Ian Seed’s latest New York Hotel arrived today. I have been anticipating this with genuine enthusiasm, knowing how much I would enjoy the expectation of the unexpected, and I’m sure I’ve used that line before in writing about his distinctive poetic vignettes.
I want to be clear before writing this review: I haven’t read all of the prose poems collected here. I don’t want to. They could be read in one delightful sitting – I have just written to a friend where I referred to them as ‘easy but playful and enigmatic reading’ – and they are and this is an absolute compliment [that easy tag] but they also puzzle more and play rough and tough on re-readings. However, and entirely pragmatically, I want some for tomorrow, and maybe, if I am disciplined, for one more day after that.
Seed’s narratives can seem difficult to hook, so to speak, and thank goodness. Are the hotels that often feature the New York of the title or generic places of transience and chance encounters? Is the Italy of occasional placing the same as that in Seed’s preceding work Italian Lessons? As the early poems in this collection demonstrate, answers to these essentially unimportant questions are elusive.
These opening poems appear to refer to the Italy we as readers have come across before, the country of his youth, and here for example in Early Promise where he is out of work and ‘reduced to wandering the streets and dossing in doorways’, Seed [as persona we’ll assume, more on this later] is helped out by an old friend, yet this is as fleeting as it is suspect, and when left wandering again he comes across an Italian café he fondly recalls. We hear a little of this happy past and just as he ‘knocks on their door’ to perhaps rekindle that experience from the past, this vignette finishes, Carver-esque in its anticipation and our unknowing.
As I have mentioned, many of the poems in the collection narrate encounters and situations in quite probably the New York Hotel, a building in a ‘grand style’ and with a ‘wooden lift still in its steel cage’. Here Seed meets up, eventually, with his father, or as in Soundproof a woman with whom he is unexpectedly sharing a room. You’d think the surprise doubling-up would be the main focus, but it isn’t. It is the small bathroom with its sloped roof and the woman who ‘was no more than a doll’. But even this isn’t it. When a plane taking off from the nearby airport is seen through the bathroom window, the attention is for the ‘complete silence because the window was sealed tight’.
There are times when the encounters are delightfully surreal, or disturbingly bathetic. In Interview with a Priest, the inevitability of being captured by another’s faith – possibly sermon – is animalistic; in Resistance, a wife’s cruelty to her father is usurped as emphasis by the slowness of a moped.
There are chance encounters, chance seductions, chance getting lost and found, chance potential defenses [though thwarted by a headache] of Oscar Wilde. There are many visits to places once lived where people once known are no longer knowable and Seed will move on only to get lost again. He often wants to make amends for the past, or make an impression because of the past. At times he will chance upon a cure, though it is too late. The storytelling leads and often eludes but never loses us, though loss does so often prevail.
The poems are usually told in the first person so, as I suggested earlier, we see Seed as the persona, however close or distant that is to him as writer, but not always, as in American in Rome where as a sometime Quaker he [the poem’s speaker] entertains the Pope with an Elvis impersonation. And in this poem I particularly like the idea of the Pope who
…listened patiently, but couldn’t help smiling at the word ‘Quaker’
There are other voices. As Putin’s English tutor, he embraces Russia’s love with such emotion we could almost forget the deep irony. In other again surreal expositions, the observer in a poem is at Hiroshima, or in another is observing Tony Blair and Alistair Campbell as born-again hippies recapturing the promise of their collective ambition, before a different ambition triumphed.
He is Elvis again near the book’s end and I know for a fact Seed is genuinely fond of Presley and his music. I certainly don’t need certainty when I read these wonderful prose poems, but I couldn’t help but read a little extra poignancy in these closing lines from Loved,
I found Priscilla weeping on a bench. She waved me away without even looking up. It was people like me who through our adoration had killed her loved one, she shouted after me.
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