Royals by Cedar Sigo (Wave Books, 2017)
Review by Greg Bem
My mind seizes on
the form first
from “The Magic Mountain”
Following up on the heels of 2014’s Language Arts, Cedar Sigo’s latest collection of poetry expands and grapples with identity, culture, and the American poetic canon. The poems of Royals feel familiar but also uniquely further along in Sigo’s experiences. And yet, going beyond the poet’s first books, Royals gifts the reader with longer, denser opportunities of exploring the subjects, with themes of greater bulk and heft. Viewed in totality, Royals is an expansive book, and a necessarily strong book carrying the weight of the history of an important American poetry to and the history of the self of Cedar Sigo.
As a collection of Sigo’s recent poetic examinations, the book affords his reality and lived experience, and yet also, in its size and proclivities of the self, contains contentions, difficulties, and the harsh realities of living through a very present white dominance. Royals undertakes a great representation of the great velocity of the poet’s life and experiences, while also maintaining a solid focus on personal intimacy and immersion. As such, there is clash and conflict, even with a book that feels straightforward and exceptionally self-aware. The concept of “royals” becomes a complex one, that can be interpreted as the poets Sigo finds influence from, or the individuals within the poet’s life, or even (as seen in below) the indigenous folks within Sigo’s community. With difficulty, Sigo’s literary influences may perhaps mask the conversation between that community, as well as Sigo’s individuality; the white dominant poetics continuing to press upon the mythos of America’s literary history emerges as solidified and intensely destructive at the same time.
If we set aside the origins of the poetry, the influencers whose books fill Sigo’s backpack, we see Sigo’s art in fine, beautiful presentation. Reading Royals, as an experience, positions the reader into a space of reality: comfort through precision and passion through art become familiar almost immediately upon opening the first cover. Form and content on the printed page, often transformed into binary concepts that must be kept separate, kept apart, are within Royals congruent and complementary to Sigo’s greater vision. This is nothing new with Royals, however, as Sigo’s poetry has molded the harmony between the concepts consistently from book to book; that is, flow and energies through form and through content have been the status quo for Sigo, coming naturally and necessarily for years.
Cantos triggered insanity and worse
Terza rima when I feel like swimming laps
Odes for luck in blackjack
Index for sedative
from “A Handbook of Poetic Forms”
The range of the writ, the light experimentation and the scope of stories, has matched dramatic chapters and moments of Sigo’s lived life. Poems, short and long, become sounding boards for grief, resilience, and even a more abstract and purer representation of memory. However, notably with this larger collection, the reader can truly see Sigo’s expertise in craft. There is visibility in range in Royals which was unable to be seen through the smaller scale of predecessors like Language Arts.
Poems like “Medallion” squiggle down the page in a serpentine, conversational dance with the paper itself. “The Magic Mountain” contains stanzas as glyphs, magical, erratically exposing sophistication and linear process one and the same. These visual arousals coincide with poems like “Smoke Flowers” and “Fever Dream,” which indicate to and induct upon the reader a sense of orderliness and calm. Dualisms and intersections, from the playful to the serious, from the stable to the chaotic, as seen superficially in the case of the form of each poem, down to the ideas contained therein, are incredibly noticeable with Sigo’s work. In Royals, it is fantastic to see the furthering of this angle of poetry.
As touched upon above, the problem with this book is that it both pays homage to the greatest literary figures of American poetry history (and beyond) but also stresses the importance and prominence of a member of indigenous and queer communities. That is not to say that these two lineages and stories must be kept separate, or cannot coincide; however, the tension is real, and I personally find the conversation one of imperfection, growth, and potential, radical change for Sigo as he moves into some future. The hesitancy to praise the funnel (or vacuum) of the white, 20th Century Poet is a hesitancy built upon the nearly endless instances of that funnel elsewhere.
We natives are royals / Yet phantoms / The edges emblazoned, clear / From fingertip to foot / Seattle is empty and surrounded / The sun beheaded or / Am I a marked man?
Fortunately, Sigo’s work, though often investigating (and appearing bound to) that history of American Poetry, also frequently appears to be operating beyond it. Beyond those poets and that lineage is Sigo himself, his critically-thinking mind, which floats above and toward an ethereal other space. The poems in Royals tends to be royals themselves, clashing with their formal roots. The mark of colonialism aside, I am reminded of the nurse logs of the Pacific Northwest rainforests, which though dead and ever-visible, make way for new species of even greater, more diversified beauty. And yet the relishing, the preservation, the presence of the former identities is mildly disturbing. Especially through poems like “Crescent,” where Sigo calls upon the space and voice of the indigenous humanity that is still very alive (within the poems and within Sigo’s homeland).
It would be remiss to omit the geographical positioning of the book, which calls out Seattle, and calls out Sigo’s native ties to the Suquamish. The relationship between US development and the indigenous peoples of the Greater Seattle area is well-documented. These poems, sadly and forlornly, provide yet another new look at how identities collide, meld, and interlink moving through the grotesque (and often silenced) present. These poems are a powerful statement of that present, of a voice among the voiceless, of a person among the invisible. Sorrow, anger, and, residually, joy are some of the identifiable emotions laced within this book. As Sigo’s work is read and deconstructed by many, these emotions and their poet’s states of being (which carry them) can, potentially, reinforce the indigenous narrative within Royals.
As much as I struggled with the book, and as much as I enjoyed it, Royals appears to be a rough but necessary step documenting the poet’s push through a current, endured direction. The book has marvelous moments and is clever and compassionate in its homages, and yet is positioned in a trying space. When Sigo releases his next book, it will require a relationship with Royals to be fully understood, and yet I imagine it will be as complex as Royals to stand on its own, and perplex on its own. For now, we have Royals, and the many “royals” within, which will reliably surprise, baffle, and arouse in their multiplicity.
A poem I puked drying out at a hot springs in love winding through the dry hills of neem leaves, an exaggeration of music I thought younger poets admired. The trimmings I knew I could press new meaning in between. I was endlessly in the mood and working this lace front, that words as force walk the earth. I tried to show a sailor bounding through his life in silhouette.
from “Guns of the Trees”
Evening Primrose by Kopano Matlwa (Quercus, 2018)
Review by Greg Bem
How viscous the blood must be. It carries so much in it. Stories swirling round and round our veins, up into our hearts, at least a zillion times a day. Stories of men going into cities, men in men, men in women, women in men, children in women, men in children. Strangers living in each other’s arteries, sharing intimacies, sharing pain, sharing anger, sharing hatred, sharing resentment, sharing loss.
The systems and patterns of love, harmony, resentment, and chaos of contemporary South Africa are emotionally and rigorously explored through a challenging Bildungsroman in Kopano Matlwa’s latest work. The story is large, brutal, and beautiful, contextual to its place and also universal in the brightness of its process of awakening.
This novella in four parts corresponds with major moments of protagonist Masechaba’s childhood and adolescence. The book follows Masechaba in a journal form, held in her voice, exploring early reflections on menstruation, movement towards independent living with best friend and academic peer Nyasha, a traumatic and expansively grotesque moment of sexual violence, and movement towards resolution through spiritual bonding to lead toward peace through motherhood.
As a brief and blunt description of a turbulent present-day South Africa, the book is both spiritual and political in contents and in tones. As a portrayal of the journey through early womanhood, the book is both empathetic and stunning. Matlwa’s enmeshing of both these extreme functions of the book is equally heartful and intellectual. The work breathes through the intersection of the struggles between society and the individual, between knowing and unknowing, between balance and destabilization passively and aggressively.
Ma says I must leave them there, the patients. I must walk in their shoes, but try not to bring their shoes home. So I leave them there, stuck between the soiled sheets and the sandwich hidden for the day an appetite returns, between toilets caked in shit and the soap dispenser that only worked once, the day the minister came to visit. But I fail at walking in their shoes. They have no shoes, Ma. How can I walk in their shoes when they have no shoes?
From the beginning of Evening Primrose, Masechaba’s endearing and honest voice encourages the reader to stay focused and trusting of the encountered stories and experiences. The protagonist explores the life she leads on her own and by way of family and colleagues. Her brother Tshiamo’s early suicide reinforces a general sorrow and resentment found throughout the book and its many conflicts. Bonds between Masechaba and her mother are inspiringly feminine, and yet not without their own tensions. Nyasha lingers as a voice of political concern but also irrationality and extremism.
The narrative reads with allegorical distinction, each character symbolic of their own revolving world, each activity and action carrying the weights and pressures of subtext and emerging meaning. From the beginning these additional layers of characterization form the many conversations the characters have, both verbally and existentially. Masechaba encounters difficulty between understanding and accepting tradition and encountering the antagonistic realities of her country and its own daily evolutions. Xenophobia, racism, religion, and post-apartheid South Africa is dauntingly experienced through our protagonist’s daily life, and yet it is balanced by way of her own commitment toward a profession and a future.
Masechaba’s plunge into a career as a doctor results in challenging dialogues on ethics, care, and acceptance. Faced with the grueling realities of the pain and torment of those she must help within the hospital she works, Masechaba fully endures and painfully comes to understand her many strengths and her many imperfections. When, mid-way through the story, she becomes the victim of a violent sexual act, she must face everything she has grown to know and re-examine everything she has grown up through to that point. The agony is severe and relentless. The naturalism of Matlwa’s writing is difficult, and yet reflects well the short form of the book.
Why do You want to see us grovel? Why must we break first into millions of pieces before You shovel us off the floor? Why must we shatter first before You react? Why must we pray for things that are obvious? Wasn’t it obvious that I needed You to save me?
While readers of Evening Primrose may find it difficult coming to terms with the South African context and the crippling realities of the book’s heroine, the story does, through its resolve, succeed in embedding many ideas, mostly unanswerable questions, as a form of resolution and growth. The symbolic moments of motherhood that resonate as cycles by the book’s end take on a fullness beautifully and painfully resonate of the life of the everyday, of every person. Matlwa writes with a commitment to portraying the relationship of beauty and pain from the most mundane to the most critical.
An ultimate gesture toward the living complication of forgiveness and the under-valued, subtle explorations of grief, this book falls in line with the likes of other short-novel writers like Hesse, Danticat, Mann, and Morrison. The book manages to sit on its own and bear the weight of severe emotional brevity, just as the scenes and situations described within its covers do the same for its characters. Evening Primrose is a marvelous gift for its readers, one that flows like blood, confesses like ink, and awakens like a new day.
Yellow Rabbits Reviews #36 and 37: Soledad Marambio’s Chintungo and Marília Garcia’s The Territory Is Not the Map
Ugly Duckling’s Señal chapbook series continues in 2017 with two new titles. The fifth in the series is Chintungo: The Story of Someone Else, a fantastic exploration of the mythos of identity, the process of heroism and legend-making, and family storytelling by Chilean poet Soledad Marambio. The sixth is The Territory Is Not the Map by Brazilian poet Marília Garcia, a snippet of investigations of investigations, which resounds with the process of assertions and their resulting awareness and mystery. Both books feature hills as keystone images in their symbolic, eclectically-inspired landscapes, and have found prominence in their profound recognition in the exploratory actions within poetry.
Soledad Marambio’s Chintungo
Translated by KT Billey
he writes, he writes and writes
the pen well loaded
as if the pressure released the melodies
that his musical friends
hear in blue words.
(from “The Chintungo Libretas”)
I had read this book like I read my own family: knowing and pushing into the nature of puzzles. Marambio’s relationship to time and place represents the continuation of a bleak naturalism of the mind: where fracture and fragment contribute to the greatest whole possible. There is a representation of form and loss throughout the book as the father figure, whose identity shifts between father and self-proclaimed Chintungo, is a persistent, unobtainable force. The distance contributes to thematic conversations on bondage, expectation, accountability, and the heroic. What is larger than life, if not for our own craft of identity?
Exploring the character Chintungo through the eyes of the speaker within this book felt like exploring a new paradigm of effortlessness, though stressed through emotional constraints, in understanding human relationships. Though the book is short, there is an enduring thread of activity from the first to the last poem that contributes to a light-heartedness, a playful exploration that is also bound by necessity. What is necessary in knowing family? What is necessary in constructing, establishing, and maintaining those connections when they are rooted in love and a familial knowing.
Though Marambio’s book is a splice of potentially-infinite explorations into a “larger than life” figure, the brevity within the splice indicates, or reflects, a degree of mortality: of both the characters within the story as well as the story itself. We thus have a safe presence of questioning, a bountiful but stable perspective of passage through the speaker’s mind and conclusive situations, which offers a substantive roundedness to the book in its entirety. This book opens more than it closes, and is worth exploring for the mature and patient excitement of its trajectory alone.
Marília Garcia’s The Territory Is Not the Map
Translated by Hilary Kaplan
the next morning you look at the empty bookshelves
white rectangles sunk into the ground
like an abyss, she says
telling the story of the woman
sitting in the back seat of the car,
fleeing the snow for good.
(from “At Berlin Schönefeld Airport”)
Antithetical though complementary to Chintungo, Marília Garcia’s The Territory Is Not the Map sparks a keen interest in the opportunity to foray into representation and reflection of intimacy. In its poetry there is the foundation, scaffolding, and ceiling of investigation, of the dive into the questions of communication and liveliness. Otherwise banal and commonplace images and situations are transformed into hyperbolic engagements with existence, where every essence has the capacity to represent the most prolific and disturbing statements on time, life, and a gravity of being.
There is also a grandiose functioning of memory working consistently within The Territory that is approached and acknowledged directly. This function stays within the book from cover to cover, creating a sense of wondrous confusion, decay of narrative, and a beloved choppiness. Who are speakers of these poems? What is their ultimate agenda? And, at least as importantly, to whom and to what do they reach out with their language? The impact of this ambiguity instills is complex, both capable of invoking disarray and instability, as well as a degree of trust for the reader. In other words, the mere process of the poet develops into the hinge we need to believe in what is being conveyed, even if we, as readers, might not fully understand. It is the benefit of space, as foggy and unknowable as we know it to be.
The line “do you remember what you said / as the car skidded?” (from “This Is a Love Story and It’s about an Accident”) is one of countless examples of Garcia’s precision of the exercised thought in The Territory. The line both enchants the given poetic scenario with its investigation and provides a dominant environmental constraint through a subtle contextualization. The potential power within these lines sticks and yet finds flight toward the next vaporous image, the next substantially paralyzing provocation. And yet the book is complete with a tone of comfort. Its emotional affect, rooted in sadness, anger, remorse, or otherwise, maintains an imperceptible or subliminal position within the book’s spine. In its place sits, positioned high, strength and resolve of a curious and empathetic poetics.
All reviews by Greg Bem unless marked otherwise.
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