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Escape from Zombieland: Steven Seidenberg's plain sight  




Jane Joritz-Nakagawa



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.


plain 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 (". 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 questioned:


Absolute power may corrupt absolutely, but short of such unmiti-

gated suasion one's corruption is forever incomplete. Now, of ab-

solute impotence . . .


Battered and exposed  the political economy of surface.  That

somehow something penetrates the unity of affect is neither reason

to accept it nor a method of resistance.  The paucity of meaning is

the surfeit of appearance.  The industry of absence is . . .


(p. 50)


For my part, I thought nothing of fear  I simply grew.  Grew past

all distinction, beyond boundary or limit; grew to fit the sinecure of

nullity which every claim to virtue makes implicit . . .


(p. 51, stanza 2)


Or here:


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 . . .

(p. 116)


Or consider:


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 understand (Empire of Signs, p. 6). In his interview with me he cites the influence of Celan and Dickinson on his work. 2


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 Joritz-Nakagawa  




Jane Joritz-Nakagawa is the author of ten full length collections of poetry as well as chapbooks, fiction, and essays. Her most recent book is Plan B Audio (Isobar, 2020). Email is welcome at: janejoritznakagawa(at)gmail(dot)com.











Works cited:


Barthes, R.(1982). Trans. R. Howard. Empire of signs. New York: Hill and Wang.

Scalapino, L. (1999). New time. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press.

Seidenberg, S.  (2020). Plain sight. Berkeley: Roof Books.