Hyacinth for the Soul by Joan I. Siegel, Deerbrook Editions, 2009
Reviewed by Mary Makofske
Like Chinese ink paintings, the poems of Hyacinth for the Soul are spare, creating with a few evocative strokes a landscape of loss and beauty.
These are poems of family: childhood memories, the aging and death of parents, the love and tensions between husband and wife, mother and daughter, sisters. But the collection also spirals out to those torn by war or hardship and to characters of myth or history. Siegel speaks in her own voice, but also is comfortable taking on the persona of others (as in “Mary Cassatt: The Letter (1890-1)” and “Eurydice in the Underworld”). The empathy she brings to these subjects shows that she considers these, too, her extended family.
The poet’s eye for detail can bring a scene alive, as when she recalls herself and her sister as children:
You with your pink cat’s eyes
Me with a candy cigarette hanging
from my lower lip . . .just like the real
mothers on our block.
Siegel and her husband (J.R. Solonche) wrote a previous book of poems, Peach Girl: Poems for a Chinese Daughter. Emily also appears in this volume, as when Siegel recalls her daughter’s “First Words” with a stunning metaphor:
The way each word pushes through your lips
sometimes makes me think of the birth of a foal
who squeezes through the dark
a little misshapen and folded
trying to stand on wobbly legs and shake
And later, in “Washing My Daughter’s Hair,” she paints a warm domestic scene:
Supple as willow curved above a stream,
she perches on a bench, rounds her shoulders,
tosses silken hair over the kitchen sink.
I lather the black heft in my hands.
Warm water runs through our laughter
and the soapy fragrance of the morning.
Even here, however, a shadow falls across the end of the poem as she sees her daughter’s vulnerability: “already. . . here in abeyance—/ loneliness, / hollow bones.”
Though not a performer, Siegel is a pianist, and her passion for music runs through the book. In “Chopin Prelude in E-Minor” she recalls this piece she knows by heart, and the music she and her father shared:
This page missing from the book of preludes
with their spiraling descents and
breaks of sudden weather
this quiet page missing ten years
folded in my father’s hand
to take along on the journey
as if the dead really need what we give them. . . .
Playing the piano stirs a childhood memory of falling asleep while her mother played:
I saw the watery moon and breathlessly
I reached along its twisting current home,
swam up the moonlight she began to play:
that shaft of music from the living room.
“Playing Claire de Lune on My Mother’s Birthday”
Though many of the poems use simple language and syntax, this one, a sonnet, exemplifies the musical lushness Siegel can create.
Art also comes under Siegel’s keen gaze. In “The Great Masters,” after describing in exquisite detail examples of “a woman. . . usually naked” in famous paintings, Siegel observes:
She doesn’t hear
that other woman screaming in the next gallery—
the one thrown to the ground,
hair trussed by the roots,
clothes ripped from her body. . . .
And you wonder how you never noticed the connection before.
Re-imaging myths, history, and contemporary news can be tricky, but Siegel knows how to tie the past to the present. Ceres, for example, becomes any mother searching for her lost daughter, in these days of so many lost and disappeared. In “War Photo” Siegel gives context to the image of a marine holding a dead girl by reminding us that “Nearby flows Euphrates, / the fourth river that went out of Eden / to water the garden.”
The collection includes two pantoums, which use a repeating line pattern. One is a charming memory of her fascination with a peddler’s horse she’s been warned against. Seen through the lens of her fear, the horse becomes a comic monster. The other pantoum , the title poem of the book, weaves a mysterious saying from her mother (“Bake two loaves of bread. Give one away and plant a hyacinth for the soul.”) with questions about family photographs and her love of the natural world. There is no answer to the poet’s questions, and the pattern of repetitions in the poem mirrors the cycling of memory, time, and artistic creation:
I sit out the bruised hours wondering
who are the faces in the photographs
until words rise through the dead leaves. Flower.
I kneel in the dirt, plant hyacinths for my mother.
Who are the faces in the photographs?
I never understood and she did not explain.
so I kneel in the dirt, plant hyacinths for my mother,
bake two loaves of bread as she used to say.
In Hyacinth for the Soul, Joan I. Siegel finds joy even in darkness, music even in death, and always a flower rising toward light.
Mary Makofske is a prize-winning poet, author of two books of poetry: THE DISAPPEARANCE OF GARGOYLES (Thorntree Press) and EATING NASTURTIUMS (Flume Press).