Robert Seydel: “All language is finally collage”

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February 15th, 2015


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


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


Originally published December 26, 2014


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.

Continue reading at Bookforum