M. Bartley Seigel, This Is What They Say, Typecast Publishing, 2012
Reviewed by John Pursley III
M. Bartley Seigel's debut collection of poems This is What They Say's opening invocation, like almost all of the poems in the collection, seems in answer to its title:
Good children don't swim in dead lakes. They don't congregate like cigarette butts along the line of sand and water. Good children don't stare too long into the darkness or ask questions they shouldn't. They don't play on the pavement cracked or weed-choked or shade themselves in the shadows of creaking vats or idle along chain link long enough to draw attention to themselves. Good children don't drink from cloudy water or wade for minnow and frogs...
M. Bartley Seigel is not good children, and the poems of his first collection are less interested in what they say than in the lives that inhabit these hard-scrabbled landscapes, lives that for the most part remain voiceless. This vision of the rural Midwest undoubtedly dominates the book. The fifty-seven prose poems that make up the collection are all untitled, written in first person plural, and of roughly the same size and shape—a reiteration that seems to underscore the struggles of working-class America through unyielding repetition and to suggest that the poems are meant to be read as short sections of a single longer and more sprawling narrative. In this way, Seigel's poems embrace that bardic yowl and democratizing tradition of Whitman and Ginsberg (whose "pubic beards" he references specifically), but perhaps even more so Carl Sandberg's "Chicago," especially in the poems' constant embrace of the lives of his subjects, their misgivings, hardships, and their less-than-stellar circumstances.
These are poems that aren't afraid of the dirt under their nails—that stink of cigarettes and rotted wood, abandoned gas stations and stagnate water, of leaky faucets and kerosene, ex-lovers and old parole officers, of black eyes and bad blood. These are poems that witness "truck stop whores rolling hoses from pickup tailpipes into a John's bedroom window" and "dirty faced kids getting high on an alchemy of state statistics," poems that recognize that "mostly, it's just a second ago and she's across the table sipping a beer, smoking a cigarette, pushing a greasy hair behind her greasy ear. Then she isn't. Mostly things are like this. Not holy, just hollow."
There is a pervasive emptiness that hovers over everything in the book and creates most of its tension. And yet, in spite of all the suggestions of isolation and apathy, more often than not, these are poems that stare at the dusk "watching dreams disappear into the darkening trees" asking "how long will each of us lie pondering the sky while our waters run out, while leaves pile up, while love is made?" The unwavering nature of this focus seems to suggest a belief in the possibility of transcendence, which these poems grope for throughout the book. For instance, in a poem early in the collection Seigel describes sweaters heaped in a corner as not "our sweaters, but something alien and protean, some earlier shell shed." Though the image is straightforward, it offers the possibility of metamorphosis and posits what seems to be a potential apotheosis for the characters who inhabit this landscape.
Transcendence or the teasing possibilities of transcendence linger throughout the collection and the narrative conscious of the speaker. However, most of these epiphanic moments come couched in disaster or between unhealthier states of being. For instance, in one poem the speaker, proclaiming himself beyond drunk, announces, "We're left alone to stumble arm in arm from shining castle to shining castle toward the last best place on earth, simple, pure and terrible like little gods." The idiom here is escapist, but contains within it a spark of hope before the weight of the actual circumstance smothers any fire that might have been ignited in the moment. Similarly, in the poem immediately following this one, we're reminded that "something beautiful happened here once [...] and the scent of our tallow, our sweat and musk, will hang on in the air for a while after we've gone."
Perhaps the most telling moment in the collection is Seigel's echo of W. B. Yeats' "The Second Coming" paralleling the dejected lives of his characters with those of post-WWI Europe. Like Yeats the impetus towards transcendence is first and foremost in the poem, although Yeats of course says "things fall apart" and "the centre cannot hold." And like Yeats' famous closing lines (And what rough beast, its hour come round at last / slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?) the poem seems to offer little of the transcendent consolation the speaker is looking for. Seigel's speaker concludes by saying, "we slouch toward our cheap salvations in whatever way we can."
As the collection comes to a close we are not offered any real resolve. However, an argument could have made that the ambiguous "they" of the title and the "we/us" of the poems are drawn closer together. The speaker does not transcend anything, but does seem to endure, which is perhaps the bigger triumph. In the last poem of the book, in one of the more intimate moments in the collection, the speaker "makes love" and "draws a bath," both of which are symbolically procreative moments; however, both are tied to suffering and a sort of disjointed numbness. The couple "make love and afterward lie sullen on the bed, our bellies down, heads turned away." This is What They Say is an impressive debut that creates an unlikely intimacy between its subjects and its readers even as it hammers us with the dark realities of the rural Midwest. Though it offers little resolve, it is a startling and uncompromising look into our own, unilluminated lives.