Reviewed by Karen Corinne
by William Seaton
Giant Steps Press
ISBN-13: 979-8696999210, Paperback, 148 pages, Oct 2020
William Seaton possesses a poetic voice whose sage and steady delivery comforts yet challenges us simultaneously. These qualities are on fine display in his latest book Planetary Motions. This collection’s combination of astute observational wisdom and inquisitive introspection allows us to explore the wonders and mysteries of the world with joy in spite of our frustrating inability to ever fully comprehend it. A critical component is to compel our powers of observation and reflection despite whether we receive satisfactory answers or any answers at all. His poems are beguiling expeditions that spur us on to deeper examinations of the human condition. It’s refreshing to find such an erudite voice that incorporates the humor and pathos of the quotidian so very well. A deep satisfaction that comes from reading these poems is their ability to make familiar things new and new things surprising.
Formally trained and accomplished in translating Greek, Latin, German, and French, Seaton has a formidable background firmly entrenched in the history of poetry. It’s an art he not only practices but has taught and a craft he takes quite seriously in the tradition of such heady influences as Ezra Pound and poets who worked laboriously upon each word and phrase as being integral to the integrity of an entire piece. Nothing is viewed as superfluous. And in spite of this studied and precise attention to the importance of each word, he avoids a didactic, uninspired mindset and transforms that precision into music. The result is a lovely song to enjoy in its entirety without the obvious dissection of each note in its composition. We might be interested in the ingredients of a great meal, but it is the colors, textures, and tastes we appreciate in the final presentation.
Seaton takes his knowledge on the road, both literally and figuratively, which speaks to his expansive and varied ability to make so many strange worlds seem quite familiar. A graduate in English Literature of the University of Illinois and the University of Iowa’s Comparative Literature Program, he could have remained entrenched in his Midwestern American roots, safely ensconced in academia. However, he chose the life of a bohemian traveler fused with a solid, scholarly foundation and literary acumen. He’s taught in prisons and in the Nigerian bush and has hosted several series and events, particularly in his home base of Orange County in the Hudson Valley of New York State where he resides.
Seaton’s antiquarian references come alive against a soundtrack of contemporary musings that might often be compared to the rhythmic undercurrents of jazz with its roots in both blues and ragtime. It’s an intoxicating blend of melancholy ruminations and playful ebullience that makes jazz so compelling, and this is also true of Seaton’s poetry. Interestingly, Planetary Motions is published by Giant Steps Press, which takes its name from the song and album of famed jazz musician John Coltrane. There’s an immense substantiation of poetic tradition in drawing upon a diverse lineage of history and so gracefully integrating it with the subtle and often soul-disturbing notes of such a modern art form. But it is evocative of Seaton’s work which brings the past alive by connecting it so deftly to the present.
His expansive, global perspective can best be summed up in his own words. In a 2021 interview with Rubee Rancourt, an editor at Giant Steps, Seaton referred to earlier days he spent in Haight Ashbery saying, “We declaimed poetry in the streets and strove to make each act of daily life into art.” He adds, “As for academe, some may conceive the ivied halls as an isolated and remote realm, but for me it opened up the globe and the centuries past. The traditional canon is not, however, sufficient. To learn the real nature of literature requires familiarity with work outside the English Literature curriculum.” He makes note of the many ways we come together in commonality as human beings by exploring and integrating the vast scope of multi-cultural literature. The poet or artist brings a myriad of emotions, personal history, and individual perspectives to what manifests as a poem or a work of art but elevates it further with a universal inclusiveness. At the same time one must maintain reverence and humility. As he states in his Foreword to Planetary Motions, he promises “…only a few snapshots of consciousness reflecting glints of shattered truth which I wave in the dark like a blessedly naïve child with a sparkler.” It is more about presenting possibilities than absolutes.
Planetary Motions is divided into seven very diverse sections and includes a Foreword and an Afterword. In Section One’s Other Scenes, we see a good example of Seaton’s ability to juxtapose and highlight the dichotomies of life in a variety of different cultures. In Men’s Clubhouse in Chihuahua he presents the subtle image of a young boy who absorbs the imprint and harshness of the local neighborhood while holding a Coke that is emblematic of external influences that tarnish that very culture. We see this theme again in the analogy of red feathers to blood and the historical and ongoing threat of violence contrasted with a quiet, pastoral scene in Macaws by the Gate of Copán, and in Mahashamsana where the Ganges River flows with shit, chemicals, and corpses but also with candles afloat that represent wishes of worshippers.
On Ganges Shore he explores further the distance between appearance and intention when he states:
…though aren’t they brothers in their con:
guru, priest, imam, rabbi,
passing the plate
and running the concern.
There’s no question mark added at the end, since it is more of a statement that underscores its truth while asking us to consider this for ourselves. The striving of humans to impose our intricate and often convoluted thought patterns on the world as compared to the uncomplicated acceptance of other creatures is summed up succinctly in The Turkish Cats. He tells us that “…their cogitation seems a simple thing/and yet their gaze is sharp and clear and true” and without doubt.
In Andean Day Seaton offers us marvelous physical imagery that underpins more ethereal experiences:
A bowl of coca leaves can soften some
the stones and bones of every passing hour.
Thin air sublimes my thoughts and makes them rare,
for heaven tells no more than these high peaks.
The inner rhythm of “stones and bones” so strongly impacts our awareness of time that measures our lives. It is mitigated to some degree by certain comforts that buffer harsher realities. And the jarring use of sublime used as a verb, as in “sublimes my thoughts,” or the unexpected adjective “purling” paired with “water” in Walking in Aguirre Springs—adds new and refreshing perspectives.
The next section, Divagations, gives us the mind wandering in the freedom of various reveries. In the Metaphysics of Everyday Life, we’re asked if the abstract thoughts and intrusions on our reality are truly abstruse or is reality the illusion? In this poem the mind wanders as it truly does in each of us. There is no linear, rational pattern that informs our constant perambulations. We see the interruptions of the mind imposing various observations and seeming order into random impressions and broken connections:
I carry my household gods from place to place and put their
images on the walls to contain me, still horizons.
And the line will, despite horizons, propagate itself in any
direction and look to its rights.
This theme is echoed again in His Thoughts Flowed:
…those thoughts flowed very like the wind
that takes each turn that comes along the way
and skims on top of fast food sheds and cars and busy men,
seeking some Zephyr in the stratosphere, some sweet high air
above the birds and plans, with which to mix and drift
and effortless glide on.
The so whimsically titled Wheee almost belies the gravitas of its message of connection and connectedness that fairly stretches into the realm of Shakespearean worthiness in its conjunction of colloquial yet elevated language and expression. Yet it is aptly named as it emphasizes the frequent comic elements that underpin our perceptions and conclusions:
Beginning from the reverent and deeply held belief
that matter and anti-matter must, in the end, be equal,
as positive and negative charges are equal,
and in this way the cosmic doughnut was
always already eaten and if my dream is a map of the stars, the
stars must dream always of me –
Further fragments provide insights into our efforts to reconcile ourselves to inevitabilities and death:
And just as the truth of a birth is concealed behind jubilation
that, in spite of mortality, we are keeping abreast of the game
through efforts strenuous and strongly felt through the entire
And the following fragment elevates death to its proper place in the scheme of life and reality:
And the sum of all things is precisely nothing at all, when
positive charges meet negative and matter meets antimatter and
finds annihilation perfect and sweet and a most elegant end…
In the section Appetites, Seaton brings a palpable, organic sensibility to his observations of various foods and other physical elements with insights that assault our traditional and more complacent interpretations as in Cherry, where it becomes more of a transubstantiation than a comparison:
Whence the gravity of your deep, deep red, o cherry?
You’re some vestigially corporeal internal organ of an angel
There are descriptions of ordinary elements that birth startling contrasts:
The highway cars,
a procession of dark stones
on the night’s sash,
the contained explosions
of their iron hearts
a constant tide
coursing down the lanes of night
The following lines are reminiscent of the grandeur of classical soliloquy:
An ego’s flame may burn or cook or warm,
ignite the incense of a devotee.
It’s rooted firm in metamorphosis.
O what hot changes rung upon the world
which may tomorrow be but ash and dust
but which right now is hot with change and pain.
Songs gives us a section that is playful and lighter, some poems like the grand rhymes of bygone times, sometimes with a naughty twist as in:
The force made a stand by enigma’s land.
The horses paused; he marshaled the band.
They sought to breach the gate
behind which the queen was reclining in state.
They made it no further the chroniclers wrote
than the ripple of an aureole,
the nipple’s guardian moat.
Seaton’s use of foreign or more obscure words achieves the difficult task of inviting us in rather than excluding us. His turn of phrase, inherent humor, and rhyming schemes create an inviting cocoon in which to feel expansive rather than marginalized:
The early earthworm twisted his tail
and glistened his part that was glad to be male.
Vermicular lust began to rise
when the male part caught sight of his feminine side.
Before the morning was halfway done:
a hermaphroditical orgy of one.
Further, he takes some literary license with pieces one could consider as limericks:
Under the counterpane’s tropical heat
it’s torrid and humid down under the sheet
where natives go naked and nuzzle at will
down each damp valley, up each fertile hill.
We’ve sailed past the Cape, we’re rounding the Horn,
we’re starboard of Cancer below Capricorn!
Or as in It Won’t Belong, even a sort of tongue twister:
new tot goblin,
neon blog twit,
boil tent gown,
blown ego tint,
no betting owl,
bent wing tool.
And, just for fun:
ha dinga bolooya mabit!
la linga ha hatnee zooo
These pieces are so clever and enjoyable we can readily accept them among the more serious and studied poems. After all, it’s the poet’s choice in a somewhat ‘take it or leave it’ attitude as evidenced in the final word of Another Charm: “there” which, in its definitive defiance, doesn’t even need the validation of an exclamation point.
As its title suggests, the section Momento Mori brings us back to more sober considerations. A study on the inevitability of death is exemplified in these lines from Bullfight when the bull falls defeated and dying:
One can avert one’s eyes right now,
tomorrow, too, but in the end one can’t.
The estocada comes for every beating heart.
Estocada is an intriguing word choice translating akin to “lunge” in English, emphasizing that the final stroke is never gentle no matter what our expectations or circumstances.
Seaton reminds us there are many kinds of deaths as exemplified in end of the world, very much a political statement but quite apropos in this section. It is a condemnation of the fleeting rewards of greed that will ultimately bring about destruction and loss:
choking on bilious consumer goods
constipated by warehouses
with goods that just must move
swollen with inflammation
and cancerous economic growth
In a bow to surrealism, and the cabaret series of new and alternative art he hosted at the Seligmann studio in Sugar Loaf, New York, Seaton presents a sort of alter ego in this section called Lama Swine Toil. He’s presented as the “Surrealist chaplain” who satirically dissects the misleading lure of gurus and spiritual leaders, and the false sense that any of us mortals can contain and offer divine wisdom. His disdain for such faux personas is clear in these lines from The Old Lama:
My master said that he became a lama in order to avoid selling
snacks in the market. As good a reason, he thought, as any.
He puts a final, hard stop to it with this proclamation from the comically titled The Lama’s Parable of the Not-OK Corral:
Suddenly he heard from behind the voice of the cosmos, deep
“Drop your ego on the ground right there, I’ve got you
And he knew the jig was finally up.
With no conclusive words to placate our desire for resolutions, we are left with an acceptance of an ultimately unknowable and fluctuating dynamic but one which we all share. Herein lies the solace of capitulation to our common experience. As Seaton sums up in these lines from Apothegms of the Backbrain:
In the end we all are in the same boat, and we know it has
sprung a leak, and we hold hands in dread and in this way our
comfort and our fear are as one.
The final section of Planetary Motions is Translations, which treats us to a host of work by poets from various cultures and historical time periods aptly rendered by Seaton’s expert and intuitively inspired interpretations. These translations serve to further underscore the connectivity of the human experience in what is essentially a global home of shared commonality undiminished by language or locale. In an interview from 2009 with Kirpal Gordon of Giant Steps Press, Seaton states, “I quote Florio’s lovely translation of Montaigne which has the essayist declaring that, in spite of apparent variation, his theme remains always the same: ‘my selfe, fully and naked.’ What else can any of us do?”
In his Afterword, How to be a Poet, Seaton says, “Still your mind…open your senses…that your brothers and sisters beat with the same heart.” It is a cri de coeur to accept we are in community and to simply allow the muse to take control. As he concludes with this sage parting advice, “Make love to the lovely welcoming you.” What we are welcoming is the uncensored inspiration that is devoid of our ego-based assumptions and impositions and allows for wonder without resolution.
If I make any criticism of this collection, it is that it is perhaps too ambitious and all-encompassing in its multitude of offerings that are only somewhat mitigated by separate sections that attempt to qualify themselves thematically. Each section could almost stand alone, either expanded upon as individual books or perhaps as chapbooks. A poet of lesser integrity and poise might have fallen short, but Seaton manages to remain cohesive despite a variety of subject matter and style.
Poetic truth is as open to interpretation as the movements of the planets. We add our own perceptions and perturbations which are subject to the fragmentations of an ultimately unknowable universe. Seaton accepts this and continues on his international travels with a universal perspective. He is now inter-galactic in his observations, pulling us out into the cosmos from our earth-tethered and more insular points of view. As a fully integrated inhabitant of the world, he has the weight of history in his pocket and cosmic, unbounded access. He seeks not to answer questions but to keep asking them. This provides the impetus and expansiveness to his artistic expression. Planetary Motions shows us that Seaton is a true citizen not only of the planet but perhaps of other worlds as well.
About the reviewer: Karen Corinne Herceg graduated magna cum laude from Columbia University with a B.A. in Literature/Writing and has graduate credits in editing, revision and psychology. Her first volume of poetry is Inner Sanctions, and her second volume, Out From Calaboose, was published in Fall 2016 by Nirala Publications. She publishes poetry, prose and essays in a variety of magazines and literary journals, including American Book Review, Compulsive Reader, North of Oxford, LiveMag! https://www.karencorinneherceg.com/
This review was Initially published in North of Oxford.