DISCUSSED IN THE ESSAY:
The End of Beauty, by Jorie Graham. Ecco Press. 112 pp., $15.00.
living must bury, by Josie Sigler. Fence. 96 pp., $16.00.
One letter separates the names of these two poets. Move from “r” to “s” and Jorie becomes Josie. This simple nearness draws an inevitable and inappropriate comparison when these two poets are seen together on the bookshelf: from Jorie to Josie, a progression. The title of Josie Sigler’s first collection, living must bury, echoes the title of Jorie Graham’s seminal work The End of Beauty. Both of these titles reference themes of life, humanity, and the end of life and humanity. They also move toward declaring an objective, a purpose: this is the purpose of beauty, to live we must perform the act of burial.
To look at two authors at the same time risks marginalizing or misreading both authors. No authors are truly “alike” or truly “different.” All are alike in their use of language; all are different in that the words themselves are different. Another risk is that one poet gets privileged over another. To claim that Sigler writes in the tradition of Graham would be to saddle Sigler with expectations and an already existing methodology of reading derived from Graham’s ouvre that is inconsistent with the borders of her own work. To believe that what came before is inherently better in its already-existing state, or what is new is better in its emerging quality, are both incorrect, particularly in this instance. What is much more productive is to focus our attention not on the similarities but on the differences; the divergence allows for the poems to be read on their own terms with a greater significance. These differences are the identifying markers that show the singularity of each poet. And Graham and Sigler are nothing if not singular poets.
The comparisons can be simple: Graham and Sigler both thrive in the nearly endless line, which itself evokes a lineage of Ginsberg and Whitman. For Graham, these lines create a space for intense meditation, as in the opening lines of “Self-Portrait as Demeter and Persephone”:
So Look I said this is the burning bush we’re in it it has three faces
It’s a day’s work it’s the hand that takes and the other one
The other one the mother the one whose grief is the visible world
a wound she must keep open by beginning and beginning
Sigler’s long lines are also a meditation, but a meditation that moves faster and farther, such as the opening lines of the book from “those who curse horses, who repeatedly fail to tithe“:
those who come from the river Lethe hulled with such knives.
those who kill the animals that want to die. Such culling
calls me further, ladle to mouth that I might transmigrate
with no remembrance of the largess on the map of Jupiter
Themes overlap: the desire to understand the world through differentiation, naming, and experience; the use of mythology to understand the contemporary world. But though these poems look similar because of their long lines, their construction indicates a vital difference between the two poets. Graham’s verse concerns itself with rhythm first and sound second, though sound for Graham is disconnected from the desire for particular rhyming or even echoes of rhyme. Sigler’s opening lines announce a different relationship with language. The “tithe” of the title is echoed in the near-rhymes of “knives,” “die,” “I,” “might,” and “transmigrate.” Sigler creates poems that are lyric events as much as they are thoughts, meditations, and ideas.
Sigler’s poetry bursts with an untethered energy, as in “those who shimmer in cord spell, those with hearts“:
wide as watermelons, those who know me, those who listen
with ears made of conch shells, I am your own foundling.
That is to say, a throwaway you’ve gathered considering
many are raped by the gods & society is unkind, will not
furnish apartments for those who fulfill prophecies &
who can find such carbon-dating with a mother hovering?
Assign her any evil, but I am insistent when I want love—
Graham tempers her meditations, which come across as more thoughtful and staid. Each word in her verses is fully and completely considered before being placed on the page, each emotional admission run through thought countless times. Sigler’s verse is unrestrained, moves with a logic of emotion rather than a logic of intellect. If Graham were to write the above lines, they would probably be distilled to the final image. Sigler announces an opening image in the title and first couplet, which is then found to be incomplete or inadequate in the act of writing it, prompting a continued search for the best image, “That is to say . . . ” It’s the journey in search of the correct image, rather than the image itself, that is the point.
The unrestrained nature of Sigler’s poetry is not an indication of a lack of thoughtfulness or consideration. It is, rather, an embrace of a different logic, a different purpose. The attention to sound reveals that Sigler’s poetic constructions are not haphazard or tossed together. The verses are just as painstakingly constructed as Graham’s. For Graham, the long lines create an impression of thought-in-action, as if her thoughts cannot be stopped even to break to the next line. But the content of these lines does not always correspond to this breathlessness, to the idea of unrestrained creation.
The slight difference in the titles of the two collections echoes these different approaches. Graham’s The End of Beauty reveals an interest in the end, the ultimate purpose, and what will be found when that end is reached. The journey, of course, must be traversed to get to that end, but the journey and what happens on the journey will be abandoned once the poet arrives at the end. Sigler’s living must bury announces a different intention, a necessary rule. Those living must bury to continue living. Graham’s announcement of “The End” becomes in Sigler the progressive gerund “living.” Sigler’s interest is in what we must continue to do in order to continue to be. The journey itself and what we do to continue that journey is brought into focus.
Not surprisingly, then, end points figure prominently in Graham’s work, such as this meeting from “Description”:
Meet me, meet me whisper the waters from the train window and the small skiff adrift
with its passengers, oarless, being pulled in by
some destination, delicate, a blossom on the wing of
the swollen waters.
These lines would not be out of place in Sigler’s work—though it would be interesting to see where she would take them in lieu of a Graham-style ending. For Sigler orders us to run, to go, in order to save ourselves. To reach an end is to die. To continue on is to do little more than to continue to bury ourselves deeper, but in the act of burying ourselves we remain alive. Though Sigler’s verse is filled with the harrowing realities of the world, she retains the vital spark that we must continue to live.
Sigler’s poetry, as Graham’s, is undeniable in its energy, singularity, and necessity, though the energy, singularity, and necessity differ, as in “glorious, those excavators, hands that speak“:
in the night, move the earth, frozen, with stolen spoons.
You know by the edges of a man’s mouth he’ll last until dawn,
die, or labor endless for that glimmer—the open sky
brighter than cell walls & surface crumbling in the eye: O
face of the moon, too tired for shock, Run, then.
Resigned as those who will not. Go.
those who fail to save themselves.
Would these lines be out of place inserted into one of Graham’s poems? The answer is at the same time absolutely not and absolutely yes. That Sigler and Graham diverge as poets is obvious: they write in different generations, with different life experiences, different interests, and different goals. What unites them, beyond the nearness of their first names and the visible look of their lines on the page, is an unresolved desire to be true to their selves and their verse. A Jorie Graham poem is as clear and identifiable as any out there, and as Sigler shows in her debut book, a Josie Sigler poem will be just as recognizable.
Andrew Wessels has lived in Houston, Los Angeles, and Cambridge. He currently splits his time between Istanbul and Las Vegas, where he is pursuing an MFA in poetry at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He is the editor in chief of the literary journal The Offending Adam. Recently, he co-edited with Mark Irwin the forthcoming anthology 13 Younger Contemporary American Poets (Proem Press). He also writes the literary blog A Compulsive Reader.
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