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The Waters Under the Earth

"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: 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."

The Sewanee Review

Complete Review:

THE GREAT CHAIN OF BEING, The Sewanee Review, Fall, 2006
Thomas Bontly

The Waters Under the Earth
By Robert Siegel
(Canon Press, 2005. 134 pages. pb)

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
presence. Delay
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.

Thomas Bontly
Sewanee Review
Fall 2006