Dante's Divine Comedy begins with a journey through Hell and ends in Heaven. Frederick Seidel's trilogy, The Cosmos Poems, begins in the heavens and descends. Life on Earth is the second book in this trilogy. It includes natural and human history, which are the history of the self, and biography, which is the history of everything else, all told in vignettes of beauty, sublimity, horror, and regret.
As critic Richard Poirier noted, Seidel's view of Pugatory offers "no tethered or familiar processes of transformation taking place in his stanzas, for all their meticulous shapings. Rather, his words come at us as if spontaneously provoked into being by the volatile realities he is discovering. His poems celebrate themselves, and their author, in a manner that makes him the true heir of Walt Whitman. It is as if the poems emerge from what can be recognized as our future."
"Hide your lyricals, your tenders: Frederick Seidel is coming. Ogre to what used to be called (without a sneer) sentiment, grim beyond Gothic contrivance, the most frightening American ever—phallus-man, hangman of political barbarism—Seidel is the poet the twentieth century deserved. (But why stop there, the poet the millennium deserved.) . . . Dip a stick into the twentieth century and it comes up dripping the sort of sludge Seidel has had the courage never to forget to taste, word by word. He lurks around like an ugly conscience. His artistry is justly fierce. He has bound one resource of modern poetry, vernacular speech, in a smoking sheath."—Calvin Bedient, Boston Review
"[Seidel] grips the twentieth century between his teeth like a blade as he speaks . . . One of the more formidable poets of the last third of the century."—Poetry
"Ecstatic, despairing poems . . . Metaphors explode here like supernovas aborning, and from the debris Seidel makes dense, durable poetry."—David Kirby, The New York Times Book Review
"Typically up-to-the-minute . . . Seidel's early aura of rancid privilege (in the great poems of Sunrise) is complicated by faints of abstraction and marches at times to a trashy stomp. It's an exemplary book, Seidel's best, and one of the best by an American poet in the past twenty years."—Michael Hofmann, The Times Literary Supplement
"The book begins with the sounds of the gamelan—appropriately—its music is all chill chimes, tense enjambments and dissonant off-kilter rhymes. In Seidel's Purgatory, the suffering sinners cling to their human lineaments through violence, terror, and moments of outlandish tenderness. The downward spiral from an earthly paradise roots punishment finally in the self, the mind as earth-quaker and ritual-maker, root and rune. Fast, taut, sharp, sometimes terrifying, Life on Earth is an unnerving journey to a flawed, conditional, and purely human redemption."—Karen Volkman
"Exquisite, intimate, hard-boiled materiality meets and matches mitred, purposeful surreality—Wallace Stevens's favorite brand of ice cream. The singer of these poems continually repositions himself at a deceptively still center from which to deliver cosmology: In every real situation—airport, thunderstorm, facelift—there is a context for the statement 'I am not possible to know,' and it is that context, be it lingual, vocal, or epistemological, which we look for poetry to inscribe. Seidel's perforated enjambment and rock crystal configuration of thing and idea serve to elide shamanic emblems even as they are limned: a sort of discretionary anti-divination takes form. The cosmos of these poems is an intermittent re-genesis, like the faraway on-and-off blinking of a nighttime star—really an airplane."—Rebecca Wolff
"Not since Milton dangled Creation on its chain from Paradise has our universe been more urgently displayed than in the first two books of Frederick Seidel's extraordinary trilogy, The Cosmos Poems. Master of ambition's pitfalls, Seidel keeps the pact all of his work has made for us: conflation of precise detail with the largest of purposes—much of these new books in the voice of a child. Images sing: stars as frog spawn; the universe as an octopus, floating; black halls as tentacle-less suckers . . . The wide wonderment of the first volume, The Cosmos Poems, gives way in Life on Earth to the horrible mix of hell and heaven we know, the sad manhandling of the grand design earth's life often chooses over gratitude and compassion. Beginning with the deadly sins sloth and lechery, the simple voice in its heartbreaking quatrains visits infirmity, art, love, science, compulsion, evolution, vanity, covetousness, murder, ethnic cleansing and, at last, the self as hell . . . Recognition and humility is ours as we learn to love our new reflection and await its conclusion."—Susan Wheeler