Songs of S. and A Picture Is Always a Book by Robert Seydel

Robert Seydel: Songs of S. edited by Peter Gizzi. Siglio/Ugly Duckling Presse. Paperback, 144 pages. $24.
Robert Seydel: A Picture Is Always a Book: Further Writings from Book of Ruth Siglio/Smith College Libraries. Hardcover, 112 pages. $36.
The cover of Robert Seydel: Songs of S. The cover of Robert Seydel: A Picture Is Always a Book: Further Writings from Book of Ruth

Poets have long inhabited personas and channeled voices—think of Frank Bidart writing as Vaslav Nijinsky and the child-murderer and necrophiliac Herbert White; Anne Carson writing as the red-winged Geryon, in her verse-novel The Autobiography of Red; Gertrude Stein writing as her companion, Alice, in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. As Bidart suggests in his poem “Advice to the Players,” artists, particularly poets, take on the roles of others to create a “mirror in which we see ourselves.” The late poet and artist Robert Seydel also explored a series of alternate identities, and in the process found a voice that is unmistakably his own.

Seydel was trained as a photographer, and in addition to working as an artist and a writer, he was a professor at Hampshire College for over a decade. In 2001, he died of a heart attack at the age of fifty-one, shortly before his first work, Book of Ruth, was published. In collages, journal entries, and letters written to the artist Joseph Cornell, Book of Ruth follows the emotional life of one of Seydel’s alter egos, Ruth, a reclusive woman who is slowly revealed through a series of texts and self-portraits. In the book, Ruth—a character Seydel said was based on his aunt, Ruth Greisman—meets Cornell and Marcel Duchamp and falls in love with the former. In A Picture Is Always a Book: Further Writings from Book of Ruth, Seydel continues in the same vein, in journal entries typed out on light-brown paper, reproduced here in facsimile. Poems and childlike drawings dot the pages; the text is sometimes obscured by X’s, Wite-Out, or black marker, giving the volume the feel of a scrapbook. The text is a series of chilling meditations from a brilliant mind:

I seek a flower in my mind. Joseph’s not really real; only my walks to his house are. The anticipation lit & green. But in his basement it’s squalid, he’s XXXXXXXXXXXXX insipid, crabbed most of the time, not happy to see me . . . UTOPIA PARKWAY: brown despite its name. It smells of dust. Joseph lives w/in memories he’s invented. Sometimes I think he sees me dead in a box; but w/ a little line of sweat on my lip . . .

In an interview, Seydel said that Cornell was one of his great influences: “Cornell was crucial in fact, opening me to possibilities that I didn’t altogether realize…the idea of collage as a total way of working, and of magic and combinatory art.” Seydel insisted that Cornell and Duchamp were “ciphers,” fantasies, “a space for loneliness and the unrequited to reside in or focus upon.” The pages devoted to Cornell take on an almost unnerving intensity; Seydel sublimates his admiration for Cornell into Ruth’s ravings. But the feeling is not simply admiration; Seydel attaches qualities to Cornell that he recognizes—or desires—in himself.

The intermingling of visual art and poetry, and Seydel’s way of inhabiting Ruth’s and Joseph’s personalities, produces a multi-layered, dizzying effect. “All language is finally collage,” he writes. Referring to Abbé Henri Breuil, a French anthropologist quoted in A Picture Is Always a Book, Seydel notes, “He believed in fact that art began there IN DESIRE FOR DISGUISE, as I do, now, today.” Seydel submerged himself in his disguises to such an extent that, at times, author and subject become nearly indiscernible.

In Songs of S., Seydel explores the persona of S., who, like Seydel, “occupied an apartment in a house in Amherst, Massachusetts, on a gray street around the corner from Emily Dickinson’s manse on Main Street.” These poems are whimsical and unfussy, often composed in short lines that propel down the page. Many of the “songs” attain the playful feeling of a nursery rhyme:

I reveal me
in it, white

as mackerel,
quick as the albatross
above it

When it sings
(the Poem)
I will be Fish!

Dickinson haunts these distilled lyrics in their use of punctuation and quirky syntax. A sense of absurdity hints at surrealism: “the sun! / & it watches me too, with its nose”; “clouds / that look like teeth;” “the word turns & becomes / a mushroom.” The short lines and repetition evoke Gertrude Stein, but the fantastical tendency seems closer to surrealist poets such as Tristan Tzara and Daniil Kharms. In both A Picture Is Always a Book and Songs of S., the characters speak in the anomalous syntax of dreams:

At my core, dream
(ing) pantaloons
as the fabric cambric
& fab u loss of me

Often the poems feature curious abbreviations that resemble the vernacular of text messages: “abt” for about, “sd” for said, “yr” for your. According to poet Peter Gizzi, a colleague and friend of Seydel who wrote the notes on the text, “All odd spellings and misspellings are intentional.” The result, as in the excerpt above (the mixing of “fabulous” with “loss” in “fab u loss”) has a comic effect while hinting at tragedy.

Gizzi reads Seydel’s artworks like poetry, seeing in them “private annunciation, gnomic pressure, and animated imagery.” At their best, the poems commingle the visual and the literary in a lyrical narrative that combines both reading and looking. An important addition to Songs of S. is a small booklet titled Maybe S., made up of Seydel’s handwritten text and drawings culled from his notebooks. Here the boundaries between Seydel’s personas become, in Duchamp’s term, “infra-thin.” The self, fractured into multiple identities, creates a complicated intimacy:

The naïve is part of me, + part of RuTH. + it’s in some
of my favorite figures, like Kurt Schitters . . . S. is abt naivety.
The Naïve is a category. A navy of naives. Naifs. Waifs.
I am naive in my navy pants. Blue.
S. (R?): a bio-
graphy solely as creations
of the subject—

“I want to know / The mind in me / That is so hid / I cannot see,” Seydel wrote. Seydel’s quest for self-understanding required that he adopt different roles; the alter-egos he created were the mirrors through which he viewed himself. His work is captivating in part because it presents the artistic impulse as necessary to deciphering “the burdens of self.” The personas splinter; the syntax is endearingly rebellious. Seydel weaves in the voices of others—Ruth, S., Cornell—but the texture of the song is his own.

J. Mae Barizo is the author of The Cumulus Effect. A poet and critic, she has recently published in AGNI, the Boston Review, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. She lives in New York City.