Stranger in Town by Cedar Sigo
(City Lights, San Francisco, 2010)
STRANGERS ON OUR WAY
This book came highly touted. It was Ron Silliman who posted something on FaceBook about it being the new Frank O’Hara for our times. I had to check it out. Right away, I was saying, “No, this is not very O’Hara.” That was probably because I saw John Wieners staring insightfully into a purple glass doorknob in the first poem, and I saw his line-by-raggedy-line constructions in the third poem and others. “Speedway” (for John Wieners) is worthy of the man’s lyric genius. In the book’s title poem, there’s even what I took to be a description of Wieners’ poetics:
collapse, Let tuneful praise ascend
Okay, so Wieners is there; so there. But wait; there’s more.
There are other voices here that keep us safe from the messy message that finding your own voice is the quest to be about. I heard Ted Berrigan in “Lisbon,” the second piece. I felt Bean Spasms in the book in a few places, with Cholly O standing seriously tall behind them. There is at least one echo of Phil Whalen. These poems try to digest the lessons from those writers and move to where fresh uses make worthy homages. The problem is, for me, that these poems don’t pass Old Ez’s test question about culture: can you forget what book it came from?
This book tries to go somewhere beyond its references and doesn’t thoroughly succeed. There are poems that get going on their own. They make good use of their readerly context. Reference points like the music of Alice Coltrane or some movie you’ve maybe never seen do not require that you go out to find them; references to the poets neither. However, they do provide a drag here. It’s partly about the fabric that includes these things in experience; As Sigo says:
I have tried above all to bring an allure to poetry. Where I would once read other poems to begin my own, now it’s more common that I write in response to hearing live music, attending an art exhibit, films, or just going out. (66)
This explanation comes in a piece called “The Sun” that also lets us know that “odds & ends” as well as metaphorical acts of “sleepwalking and nosedives” are consciously worked into these poems. It’s also about the declaration that “One must keep holy the edges of fragments.” This thought shows up in “John Altoon” (17) and “The Secret Ceremony”; it reminds me of the basis of a whole theory about early classical Greek lyric in Anne Carson’s book on Eros. She sees the lyric as rising from the new use of the alphabet and a resulting sense of a self with edges. We know those poems in fragments mostly. Sigo follows a modern poetics of fragmented experience. The follow-up thought in his prosier ceremony poem is “checked in one line checked out the next,” and that is followed by an explanation of this approach: “A hardened form of the mind turned fluid” (43).
Not every bit of that works for every reader on every day, but a lot of it thrills me each time I open this book. It’s the daring do I like. There’s gorgeous stuff here and quirks. There are unfinished thoughts that make a music in their soundings and in the torque of turning at a break-off point. A piece called “The Emerald Tablet” asserts another Carsonian focus: “One of my primary concerns in poetry has become the courtship, recognition, and handling of physical tension” (59). This fits into what Carson’s book sees as the basis for the classic lyra graeca at that point of inventing a self that stops at boundaries but has a need of something beyond. Here it is used to perhaps back off of a sole self center. This effect is created in the composition itself when, as “The Sun” puts it, “torn strings of words get hanged together & are contingent upon one another” (67). There is a process of eliminating hinges here that shows (and is perhaps explained) in a passage like this:
Plain lead pencil to connect stars
a sketch is now the highest form
bearings inexactly set
registry effectively impossible
they never gain footing in a style first
That last claim isn’t always a good thing, though true. The poet in “The Sun” lays claims to a goal of “absolute fluency” and a “wish to hold the reader on a purely subliminal level (never cloying)” (67). The book doesn’t always live up to these targets but seeing them there helps you get how the arrows are aimed and the strings plucked:
the questions fall
around allure. Poems floated
from the hearth
out the mouth. I am wound up, bored
we are only strangers on our way
The sense of strangers and little strangenesses drawn from life are this book’s strengths, but our celebration of these writings had better not hold this writer at this stage. He has a lot going and a lot to go on and do. Stranger in Town is a self-positioning among the already done. Wieners, again, not O’Hara, is the sharpest point of reference here, and he over-reached this work by far. From The Hotel Wentley Poems to the more-than-poems of Behind the State Capitol or Cincinnati Pike and beyond, Wieners ripped through every thing around him in each lyric thought he had, binding allure to distastes all in seeing and saying. Take for instance these lines from the Pike’s“Jail Mata Hari?”:
horsepowered to outfox tyrannized legions rippd foment
she could suspend cement, as untendd captains breakwater
a mazebad sabotage whodone-it weaponless garment.
With Sigo, we are on our way through the Garbo-esque alluring but not out on that dangerous pike yet.
T.C. Marshall is busy occupying his life, seriously supporting movement actions on the Cabrillo College campus where he teaches and in the S.F. and Monterey Bay areas where he lives. He has been writing and publishing poetry since first grade, literary criticism since his college days in the U.S. and Canada, and nature writing here and there. His latest publications include online essays and reviews as well as poems online and on paper in magazines. His next project is a set of poems incorporating photos to be published on a blog, all of which were originally posted on FaceBook. They are called Post Language.