A Pentecost of Finches: New & Selected Poems
Excerpts from Reviews:
"The crisp intelligence that animates this volume and the amazing skill that turns every subject to a fresh, vivid picture of meaning are a rich definition of mastery.... each page showing how exciting genuine poetry is."
—American Book Review
"In various transformations the poet becomes a daddy longlegs, a snail, a deer tick, a tiger, a llama, a giant panda, an inchworm, a night crawler, a mussel, and more. Nothing is too small to escape Siegel's attention or too large to lie beyond his range. Again Keats comes to mind: 'if a Sparrow come before my Window, I take part in its existence and pick about the gravel.' While A Pentecost of Finches does not include a sparrow poem, there is little in the chain of being that is omitted. No doubt Siegel could write from the perspective of a rock or tree or any other form whenever he chooses to do so. In this volume he moves through dazzling reinventions that Proteus himself would envy."
-—The North Dakota Quarterly
"To say the poems are finely-crafted would do them an injustice. They have been whittled, shaved, sanded, and polished until they glow like fine woodcarvings.... These poems are Christian in the best possible way. They neither preach, nor proselytize, nor prohibit; they simply celebrate with hymns of praise the light that illumines all creation."
—The Sewanee Review
"This is indeed gorgeous stuff, one shatteringly beautiful line after another.... Siegel's focus is often on the mystical, on the mysterious small epiphanies of daily life, the pure wonder that they happen."
—Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram
"The traditions of the bestiary are alive and well in the poetry of Siegel."
—The Magill Literary Annual
"His way of seeing is not merely sacramental but ultimately mystical.... First to last. . . Siegel has stayed wondrously true to this vision.
-Christianity & Literature
Six Complete Reviews of A Pentecost of Finches:
A Pentecost of Finches: New and Selected Poems,
Christianity and Literature - June 22, 2009- Vol. 58, no. 4
Paul J. Willis
This handsomely printed and bound collection is a fitting testament to the consistent radiance of Robert Siegel's poetry. The new poems in the collection, divided into three sections, constitute about eighty pages: the selected poems, drawn from three previously published volumes, make up a hundred more. All told, a lot of poems—the very richness of a new and selected edition can also be its bane. But if you are willing, like Siegel's "Giant Panda" to "chew the shoots" at a modest pace, and do not try to do anything so greedy as to swallow these poems at a single sitting, you will emerge with "their green light in [your] mouth ... / holding the secret between tongue and palate" (13).
This particular panda comes from the first part of the new poems, in which Siegel reprises his lifelong predilection for observing and inhabiting a whole array of earthly creatures—not only the romantic ones, like the "Tiger" whose "mouth flashes a rose" (9) or the wolf whose "music is murder over the hills" (18), but the odd and tiny ones as well, like the "Deer Tick" "among the sequoia of your arm hairs" (7) or the "Inchworm" who never feels "quite all together" (14). These descend from the "Snail" in The Waters Under the Earth (2005), who laments, "I sign my path with tears" (127); from the "Muskie" in In a Pig's Eye (1980), "turning the drowsy / silk of his fins" (146); and from the snake in "Snakesong" in The Beasts and the Elders (1973), "thin hose of breath" (170). Siegel brings surprising turns of language to the inner topography of each creature; the result is often sacramental but never sentimental.
Sometimes Siegel ventures into the realm of specifically biblical creatures, to fine effect. In "A Colt, the Foal of an Ass" from the selected portion, the beast of burden reflects on “this moment of bearing the man, / a weight that is light and easy" (118). "The Serpent Speaks" which concludes the first part of the new poems, is perhaps the greatest achievement of the collection. This long, sinuous monologue tempts us all over again—"I am another vine"—even as it rehearses the infection of all of history and the inevitable diminishment of the diabolical speaker (28). And yet the serpent is always a serpent, slithering side by side with the other natural snakes in this volume, all exquisitely observed.
Perhaps this is the place, amidst these congratulations, to register a slight but significant criticism. It has to do with diction—the occasional use of scientific diction—that falls flat on my ear. When we are told, in a rich Hopkinsian catalogue in "Rinsed with Gold, Endless, Walking the Fields" to turn our attention to "the giddy atom" (158) or to "the sanctum of genes" (159), I must confess my interest flags, because I never saw such outside the pages of a textbook. Atoms and genes are not part of my felt experience of the world, so why try to sandwich them in? In attempting to enlarge the poem, Siegel creates blank spaces, lacunae. Likewise, in "Hunting in Widener Library" when we are told of "millions of cells thinking" (172), I am left with no distinct physical impression. When the speaker is a physician, as in "The Surgeon After Hours" "brain cells" are appropriate diction (91). But in the psalm-like "Aubade," when "the cerebral cortex draws across its synapses" (78), I am drawn out of the poem.
Happily, these lapses in diction seldom occur, and I want to hasten to point out other glories of this collection. Prominent among them are the portraits of New Testament characters that comprise the second part of the new poems. These rough sonnets crystallize the inner lives of a whole array of individuals. Take, for example, "Perfection," on Mary Magdalene, whose flask of perfume has been brought from Egypt by a Roman general and given to her with the command, '"Never age.... / Stay perfect. This will help"' (37). Or "Judas" who confides to us, "All along I was the only one who seemed to know / what the Man could do if he put his mind to it" (41). Or "The Epicure" who enjoys
... a pleasant life: at night the temple girls,
occasionally, after lunch, the flute-playing boy.
A moderate life: poetry for the heart and prose
to temper the mind, though I found less and less joy
Then, one day, happening to hear in the agora "one speak of a strange god," suddenly he "heard Pythagoras' // golden spheres turn for a second" (46).
It is the turning of these golden spheres that points to Siegel's abilities and aspirations as a poet. His way of seeing is not merely sacramental but ultimately mystical. In "Annunciation," he marks the coming of Gabriel in the most homely and heavenly of ways:
Things grew brighter, more distinct, themselves,
in a way beyond explaining. This was her home,
yet somehow things grew more homelike. Jars on the shelves
gleamed sharply: tomatoes, peaches, even the crumbs
on the table grew heavy with meaning and a sure repose
as if they were forever. (34)
Likewise, in "Patmos," Siegel records the vision of John, "now in the blaze of noon and when the stars sang to his eyes" (47).
This anagogic impulse is sustained in poems throughout the volume. Part three of the new poems begins with the shaped stanzas of "Peonies": "we see in them absolute / fire at the center, stasis / of star's core..." (51). They are as "Dante saw the stars in a glass, / a corolla of souls, / each reflecting / the other's light / and charity..." (51-52). Not surprisingly, another poem in this section is titled "Traherne," a tribute to and imitation of that supremely mystical seventeenth-century English poet. Siegel glosses him when he writes, "The smallest grain of wheat would light the ground..." (60). The very last poem in the volume, "Voice of Many Waters," with an epigraph from Revelation and a dedication to Clyde Kilby, is reminiscent of Traherne as well. First to last, in poems that span perhaps forty years, Siegel has stayed wondrously true to this vision.
Of course, he is also, almost always, down to earth, and I will conclude this review by pointing out a couple of more grounded favorites selected from his most recent collection, The Waters Under the Earth. "Carrying the Father" and "Fireworks" are wonderful evocations of childhood—also of course the special province of poets like Vaughan and Traherne and Wordsworth. "Carrying the Father" which takes its impulse from the Aeneid, is a multi-part elegy that excels in both dignity and intimacy. The poem begins:
From here I carry him upon my back.
He is no longer heavy, though sometimes I
stumble over grief. In fact, he is
thin as the wing on an October fly,
seen through as if not there at all, but in
a certain light suddenly ablaze,
a transparent map of all my life. (83)
But the poem then moves into particular memories, laden with meaning but dressed in the everyday. His father takes him to Gettysburg, to a lake cabin, to the city pool, or just into the back yard to burn leaves:
A small flame leaps: a yellow maple
leaf curls like a fist down to its glowing bones.
In its brief flare your face is
orange, your hat brim lights from underneath
and your red-checked shirt glows and goes out. (88)
From these burning leaves it is one small step to "Fireworks," which begins in the boy's world of
... mauve, green,
and red rice paper packets of firecrackers
covered with mystical Chinese characters,
contraband I'd saved for all that winter.... (92)
and ends apocalyptically in "the whole earth blooming in the heavens ... / the secret work of gravity and light" (93).
There are real finches in this book, and there is also Pentecost. In the poem "Half a Second," as in the entire volume, Robert Siegel records a lifetime of "the hopeless addiction of the tongue / to an ecstasy of particulars" (74). I suggest we join him.
Paul J. Willis
THE GREAT CHAIN OF BEING
The Sewanee Review, Fall, 2006
The Waters Under the Earth
By Robert Siegel
(Canon Press, 2005. 134 pages.)
A Pentecost of Finches: New and Selected Poems
By Robert Siegel
(Paraclete Press, 2006. 180 pages.)
Readers who come to Robert Siegel's poetry without recourse to his vita might assume the poet has a background in zoology or possibly zoo keeping. There is scarcely a creature, from the lowly earthworm to the majestic whale that he has not written about with sympathy and respect—and with the uncanny insight of a man who truly knows his animals. In fact Siegel's background, aside from boyhood visits to an uncle's farm and fishing tips with his father, is literary, and his interest in God's creatures stems primarily from his interest in God. Which is not to say that Siegel, who wrote his PhD. thesis 0n Samuel Taylor Coleridge, takes an overtly theological approach to his subject matter. H is poetry has deep roots in the romantic movement and in that literature we might loosely term mythic-literature that addresses the ultimate questions of human existence through fables designed to animate our sense of wonder, reverence, and awe.
A novelist as well as a poet (his five fantasy novels include the award-winning Whalesong trilogy), Siegel had not published a book of poems since 1980. These two volumes appearing within several months of each other, thus represent a gathering of poems many years in the making, a gallery of miniatures and vignettes that cover nearly half the poet's life. To say the poems arc finely crafted would do them an injustice. They have been whittled, shaved, sanded, and polished until they glow like fine woodcarvings. There is something sturdy and rock-solid about each one of them, as if the poet mined them from deep in his psyche, at that level where the collective unconscious finds its myths. Siegel's working methods may be inferred from the concluding lines of "How to Catch A Poem" (Pentecost):
...Avoid sleep, follow all day,
At night listen for its cry under
the moon. Finally you may
gather enough to show its
finishing what you have. Take
your time. Return home
and frame the cast of its
footprint: that is the poem.
The metaphor of the hunt is common throughout Siegel's poetry, which often uses fishing, farming, stargazing, and other activities involving nature as ways to explore the human relation to the cosmos, The hunt, after all, is also a quest, and the quest for transcendent wisdom is the essence of myth. Siegel's quests have a contemporary slant, since they usually occur in the realm of the familiar, even the mundane: a farmer feeding his pigs, a boy dreaming of fireworks, a blackbird caught in a chimney, a son remembering his father's home movies—such bits of reality may not be the stuff of myth, except in the hands of a gifted and inspired poet.
To return for a moment to Siegel's animals: I suppose most poets keep a bestiary for use in registering their subjective responses to the natural world. When Whitman's mockingbird calls forlornly for its mate, or Hardy's "blast-beruffled" thrush bursts out in "full-hearted evensong," we know these birds are projections of the poet's state of mind (in Hardy's case, an ironic one, of course); Siegel's beasts differ in that they seem to exist not for the poet's convenience but in their own right as creatures of a mysterious, marvelous—though often disturbing—natural order. These poems ask us to enter imaginatively into the creature's mysterious life and to experience its own awareness of the world. Here for example, from Pentecost, is a spider that has spun its web across a windowpane ("Spider"):
the great square of day shone
dim as the white
eye of the sun climbed up and I saw
the beautiful design
of myself flex silver in all directions.
The small gnats fly to it in admiration
and sing, fascinated, as I weave them into it
and drink their song, my hunger slightly abated.
These lines render not only the spider's view of life but also suggest its transcendent value in the great song of being. Its predatory role as a stealthy devourer of the unwary is neither condoned nor condemned, since any judgment would imply a human scale of virtues—a sentimental view of nature which is neither scientific nor, in the fullest meaning of the word, religious. As Coleridge has it, "He prayeth best, who loveth best I All things both great and small; / For the dear God who loveth us, I He made and loveth all."
Of course a poet who seeks God in nature must confront the problem of evil; and, in one of his most interesting poems, “The Serpent Speaks” (Pentecost). Siegel portrays the father of evil as a fountain of suave eloquence and engaging worldly wisdom. With his Ashbery-like play of language and ideas, he nearly cons us into buying his version of history: "a string of boxcars / each a century stuffed to overflowing I until the last leaps the track." Yet, like Milton's Satan, whom he clearly resembles, this serpent is also finally constrained to speak the truth, admitting that he is "subservient I (and this is the bitterness beyond all blindness) I at the last to another purpose." It would seem, then, that evil has its own music and beauty, though Siegel suggests it will ultimately take the form of a requiem to its own defeat.
Not all of Siegel's poetry concerns animals. In a sequence of fifteen sonnets he re-imagines scenes and characters from the New Testament giving them both the psychological realism and modern idiom of T.S. Eliot's "Journey of the Magi." Siegel brings to life the prodigal son, Mary Magdalene, Lazarus, Saul, Judas, and others including certain neighbors of "the artisan's son turned wonderworker," who snidely comment on his crucifixion: "He didn't come to much!"
Another group of poems deals with those revelations of the divine that may be found in everyday life. A charming poem to the poet's wife, "After Viewing the Bust of Nefertiti" (in both volumes), concludes, "you [are] the / image of that beauty and grace / who loves us with a human face." And a tribute to a grade-school music teacher, "God's Back" (Waters), suggests that not all mystics live in monasteries: "How it must have deafened Beethoven / To hear the divine tread fall again and again." Siegel turns the morning ritual of shave, shower, and breakfast into a rousing "Song of Praises" (Pentecost), and he brings a moving elegy for his father—"Carrying the Father" (both volumes)— to an evocative conclusion as he ponders the importance of images from our past in shaping our future selves: "this soil ever crumbling / in which you lay the still invisible garden."
Taken together, these two volumes should supply a winter's worth of musings on the richness of our natural world and the human need to address such wonders—what Siegel calls the "hopeless addiction of the tongue I to an ecstasy of particulars" ("Half A Second”—Pentecost). For those who might be wary of Siegel's religious affiliation, I would suggest that these poems are Christian in the best possible way. They neither preach—nor proselytize nor prohibit; they simply celebrate with hymns of praise the light that illumines all creation.
Robert Siegel, A Pentecost of Finches: New and Selected Poems.
Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2006. Pp. 179, hb
The North Dakota Quarterly, Fall, 2006
"A Poet," Keats wrote, "is the most un-poetical of anything in existence; because he has no identity." Keats was of course thinking primarily of Shakespeare; and while times have changed, and it might well seem that in recent decades many poets have had altogether too much identity (what Keats, this time thinking of Wordsworth, called the "egotistical sublime"), Robert Siegel is not among them. His new collection, A Pentecost of Finches, is wide-ranging and self-effacing. In many poems he becomes some other. It seems safe to say that he has written the best poem in English as perceived from the awareness of a slug:
White, moist, orange,
I crawl up the cabbage leaf exposed,
too much like your most intimate parts
to be lovely, to be loved. I weep to the world,
my trail a long tear....
There are more such startling changes. In various transformations the poet becomes a daddy longlegs, a snail, a deer tick, a tiger, a llama, a giant panda, an inchworm, a night crawler, a mussel, and more. Nothing is too small to escape Siegel's attention or too large to lie beyond his range. Again Keats comes to mind: "if a Sparrow come before my Window I take part in its existence [sic] and pick about the Gravel." While A Pentecost of Finches does not include a sparrow poem there is little in the chain of being that is omitted. No doubt Siegel could write from the perspective of a rock or tree or any other form whenever he chooses to do so. In this volume he moves through dazzling reinventions that Proteus himself would envy. No other contemporary poet comes to mind who could if he or she wished, write the definitive poem as perceived by, say, coral: poison ivy, lemons, sunscreen, moss, or tarmac.
In various poems Siegel is an observer of creatures rather than the creatures themselves, and yet the identification is so close, the awareness so penetrating, that the difference in perspective hardly matters. The poet does not exactly disappear; rather, he creates himself through his perceptions. Consider, for example, the opening lines of "Silverfish":
It lives in the damps of rejection,
in the dark drain, feeding upon the effluvia
of what we are, of what we've already been.
Everything comes down to this: we are its living—
the fallen hair, the fingernail, the grease from a pore,
used toothpaste, a detritus of whiskers and dead skin.
While the poet admits to feeling "a galvanic revulsion" and reaches out to crush the offending visitor, nevertheless his sympathies are such that even in this loathsome object he finds something of grace and beauty, something worthy of celebration:
... its body
translucent, indefinable, an electric jelly
moving with beautiful sweeps of the feet
like a sinuous trireme, delicate and indecent,
sexual and c1eopatric. It moves for a moment
in the light, while its silver flashes and slides,
and part of us notices an elusive beauty,
an ingenious grace, in what has been cast off.
What more could be said for this repulsive creature? Still, the attitude is far from sentimental—the writing is too intensely realistic, and the observation too precise, to permit sentimentality; rather, Siegel finds nothing in this natural world that lacks value or that is unworthy of compassionate attention. Intense awareness could be perceived, after all, as a form of praise. Siegel's poem "Rat" may change forever the reader's understanding of this much maligned rodent ("look on him kindly, for he I at last will carry you to a freedom beyond yourself ... ")
Siegel's grasp extends to the human in addition to other forms of life; he is, after all, a novelist as well as a poet. The second sect ion of A Pentecost of Finches, entitled "Portraits," is a series of sonnets based on New Testament themes and incidents. Siegel imagines himself as Mary at the Annunciation, the Prodigal Son, Lazarus, Judas, and various others. The portraits are concise, engaging, sometimes startling, and often moving. Skillfully, Siegel varies the forms and uses rhyme, including frequent slant rhyme, with eloquent ease. Consider, for example, "Saul":
Keeping the Law was a bore, the outer part,
that is—nothing for a Pharisee such as he.
But keeping the inner law of the heart—
perverse self!—to that he lacked the key,
ransacked the whole Sanhedrin. Then one day
an idea seized him: he breathed it in like fire:
something that would consume him totally.
He felt the inner division heal as all conspired
to make him champion of the faith. He offered to go
wherever needed to put them back on the path—
the blasphemers—to hold up the Law against all those
in this semi pagan cult and bring down the wrath
of Yahweh on them, while sinning not the least mote—
the others stoning them while he held their coats.
The music is subtle and generally subdued, but it is there for anyone who cares to hear it—as is the ironic portrayal of self-righteousness.
Everywhere in this book a disciplined sense of craft is evident. Siegel does not, however, try to impress with his skills. He knows the value of restraint—in the manner, say, of Ben Jonson or George Herbert or Robert Frost. His lines go about their work with calm deliberation: unpretentious, unforced, luminously clear. "Shopping Together," for example, tells of a trip to the market. After the poet and his companion have checked out and placed their purchases in the car, the poem concludes:
Once inside, all the way home,
bags leaning lovesick against us,
ice creams thawing in secret,
we feed each other plums and dark cherries.
Simple enough, no doubt. But the lines convey intimacy, desire, sexuality, sensuality, joy, and more. Like so much of Siegel's writing, they resonate with significance. (And, of course, if one is reminded of a certain notorious scene .in Tom Jones, either the book or the movie, that is all well and good. While much of A Pentecost of Finches is centered on spirituality, either present or awakening, Siegel knows that a full life involves body as well as soul.)
Among the new poems in this book is "A Song of Praises," a canticle of gratitude for the ordinary as the poet wakes into a world of simple satisfactions. Every morning becomes a sacramental beginning, a cause for celebration, as in his lines of praise
for the steam of the shower, the apprehensive shiver and then
its warm enfolding of the shoulders
its falling on the head like grace
its anointing of the whole body
and the soap 's smooth absolution....
The language of spirituality ("grace," "anointing," "absolution") merges easily with the language of physical being ("shoulders," "head," "body"). The cleansing of the morning shower becomes baptismal, diurnally renewed. Every day is miraculous. The spirit of Whitman hovers behind this poem, as does that of Christopher Smart and the one poet who is
given an eponymous poem in this collection, Thomas Traherne (1637-1674), whose celebration of this earthly existence knew no bounds:
Give but to things their true esteem
And those which now so vile and worthless seem
Will so much fill and please the mind
That we shall there only riches find. ("Right Apprehension ")
Finally, the shortest poem in the book, from which the title is taken. It is called "A.M.," and here it is, all of it:
Yellow flames flutter
about the feeder:
a Pentecost of finches.
The poem is characteristic Siegel: concise and simple, yet musical, language; sharp and focused perception; awakening to revelation; the sacramental sense of being. Siegel is alluding, of course, to the gathering of the disciples after the ascension of Jesus as described in Acts of the Apostles:
And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with
one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from
heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where
they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like
as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with
the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit
gave them utterance. (Acts 2: 1-4)
And so we move from finches at the feeder, perceived as flames, a sign from heaven, to the Pentecostal revelation. Or, better, we don't move a step: both are there simultaneously. Perception is all. Let Keats have, the final comment, which everywhere informs the aesthetic of A Pentecost of Finches: "Poetry should be great & unobtrusive, a thing which enters into one's soul and does not startle it or amaze it with itself but with its subject."
North Dakota Quarterly
A Pentecost of Finches: New and Selected Poems
By Robert Siegel
American Book Review, January/February 2007
F. D. Reeve
In the corners of our war-ravaged, globally warmed world, innovative, independent literary work still goes on: for forty years, publicly acclaimed ever since winning The 1970 Foley Award, Robert Siegel's taut, deft, powerful poetry has patiently expressed profound aspects of our cultural consciousness. His "unpretentious versatility," the Times Literary Supplement declared, "after the single-mindedness of other poets is like returning to the mainland after a tour of the islands." His work has appeared regularly in magazines from the Atlantic to the Sewanee Review and in anthologies like Contemporary Poetry of New England (2002) and The Generation of2ooo: Contemporary American Poets (1984), but this new volume, together with last year's The Water Under the Earth (2005), for the first time in a generation presents him in book form. Two small presses have released a big man.
Handsomely designed and carefully printed on high-quality paper, A Pentecost of Finches presents his poems with joy and elegance. Margins are generous; articulate type makes the words appealingly readable, so that merely to look at a poem is pleasing. If we start at the back of the book with one of the earliest, then leap forward to one of the latest, and then read through in the order Siegel has arranged, we become aware how his power has accumulated but note that his vision, like his talent, has remained constant.
From the beginning, taut rhythmical structure, scrupulous rhyming, and astonishing closings—often only one line—have distinguished his work. "Voice of Many Waters," which begins with "'The night is cluttered with stars," explodes in synesthesia and the complementary colors of day: "Outside the sun is rising. Blue, / the sky is blue / and the far forest is neighing. / I wake in the orange flower of my tent." In "Poet," a set of wild images ties the artist to nature, makes him a figurative scarecrow imposing his attitude on
the world maybe—
his clothes hung about him
like an afterthought.
In "Gettysburg: The Wheatfield," the American Civil War ties into World War II through mindless killing and ends:
For two weeks afterward at night
you could see the manes of fires
riding over the treetops, splitting
the horses' teeth, melting their hooves,
until wet with the dawn their clean ribcages,
curved like the hulls of decaying arks,
floated empty over the fields.
The surrealism has the intimacy of dream and the visual power of a painting. Even in the early poems the tropes are expansive. The imaginative realness of the metaphors dramatically enlarges the scene. Step-by-step, the living fire becomes the inverted destruction of ruined hulks hauntingly afloat in spectral death.
The new poems consist of three sections, the first being fourteen poems in creature voices, some natural, some mythical, all orchestrated to sing from a usually unacknowledged point of view. "Grendel," for example, addresses the fiend, its predatory history underwater and above, sums up the agon with Beowulf from a surface point of view, as if it had occurred in real time in a real place,
[and we] bring up your head that stares witless from
the whites of its eyes,
its ears stone to the voice in the reeds
of the undying dragon and unending wars.
Diction has become simpler, basically colloquial but still under the tension of the dominant metaphor of which one side is literal and one is figurative: literally, there is a stone among the reeds, and, figuratively, being one of the actors in the drama, the villainous victim, like the mortal victor, does not know the rest of the play. We do. Its future has become our past, and we have become it. That is, since in present time we cannot know that there will be an end to war or that all dragons will die, we experience war as "unending" and dragons as "undying." The language of the poem has made the knowledge available. Sophistication of mind drives Siegel's ironic simplicity and the persuasiveness of his undiminished faith in such goodness as there is.
Ticks and spiders, wolves and giraffes—the creatures come with skeletons and without—but the giant panda, who says, "In the white mist of morning I find my place," offers a gloss on the sensual delight in the beauty of mind, much like the seductive power of mathematical elegance:
I sit, the world circling about me,
holding the secret between tongue and palate,
the sweetness of nothing, above which
the mind shimmers like a forest of silks.
The beautiful may have nothing to do with goodness, "The Serpent Speaks" reminds us as it starts out faux-confessionally from itself: "I am another vine I in the great democracy of vines." History is a string of boxcars; the overstuffed centuries one after another leap the tracks; the serpent knows the end but, Cassandra-like, is unheeded; so, tail in mouth, it swallows itself in its own narrowing circle until it vanishes and everything vanishes with it.
Part 2 consists of fifteen sonnets and a double sonnet of portraits of Old Testament figures who created the New. Siegel begins with a Bulgakov-like Jesus, "the artisan's son turned wonderworker," who the neighbors said "didn't come to much," a man whose plain life masked a spiritual transcendence. There's a demure Mary accepting the genius of the Annunciation, a homesick prodigal, an astonished and bemused Lazarus, a fiercely competitive Judas,
Thomas who can 't take his eyes off him—"the loving flesh, for which the starved heart cries"—culminating in "the wild darkness of the Godhead" and the garden that seizes us with laughter,
blowing loose our hearts,
like the Mary shaken from her cloud
to the enormous gaiety of light
and the whole spontaneous flesh
now and forever loved in its first being.
In sharp imagery and the patient understatement of historical contextualization, the poet's enduring faith is lovingly, gracefully transcribed.
Part 3 has seventeen poems on assorted subjects. Some have several sections; one—"A.M."—is three lines long but contains the book's title: "Yellow flames flutter I about the feeder: I a Pentecost of finches." Like the lovely birds in their summer plumage flashing their ardor and their delight, these poems bounce with the sun:
Today the sky is
butter on my bread .... I am...
in the eye that draws its shape on the sky
and lingers, waiting for the face of light
The forty-three earlier poems very modestly selected from his three previous books—The Waters Under the Earth (2005), In a Pig's Eye (1980), and The Beasts & the Elders (1973)—present a masterful reading of an actual world, perfect transcriptions by a true naturalist, sometimes formal in mode, sometimes political in attack. The early poems carry an appealing romantic coloration, sometimes expressing simple, immediate, human love—
Once inside, all the way home,
bags leaning lovesick against us,
ice creams thawing in secret,
we feed each other plums and dark cherries
—and sometimes wrapping immediate love in the source of the life force itself—
And your hands float high on the tide of your feelings.
Now, shout from the stomach, hoarse with music,
Give gladness and joy back to the Lord,
Who, sly as a milkweed, lakes root in your heart.
And sometimes with sarcastic wit, as in "The Lady Who Lov'd a Swine," or with consummate style, as in "After viewing the Bust of Nefertiti," a poem to his wife in which he quotes Dante, cites Raphael, and refers to the long tradition of poems to one 's mistress to stand all convention on its head in pressing on his beloved the fact that she is "the dear I image of that beauty and grace I who loves us with a human face."
The crisp intelligence that animates this volume and the amazing skill that turns every subject to afresh, vivid picture of meaning are a rich definition of mastery. "Pieces of rock seem to chip off their firm lines," said Robert Lowell years ago, "leaving something ... with a granite elegance"—an exemplary volume to charm us and please us, each page showing how exciting genuine poetry is.
F. D. Reeve's most recent book of poems is The Toy Soldier. He and the jazz trio Exit 59 are preparing The Blue Cat Walks the Earth, a sequel to last year's The Return of the Blue Cat.
American Book Review
January / February 2007
____________________________________________________________________________A PENTECOST OF FINCHES: New and Selected Poems
Author: Robert Siegel (1939— )
Publisher: Paraclete Press (Brewster, Mass.). 179 pp.
Type of work: Poetry
Magill Literary Annual , 2007
The traditions of the bestiary are alive and well in the poetry of Siegel
Long before English departments and writing programs went green, long before the advent of ecocriticism, Robert Siegel's poetry and fiction firmly located the human in what is caned "the natural world," though what he sees is infused with something not comprehended by " nature" as many people now understand it.
One can consider the first lines of "Gettysburg: The Wheatfield," a poem from his 1973 debut collection, The Beasts and the Elders, included in A Pentecost of Finches: New and Selected Poems:
The wheat is swimming toward the sun
in the utter gale of Pennsylvania,
picking the light of stones and pushing
cataracts of trees over the hills.
I see the spotless blue sky swept
clean by the hurrying fields, think of
beards matted with sweat and pollen,
oozing cherry, sour apple, hoarse cries—
the bee dizzily searching for the smashed hive.
The poet reveals that "(hear only what I've read / in American Heritage, the centennial histories," and he sees "what I have brought to see, / slickly embalmed from the Brady photos, / to frame with empty trees and fences." Such testimony, he muses, "seems hardly plausible / among the dusty grass continually scratching / itself. The creases in my tourist map have / worn through several strategic locations." Later, "driving west," he remembers the druids, who practiced human sacrifice at harvest time, and from there his mind jumps to Auschwitz, where "one reads with mild surprise / the oven-manufacturer's name / stamped on his ware—the baker's hands are / immaculate, white with flour."
In Siegel's poems, the world is never denatured as it is in much contemporary writing; neither is nature a realm set apart from the human. Rather it is all a tangle—hence Siegel's favorite subject: the beasts, the animals, the birds of the air, the creatures of river and lake and sea, and all manner of creeping things. As American philosopher Thomas Nagel has argued, humans cannot know what it is like to be a bat (or a squirrel or a mosquito). However, we can imagine other creatures in our own image, so to speak, trying at the same time to respect their particularity, their inscape.
Humans have been doing this as far back as we can trace, from cave paintings of bison to Aesop's Fables (620-560 B.C.E.), from Native American cosmologies to Kenneth Grahame's The Wind and the Willows (1908). Siegel has great riches to draw on: the riddle-poem, for instance, in which a creature speaks in its own voice, and the poem ends—explicitly or implicitly—with the question "Who am I?" (Children love riddles. and Siegel is one of those fortunate writers who have not lost touch with childhood.) His own poems in this vein are not exactly riddles—the title (''Tiger'' or "Inchworm" or "Llama," for example) announces who is speaking—and some of them (such as "Muskie," "Bull," and "Silverfish") are in the third person rather than the first, representing another genre from the bestiary tradition. Nevertheless, he retains some of the spirit of the riddle.
Indeed, many of the poems from Siegel's bestiary take the stock devices of the riddle-poem (first and foremost, incongruous comparisons that turn out to be surprisingly apt) and turn them up a couple of notches. Here, for example, is the beginning of "Alligator":
I gather like an idea
on the calm waters.
My nostrils, eyes, surface
without your noticing. Then,
like the first dry land from primeval waters,
in an uncertain mist,
suddenly I am there, my low profile steady,
where you saw only a log, a bit of deadwood.
I am a museum
of the Triassic, a special effect
come into sharp focus, my smile
long and obscene.
Everyone knows what an alligator looks like. People tend to be blasé about alligators, and about much else. Part of the poet's job is "making strange," allowing readers to see the alligator in his primeval strangeness. This recovery of wonder is a good thing, yet it is always in danger of becoming a shtick, of sliding into kitsch. The poet has means at his disposal to keep this from happening: precision (which readers register in Siegel's diction and rhythms, as well as in a non-pedantic accountability to science: "I am a museum / of the Triassic") and a certain sardonic tone.
If one intent of these poems is to get readers to see the strangeness of our fellow creatures, there is a second movement in which the light is turned back on the human—to see our own strangeness in the alligator or the deer tick. "I sail in the dark on an unknown mission," the alligator proclaims, "Nelson toward the Nile / or Yamamoto toward Pearl. // I steam with no running tights toward another / inexplicable surprise." This is funny, but the laughter has a bite:
I carry myself like a big stick,
a log so ancient, water soaked,
it floats below the surface sodden, stiff,
but writhe like a single sinew, a green bolt
of lightning at a simple touch,
going after the pig, the chicken, the crane.
I am a mobile mouth, I live to swallow,
teeth within teeth within teeth.
I keep the waterways open for commerce.
Part of what makes Siegel such a fine poet is his ability to work so many levels of speech (for example, the echo of U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt's maxim), so many domains of experience, seamlessly into a single monologue. The alligator shows us ourselves, or one un-pretty aspect of ourselves ("I am a mobile mouth, I live to swallow, / teeth within teeth within teeth"), and the rationalizing genius that permits us to justify our insatiable appetites (for land, for goods, for anything and everything).
Although the bestiary poems are Siegel's signature, it would be misleading to leave the impression that all of his poems are of this kind. That is not the case: One section of the new poems in this volume, under the heading ''Portraits,'' is devoted to biblical figures—Lazarus, Judas, St. Paul, and others—while another section gathers poems in diverse modes, including a fitting homage to the visionary poet Thomas Traherne. Furthermore, there are splendid poems in this volume from the 2005 collection The Waters Under the Earth, some of which go in still different directions (see, for example, the powerful poem "Carrying the Father"). Still, it is in his creaturely impersonations that Siegel's distinctive voice is most clearly heard, his imaginative leaps most winsome.
"Giant Panda" is a short poem—just seven stanzas of two lines each—that begins with homely details but already hints where it is heading: "In the white mist of morning I find my place, / a square of the sun where I can balance / and chew the shoots, their green light in my mouth." That "white mist" and "green light" prepare readers for the concluding couplets, in which the panda is a Buddhist sage: "I sit, the world circling about me, / holding the secret between tongue and palate, / the sweetness of nothing above which / the mind shimmers like a forest of silks." Like the metamorphosis of the alligator into a warship ("I have the smile of a cruiser"), this transformation is entirely persuasive.
"The Serpent Speaks" is a longer, deeper, twistier monolog that probes the mystery of evil and makes palpable the overweening pride that is the source of so much human suffering. Then again, perhaps the most memorable poem in the entire volume is "Daddy Long Legs," a tour de force that should be widely anthologized: "It is alarming how quickly I climb / your khaki pant leg, then scurry over / the grass you brush me to, / climb up a tree / though I seem to have no head for direction." Here ten lines into the poem, readers are in the backyard, in the quotidian. How quickly though, with no strain, Siegel can shift this perspective: "though I move I am still here / and here and here and here, / my scurrying legs the mere static of time, in the brilliance of being."
Siegel does this, in part, by establishing the plausibility of a voice (the voice of the daddy longlegs is very different from the alligator's), in part by cunningly showing how the "ordinary" is extraordinary. There is, however, also a more elusive ingredient—"Siegelness," one might call it, whatever there is in his imagination that is truly his, so that the leap to the next stanza comes with the wild delight of an imaginary starship on the big screen shifting into hyperspace:
I appear to have no eyes, no ears,
no mouth. I am a single thought
surrounding itself, a singular idea,
an eye staring at the inside of the universe,
a pinpoint of light which holds within itself
the history of the Big Bang
and the revolving archangels of the Deity,
the Pleistocene and Waterloo
and the Grammy awards,
a singularity indeed
from which all flows and circles on itself.
Here is the universe in a daddy longlegs. However, it is not just the universe as promoted in a number of visually impressive but vacuous museum shows and coffee-table books, where the human—if mentioned at all—is irrelevant, trivial, a blip on the cosmic scale. The universe in Siegel's poem is the universe as seen by humans (the only universe we know) and, like the alligator, in its unfathomable strangeness shedding light back on us.
"Astonishing" is a word overused by critics. Maybe it should be retired; but in the meantime, it can fairly be said that as this poem proceeds to its conclusion—four more stanzas after the one quoted above—the reader should be astonished as well as delighted and ever after will think twice before harming a daddy longlegs.
Magill Literary Annual
American Book Review 28, no.2 (January / February, 2007): 24-25.
Sewanee Review 114, no. 4 (Fall, 2006): 77-79.
_A Pentecost of Finches: New & Selected Poems, 2006
The Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram, Sunday, June 25, 2006
“You can stroke people with words,” F. Scott Fitzgerald would say, a fitting observation when alluding to the many recent publications by Maine poets. Robert Siegel is surely high on any list to look for when browsing in your bookshop's poetry shelves.
Wordsworth defined poetry as “emotion collected in tranquility,” while noble Coleridge was known to repeatedly mutter that poetry is “the best words in their best order.” Poetry is language transformed, not mere Idiosyncratic thought arranged for attention, but the ordinary, however brief, made extraordinary, or, as James Lipton writes in “An Exaltation of Larks,” a sparkle that is “estuaries leading to a virtually uncharted sea.” Intriguing isolated pools, he calls them, of poetic possibilities.
Such unexpected pools of delight flow in unerring near-spiritual wonder in Siegel's latest collection. As in his previous nine collections of prose and poetry, these poems accentuate essentials of the nonhuman world. Animals, plants, our people-connection to them, hit the reader with a surprise of simplicity and revealed mystery. We are momentarily mesmerized in the focus on the voice of the tiger, the llama, the inchworm, the snail, the mussel. How buoyant are these voices in their singular realism, yet hovering, as each voice does in the profundity of earthly existence.
Wesley McNair, in “The Maine Poets,” an anthology of verse he edited last year, noted the prevalence of the theme of nature in the work of Maine poets. He wonders if it is Maine's geographic space that accounts for this: “Living in their far-flung locations,” he writes, (Maine poets) have perhaps been better able to block their ears against other voices and to hear the cadences of their own truths.”
Surely the tempo of Siegel's poetry evokes at times an eerie sense of hushed resonance, the silence wherein only the voice that is speaking hears its own intimate sound in its place in the world. Thus the tiger speaking: “Like these shadows / I flow in and out of myself.... My voice, a low engine turning over, / guttering vibrates through every root.”
We listen to the giant panda: “I sit, the world circling about me, / holding the secret between tongue and palate / the sweetness of nothing, above which / the mind shimmers like a forest of silks.” I read, enchanted by the spider: “I, who fell / from heaven on a single strand ... launched out on the rope of myself to meet / the other like an echo of myself, / trailing the long cord of my being ... the pattern of my soul was laid out ... I saw the beautiful design / of myself flex silver in all directions. / The small gnats fly to it, in admiration / and sing, fascinated, as I weave them into it / and drink their song, my hunger slightly abated.”
Yes, this is indeed gorgeous stuff, one shatteringly beautiful line after another. And then the poems that begin quietly, erupting in a startling lovely phrase buried in historical reference, such as the thoughts of the giraffe: “Light brown and reticulate yellow, I breathe / the altitude of the cockatoo and python. / The sun falls down me in a ladder ... My feet move / with the delicacy of waiters carrying a tray of desserts. /... I am the original ascetic / in the Egyptian oasis.”
It is not all swimming serpents, night crawlers, inchworms, 'although who can resist the latter's ascending lyrical longings: “I never feel quite all together / ... I am, certain of nothing / except the arch I make for light to pass under / in space I have measured again and again / in seconds and particles and waves / I forget for a while definition / in a wilderness of foliage, annihilating / all that's made to a green thought.... until at last with the shimmering leaves / I flow upward.”
Siegel turns his thoughts to the mystical, sometimes dedicating lines, a personal focus, taking us to the myriad mirages of a fertile mind. “Suppose,” we read, “a river, a drop of water, an apple, or a sand. / Suppose the object in the patina of being.” —that last, in its breathtaking elusiveness, a magical moment in one of the longer poems.
Siegel's focus is often on the mystical, on the mysterious small epiphanies of daily life, the pure wonder that they happen. He reminds us they exist on the most mundane levels, such as in “Grandfather Chance:” “His retired black shoes made a comfortable squeak / as if the earth liked his weight upon it. / I recalled the way his dentures clicked / cracking strawberry seeds, the morning light / flooding the cantaloupe he cut for me in cubes.”
Then there is the exquisite realism of “The Surgeon After Hours:” “the way her hand, birdlike, flew over the bedclothes. I wonder / do our brain cells at the edge / burst with a final energy? Is the last / illusion more real than life? I don't know: / the divisible flesh both is and isn't us.”
High praise—with more than a touch of awe—has followed this former college professor and chairman of a university creative writing program, now retired and living on the coast of Maine. The poet Robert Lowell wrote of Siegel's poetic work: “Nothing unseen or untouched here.” Indeed, his spare choice of words, mastery of metaphor, and sheer power of drawing us to the immediate, the now with all the earthly and unearthly leans on our lives makes us want to mark off pages, read whole treasures aloud, and best, find his previously published volumes.
And whence the title? Not a poem titled “finches” here. Hmmm. I think of Mary Oliver's comment in one of her books: “Poets must read and study, but they also must learn to tilt and whisper, shout, or dance, each in his or her own way, for always the new self swimming around in the old world feels itself uniquely verbal, the world, moist and beautiful, calls to each of us to make a new and serious response.”
But, whence finches? Pentecost is a celebration, and so I look into finches: we have gaggles of geese and prides of lions. I discover we can have a charm of finches.
The word charm, is a variant from Old English and meant a chirp, noise, din, chatter, vocal noise, especially of birds (according to the Oxford English Dictionary). How imaginative! An anthology of verse, of chatterings, of pure lovely voices in our wilderness world. I have watched in the boatyards. I have listened to the charms of finches on telephone wires, the voices celebrating their view of their world in a poetic language of their own.
Small wonder Siegel's work has received such high praise for its power, its creative conceptual energy. So we have not just an anthology, a collection, but a true celebration of flora, fauna, of life, of the creatures of Earth. Yes, “A Pentecost of Finches.”
Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram
June 25, 2006