Jupiterian Writing as Ultimate Concern:
Review of Anthony Seidman’s Cosmic Weather
ed. Giorgia Pavlidou firstname.lastname@example.org
Her son was sick and Lupe promised la Virgen that she’d leave her trade if her baby were cured.
She kept her promise a month or two, and then had to go back. Soon after, her son died, and Lupe said the fault was her own for not keeping up her bargain with la Virgen. La Virgen carried off the little angel, payment for a broken promise.
-Lupe, Roberto Bolaño
Seidman’s poetry crackles as if emerging through the cracks of LA’s rivers of asphalt. A native Angelino and as so many in this part of the world, Seidman has a rather miscegenated cultural background. Jewish with English as his chosen language yet raised bilingually in both English and French by his Sephardic Francophone mother and Ashkenazi New Yorker father. If all this isn’t hybrid enough, Seidman married into the Spanish language: his wife is of Mexican ancestry. All this shows in his poetry, I feel: similar to Kent Johnson’s voice, a distinctly hybrid and Latinized tonality permeates Seidman’s writing.
Seidman confided that some of his readers might disagree, but besides a Franco-Mexican vein, I also detect William Burrough’s gasping breath in this collection. This is especially apparent in the third section of Cosmic Weather, aptly titled Before Annihilation, Some Kicks at the Drive-in. Here Seidmain regurgitates his childhood experiences in the city of stucco angels, kneading these in a fashion I’d dare call “deliciously transgressive,” effortlessly traversing mental geographies from Ixtapa, Mexico to its polar opposite: Malibu, California.
In One Abyss and a Hundred Horrors, for instance, we meet (acid-dropping?) teenagers on a summer road trip discussing LSD, Vietnam and mini-skirts. In other poems we meet such inhabitants as stellar dwarfs with voices that go Glub-glub, food fights and stabbed tires, Lizard-Gods thirsting human blood, beards looking like pubic hear, torched emaciated corpses, murderers and even “naked teens screaming and looking back as the beast lunges towards fields of gentians purple as Pluto,” (p75).
There are, of course, also other qualities (than rawness and transgression) that dwell in the prose poems section. There’s ample tenderness, for instance, in Re-Virginized Quinceañera: Uncut version. Though even here, sprinkles of Gonzo garnish the poems. This is felt mostly in tone but also in metaphor and in detail: grandmother’s eyes are in the color of egg-yolk, and the thumb plucking the E-minor chord on rusty guitar strings is arthritic.
As an admirer of the Beats and George Bataille’s poetry and prose, I was also delighted to discover that Seidman doesn’t shy away from an occasional swearword or from spicing up his poetry with a dash of the scatological. Obviously we’re in the US of the 21st century and we have moved way beyond shock as mere shock (what’s shocking anyway, nowadays? Try shocking yourself!), but I have to admit that I’m biased toward language permitted to graze freely, chewing on less than neatly manicured “leaves of grass” (pun intended).
After the prose poem section, we arrive at the title poem: Cosmic Weather, interestingly prefaced by an epigraph of Beat poet Gregory Corso: Death has long since distributed its categorical blue.
I’d say that this longer poem reconnects again with the contemplative flavor of the first part of the book. Here Seidman invites us to a journey into a rather different poetic register. Similar to what Will Alexander does, Seidman guides the reader to plunge into the idea or spirit of Jupiter, diving in and out of its electrical storms, experience colors kindred to the sand of New Mexico, summoning the energy and soul of the Red Hurricane, “while on earth man and woman will be imprints in sandstones – a species crusted in rock, petrified and buried beneath a barren steppe of absence and heat,” (p89-90).
Did Seidman predict Bad New Ahead of Nothing Cooling as the third section is titled? Temperatures hit 119° in the wildly hot SoCal Summer of 2020.
Writing this review it strikes me that, seemingly, my interest travels toward the second and third section of Cosmic Weather. Perhaps this only shows how I relate to a new book. After all, I adore the work of such poets as Baudelaire, Rimbaud and John Olson. Having said that, there are many pearls to fish in the first part. I’m touched by a poem as My Tears are Aspirin Yet Surgeons Say I’m Gangrenous and gladly consume a poetic line as “Purgatory, perhaps, as fruitful as a castrato.” Here’s (at least for me) the touching part:
“Those who have whored every orifice of their body scoff at this supposed sacrifice, because Everyone’s for Sale … Everything … and the wind will succumb to the missives.”
I taste here a similarly strange Mediterranean sense of Saudade and experience of the inevitable in the poem of another poet I deeply admire:
“She worked in la Guerrero, a few streets from Julian’s, and she was 17 and she had lost a son. The memory made her cry in that Hotel Trébol room, spacious and dark, with bath and bidet, the perfect place to live out a few years. The perfect place to write a book of apocryphal memories or a collection of horror poems. Lupe was thin and had legs long and spotted like a leopard. The first time I didn’t even get an erection.”
(Lupe, in Roberto Bolaño’s Romantic Dog)
And when one is confronted by the inevitably tragic that is characteristic of so much of humanity’s history, what are our choices? For those born poets the choice is a forced one: writing. Excommunicated for whatever reason from mundane normality, it’s in the dominion of our most intimate mutualist symbiont* casually and callously called “Language,” where the poet has permanently exiled himself. Seidman dwells in the country of writing. For him poetry is what theologian Paul Tillich named “Ultimate Concern.” Ultimate concern is total: its object is experienced as holy. I think that it is here, in this sacred lingual territory, where one viscerally experiences the palpitations of Jupiter’s Cosmic Weather in this strange country called writing.
* Language is a mutualist symbiont and enters into a mutually beneficial relationship with its hominid host. Humans propagate language, whilst language furnishes the conceptual universe that guides and shapes the thinking of the hominid host. Language enhances the survival of the human species. Yet individual grammatical and lexical meanings and configurations of memes mediated by language may be either beneficial or deleterious to the biological host. The symbiosis is rendered more complex than just simple mutualism, both by the physiological discrepancy between language as an overall condition and the nature of individual ideas conveyed through language, as well as by the ecological difference between vertically and horizontally transmitted memes. The symbiotic theory of language propounded by George van Driem grew out of the Leiden school of language evolution, fathered by Frederik Kortlandt
Giorgia Pavlidou interviews Anthony Seidman
How would you describe your relationship with LA? Is the city a permanent inhabitant of your writing?
I suppose the best manner to respond is that I returned to the city with great thirst after finishing undergraduate studies in Syracuse, New York, and several wonderful years living in the desert, in the northern Mexican city, Ciudad Juarez (and one agonizing year spent in a Denver suburb). Not only did I return to my native city, but to the neighborhood where I grew up, and only a mile from my high school. Thus, my daily walks, my sense of direction, what I see, contain ghosts, brimming over with memories. That’s the sentimental side of the coin. The other side reveals the astounding amount of languages, cuisines, colors, music. The city was long dismissed as an asphalt flower with nothing to offer except for gas stations, endless freeways, and some pastel-colored retreats for those working in the industry. This is no longer true…perhaps never was. Where I live—the very unfashionable neighborhood of Van Nuys—I can easily pass the day speaking only in Spanish, as well as hear others at the park, at the market, speaking in Farsi, Tagalog, Hebrew, etc. The majority of residents surrounding come from Armenia, Central America, Russia, etc. The supermarkets brim over with goods from around the globe. Most importantly, I work several yards from the San Fernando Mission, that is, in full view of a structure that shows the historical strata—Tongvaa and their tortuous relationship with the Spaniards, the Mexican Empire, the Mexican Republic, Fremont, California as a territory, a state, etc—and I live a five minute drive from the North Hollywood park where poets belonging to McGrath’s small weekly gathering would meet with their children on Sundays and have bar-b-ques. I should emphasize that among those poets was the great American Surrealist, Gene Frumkin. I’m happy to report that I’m not alone among local Angelo-phile poets. A favorite topic of conversation with dear friend Boris Dralyuk often revolves around historical personages from the earlier periods of Los Angeles, or more recent events, like the Punk movement of the late 70’s, early 80’s, the changes to his Fairfax neighborhood during the past decade. With regards as to how the city, or my region, inhabits my writing: I wrote a book entitled Combustions (March Street Press, 2008) which is an open sequence of prose sketches and prose poems narrating the deeper reaches of the San Fernando Valley, with its blistering heat, its junkyards and motels, and its denizens. Some of those poems were later translated into French and published as artist books by Jean-Claude Loubieres: Motel Insomnia and San Fernando Valley Suite. The later title forms part of the collection of artist books at the Bibliotheque Kandinsky in the Centre Pompidou. There seems to be a recent fascination with Los Angeles on the part of the French. The last time I was in Paris, I noticed a proliferation of Fante, Nathaniel West, and Bukowski paperbacks in translation. Finally, where I work is located here Sepulveda Blvd. ends. At its other extreme, the Pacific Ocean. At the extreme closest to me, the threshold to the desert, to the Vazquez Rocks, to the ecosystem that also populates my work.
Name a few of your favorite poets. I’m particularly interested in Latin American poets, Francophone and Surrealist poets. Tell us what’s inspiring about them? Do you have an all-time favorite?
I appreciate how you narrowed down the range of poets, as I could have found myself picking random names popping up in my memory, probably many of them poets I have recently (re)read and felt the charge again of their words…David Gascoyne, Ritsos, or contemporary poets I also count as friends, like Paul Stubbs, Kent Johnson, or Heller Levinson, or prose works that slip in and out of poetry and which I read simply as poetry, like The Palm Wine Drinkard by Tutuloa or those first chapters in Moby Dick, or the later chapters on the whiteness of the whale, moments in Cane, or the cut-up-technique-night-sweats in Naked Lunch. I actually prefer to bypass the name of poets, as if they were monoliths buried hip-deep in the sand, and focus on poems. The poem is always wiser than the poet. Some poets just happened to give birth to poems that were stronger, or more keen, or had more bite, gripped down and have been kicking ever since. I will let the scholars speak of Poets, their lives, and the overall arch of their works. The Mexican poet, Villaurrutia, wrote a splendid introduction to a selection of Efren Rebolledo’s work in which he noted how so many poets would benefit from a selection of their work, and suffer from a Collected works. So…some Latin American poems or open sequences, books, and why (and again this is in no particular order): Rodolfo Hinostroza’s book Contra natura. Why? One, I finished translating it and it will soon be published by Cardboard House Press, and the process of translation turns into this alchemy, this transubstantiation so that I feel that sequence of poems reside within me. I have never encountered a book that weaves astrology, chemistry, politics, erotic poetry, mythos, etc., and with such a unique sense of collage technique, languages, etc. “The War Song of Things” by Joaquin Pasos and then the threnody for Joaquin Pasos by Carlos Martinez Rivas. The first is longish poem of unique energy, and the second a sobering farewell to a poet, as well as an ars poetica, and ultimately an affirmation of poetry. The poem “Hay cadaveres” by Nestor Perlongher which, along with “La tierra es un satelite de la luna” by Leonel Rugama, is a true example of political protest / thirst for justice fusing with the absurd or the grotesque, or the language of cold statistics and business, as in the Rugama poem. Dear friend and poet Martin Camps wrote a poem entitled “Hay zombis” which shows how the same “logic of metaphor” can be applied to describe the current corruption, drug war, feminicides, and ecological disasters in his native Mexico. Now random poems come to mind…”Ah que tu escapes” by Jose Lezama Lima, or sections from “Muerte sin fin” by Gorostiza, or “Segregacion No 1. a modo de un pintor primitivo culto” by Carlos German Belli. As far as for French surrealism…I could probably open any collection by Benjamin Peret, slip the pages at random, and then open one to a moment of convulsive beauty. Poems by Desnos or Joyce Mansour. The Caribbean and African Francophone poets have a different register, and I have been left stunned upon reading poems by Tchicaya U Tam’si and his interpolation of Surrealism to invoke the seething and torrid landscape of his homeland, or the way in which Rene Depestre does the same in order to intertwine his French with the tragic politics of his country. These last two poets remind me of how I read a Tutuola or Samuel Greenberg writing in a language which has yet to be spoken, a tuning in to a star and its flares way past the range of the Hubble telescope.
Do you dream in other languages besides English? If yes, tell us about that.
I have never thought about that. I know I think, at times, in Spanish, and rarely in French. Why? Simply that, part from my mother and stepfather, there aren’t many French speakers around. My neighborhood and work abound in Spanish-speakers. But I do have dreams where I am reading a poet in Spanish, or that I am wandering the neighborhood where I used to live in Juarez, and the general climate of the dream is non-English. I’m more curious if one truly dreams in words, or do we intuit within the dream that something and someone is being spoken. How do verbs move in a dream? The long afternoon of a dream’s tableau is only a ten minute nap when seen from the outside. Are syllables longer, more fluid, or more lithic when one tumbles into deep sleep?
Having a foothold in America’s antidepressant paradise called “France,” what is it that keeps you in the US and in LA in particular?
I feel less like an outsider, here, in Los Angeles. This is my terrain. Although I also feel Franco-American, I feel the light and expanse of Los Angeles pull on my blood after visiting family for several weeks when in Paris. Just as my imagination was nourished by time in France, I find the Ruscha-documented parking lots, stucco and kitsch apartment buildings, the palm trees, the stunning sunlight during the day, and the smog-tinctured violet evenings that Hockney loved, all to be bread and butter.
Is Jewishness a thing for you? Does it inform your writing?
My response will be similar to being half-French … it all hinges on a sense of not entirely belonging anywhere. Although my mother’s family is Sephardic, my mother is secular. My father was less so, but the difference was that I felt I was living in a French and secular household with my mother, and a Jewish American home when spending time with my father (my parents divorced when I was six). Thus: being neither here, nor there. Teetering between languages, histories, and the masks. This, at times, is a boon; more often than not, it is a sense of awkwardness, or of difference. I always think of the poem “The Heavy Bear Who Goes With Me” by Delmore Schwartz as words that convey the same feeling.
You were raised bilingually. Tell us a bit about your bond with La Francophonie. Does it inform your writing practice?
I was raised in both languages, but clearly English was my language of choice. As my father was from New York, and as I spent an equal amount of time at his house, half of my life was always conducted in English. Also, although the French residents of Los Angeles are in the thousands, there is not immigrant community to speak of….no Little Paris, or neighborhood, unlike the plethora of Armenian, Central American, Chinese, Mexican areas with very identifiable stores, markets, signs, etc. I teach French at a high school level, so I do use the language on a daily basis, and of course when in France. When my uncle moved to the States, I was perhaps nine or ten years old. His financial circumstance was such that he lived with us, and shared a bedroom with me for over a year. He was chasing the dollar, and he assumed he would cash in on the American dream which, sadly, eluded his grasp. But he remained deeply French…I would say even Franco-centric. He also arrived with treasures like comics of Lucky Luke, Asterix, and Tintin, the music of Gainsbourg, Johnny Hallyday, endless stories of French history, artists, Kings, Napoleon, and his skills in the kitchen were formidable (and he was always accompanied by a glass of wine). Our dinner table was a French-only zone, and so my connection to French culture is a mix of meals, music, endless hours hearing recordings of Coluche. I still hold on to things that would probably make French men my age chuckle…like a collection of faded Pif comic books that my mother bought for me during various trips to see family. Thus, my Francophone and French experience rest in nostalgia, distance, having one foot in the culture, and the majority of myself immersed in American culture. Again, being neither here nor there. I do know one thing…a steak a la moelle is my favorite thing to eat. Or maybe it’s a burro de rajas con queso!
You just had a new MS accepted by Trainwreck. Tell us a bit about that? You seem to work with and from a plurality of voices (correct?). Is the new MS similar in voice as CW, or did you deliberately move away to explore something new? Or did you want to deepen the already existing orbit of voices?
The chapbook is entitled The Defining Crisis of Your Lifetime Is Utopia. I finished it while finishing a suite of prose poems for another manuscript entitled Mother Crow. The chapbook is now available from Trainwreck Press. The prose poems will be published later this year by Main Street Rag. Sulfur Surrealist Jungle kindly published some of the prose poems, and some of the poems from The Defining Crisis of Your Lifetime Is Utopia. I think that I do work with a plurality of voices…recently I have become more cognizant of writing collections of poetry, rather than isolate poems. Thus, a narrative arch begins to form, an urge to expand a certain style of voice, as in the prose poems in Cosmic Weather that drag the pop, kitsch, and junk river of growing up in the San Fernando Valley, and the low-brow television shows and horror films, BMX and skate board culture, the sub-par public schools, etc. I read how Burroughs described much of Naked Lunch as a purging of his Mid-Western upbringing, as if trying to shock it. I guess there was a general effort that was similar in those prose poems that pull images from Zombie flicks, crappy rock music, mini-marts, fast food, etc. The more recent poems are different…and I was very conscious of exploring motifs and patterns, even sentence structure. I think the collection must be read as a whole. Reading a random prose poem here or there loses the play with how the secretion of words and images grow and contaminate each other, like one amoeba swallowing another one, and then another. The Defining Crisis of Your Lifetime is Utopia was a reaction to the Trump presidency, the virus, the protests, the riots, etc. I imagine it like resting in one’s bed for one last chance at peace, while cars are overturned and burning only a block away, the earth is about to quake, and someone hand you a ticket to the end of the world “where you’ll feel fine / but that ‘s if you know it.” Clearly, I hope to deepen the already existing orb of voices, and to create something new. I have a new batch of prose poems similar to those in Cosmic Weather, and I think I’m almost done.
Last question: Do you feel a contemporary poem written by a talented MFA student or one of their professors reveal some deeper sense of wisdom or beauty than a poem from the Bronze Age? Or are we drifting further and further away from the human experience of the verb, the revelation, the oneiric?
I would ask myself this question after writing, or especially after attending a reading or participating in a festival. The tone of my voice….one of dreadful premonition: Of course we’re drifting further from the oneiric and the sound of flowers beheld through incense. We’re now in the age of poetry coffee mugs and poetry magnets for the fridge door. The MFA student and the professor are both interested in making a product that can be marketed and then enjoy some additional merchandising. The most perverse thing about what’s written today, or mass-assembled, is the insistence on showing how the poem and the poet are the reflections of a sensitive soul, a voice given to charming anecdotes, or slightly perturbing accounts of society’s ills, all addressed and resolved in an easy-to-digest page or so. The college workshops, the fine arts councils, turn into cheerleaders for mediocrity. True, I can assume that the majority of poetry from a majority of literary epochs is dross. I am thankful every day for having access to Archilocus and other poets who still bite, and thrash, and come up laughing with dirty teeth and blood, who heard the strenuous dancing of the Muses’ feet up on Mount Helicon. We need to have some moxie. Sometimes it makes me wish to sever myself from my right hand, retreat to the darker recesses of the library and simply read the ancients, like The Lusiads or Leaves of Grass. I envy Augusto Monterroso (the Honduran / Guatemalan writer) when he spoke his major advantage over writers from the “First World.” As an aspiring writer in mid-20th century Guatemala, he had access to the small stacks of books in the ruinous libraries of the capital. “My libraries were so poor that I was able to bypass the foreign coteries and fads, the new bestsellers, and only read Homer, the Ancient Tragedies, Francois Villon, the Quixote, Rabelais, Lope de Vega, Quevedo, etc.” Myself being a poet now approaching mid-career, I feel at times compelled to stop and listen to this or that trend….but you can tell the difference, the merely anecdotal poem written in free-verse and in first person, and which is meant to make one chuckle with a low-grade realization as the poem reaches its fire-cracker ending, as opposed to the horror and fire of lexicon midwifed by thunder, as in The Bacchhae.