This is the third in the series of reviews I will post over the next two months of the 5 collections chosen for the 2015 Forward Prizes Felix Dennis award for best First Collection. The £5000 prize will be decided on 28th September. The shortlist is:
Mona Arshi – Small Hands (Liverpool University Press, Pavilion Poetry) reviewed here;
Sarah Howe – Loop of Jade (Chatto & Windus); reviewed here;
Andrew McMillan – physical (Cape Poetry); reviewed here;
Matthew Siegel – Blood Work (CB Editions) reviewed here;
Karen McCarthy Woolf – An Aviary of Small Birds (Carcanet) reviewed here.
Matthew Siegel – Blood Work (CB Editions); Forward Prize webpage on Matthew Siegel: here.
This is a really good first collection because of its remarkable consistency of tone and manner and it possesses what I, perhaps narrow-mindedly think of, as that American quality of confident fluency, indeed fluidity, which seems capable of encompassing so much experience without straining at the seams. In their very different ways, I find this in the work of poets like Billy Collins, Louise Gluck, Jorie Graham, Robert Hass and Larry Levis. I’d trace it back to the big enfolding arms and lines of Whitman who, along with Rilke, are Siegel’s two declared influences. But this ‘all I survey’ quality of the book is rather undermined by the publicity surrounding it which narrowly focuses on the fact that Siegel was diagnosed at the age of sixteen with Crohn’s disease and that his debut collection is all about this. Mark Doty (no less) considers the book “a genuine contribution to the literature of illness”.
It may well be – but like Robert Lowell, Thom Gunn and more recently (Siegel’s CB Editions stable-mate) Dan O’Brien, Blood Work’s focus on a very specific milieu or set of experiences does not prevent the alchemical transformation into an art with which those not brought up in the upper reaches of New England society, in the West Coast gay scene, embroiled in modern war zones can identify. In old money terms, they find the universal in the particular and Siegel does this in poems that move beyond a young American with Crohn’s disease to explore family relations, love relationships, questions of self-definition and the tensions between speech and silence.
The opening poem is important in carving out a certain distance, an ironic space, between the Crohn’s sufferer and the poetic voice (there are a few ekphrastic poems scattered through the book which do the same job). It is one of the few poems narrated in the third person and we are urged to “look” at a hospital attendee, back in what seems familiar territory (the chronic aspect of Crohn’s), the floral prints on the walls, the hospital gown “like an old costume / pulled out of a locked trunk in the attic / of bad dreams”. He feels sexless or desexualised, but is writing a poem “in lowercase”, particularly the first person pronoun. The writing of the poem becomes the subject of the poem but this self-reflectiveness is not rebarbative in the way it often can be (self-regarding, aggrandising, clever-clever) but more modestly self-mocking, an awkward self-consciousness. The patient/poet would rather be drawing a comic book, with himself as a “small mammal”. He sees himself as a fox and in the poem’s final line he changes the title of the poem he is writing which is the title at the head of the first page we have just read: ‘fox goes to the fox hospital’.
The space created by this poem around the very specific medical context gives the remaining book permission to range widely and introduces the idea of “containment”. What can or cannot contain the individual is a recurring idea (picked up by Doty in the cover blurb). The title poem has the narrator’s blood being taken from a vein (already a familiar experience to this young man – the context seems to be earlier in the poet’s life). The nurse allows him to hold the warm filled tubes of his own blood: “I nod, think about condoms, tissues / all the things that contain us but cannot”. Containment here means summation perhaps, but with overtones of imprisonment in the sense that a medical condition (a disability? a gender? a skin colour?) may determine much about the individual, yet ought not be allowed to fully define the person. This too is Siegel’s subject in the book; the spillage, or extension, we can achieve or are permitted beyond what might define us.
So ‘Sometimes I don’t know if I’m having a feeling’ may or may not be closely related to the poet’s own medical condition but it is a familiar experience for most of us. The uncertainty of thoughts and feelings, the sensation of having missed “the entire party”, of being known only as “a strange / version of the person you thought you knew”, the old question, “Who am I?” It’s a sign of the ironic distance maintained by these poems (not at all the same as cool inconsequentiality) that Siegel can answer that question with humour: “A question / for the Lord only to decide as She looks over / my resume”. Elsewhere, such questions are more difficult to answer. ‘Love Parade’ stresses the distance the narrator feels from others (‘I fear my body incapable of loving’) or he plays with the idea that the opportunity of a poem is little more than a late-night phone-in for the lost and lonely. The desire for contact with others (that wish for spillage and extension) can grow to “the size of a building”, taking Siegel down avenues of surrealistic imagery, creating a city-scape from the thoughts of a lover’s body.
These ‘others’ do feature significantly in this book. We meet the heater repair woman, a Vietnamese masseuse, Nancy the dentist, a supermarket flower seller, stall-holders at a Farmer’s Market, a multitude of doctors and nurses, various romantic entanglements. Though all these dip and dance about the central consciousness, they are given individuality (more Whitman here, I think). Thirteen year old Bryan is a sleepy student and the narrator is the teacher who watches him doze at his desk, bored by a literature class. The poem is a lovely act of empathy with the boy, his awkwardness and uncertainties, concluding with the self-discovery that the boy may well become the watching adult who “instead of chastising him / wants to touch his hair”. Not what child protection might want to hear, but true enough for those who teach.
But the book is also concerned with family, in particular a mother-figure who, like Bryan, is observed while sleeping and Siegel asks “What world / contains you”. In this poem, she dozes, exhaling “in little puffs” and perhaps it is her son’s inability to quite define her that means he can “only watch for so long”. She is a mystery, though in poem after poem she is shown crying, smoking dope to forget, mourning an ex-fiance, the son helplessly, left to “wonder if I could reassemble my mother”. In ‘Matthew you’re leaving again so soon’ we hear her reported voice fussing and trying to bestow love and affection through gifts of pens, an umbrella, socks, as he prepares to leave, in an effort to say what seems impossible to be said explicitly. We see her (smoking another joint) listening to the music of Enya (‘it’s in Gaelic’), tearful again, yet smiling “as if hurt is the balm”. For all the lack of specific detail about her life and loves, this mother-figure is a powerful creation we may hear more of in Siegel’s later work.
So the book does not duck difficult experiences, nor distance them defensively. Siegel’s watchwords are openness and a winning tenderness. Despite the questions of illness, he can apply such qualities to himself too and in ‘Overlooking the City’ there is a brief respite which amounts to something like redemption: “No, I am not hurting in this moment”. As the sun sets over the city, “red does not remind me of blood” and the imagined blessing of the sun’s rays reach “even me, surrounded here and alone”.
Even in a poem that gets pretty explicit about his medical condition, some reconciliation seems possible. ‘Rain’ opens:
I thought I knew desperation until I found myself
tightening my asshole like a bolt,
gripping the banister and crossing both legs,
I tried to read a poem on the toilet [. . .]
But still the narrator can elude such a total, imprisoning self-definition to find some pleasure in the view from a window to “see grass // glowing green in rain and streetlight – / so many bright beads of water”.
So a book I really admire for its capacity to encompass such variety without bursting into fragmentary utterances. It doesn’t do anything startling formally or linguistically, but its achievement is more emotional and empathetic, Siegel’s voice engages the reader at all times in just the way he seems to engage and commit to the many people who inhabit these poems with him. Would make a worthy Forward First Collection winner.