Mainstream variousness: David Seymour’s Inter Alia.

David Seymour. Inter Alia (Brick Books 2005/10).

David Seymour does variety. In Inter Alia, he demonstrates his mastery of a number of modernist styles, with wit, intelligence, & understated feeling. The book is divided into 4 parts (5, if you count ‘Head Arrangements’ as a separate section, & I do), ‘Nomenclature of the Semi-Precious,’ in which he riffs in a slightly surrealistic manner on various gemstones, ‘Inter Alia,’ which engages the outer world in various ways, the Huddy Ledbetter sequence of prose poems, ‘Inter Alios, ‘which tends toward a more lyrical/personal approach, & ‘Fugue for the Gulf of Mexico,’ a poem for 3 voices.

The poems in ‘Nomenclature of the Semi-Precious’ swerve & sway; they provide an entertaining entrance to Inter Alia, & perhaps give a reader a sense of fun the rest of the book doesn’t so much deny as subtly transform. The poems hardly pay any attention to the actual stones; they refuse description in that sense. Rather the names, & their historical associations, allow the poems to perform a free flow of allusive play, as in ‘Lapis Lazuli’:

Russia, Afghanistan, America, Chile. Bad tourist,
don’t quite fit in and never want to visit
the attractions. Not cold, afraid of desire.
Unpracticed. At night, the hotel employees
make love wildly by the ocean, then fall asleep.
The tide douses their small drift-fires, deposits
souvenirs from the sea. Spending each
afternoon indoors close to the window,
counting the shells, damn this heat should’ve broken,
dreaming you were a sliver of sky.

Each stone contains stories, imagined as slight references quickly sliding from one site to another within the poem. These poems assert Seymour’s wit, as well as his (for want of a better word) scholarship; they say he writes from an experience that definitely includes wide reading.

In the poems of ‘Inter Alia,’ a persona who seems closer to the writer makes himself felt, commenting on the world around him & us, meditating on its possible meanings, watching, & describing events as well as the places they occur. That makes the poems sound purely descriptive, & they are more than that. The speaker in ‘Perlerorneq’ catches the import of what such perspectives on, say, Fall, imply:

It is time to save the things
I might otherwise have thrown away,
leaves eddying around the trees
colour frozen in the vein, scarf of sparrows
winding through the empty branches.

This leads to more such careful rhetoric of description, but that is not enough, & the ‘I’ soon argues himself into a kind of (re)action: ‘ I will / practice reading in the dark, develop / a leanness of vision, clean past contour.’ That ‘leanness of vision’ makes itself felt throughout.

The rather long ‘A Word on Silence’ is many words, all constructing an argument for that ideal but by using so many words undermining it as well, as an writer must (although I have no doubt Seymour fully comprehends Miles Davis’s instructions on the use of silence). He follows it with ‘Head Arrangements: Twelve-String Poems for Huddie Ledbetter,’ a sequence of prose poems that plays off many of Leadbelly’s most famous song titles as well as the facts of his life in a manner that suggests documentary while subtly insisting that all such writing must essentially become story, therefore fiction. The poems work as little (but tall?) tales from the singer’s life, most important for how they always reinforce the centrality of music to his being.

The poems of ‘Inter Alios’ strike a somewhat different stance, as they approach love & friendship in a manner that seems to imply the speaker now is a lyric ‘I’ of the poet himself (always a dangerous assumption, yet one readers so often are invited to make, & certainly seem to be here). There are some lovely lyrics of appreciation of other people & their presence in the speaker’s world, including some delightfully playful erotic visions, as in ‘Waiting While You Sleep,’ with its finely tuned ending:

As green as jade but milder
like wafting feathers, like conversation
like waiting; easy realty, something
the wind and weather won’t change,
as casual as crossing an empty road,
your body’s the gold
of streetlamps.

Here the accumulation of similes demonstrates just how ‘casual’ they become; their very weakness, underlined by their number, makes the final couplet’s metaphor all the stronger.

‘Fugue for the Gulf of Mexico,’ with its tri-colour representation of the 3 voices, is richly metaphoric as it attempts to connect listeners’ imaginations to the world beneath the surface of the gulf. Seymour takes great pleasure in the sounds of the names of so many sea-creatures, making them a vital part of the soundscape he constructs in the contrapuntal layout of the poem. Given what has happened since he wrote it, it now carries a melancholy sense of loss only hinted at in the actual phrasing.

There’s a lot to like in Inter Alia, not least Seymour’s wide ranging vocabulary, his generally good sense of the line, his ability to slide from comedy to something deeper or darker within a line or two. Although I read the book some time ago, I  got a better sense of it when I heard him read this past summer; it’s always good when writers read their work well.  Inter Alia reveals a mainstream modernist whose writing should engage & please most readers.

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