Monday, October 27, 2008

>Frederick Seidel's "Poem By The Bridge At Ten-Shin"


“Poem at the Bridge at Ten-Shin,” The New Yorker October 20, 2008

            This is a weird poem.  It made me think of Pound’s poem by the same name, a translation of Li-Po.  In that version of “Poem at the Bridge at Ten-Shin,” the speaker bears witness to the ineffable beauty of spring and to the pompous nobility who, by supplanting their own grandeur above it, miss nature’s wonders.  In the end, it’s the humble Han-rei who walks away (well . . . ferries away, actually) with the girl, the others too “Haughty [in] their passing” to make away with the goods of Spring or anything.  They’ve missed the boat (to make a bad pun).

            But it’s difficult to tell specifically who or what Seidel is addressing (if he is) in his “Poem at the Bridge” or to say anyone escapes with the girl (or guy for that matter, to keep this blurb from becoming too stereotypical).  Spring beauty and sexual verve are ever at the forefront, politics litter the poem although sparsely so, and names are named but arbitrarily so.  There is no particular girl, no particular nobility.  Pound, evoked immediately by Seidel’s title, becomes a springboard only, for Seidel takes his own “Bridge” in numerous nearly fragmented directions nearly at once . . . then never quite does.  In fact, the title would be a total red herring if not for a few late references to Pound  In the penultimate stanza, Seidel writes, “One cannot be the way one was back then today,” which seems to be a reference to “But to-day’s men are not the men of the old days” in Pound’s “Bridge.”  Then, in the final stanza, he writes, “I came here . . . Behind the matchless prancing pair of Eliot and Ezra Pound.”  The line that follows, “And countless moist oases took me in along the way,” makes it sound like Eliot and Pound brought Seidel’s speaker through a wasteland (another bad joke) through which he was lucky to have made it out alive.  So, although each line references Pound, both simultaneously negate the reference: Seidel’s “Bridge” seems to say men are the same today as they were yesterday (ignoble, unlike Han-Rei and his poem’s sentiment) and Pound’s path, though not necessarily a mistake, was not necessarily the way to poetry’s promised-land.  Two roads diverged, yadda-yadda . . . .

            Seidel’s “Bridge” is seven stanzas long, and each stanza is built with fourteen lines.  So, it’s only fair to say each is sonnet-esque.  As well, the stanzas follow a rhyme scheme of ABCD-ABCC-DD-EE-FF (the hyphens are solely to help one visualize the scheme), and an overall theme of the poem is love/lust.  It’s fair to say the entire beast is sonnet-esque in its way although definitely not built with sonnet.  What’s odd about all this formal stuff is that this poem upholds its sequence and structure rigidly, as though it matters.  The sonnet is a demanding form, and Seidel’s “Bridge” is eager to meet the aforementioned demands of length, end-rhyme, and theme.  However, its content is all over the place, bound by a loose fascia of ideas, some political, some lusty.  Many lusty.

            And, as is the trouble with poems about drugs, drinking, or lust, once that idea is felt and/or understood clearly by the reader, it can’t be shaken.  Thus, once readers hit the last two lines of the first stanza — the eloquent “Between my legs it’s Baudelaire. / He wrote about her Central Park of hair.” — it’s all over.  The poem becomes almost strictly about sex, even if it isn’t.  Recall those oases that kept the poem’s speaker in good health while he followed Pound?  They ain’t just any “moist oases” anymore.  Nothing moist in this poem is simply moist; it’s a particular kind of moist from a particular kind of oasis.  And neither the poem nor its speaker can escape it.

            Yes, this is a ribald work.  In places the result is rather trite.  In others it’s rather amusing.  One of my favorite such moments is from the first stanza: “My darling is a platform I see stars from in the dark, / And all the dogs begin to bark.”  Seidel lifts me up with the first line, then drops me down with the second.  Ahhh, so it is with pleasure, poetry or otherwise.  I also like the last line of stanza two, “I put my mobile in her ampersand,” the last line of stanza three, “Love of cuntry makes men stupid, “and the opening of stanza five, “I knew a beauty named Dawn Green. / I used to wake at the crack of Dawn.”  Simple, silly pleasures.

            There’s a smattering of politics in the poem with references to New York and an airplane, Nixon, the current U.S. appellate court Judge Pierre Leval, and Iraq, but I think Seidel could’ve thrown about anything into this poem and made it work just as well.  With all the sex, it’s hard to see how anything else in the poem matters.  And that may be the point.  In the last line Seidel writes, “The rotting ocean swallows the bombed airliner that’s missing.”  It sounds like nonsense — as does much of the piece — but it reminds me nevertheless of Pound’s version of “Bridge.”  Either seems to indicate that time moves on without the present; the partying nobles in Pound’s Li-Po translation are idiots because they believe in their permanence; so much in Seidel’s poem is idiotic because it plays with permanence, with relevancy.  In the end, the poem’s political name-dropping won’t matter.  It’s airliner won’t matter.  In the sky or in the ocean, in the great plane boneyard south of Tucson, the plane won’t be what defines America, Al-Qaeda, or humanity, nor will it be what energizes the longevity of any of those factions.  The answer to eternal life, to a noble life, is much simpler (and much dirtier) than that.

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