A Review


***

“Language charged with meaning” suggests that poetry can never be a matter of “lovely” or “elegant” language but that it must be meaningful;”

Marjorie Perloff, “On Evaluation in Poetry”

Excepting the author, who among us could “live,” for a time, in a poem? Who would want to? For most readers, the experience extends to just that - reading. Within the infinite spectrum of responses, we land on a scatter plot that mostly clusters according to the poet’s skill with words and the depth of discovery the language reveals. We scatter in more concentrated ways when the poetry also surprises, or touches a common nerve. Then, we move away, into other graphs and planes.

It is the rare book, then, that demands more than reading: this book, this curio, requires a living, breathing response. Matthew Siegel’s Blood Work is such a book. In a devotional sung by a genuine human voice attuned as much to its own work as to the empty possibility that surrounds it, in the threatening way that so characterizes a truly understood world, Siegel has created a truly asymptotic projection: the realized self.

Skill at unwinding surprising lines and the gift of a voice that rings suspiciously familiar, like the work of one’s own mind at the secret task of contemplation, are the twin backbones of this surprising collection. Far from schema or a conceit, Blood Work relies on its topic - an unusual path for the Poet, lately - and succeeds brilliantly: the blood, the body, pain and illness.

Eight quarts
of blood

run laps inside
my body

arrive, leave
like a Psalm

There are poems that brilliantly derive meaning from the literal experience of emotion,

And sometimes I know I’m having a feeling
but I don’t want to have a feeling so I close up
like a book or a jacket or a sack that holds
a body. Don’t mind me, I’ll just be dead in here

and others, where the line between emotion and physical pain is accordingly blurred, such as in “[The Heart is a Dumbwaiter]:”

The heart is a dumbwaiter
rising to the kitchen

Or maybe it is a coffee can,
a hole punched through with a nail

or “[What World Are You in, Mother, When You Sleep?]”:

and when you are falling asleep? What world
contains you as you toast an English muffin,
call it both breakfast and lunch? What world
as you look out the window and notice it’s raining?

The deft application of the line and its internal tendencies in “Soap,”

perfect pepper-salt hair. He leans toward her
almost falling out of the television

and “Love Parade”

Down Market Street today there is a love parade
and I fear my body incapable of loving.

marries into the astonishing poems “By the Flowers at the Supermarket” and “[And Because the Want is the Size of a Building],” where there is a true sense of the proper use of poetry, instead of anything else: immediacy. As an outsider looking into this work, there is no question about the medium or its application, the question that so often taints at the back of the mind when language is not accompanied by the surety that comes with proper form and shape. Accordingly, what walks into the space that question usually occupies is simple: enjoyment.

In Blood Work, the outcome of capability is, appropriately, a huge reward. Moments like

I’ve got too many needs for a month like November

and metaphors like

he feels pressed against the bed
with the giant hand of the ceiling, pressing
his entire body like a tea bag in hot water

are earned, and beautiful. Blood Work is a must read. It lives in the blood, and belongs aloud in the mind.

***

on the other hand, “meaning” that is external to or prior to language, as in much of contemporary writing that passes for “poetry,” is not poetry either.

Marjorie Perloff, “On Evaluation in Poetry”

Christian Wiman, in his blurb for Chloe Honum’s book The Tulip-Flame, writes:

I read it in one straight blaze like a novel, then found myself living in its glimmers for weeks.

Honum’s feat of creation has all the heft, texture, and weight of a light fabric taken in hand. Natural and mysterious, her poetry exists in a delicate space that expands out, shaken like the same gauze against a large, shifting canvas. I find it unusual in its application of metaphor across a broad field that is difficult to pin; it must be these distinct yet strange metaphors that lend the gauze, must be the places they settle that stretch the canvas.

Like Blood Work, there is a topic at play, though not as easy to call unifying: a dancer moves behind her poetry, in front of and behind the music to which it moves, and the ballet that the two, together, equal. And like a ballet, the temptation to call it “tender” is wrong - up close, the burled muscles, weaknesses, and pains of strength are evident.

In “Alone with Mother,” a scene kindles Honum’s talent for evocative imagery:

In the car, we sat a long time,
the keys a silver
starfish in her lap, silence

And in “Spring II,” evidence of her uncanny ability to relay the just-beyond-words experience into language that is quiet and determined to succeed:

the fruit trees newly in bloom and how I, frightened or jealous
of their song, would call and call
without a thing to tell her.

In The Tulip-Flame, an Other moves within the ballet: a troubled mother, lost, who lingers beyond the frame, large and beautiful. In “Leaving Town,” the figure comes in and out of frame,

[where] does he go, that shadowy figure
who handles my memories?
Sometimes, if I wait, I see him

in blue winter dusk
loading another wagon of stars
and hitching it to his old mule.

This is a spectacular achievement of proxy, and its rare, delightful point of impact - the reader’s own memory - is secure. Every point of reference is balanced - the sonic range, precise and pretty, marries into the image effortlessly. And if the image at first seems strange, then how powerful that after the intervening weeks it glimmers like an old friend.

While the titular poem is perhaps the ‘best’ in the book, a sheer and exciting villanelle that seems it could not, if pressed, exist without the villanelle, nor the villanelle without it - there are other poems that jostle for the crown. “Revenant” and “Bright Death” are hard to imagine living without, once read. Take the lines from “Bright Death” -

The sound of light
falling. The gray sky pinning
a single planet in its hair.

It is exciting, and a privilege, to read something so “true” and so likely to nest in the mind forever - this language is not free, like a truism, nor archived, like an epithet. This is risk-taking verse, that succeeds because it requires the reader to earn its meaning with a currency lately so out of style: attention.

•Chloe Honum is the author of The Tulip-Flame (ISBN-13: 978-0986025754), selected by Tracy K. Smith as winner of the 2013 Cleveland State University Poetry Center First Book Prize. Her poems have appeared in The Paris Review, Poetry, and The Southern Review, among other journals, and have been anthologized in Best New Poets 2008 and 2010. A recipient of a 2009 Ruth Lilly Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, Honum has also received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the Kerouac House of Orlando, and the Djerassi Artists Program. She was born in Santa Monica, California, and was raised in Auckland, New Zealand.

•Matthew Siegel's first book Blood Work (ISBN-13: 978-0299304041) won the 2015 Felix Pollack Prize in Poetry from University of Wisconsin-Madison. He was a Wallace Stegner fellow at Stanford and holds degrees from University of Houston and Binghamton University. He currently teaches literature and creative writing at San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

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