The second volume in Seidel’s projected trilogy, very loosely modeled on the Divine Comedy but with the compass points grimly reversed: in this cosmos we are headed downwards and there is no Virgil to hold our hand. Seidel is more notorious for his morbid and occasionally prankish eroticism (“Her caterpillar with a groove / Waits for love / Between her legs. / The crease is dripping grease”), but his engagement with public history is equally important and is a running trope in all his poetry. (Here he gives us Joan of Arc, and the lines comment provocatively on the radical naïveté at the heart of any religious fanaticism: “She feels / Her own emptiness but oddly / It feels like love / When you have no insight at all / Except that you are good.”) The author’s more common strategy is to place his narrator at an eccentric remove from history, and his tone is often that of a dandy who finds himself in the midst of tragedy: “Gentle Balinese murdered gentle Balinese / And, in the usual pogrom, killed / The smart hard-working Chinese / Merchants to the poor, Jews in paradise.” There is no overarching thesis or dictum to this grandly titled collection, for life is neither evolving to a higher stage nor regressing to the crudely animal—as Seidel tells it, the world and its story have always been full of style and brutality. The trick is to catch them both at work, to treat the former without coyness and the latter without moralizing.
It is a trick akin to writing good natural history, and few poets since the ancients have done so well as Seidel does it here.