Thursday, May 26, 2011

Cedar Sigo is a Frank O’Hara for the 21st century: witty, erudite, serious, with a terrific ear & eye for the minutest details, at home in the world of the arts. But an O’Hara that comes after language poetry & new narrative, as comfortable with flarf as with hybridism. Consider, for example, “Seriously Underdressed,” a two-page poem on the topic of a missing locket, from his new book, Stranger in Town:

Acid washed
Jeans, bitten down
Fingernails, I’ve been
Uptight all
This week wishing
Scented tissue
I can tease
Into flowers, same
As ever My heart-
shaped collapsible
Locket is still
Missing & I miss
Wearing it open,
I remember a black
Fog inside so
Combed through, trapped
And willingly
Shining me on

A touch this light looks like it ought to be simple to write, until of course you try it yourself & realize that it’s the hardest of writing’s effects. The first time through this poem I thought that it was the locket itself, that particular, that gave the poem its presence but the second time through I realized that this was all wrong, that was it the idea of a locket that was filled inside with fog, until the third time through I realized that that was wrong also, that it was key term “Combed,” combined as it was with “trapped,” giving the fog an air of culture – rather in the same manner that a well-manicured sand trap at Augusta is not a beach – and the contrast these two terms joined together have with the images at the poem’s opening, the distressed jeans & the chewed-down nails (an allusion to Samuel R. Delaney, whose autobiographical writings pay an homage of sorts to the erotic potential of ragged self-devoured fingernails?). That a poem this straightforward could, in fact, prove so layered, is itself an excellent test of poetry. But what strikes me finally is the hopeful tone at the end – the locket may be “still missing,” but its memory remains a beacon in the life of the speaker. Again like O’Hara, Sigo can write a poem about loss, but not a depressing one.

A big part of what makes “Seriously Underdressed” – the title can certainly be read as a comment on its own form – what it is is the expansive leading between lines. On the page immediately prior, we found just the opposite:


For John Wieners

I cut out the “Heart with Snowflake”
Myself but it is not mine, Forget
This bloody coat bloody shirt, I
Think it is the writing that makes
Me sick, The scores and scores of
Incidental music, this nosebleed all
Spring all wet, I’m positively angry
with the Impertinence of it! I’m
Sewing up the kinks in this film, I’m
Trying to! I’m trying to burn a light
Between, There’s a light and I cable
my voice on it but it rips when I trace
OF DEATH “Oh build it!” Sings the
Heart, “My coat would be so bloodied
I could wiggle out of my coat!”

At one level, this is an almost perfect “John Wieners poem,” or perhaps “Hotel Wentley Poem,” which Sigo comments (on a recording of him reading the piece) came about when he was asked to contribute to a festschrift in celebration of Wieners while living just a few blocks from the Polk / Sutter apartment building that in the 1950s was the location for, and title of, Wieners’ classic chapbook, in all important respects the first book of poetry in English entirely out of the closet. Again the images of loss here are striking, as well as the countermeasures Sigo brings to bear against the crushing possibility of taking them too seriously. One’s heart is cut out, but it’s only a Christmas tree decoration heart, even if it leaves the speaker’s shirt & coat bloodied, or Sigo capitalizing Impertinence, as though that were what one might take anger at. There is much more anxiety in the tone, but it’s an anxiety on the edge of the comic.

Stranger in Town is a terrific book, cover to cover. I’m sure it’s important that Sigo is Suquamish and was raised on the reservation in Washington before landing miraculously at Naropa, but it’s important in the same way that it’s important that Larry Eigner was disabled or that Larry Eigner was Jewish. Eigner was both of those things, but he was a great poet first, and without qualification. Sigo likewise is a fabulous poet. The poems here, precisely because they deal so much with the poetics of the world as he’s found it, strike me as the writing of a writer who is still maturing. But Sigo shows every evidence of being ready to go forward without hesitation, creating the poetry of the future. This is one of those books that leave you wanting only one thing from the poet – more.

I should note that Stranger in Town is the 4th volume in a new series published by City Lights Books, whose Pocket Poets Series has been the single-most influential collection of writing published under one brand in the United States over the past 55 years. This new series, City Lights Spotlights, edited by Garrett Caples, is threatening to be every bit as groundbreaking. Other contributors to the series to date include Norma Cole, Anselm Berrigan, Andrew Joron, Will Alexander & Micah Ballard.