The Argotist Online
Escape from Zombieland:
Steven Seidenberg's plain
Over half a year ago I received
the book plain
sight written by one of the
U.S.'s most exciting and unique poets, Steven Seidenberg. It's not the kind of
book that one can knock off on the weekend and review the next week. It's a book
that demands concentration and effort and a lot of time to get through.
sight will not disappoint any of
Seidenberg's fans and I believe it will engage new ones. Written at the far
edges of philosophy － where philosophy becomes beauty
and beauty becomes poetry － Seidenberg's plain
sight is a book which thinks and
which thinks about thinking. This is true of his earlier works as well but this
book feels more outward looking. Each of its nearly 200 pages contains two
stanzas ending in ellipsis. The ellipsis invites readers to ponder what
may come next (if not, at least sometimes, an infinitely repeating cycle of what
has just been described).
Solving the planet's problems
requires both empathy (to care about the problems in the first place and to try
to adopt an anti-anthropocentric viewpoint) and rationality (to come up with
reasonable plans to alleviate the problems). Can poetry help expose
irrationality? Maybe Steve Seidenberg's work can. Certainly his work helps
us imagine a world of possibilities and to think about the world and our places
in it which is I believe relevant to ecopoetics because ecopoetics demands this. According
to the Poetry Foundation website, ecopoetics is: "A multidisciplinary
approach that includes thinking and writing on poetics, science, and theory as
well as emphasizing innovative approaches common to conceptual poetry,
ecopoetics is not quite nature poetry (https://www.poetryfoundation.org/learn/glossary-terms/ecopoetics)". I
feel this book fits that definition quite well; in Seidenberg’s own words, his
writing “pursue[s] a kind of middle ground between philosophical and poetic
discourse” and involves “explorations and resolves” 1
Though broadly speaking this
book is timeless, the Trumped up era of lies, helping the rich, and ignorance of
the planet's difficulties in the U.S.A. appears well-represented in many of
these pages, or one could even if they wish look at plain
sight as a response to the unyielding
anti-intellectualism (a rejection of science, a belief in conspiracy theories,
et al) that has plagued the United States for some time, and its inertia, e.g.
the inability of its lawmakers to make laws. Of course, what is described could
be applied to the governments of other countries as well and even the left is
power may corrupt absolutely, but short of such unmiti-
suasion one's corruption is forever incomplete. Now, of ab-
impotence . . .
and exposed － the
political economy of surface. That
something penetrates the unity of affect is neither reason
accept it nor a method of resistance. The paucity of meaning is
surfeit of appearance. The industry of absence is . . .
For my part, I thought nothing
of fear － I simply grew. Grew
all distinction, beyond boundary
or limit; grew to fit the sinecure of
nullity which every claim to
virtue makes implicit . . .
(p. 51, stanza 2)
Tell me, finally, you've had all
you can take. Say there's no point
going on. Make that your first point . . .
One must accept one's guilt
without the means to secure punish-
ment; to be always in the wrong,
to strive to make the next in aptly
otherwise, but always fail . . .
A contagious acrimony, this resentment
without consequence. The drones
disgorged by entropy edulcorate
the idols of embittered maxims.
That the exception becomes com-
monoplane, that one's passion
always serves the most intractable
anathemas － the void that takes
tomorrow's place will stake every
goodbye on new and newly binding
lies, by which our bygone
clomp towards this prevailing in
absentia is invited as a failed pur-
suit, a wrong
design . . .
We are led to believe that the
problem with consumption is scarcity,
that with sufficient resources
our extravagance is no cause for
disdain. Such fallacy
results from our attempts to limn an origin,
to make the genealogy of virtue
an assault against . . .
(p. 177, stanza 2)
There is often a bit of self-
(selves) mockery as on all of p. 28 which begins "Others grope for meaning
in a world without consequence, but we / wait at the entrance to an infinite
compendium, assembled to pro-/vision its blockade."
Why does Seidenberg often sound
European? Is it due only to the influence of European philosophy or
perhaps the [stereotypical] image of Americans as innocents and imbeciles held
by non-Americans or former Americans like myself, inflamed by Trumpism? [and
even by some Americans; I grew up in the Midwest and at that time everything
European seemed or was viewed as more sophisticated just as New York was more
sophisticated presumably than my native Chicago]. Seidenberg comes close,
fortunately, to writing in Barthes' ideal language －
that which we know but do not
of Signs, p. 6). In his interview with
me he cites the influence of Celan and Dickinson on his work.
Certainly we can find the pathos
of Celan and the wisdom of Dickinson here. I find it hard to put Seidenberg in a
category with other contemporary poets but one poet who comes to mind is another
Californian (Seidenberg resides in San Franciso though travels a lot) Leslie
Scalapino, in the sense that they both have produced work that focuses intently
on cognition (see for example Scalapino’s book New
Time), although admittedly are
stylistically quite distinct from each other.
These hundreds of stanzas demand
repeated visitations. There is even a 7 and a half page vocabulary glossary
at the end of the book. I love this smart witty intelligent wry work. As in
the excerpts included here, the tone of this book tends to be both playful and
nihilistic, leaving the reader to figure out what to do with this messed up
world. I'd like to declare a state of emergency and end with a mandate:
read this book, now, before it's too late and the zombies return to power.
copyright © Jane
of signs. New York: Hill and Wang.
Scalapino, L. (1999).
time. Middletown: Wesleyan
Seidenberg, S. (2020).
Berkeley: Roof Books.