In his book of poems called “Area Code 212,” Frederick Seidel alternates page-length poems on a specific topic (Ducati motorcycles, Easter, Roman goddess names) with page-length poems describing a month. I was pleased by his ode to February, bitter and cynical as it is. February is the worst! And thus we see that Frederick Seidel (b. Feb. 19, 1936) is wiser than T.S. Eliot, who said some mishmashy balls about April being crueler. No way. Strangely enough both men are from St. Louis, and both attended Harvard, as high-achieving men of a certain class from St. Louis are wont to do. We’ve described the “Pauls” (Muldoon and Durcan) in this forum as “wise-asses” of contemporary poetry, and one is tempted to place Seidel in this category as well. But whereas Muldoon and Durcan are the kind of guys who are smartasses because they can already do what’s going on in class better than every other student, Seidel is the kind of smartass where the teacher goes home at night and wonders, Hm, is that child SERIOUSLY DISTURBED?
Frederick Seidel’s poems have been offending people since before his first publication, in the early 1960s. A jew, he’s been called anti-Semitic. A rich and refined man, he’s been called tasteless. But recently he’s also been called the finest poet writing in English.
Nothing like a tight chain of quatrains to hammer home a theme, I say. And the theme here is, I think, all in the title. Hey note how this poem seems tailor-made for us: mentions of February, Monday, even a MV reference, as if we’d put away discussion of Virgil, Ovid, and Horace for the winter… -ed.
The best way not to kill yourself
Is to ride a motorcycle very fast.
How to avoid suicide?
Get on and really ride.
Then comes Valentine’s Day.
It is February, but very mild.
But the MV Agusta is in storage for the winter.
The Ducati racer is deeply asleep and not dreaming.
But the pills back in the vial.
Put the gun back in the drawer.
Ventilate the carbon monoxide.
Back away from the railing.
You can’t budge from the edge?
You can meet her in front of the museum.
It is closed today–every Monday.
If you are alive, happy Valentine’s Day!
All you brave failed suicides, it is a leap year.
Every day is an extra day
To jump. It is February 29th
Deep in the red heart of February 14th.
On the steps in front of the museum,
The wind was blowing hard.
Something was coming.
Winter had been warm and weird.
Hide not thy face from me.
For I have eaten ashes like bread,
And mingled my drink with weeping,
While my motorcycles slept.
She arrives out of breath,
Without a coat, blazing health,
But actually it is a high fever that gives her glory.
Life is death.