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“Arabia”

April 8, 2014 | by

Tonight, at our Spring Revel, we’ll honor Frederick Seidel with the Hadada Award. In the weeks leading up the Revel, we’ve been looking back at the work Seidel has published in The Paris Review throughout his career.

Zanzibar_Sunset

A sunset in Zanzibar. Photo: hobbs_luton, via Wikimedia Commons

When I first read “Arabia,” which appeared in our Summer 2011 issue, I was sitting on a rickety chair looking out at Lake Michigan. It was a gorgeous day in late June, a twenty-one-year-old cat was asleep at my feet, and I’d just started to sweat in the sun when I read the poem’s first lines:

I move my body meat smell next to yours,
Your spice of Zanzibar. Mine rains, yours pours—
Sex tropics as a way to not be dead.
I don’t know who we are except in bed.

This was before I’d read much of Seidel’s work, and these lines felt outrageous to me, especially that long row of monosyllables, “as a way to not be dead.” It was the perfect poem to read on a summer vacation—as long as it went on, I was living in a kind of lewd Zanzibar of the the mind.

With its ostentatious rhymes (Labia with Arabia), its nods and winks to the politics of the day (“The president of the United States / Is caught between those two tectonic plates, / Republicans and Democrats”) and its flagrantly oversexed images (a cowboy sipping honey from a pair of sweet lips), “Arabia” now reads to me like vintage Seidel—the way it forces the visceral and the bodily to coexist with the elegant, the faint taunt that comes in a line like “I’m happy staring at what makes me stare.” It also contains what you might read as an incidental summary of Seidel’s poetics: “It’s politics, it’s tropics, and it’s warm.” (And it is, like sex tropics, a great way not to be dead.) After that first stanza, it continues:

I’ll tell you someone I’m not happy with—
But no I won’t. I won’t destroy the myth.
The president of the United States
Is caught between those two tectonic plates,

Republicans and Democrats, the nude
Alternatives to naked solitude.
It’s politics, it’s tropics, and it’s warm
Enough to arm the sunrise with a car alarm

That’s going off and starts the earthquake shake
And shiver, shiver, of the sobbing steak.
O sweet tectonic fault line and sweet lips
Exuding honey that the cowboy sips.

Read the whole poem here.

 

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