Forward First Collections Reviewed #3 – Matthew Siegel

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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”.

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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,
knees shaking.

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.

Found Poems from Whitman’s Civil War Prose

I’m still pursuing some of the thoughts from my last blog about the difficulties of writing about current events (https://martyncrucefix.com/2015/03/13/how-do-i-write-poems-about-current-events/). I am reminded that we are closing in on the twelfth anniversary of the first so-called ‘shock and awe’ strikes by coalition forces on Saddam Hussein’s Bagdad in 2003: 

I did manage to write about the subsequent war in Iraq but on this occasion I approached it very tangentially, through the Civil War writings of Walt Whitman. The resulting poems were first published in The Long Poem Magazine (Issue 3, Winter 2009/10; sections also appeared in Acumen) with the Introduction I have posted below. There, I discuss several sections of the completed sequence though I will post up only two parts of it. For the sake of those who might be interested in how raw materials get transmuted in such a process, I have added links to the original passages from which #2 ‘The White House’ and #4 ‘I staid a long time to-night’ were derived. The full sequence was eventually published in Hurt (2010: https://martyncrucefix.com/publications/hurt/). Dan O’Brien has more recently used a not dissimilar ventriloquism in his poems about the experiences of war photographer Paul Watson. For a much more direct poetic approach to modern war (born out of direct experience as a soldier in Iraq) see the poetry of Brian Turner.

On 21st March 2003 the “big and little thunderers in chorus began to roar” over Baghdad. During Easter of that year I visited the American Museum, just outside Bath, and while my children scoured the grounds in an Easter egg hunt and my aging parents wandered around an exhibition of American rag rugs, I drifted into the bookshop and picked up a collection of Walt Whitman’s Civil War poetry and prose.

It was childhood innocence and the rag rugs’ recycling of material that were in my mind as I read the words Whitman had written in 1862 in Falmouth, Virginia: “Began my visits among the Camp Hospitals in the Army of the Potomac. Spent a good part of the day in a large brick mansion, on the banks of the Rappahannock.”

With the force of one of those visions that artists are thought to be prone to, it struck me that such a wide-eyed witnessing from an earlier conflict might be a way to write successfully about the then current conflict. Or to be more precise – since what I have just written fails to convey the powerful emotional impact of what I read – I was myself moved by reading Whitman’s observations but my emotion was not retrospective at all but immediate, topical, all about Iraq.

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The more I read of Whitman’s prose the more genuine ties with the contemporary war I sensed. Whitman writes in his letters and journals almost as a by-stander, visiting the wounded and dying in hospitals, only occasionally being drawn to wider political observations and his focus on the individual cost of warfare exactly matched my own feelings. I began to imagine a sequence of poems framed by letters to a mother, containing the search for a brother and other references to close family members: “Han’s and George’s and Andrew’s. . . Jeff’s and his little Manahatta’s too”. The sequence came together only very slowly, partly because of my own uncertainties about its status as a partially ‘found’ poem but it eventually separated itself from its original sources and it was only later that I saw what was mine, what Whitman’s.

So the second piece, describing the White House, relies heavily on notes Whitman made in February 1862, but in the light of the deceit and war mongering of the early 21st century such descriptions are redolent with a bitter irony.

‘I dream’d a stockade’ is a more ‘composed’ poem, using Whitman’s familiar listing techniques, which intends to turn the suffering of the Civil War at an angle to reflect the inner conflicts that the Iraq mission quickly created in US society itself. With the inevitable reports of civilian casualties, I had little to add to Whitman’s accounts of comforting the wounded from the opposing sides of the Civil conflict to ensure a powerful contemporary resonance.

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Soldiers in the trenches before battle, Petersburg, Va., 1865.

‘The President’ is drawn from Whitman’s many observations of Lincoln. He first set eyes on him in 1861 and, as with the White House material, while I was putting the sequence together, the passage of time had already imbued his original admiration with the bitterest of ironies. Of course, after the poems were completed, by January 2009 and the inauguration of Obama, time had ironically turned once more and some have since read this part of the sequence as ‘about’ the new US President.

With ‘To the Mother of one fallen’, the narrator is back at the bedside of an individual dying man whose ravings and sense of undeserved blame, of a corruption in the/his “system”, is intended to reflect warfare’s inevitable brutalisation of even the best of individuals, the results of which even now continue to be uncovered years after the world conjured its first surprised shock at events in Abu Ghraib. (click to see Whitman’s original letter of May 1865: Here )

 

More than it comes to

seven poems from the American War

ii. The White House

Tonight, I walk out to take a look at the President’s House.

Tonight, the white portico, the brilliant gas-light shining,

The palace-like pediment, the tall round columns, spotless as snow.

Tonight, a tender and soft moonlight flooding the pale marble,

A light that gives rise to peculiar & faint & languishing shades,

That are not shadows, for no such thing as shadow resides at this address.

On this night, a soft transparent haze under the thin moon-lace,

Where it falls amongst the bright and plentiful clusters of gas-lights,

That have been set at intervals around the façade & the columns.

Tonight, I see everything white, a marbly pure white and dazzling,

And even more so, the softest white of the White House of future poems,

And of dramas and dreams here, under the high, the copious moon.

Tonight, the pure and gorgeous front in trees under the night-lights,

The leafless silence and the trunks and myriad angles of branches.

Tonight, I see a White House of the land, a White House of the night,

And of beauty and of silence and sentries at the tall gate,

Sentries pacing in their blue overcoats, stopping me not at all,

But eyeing with their sharp sentries’ eyes whichever way I go.

For Whitman on The White House: Click Here

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iv.  I staid a long time to-night

I staid a long time to-night at his difficult bed-side.

It was a young Baltimorean, grown to the age of nineteen.

He had seen so much and yet had slept such a very little,

His right leg amputated an hour since, he was feeble,

So he slept hardly at all, the morphine costing more than it comes to.

And this is what I must do, I sit still while he holds my hand,

And he puts it to his face most affectionately.

And this young, handsome, tanned Baltimorean spoke to me:

“My dear friend, I am certain you do not know who I am,

Although your sitting here so quietly and so patiently,

It means much, yet you must understand who it is you help,

Since what I stand for & fight for I know you believe to be wrong”.

I staid a long time at the bed-side of the young Baltimorean.

I staid certainly because death had mark’d him and he was quite alone.

I might say I loved him, sometimes kiss’d him and he did me.

And of his age was his brother, a brave and religious man,

His brother and officer of rank, a man I sat beside in a close, adjoining ward.

And I staid because in the same battle they were wounded alike,

The one strong Unionist, the other Secesh, and each fought well,

Each for their respective sides, brave & obedient & mark’d for the end.

Now they lay close, following the separation of many years,

Of their strongly held beliefs, the separations these had imposed on them,

And both fought well and each died in his particular cause.

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Ward in Armory Square Hospital, during Civil War, Washington, D.C.

For Whitman on the two brothers: Click Here

Dan O’Brien’s ‘War Reporter’ and new poems

I sometimes think poets are of two kinds: those drawn to dramatic subjects which explicitly dramatise the writer’s concerns and those drawn to more everyday topics which come to reflect the writer’s concerns in the course of the poem. I think of Hardy and Edward Thomas in the latter camp, alongside Heaney’s reference to Katherine Mansfield in North (1975): “I will tell / How the laundry basket squeaked”. In the former camp, for sure, stands the American writer, Dan O’Brien, who is everywhere at the moment.

O’Brien sees himself as “a playwright who moonlights as a poet” and he has just won the Troubadour International Poetry prize and been shortlisted for the Evening Standard theatre awards (for his play The Body of an American). He also has poems included in the recent Magma issue discussed in my last blog (https://martyncrucefix.com/2014/12/01/the-launch-of-magma-60-at-lrb-bookshop/). O’Brien’s first book of poems, War Reporter, was published by Charles Boyle’s excellent CB Editions just a year ago and I reviewed it for Poetry London. The book went on to be shortlisted for the Forward First Collection Prize and to win the Fenton Aldeburgh First Collection prize (http://www.thepoetrytrust.org/news/fenton-aldeburgh-first-collection-prize-2013-winner-announced/)

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In discussion at Aldeburgh, O’Brien said War Reporter had been described as “docu-poetry” and that “sounds fair.” The war reporter in the book’s title is Canadian journalist, Paul Watson, and for seven years O’Brien has been in communication with him, “obsessively” recording and working on email conversations, as well as Watson’s recordings from conflict zones around the world. The two poems in Magma are part of new work in progress. ‘The War Reporter Paul Watson Has the Time’ is a good example of the complex webs of guilt and complicity that O’Brien poems weave at their best. The narrator has helped an “interpreter” escape from Kandahar and vengeance is taken against the interpreter’s extended family through an IED: “A bump in the road and / the usual denouement”. The poems never flinch from explicitness about physical harm (“his father, leg like broken / bricks in a bag”) or psychological damage (“a pistol for protection, against all / sense and provocation, only to suck it in his mouth and – blackout”). ‘The War Reporter Paul Watson Knows’ returns in part to the moral quandaries surrounding Watson’s 1994 Pulitzer prize-winning photograph of Staff Sgt. William Cleveland’s body being dragged from the wreck of a Black Hawk and through the streets of Mogadishu. It also alludes to Watson’s more recent eyewitness accounts from the conflict in Syria: “The West engaged / in self-soothing debates while mercenaries / penetrate the borders, tilting the board / in Assad’s favour”.

The Troubadour winning poem likewise derives from the Syrian conflict. Co-judging with Seren’s Amy Wack, Neil Astley said O’Brien submitted three poems, any one of which could have won first prize: “All three were so compelling that I found myself measuring all the other poems I read against them . . . I had no hesitation in putting forward one of them for first prize.” The eventual winner was ‘The War Reporter Paul Watson and the Barrel Bombs’: “basically pieces-of-shit / IEDs of TNT, nitrogen / -rich fertilizer, diesel, anything / likely to kindle after exploding”. This is a more brutal, less multi-dimensional poem than some of O’Brien’s but it possesses an undeniable power to shock: “A foot in a sock / sticks out of the mountain. They tickle her / to see if they should dig”.

O’Brien has just published a second collection of more personal poems with CB Editions: http://www.cbeditions.com/obrien2.html

And here is my review of War Reporter from last year:

Dan O’Brien’s book is big, brave, important and challenging even in its imperfections. It is an act of ventriloquism, hitching a desperate and often horrifying ride on the work and experiences of Canadian war reporter, Paul Watson. Watson took the 1994 Pulitzer prize-winning photograph of Staff Sgt. William Cleveland’s body being dragged from the wreck of a Black Hawk through the streets of Mogadishu. Without doubt, his work tapped something important for America; as well as Watson’s original book, Where War Lives, and these poems, there is also a play and an opera in preparation.

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The poems abound in speaking voices, dominated by Watson himself, but including the “Poet”. Each piece comes at the reader as a slab of blank, largely decasyllabic verse. Voices bleed into one another, partly under the pressure of war zone experiences but also because of an explicit similitude between author and reporter: “You’re like the writer / I’ve always wished I were [. . . ] your constant / returning to an underworld we can’t / look at” (‘The War Reporter Paul Watson Describes the Ghost’). Both men admit to the allure of war and death. Watson’s voice, telling of his Mogadishu photo, confesses “When / you take a picture the camera covers / your face, you shut the rest of the world out” (‘The War Reporter Paul Watson Hears the Voice’). The quieter, more reflective stretches of the sequence explore this idea and allude to Camus’ claim to have solved the mystery of where war lives; the answer is in each of us, in our loneliness and humiliation. Watson’s book pursues this and O’Brien does the same here, taking the idea to justify excursions into both men’s personal and family backgrounds. I’m not sure how effective this is (OK, both are drawn to war’s horror, but neither are warriors) and these episodes do sap the quite astonishing power of the more direct reportage.

The book has Watson recalling scenes from Somalia, Rwanda, the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan and it is art’s ability to contemplate such horrors that makes the book an important one. Tony Harrison (who always refers to himself as the man who reads the metre) insists that his formal artistry is vital to bring the poet through the fire he is intent on penetrating. O’Brien chooses to speak of man’s brutality by telling it slant, through another’s voice. Watson witnesses the stoning of a married rapist, but the initial possessive modifier ensures we cannot push the scene into the distance: “our audience cheers an elderly man / lifting a perfect cinder block above / his head, then smashing it down where a gash / jack knifes the rapist’s neck” (‘The War Reporter Paul Watson Attends a Stoning’). War lives in all of us and the collection is a hard read partly because of our reluctance to face this. The rigid consistency of form perhaps also adds some monotony, but I’d agree with Jay Parini, that O’Brien’s success is in finding words “sufficient” for our time, a form of speech adequate to the evil that persists.