The Paris Review Daily

The Poem Stuck in My Head

Frederick Seidel’s “Spin”

June 20, 2012 | by

Photograph Mark Mahaney.

Nothing suits me as well as the combination of sweet and sour. It explains my love of Thai food and women rockers who sing like robots about heartbreak. It also explains my love of Frederick Seidel’s poetry. Apparently it’s not to everyone’s taste; he has been called the “Darth Vader of American poetry” for such seemingly cruel lines as “A naked woman my age is just a total nightmare.” Of course, that line is in a poem, “Climbing Everest,” about his own mortality, his own nakedness (a “train wreck”), and the coldness of those words allows the rest to work on us. And I suppose one must have a mind of winter, and been cold a long time, to write a poem about a dying dog: “Spin.”

Which is the poem stuck in my head.

A dog named Spinach died today.
In her arms he died away.
Injected with what killed him.
Love is a cup that spilled him.
Spilled all the Spin that filled him.
Sunlight sealed and sent.
Received and spent.
Smiled and went.

I make my creative-writing students memorize and recite poetry; I want to embed a few lines of precise language and meter in their brains, like a sleeper cell, to be activated when they are at a loss for imagery or words. To prove it can be done, I memorize a new poem every week. So you would think I’d have a multitude swimming around up there. But the one poem that always snakes its way up—intact—through the debris of memory is also the only poem that, when I recite it before my class, makes them break into tears.

A dog named Spinach died today.
In her arms he died away.

Seidel’s work, for me, is a lesson in how to handle subjects we should not, and yet must, write about, and when I recite “Spin” to my class, I talk first about the use of punctuation: only periods. The plain-spoken declamations. I show how deftly Seidel goes from sweet to sour:

Injected with what killed him.

A heartless line. Such a clinical description of death, with a blaming tone (she killed him). Here is the Seidel who gets our hackles up.

Love is a cup that spilled him.

And here is the sweetness again. Also the present tense: love is a cup that spilled him, as if his life were but a brief part of something greater.

Spilled all the Spin that filled him.

A playful internal rhyme. The sweetness there; it nearly cloys. But watch—back into the cold we go:

Sunlight sealed and sent.
Received and spent.
Smiled and went.

From the startling emotion of the first line, the poem slowly retreats into the mind, with a series of abstractions that, because they take unpacking, undo the rush of sentiment of dog, died, love, rhyme. The pure joy of a dog, the “sunlight,” sent like a letter to us, enjoyed and, finally, lost. The absolute simplicity of the relationship of pets and humans, the sunny sadness of the tone, chilled by dollops of Seidelian ice, done in eight lines.

And so I roll it around and around in my head like a Lemon Ball that won’t dissolve. There is something about how close the poem comes to sentiment, how frank it is about his death, that is upsetting. It is what I love about Seidel’s work: it upsets me. I bring it out in my mind to make myself feel. “Spin” upsets whomever I recite it to. The last time, in class, there was a long pause before a a student said, “Why did you do that to us?”

A question to be asked of any great work of art.

Andrew Sean Greer is the author of two short-story collections and the novels The Confessions of Max Tivoli and The Story of a Marriage. His third novel, Many Worlds, will be published next year.

7 COMMENTS

7 Comments

  1. Miss Pam | June 21, 2012 at 7:04 am

    Seidel’s poetry makes me feel like I’ve been hit upside the head. So does Lucia Perillo’s. Isn’t that what poetry is supposed to do?

  2. BDR | June 22, 2012 at 9:33 am

    It’s a mind of winter (he says pedantically); the pine trees are crusted with snow. Though the allusion is well-chosen.

  3. Shelley | June 22, 2012 at 11:31 am

    Yes, Miss Pam, it’s a short sharp blow when it’s a short classic like Spin, and it’s a long I-didn’t-realize-the-moment-when-it-happened-but-it-sure-did when it’s a long classic.

  4. Thessaly La Force | June 23, 2012 at 11:07 am

    Thank you, BDR! We always appreciate commenters such as you.

  5. Anise | July 11, 2012 at 6:54 pm

    This is going on my list of “short poems to memorize in a day” list. thank you.

  6. Maldwyn Dobbs | September 1, 2013 at 1:06 am

    If you were your own student, you’d give yourself an A*. It’s very well explained.

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