, and lends the very concept of shock a new kind of life. "The downpour drumming on my taxi," he writes in "The Bush Administration," "gets the Hutu in me dancing." It keeps on dancing, through the entire book.

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