Telltale misadventure

A review of Steven Seidenberg's 'Anon'

Photo of Steven Seidenberg (right) courtesy of Seidenberg.



Steven Seidenberg

Omnidawn Publishing 2022, 108 pages, $17.95 ISBN 978-1632431059

Steven Seidenberg’s Anon is a textual mountebank — a term that Seidenberg defines in the collection’s lavish glossary as “a person hawker of quack medicines in public places, attracting an audience by tricks, storytelling, and jokes.”[1] It’s not common for poetry collections to have their own glossaries — and even less common for them to feature words that don’t appear anywhere in the text. Like the roguish index at the end of Nabokov’s Pale Fire, the mountebank hiding in the back pages of Seidenberg’s Anon alerts us to the fact that all is not quite as it seems.

Which raises the question of what exactly Anon is. True to what I am calling a kind of poetic mountebankery, the text formally evades and contravenes itself at every turn, confronting the reader with an overwhelming sense of doubt and unease: Is this prose or verse? A single, continuous poem or a series? Is this poesy or philosophy? Narrative or meditation? We are told in the book’s “inaugural sector” (21) — part one of five numbered (but otherwise continuous) sections — that what follows will be a “tale” (19), a “fable” (16), a “travelogue” (16), an “apologue” (21). But then, the narrator falters, admitting that the text is no more than a “pallid churn of figments into prosody” (11), the “digressive dotage of an anecdotal form” (13), a “telltale misadventure” (15).

Opening the book at random, the reader is met with what looks like prose: uniformly thick paragraph blocks without lineation, which read like passages from an antique memoir or a nineteenth-century novel. Only, there’s something fragmentary about all of these regular chunks, each designated by the voiceless fricative of the Greek letter φ (or phi, the first letter of philosophy), which puts one in mind of a diary or a ship’s log. The poem opens in medias res:

All the same I thought myself a less likely pauper than corpse, and approaching both with neither speed nor trepidation, dreamed the dreary languor of this medial repose a passage to the nearest port (9)

As we fall into what appears to be the middle of this stream of consciousness account, we also begin to lean into the poem’s voluptuous meter, which rings haphazardly with what Keats called the “loud and bold” [2] sound of the fourteener (or iambic heptameter): “the giddy stimulation of solicitous reproach” (9). In these moments, we’re rocked on the giddy swell of a tidal meter, but the prosody ebbs and flows: such metrical moments are subsumed again under crashing waves of measureless prose.

That Seidenberg should slip into the measure of Chapman’s seventeenth-century translation of The Iliad (which is where Keats hears the loud and bold rhythm of the fourteener) is no coincidence: it signals the seafaring tradition — from Homer through Melville — to which Anon belongs. “So call me what you will” (10), the poem’s anonymous narrator states in an echo of Moby-Dick’s Ishmael before commencing their Melvillean “misadventure”:

Some time ago — never mind how long — having emptied out my pockets to reflect the void of interest I had once again presumed to limn my enterprise on land, I thought that I would hitch my line to some haphazard freighter, indiscriminate in choice of mate or ancillary crew, and survey some small portion of the remnants of the deluge, as though to take a measure of the failure of that carnage to achieve its due. Call me foundling or free (10)

Like the ebb and flow of the text’s prosody, snatches of narrative like this flash at the reader — but they refuse to settle, to be anchored, to accelerate or accumulate into something progressive or forward-moving. These moments are left at sea, so to speak (but also literally in the poem’s quasi-narrative), as the text oscillates between the limpidity of narrative immediacy and the murky depths of meditation, always in the middle, never steering toward the sense of an ending: “perhaps I have always begun, perhaps I will always begin … in the middle, already in the middle, a spark that finds its purchase in returning to the flame from which it sprang” (66).

A shorthand for the anonymous, unnamable nature of the text (and Beckett is a haunting presence throughout, whispering in lines such as “I can’t go on, if it’s not clear, though I will” [emphasis added, 24] and “All strange away did there appear a close coagulant sound” [emphasis added, 53]), the poem’s title, “Anon,” is also an admission of this atemporality: as the Oxford English Dictionary tells us, “‘anon,’ adv. In a little while; soon, shortly; a short time later.” The poem is suspended in the time of anon, in the “endless drift” (13), as Seidenberg writes, of a narrative that’s almost told — but not quite. Broken into fractured chunks — each of which fades into an ellipsis like surf on the shore — we find ourselves tangled in the “distractions of this fragmentary spoil” (23); it cannot, will not, push past the time of now. As such, Seidenberg’s nonprogressive, elliptical text is becalmed in what Lauren Berlant calls the “impasse” of the historical present, a zone in which:

one keeps moving, but one moves paradoxically, in the same space. An impasse is a holding station that doesn’t hold securely but opens out into anxiety, that dog paddling around a space whose contours remain obscure. An impasse is decompositional — in the unbound temporality of the stretch of time, it marks a delay that demands activity. The activity can produce impacts and events, but one does not know where they are leading.[3]

Berlant’s notion of the impasse responds to political and economic precarity, but it also speaks to the very real threat of ecological disaster that shapes our present moment, offering one mode of cognitively stepping out of eschatological time and refiguring what it means to exist in the present. Anon does this too, suspending the poetic voice in an impasse, where it drifts and meanders around the unnamable reality of environmental crisis. In a soft echo of Eliot toward the end of the poem, we discover that the seafaring narrative could never push out of port because there is no water (a discovery that feels especially pertinent at the time of writing, after a summer of widespread drought across the UK, Europe, and the US). In the end, the narrator admits that “I have never seen an ocean, nor have I expressed by my reflections the noisome ramblings of the salt sea air” (89): the “passages” alluded to throughout have only ever been textual. All that remains is a heap of post-apocalyptic images, shored against the ruins of narrative: here, a “parched and withered island” (15); there, a “dried up river bed that twists the serried canyon” (24) or a “blighted ocean” (63–64) or a “melting iceberg drifting low upon the waves” (9), and “the only home is a tree stump on the far side of the ocean” (11).

The unthinkable, unspeakable, unnamable crisis of environmental apocalypse thus offers one reading of the poem’s title: ecological disaster must remain anon(ymous), “as though the act of naming were the method and the portent of some forthcoming attack” (13), and any conception of it must occur in deferred time, in an unbounded present, anon. The future, then, is unimaginable; the present, a tree stump. But hope is not quite forsaken, as Seidenberg ruefully confesses in the poem’s opening section: “I’ll admit it now, if never willingly again; I have not abandoned such a hope” (23).

Hope is anchored paradoxically in the poem’s unmoored form — in its refusal to drive progressively forward — which is Seidenberg’s take on the Epicurean swerve. Like John Ashbery (who Berlant calls “a poet of the episode, the elision, the ellipsis” [4]), Seidenberg employs the muted rhetorical device of tergiversation, whereby evasive and often contradictory statements (the shipwreck of a dialectic?) drift imperceptibly away from the center so that the reader loses the thread even as they weave their way through the poem’s yarn. Like much of Ashbery’s writing, Anon resists narrative progression but insists relentlessly on upholding the facade of narrativity by tricking the reader (and here, again, is the mountebankery at play): we’re fooled into thinking that we’re following a story when, in fact, we were only ever tracing concentric circles around the phantasmic possibility of one:

when clattering up ladders of concocted genealogies I entertained the passage of imaginary comrades into equally phantasmal and suggestive undertakings, each dissolving into the next, an engorgement of narrative contrivances to put to shame the most bathetic almanac of rune or reminiscence. (45)

Locating the poem in the tradition of the Epicurean swerve puts Anon in dialogue with pre-Christian conceptions of the end of times, when apocalyptic thinking was neither eschatological nor strictly divine but cyclical and natural, and where responses to it were embedded in philosophical confrontations with the present and its failures. In the end, this poem is about “tak[ing] the measure of the failure of that carnage to achieve its due” (10) — about reckoning with the failures of the present, of language, of the self, of humanity — but then asking: what can be fashioned out of the “lilting Lorelei of failures wrecked upon the twists of rebar locks” (68)? When we do, we find just a grain of hope in “gleaners, such as you and I” who “are alone enjoined to make a survey of the wreckage, and fashion what remains into …” (94).

Into what? The poem ends elliptically, of course — tricking, swerving, derailing eschatological thinking and turning the terms of apocalypse sideways. For if there is no sense of an ending — if narrative is stultified, dogpaddling in the dried-up puddles that used to be oceans — then it is poetry that trains us to look to the present and its failings. Thus are we left to drift in the historical present of Anon — but what sumptuous wreckage such failures wreak.

1. Steven Seidenberg, Anon (Oakland, CA: Omnidawn Publishing, 2022), 103.

2. John Keats, Selected Poems, ed. John Barnard (London: Penguin, 1999), 1.

3. Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham, NC, and London: Duke University Press, 2011), 199.

4. Berlant, 34.