The Rest of the Trilogy: Re-Reading Makers of Empty Dreams and Identity Papers by Ian Seed

Makers of Empty Dreams by Ian Seed      Identity Papers by Ian Seed

[posted by Alice]

Ian Seed’s New York Hotel, a collection of prose poems published in 2018, was the subject of the first comments posted in Our Year of Reading at the Irreal Cafe. Since then, this third volume in a trilogy published by Shearsman Books was named a Book of the Year by the Times Literary Supplement. To help celebrate the positive reception Seed’s work has received, I decided to comment on the first two volumes in the trilogy. This will also give me a chance to talk about some of the things I have learned since I posted those first comments.

For one thing, while writing comments about Floating Tales by Jeff Friedman, I came to understand the importance of the prose poem as a genre. At first, I continued to believe that some prose poems work like stories and others work like poems, so the genre itself is a rather confusing hybrid. But I was more influenced than I realized by Daniel Lawless’ introduction to Floating Tales. In it he describes an important volume, The Prose Poem: An International Anthology, which was first published in 1976 and edited by Michael Benedikt. Lawless tells us that the anthology contained works by Brecht, Borges, Edson, and Kafka, among others, and these works were “[s]trange, image-centered, associative pieces through which, still, a narrative often might be glimpsed or even serve as a kind of scaffolding or superstructure on which all manner of odd brise-soleil, parapets and volutes might be affixed.”

I still think that prose poems containing a narrative scaffolding are the ones we would consider to be irreal, but as I re-read Seed’s trilogy (the first two volumes are Identity Papers (2016) and Makers of Empty Dreams (2014)), I understand more clearly why he has adopted the prose poem as his preferred form and that it is a genre unto itself. It’s also clear to me that this form repays its adherents by giving them many different creative options.

In addition to knowing more about the prose poem, I now also know more about Ian Seed and his influences than I did when I first began our Year of Reading. Largely, this is because of an essay at Fortnightly Review in which Seed talks about his discovery, turn away from, and rediscovery of the prose poem as a genre. In this essay I also learned that Kenneth Patchen was one of Seed’s early influences. Patchen, an anti-war poet initially associated with the Beat movement, was the author of The Journal of Albion Moonlight, as well as many collections of poetry. These ranged over the years from the early socially conscious free verse to the painted and more experimental poems he produced in later life. Seed indicates in this essay that it was Patchen who introduced him to the possibilities of poetry and the many forms it could take.

Furthermore, regarding Patchen’s Love and War Poems, published in a small edition, Seed says, “The fact that I discovered prose poems through editions like this meant that for me they quickly became associated with a literature which was underground and subversive. Prose poems were outsiders. In spite of their square shape, they would not be boxed in by academic labels or commercial interests.”

I share Ian Seed’s enthusiasm for Patchen’s work, and in fact, I grew up just a few miles from Patchen’s home town in Northeastern Ohio. In 1989 I attended the Kenneth Patchen Literary Festival in Warren, Ohio, where I got to meet and talk with Patchen’s widow, Miriam Patchen. She told me, among other things, that anyone can write one effective poem but to write them over an extended period of time as Kenneth did is the real accomplishment. In Fortnightly Review Ian Seed described the fact that after he found the prose poem form, he let go of it for a period of twenty years and only recovered it in the early 2000’s; since then, however, the overall effect of his outpouring of work is more than the sum of its parts, as was Patchen’s.

Seed was also influenced by the prose poems of Pierre Reverdy, whose work he later translated, and by the work of Cory Harding. Yet, Seed says, when he finally tried his hand at the form, the resultant short piece, which was published in 1981, was considered Kafkan by the editor who accepted his work. Seed says that he hadn’t thought of Kafka when writing this story, but he had earlier “soaked” himself in Kafka’s work and “now realise[s] that his influence has lasted to this day.”

Yet it is Max Jacob, a friend of and mentor to Pierre Reverdy, who is cited by Seed as having had the most explicit influence on his work. “While Kafka builds an alternative universe through the accumulation of seemingly realistic detail, Jacob is a writer who with just a few brushstrokes plunges us into a world we create for ourselves. His language is plain, pared-down, almost conversational, like that of someone telling a jokey anecdote in a bar. Yet the pictures he paints are astonishingly beautiful, filled with a sense of mystery and loss, which is in no way diminished by their comic absurdity.” In his prose poems Seed himself uses pared-down and conversational language, painting pictures that combine mystery and loss with comic absurdity. Even so, I clearly see the Kafkan influence in Seed’s work, and I agree that he uses fantasy in a very Kafkan way in stories like “Insect.”

In his short but concise and very approachable book Existentialism, Thomas Flynn states that this philosophical approach has always been connected with the fine arts (though he determines to “treat existentialism as a philosophical movement with artistic implications rather than as (just) a literary movement with philosophical pretensions”). Kierkegaard, for example, used pseudonyms, parables, and other forms of “indirect communication” in his philosophical writings to enlist the reader’s involvement in the ideas under discussion. Seed’s prose poems are not parables, but they often seem to work by indirect communication. Control over his material is Seed’s forte, and he leaves us certain that we know something, yet we mull over each short piece for much longer than it took us to read it in order to determine what it is that we know. In the case of those prose poems we consider to be irreal, we are given “so many pointers to an unknown meaning,” as in the case of Kafka’s work, but all of Seed’s short works challenge us to find meaning. Here are three examples:

“Bad Faith (I)” in Makers of Empty Dreams centers on an old homeless woman begging outside the subway entrance. One day the narrator asks her what happened to her, and she says she was a collaborator during the war. He seems dismayed – the war was such a long time ago – and he raises his voice to remind the passersby that lots of people “even your great Jean Paul Sartre, slept with the enemy in one way or another.” The passersby respond by passing by even more quickly, but as a reader, I am left with the task of wondering if that is true, if that was true of Sartre, if that is true of me.

In “Creatures,” which is also in Makers of Empty Dreams, the narrator has found a snake living under the kitchen sink and needs information to make a choice: if the snake is venomous, he will have to kill it. If it’s harmless, he can keep it as a pet. And then too there is a woman upstairs lying naked in her bed, and he doesn’t know if she is waiting for him. Before he gets back to the old familiar routine of his life (and goes to the shop around the corner to talk with the owner and buy a bottle of wine), he must make decisions and he must choose. There’s a glimmer of irreality here, but it’s often true that the choices we are condemned to make are equally obscure and absurd.

And “Parenthood,” which appeared in Identity Papers, addresses the existentialist notion that you are what you make yourself to be. The narrator, who has just discovered that he has a grown son, waits to meet his child for the first time. The son turns out to be a strong young woman who is both a priest and a comedian. “Everyone is full of such contradictions,” she tells him, “but few of us have the joy of living them out.” This in turn inspires him to take his newfound son to see his mother, who not only embraces her newly discovered grandchild, but also shares the (somewhat unlikely) news that she is pregnant. As it illustrates the notion that you are what you make yourself to be, “Parenthood” undermines the gender binary and hints at the irreal.

The short dense prose poems in both these volumes have repaid frequent re-reading, allowing me to get something slightly different (or very different, depending on my mood and current situation) each time. Though New York Hotel received the most significant acclaim, each volume of Seed’s trilogy deserves careful reading and repays the reader’s careful attention. You can still buy Identity Papers and Makers of Empty Dreams at Shearsman Press.