Life on Earth

Life on Earth

by Frederick Seidel

The second book of an extravagant work-in-progress

What's Joel
Got to do but let the jewel
The light and hook

It to the flesh
It will outlast
And point the staring woman
At a mirror?
--from "The Master Jeweler Joel Rosenthal"

Dante's Divine Comedy begins with a journey


The second book of an extravagant work-in-progress

What's Joel
Got to do but let the jewel
The light and hook

It to the flesh
It will outlast
And point the staring woman
At a mirror?
--from "The Master Jeweler Joel Rosenthal"

Dante's Divine Comedy begins with a journey through Hell and ends in Heaven. Frederick Seidel's trilogy The Cosmos Poems begins in the heavens and descends.

Life on Earth is the second book in this trilogy. It includes natural and human history, which are the history of the self, and biography, which is the history of everything else, told in vignettes of beauty, sublimity, horror, and regret.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
"What is happening/ Is blood in urine." Controversial, confrontational and acidly colloquial as ever, Seidel bills this loose sequence of 33 short poems, each in eight rapid quatrains, as the second book in a trilogy begun with last year's The Cosmos Poems. It spans the heights and depths of human history, from space travel to the Nazi regime, from Hollywood to Polynesia to "James Baldwin in Paris." Seidel is at his best here when teasing the psychological out of the political: "Joan of Arc" explains, with deliberate anachronism, "Nobody wants her/ On their side in games at school/ So the retard/ Is wired to explode." Elsewhere, Seidel is content to depict sound and fury, whether lobbing "laser-guided bombs" at Moby Dick or announcing, "You don't know what you mean/ And that's what I mean." Writing of sex, Seidel continues to walk a male hetero-aggro tightrope--a poem set in a hospital imagines "a murderous head of state with beautiful big breasts// Who is already under and extremely nude." The devil-may-care delivery and broad ambitions of this seventh collection place Seidel closer to Norman Mailer--or perhaps to the Plath of "Daddy" or "Lady Lazarus"--than to most current writers of verse, or to Seidel's earlier Lowell-like overtures. Yet readers who have followed his work since the '70s should find his current project terra cognita, and just the thing for the deflation of the medical-industrial complex. (Apr.) Forecast: While well-known to readers of Raritan and other distinguished journals, Seidel hasn't managed to gain the kind of readership that, for example, FSG list-mate C.K. Williams has. Despite the flash, this book won't manage the trick either, but it adds incrementally to a career slowly reaching beyond cognoscenti. Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
In this sequence of 33 lyric poems, each composed of eight quatrains, Seidel surveys the vast gulf separating human aspirations and the limits imposed by mortality. He populates his tersely metered, sometimes end-rhymed lines with images taken from geography, history, pop culture, and, most importantly, the body itself. The results can be either surprising and evocative ("Totally in/ Your power,/ The stethoscope/ Puts its taproot to your chest and flowers") or borderline sophomoric ("Infinity was one of many/ In a writhing pot of spaghetti./ One among many/ Intestines of time"). Seidel frequently chooses gross metaphors ("Her old woman's body is a bag of spotted slop") and deliberately ugly diction ("The magnolias are vomiting brightness") to illustrate the obvious contradiction between the literal frailties of our fleshly environs and the romantic ideals we construct to escape them ("Merrily we/ Go around circling/ The drain, life is but a dream"). These glibly acidic poems aim to achieve wit and profundity simultaneously but unfortunately fall short on both counts. Fred Muratori, Cornell Univ. Lib., Ithaca, NY Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
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.

From the Publisher

“[Seidel] grips the twentieth century between his teeth like a blade as he speaks . . . One of the more formidable poets of the last third of the century.” —Poetry

“Ecstatic, despairing poems . . . Metaphors explode here like supernovas aborning, and from the debris Seidel makes dense, durable poetry.” —David Kirby, The New York Times Book Review

Product Details

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
6.56(w) x 8.52(h) x 0.60(d)

Read an Excerpt


Is there intelligent life in the universe?
No glass

In the windows of the bus

In from the airport, only air and perfume.

Every porch in the darkness was lighted
With twinkling oil lamps

And there was music

At 2. a.m., the gamelan.

I hear the cosmos
And smell the Asian flowers

And there were candles

Mental as wind chimes in the soft night.

Translucency the flames showed through,
The heavy makeup the little dancers wore,

The scented sudden and the nubile slow

Lava flow of the temple troupe performing for the hotel guests.

Her middle finger touches her thumb in the vitarkamudra,
While her heavily made-up eyes shift wildly,

Facial contortions silently acting out the drama,

And the thin neck yin-yangs back and forth to the music.

Announcing the gods,
The room jerked and the shower curtain swayed.

All the water in the swimming pool

Trampolined out, and in the mountains hundreds died.

The generals wanted to replace Sukarno.
Because of his syphilis he was losing touch

With the Communist threat and getting rather crazy.

So they slaughtered the Communists and the rich Chinese.

Gentle Balinese murdered gentle Balinese,
And, in the usual pogrom, killed

The smart hardworking Chinese,

Merchants to the poor, Jews in paradise.


Drinking and incest and endless ease
Is paradise and child abuse

And battered wives.

There are no other jobs.

Everything else is either
Food or bulimia.

The melon drips with this.

It opens and hisses happiness.

A riderless horse sticks out,
Pink as an earthworm, standing on the beach.

Fish, fish, fish,

I feel fishish.

I develop
When I get below my depth.

I splinter into jewels, Cadillac-finned balls,

Chromed mercury no one can grab.

I care below the surface.
Veils in

Colors I haven't seen in fifty years nibble


Easter Sunday in Papeete.
Launched and dined at L'Acajou.

The Polynesians set off for outer space

In order to be born, steering by the stars.

Specialists in the canoes chant
The navigation vectors.

Across the universe,

A thousand candles are lighted

In the spaceships and the light roars
And the choir soars. A profusion

Of fruit and flowers in tubs being offered

Forms foam and stars.


Three hundred steps down
From the top

Pilgrims are

Looking up.

The temple is above
In a cave.

The stairs to it start next

To the standard frantic street.

Monkeys beg on
The stairs

All the way

Up to the entrance.

Vendors sell treats
To the pilgrims to feed to them.

Some people are afraid of monkeys

Because they think they might get bitten.

When you finally reach the top, somewhat
Out of breath, you enter

The heavy cold darkness

And buy a ticket.

Copyright © 2001 Frederick Seidel

Meet the Author

Frederick Seidel's previous books of poems include Final Solutions; Sunrise, winner of the Lamont Prize and the 1980 National Book Critics Circle Award; These Days; Poems, 1959-1979; My Tokyo; Going Fast; and The Cosmos Poems.

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