A Fortnightly Review.
New York Hotel
by Ian Seed
By JEREMY OVER.
THERE’S AN OLD Chic Murray joke that goes, ‘I was out walking the other evening. This fellow accosted me, and asked if that was the moon up there in the sky. I replied that I had no idea as I was a stranger there myself.’ The ‘I’ that inhabits Ian Seed’s poetry has, since the publication of his first Shearsman collection Anonymous Intruder in 2009, consistently exhibited a similar sense of estrangement and the outsider theme continues in his latest collection of prose poetry, New York Hotel.
New York might be the ideal destination for the uprooted protagonists of Seed’s poems, with their memories of former lives in France, Italy, Germany and Poland. And the backdrop of the New York ‘School’ of poets seems a congenial one for Seed’s poetry which, especially when in verse form, operates in an identifiably post-Ashberyan mode of lyrical and dreamlike bemusement. Seed’s prose poetry makes its own way much more clearly, although it harks back, at times, to the early European modernists like Pierre Reverdy and Max Jacob who were amongst the favourite sources of inspiration for New Yorkers like Ashbery, O’Hara and Padgett.
Seed’s title brings obvious associations with spaces through which people who belong elsewhere are simply passing through after a night’s sleep, but it also perhaps provides an echo of the boxed assemblages of the New York semi-outsider artist Joseph Cornell, a number of whose constructions were named after the European ‘grand hotels’ that he often dreamed of, but never visited. In ‘Soundproof’ the reader enters a hermetically sealed world that is not unlike Cornell’s. The protagonist like many of Seed’s is passive: someone to whom things—usually humiliating things—happen. In this case, he finds himself, by mistake, sharing a hotel room with a woman he’s never met before. A hint of erotic promise arises but is humorously snuffed out by his need to urinate, and things then become claustrophobic: ‘The bathroom was tiny and the roof sloped so low, I had to stoop. It was as if I were trapped in a doll’s house.’ He starts to wonder whether the woman too, ‘with her dark eye shadow and stiff dark hair, and black dress which clung to her curves, was no more than a doll.’ This description is nicely, if weirdly, echoed much later in the book, in ‘Loved’, by that of another doll which reminds a character in that poem of the late Elvis Presley. ‘Soundproof’ ends with the sense of entrapment intensifying further as the protagonist gazes out of the hotel window at a ‘plane taking off from the nearby airport … in complete silence because the window was sealed tight.’ Objects of desire remain lifeless here and avenues of escape are sealed off behind glass, so fulfilment or transport to another world are only possible through reverie.
The ornate corridors, along which the protagonist searches for his father in ‘Late’, a more direct homage written ‘After Joseph Cornell’, reveal through an open door ‘a woman glamorous as a silent movie star […] lying on the silk sheets of her bed. She blows me a kiss and beckons with her finger.’ But again the sense of numbness, of being trapped arises, ‘I stand in the doorway, unable to move.’ And again Seed undercuts the eroticism with humour and the absurd insistence of bodily functions, ‘Then she sneezes.’ The poem ends enigmatically with a dry but rather sad description of the father finally found, ‘waving away a waiter’ and looking, ‘disappointed when he spots me, as if he should have known all along I would only be up to my old tricks again.’
We are not told what those old tricks might be; the book is full of mysterious almost Kafkaesque hints dropped teasingly like this, but never expanded upon. When reading from New York Hotel on Radio 3’s The Verb in 2018, Seed did however, disclose some of the techniques, or ‘tricks’ involved in his prose poems, comparing them to little blocks or houses, each containing its own world, though ‘quite a fragmented, subjective world … an atomised world’, the atoms building up with cumulative effect. Seed was perhaps obligingly fitting in with the theme of the programme, which was to do with new towns, and the image of the prose poem as atom or block suggests a hard edged minimalism and uniformity which doesn’t quite convey the fluidity and richness of his work. The point about the cumulative effect of the poems does ring true however. The gathering, and arrangement, of his prose poems is, in effect, an act of collage or assemblage at the level of the book. Each poem is a discrete entity and a coherent, if minimal, narrative, but they really need to be taken together as a surrounding whole. Angus Fletcher’s writing about the ‘complex living neighbourhood’ of the poem, or book, as environment in the context of Ashbery’s work seems relevant here.
This is not to say that there aren’t singular delights to be had when reading New York Hotel; there are. ‘Vertigo’, for example, is a perfect and complete, if dizzying, attempt to follow behind a child at play with language: ‘Caterpillars become butterflies, but crows become frogs,’ she said, ‘because they croak so much and fly too close to the ground.’ And ‘Smooch’ is an intriguing and very funny blurt of a poem about an ‘ancient dwarf lady…romancing with David Cameron, to the accompaniment of 1950s doo-wop songs.’ But the cumulative effect Seed says he is looking for lies elsewhere, in the subtle shifts and echoes between the poems as one reads on.
‘Late’, for example, is followed by ‘Views’, which features another hotel setting with a similarly ‘ancient lift’ so it feels like the narrative may be continuing, but it never becomes clear whether the ‘old philosopher’ who ‘has not paid his hotel bill for as long as anyone can remember’ represents another side of the disappointed father in ‘Late’ although he seems to share with the protagonist, this time described simply as ‘the foreigner’, a familial fondness for gazing.
Themes and moods recur sometimes after much longer gaps in the book. In ‘Baptism’, in the second section of the book, for example, the protagonist is again discomfited, this time by a woman who asks him to look after her dog for a few minutes, but then fails to return. In his search for the woman he stumbles upon, but cannot quite reach the kind of earthly paradise often evoked in dream scenes within the films of Andrei Tarkovsky:
The village was so small that I soon reached its edges. Here there was a river, and on the other side another chapel, similar to the first, but situated in a heathland of the softest green and purple hues I had ever seen. It felt familiar and yet like another world. I wanted to cross the river and touch the softness, but there was no bridge. Besides the dog was starting to bark as if suddenly realising that I was not his real owner.’
A feeling builds up, as one reads through the book, of something happening just off stage as it were; connections being made by dreamlike association, again much as they are in the montage technique of Tarkovsky’s Mirror. There’s something artful yet carefree about Seed’s collection and arrangement of these poems which at times have the air of found material simply being laid out before us. Donald Revell once wrote about this quality when noting that Marianne Moore and Joseph Cornell both shared
this trouvere mentality that is wonderful. But then they put it into boxes. They somehow panic at the critical moment and seek to contain. Marianne Moore containing it through her numbers, counting syllables; Cornell literally containing it in boxes; whereas you get someone like a Rauschenberg or a Jasper Johns and he’s not interested in containment. Just put it out there, put it on the floor, tack it on the canvas.’1
Neither does Seed give in to panic. Although he is no Rauschenberg, splashing about and gluing goats and tyres to his canvases, there is a resistance to the impulse to contain. There is an openness, a true surrealist attentiveness, to the logic of the dream world when arranging his materials.
This refusal to contain and hoard has a relaxed generosity to it. Some of Seed’s prose poems share on the surface a similarity with the absurdist and psychoanalytical humour of the Americans Barry Yourgrau and Russell Edson but I believe this greater openness marks Seed out from them. Yourgrau is a self-confessed hoarder and has written a book about it: Mess: One Man’s Struggle to Clean Up His House and His Act. Reviewing Mess in ‘Division Review’, Nuar Alsadir writes:
If one is held by the hoard, selects his or her objects for contemplation, thinks the thoughts that correspond to the objects seen only, he or she thereby controls what fills the mind, allowing less of an opportunity for the mind to go somewhere that has not been curated. The latent content is buried—repression is achieved through a kind of cluttering out.’2
Seed’s prose poetry, well-represented by this latest and perhaps most fully developed collection, allows the reader’s mind to go to those uncurated places between what poems and life might be supposed to be and see beyond the clutter to the original strangeness of our home.
Jeremy Over has had two poetry collections published by Carcanet press: A Little Bit of Bread and No Cheese (2001) and Deceiving Wild Creatures (2009). A third, Fur Coats in Tahiti, is due out in July 2019. He has had reviews and articles published in various places, such as PN Review, Poetry Review and Writing in Education. He is currently completing an AHRC funded Creative Writing PhD at the University of Birmingham, responding to the poetry of Ron Padgett.
An archive of Ian Seed’s work in The Fortnightly Review.