The angelic confidences of Joan Siegel
Hyacinth for the Soul, Joan I. Siegel, Deerbrook Editions http://www.deerbrookeditions.com, 2009, 87pp, $16.95
Many of Joan Siegel’s poems  sound like the whispered confidences of angels, sound being the operative word. Most poems “read” one way or another, but only the rare poem engages eye and ear simultaneously.
There is from poem to poem a sense of angels coming and going, ghosting through memories, like zephyrs in curtains. Reflections dehisce from the memories.
In Buchenwald/his sister turned into a bird/and flew out the chimney stack./In America/he found a wife,/then lost her./An old man with sooty eyes/and sooty pants, he steers/a baby carriage brimming/with rags.
—”Rag Man of Middletown”
For silence some poets rely on caesurae—a device Siegel uses frugally—or placement on the page—but such is Siegel’s authorial hush that silences become moving parts of the poems’ creatureliness.
In your family
took a bus
to the VA hospital
& died quietly
on the front steps.
— “To My Husband”
Thoughts of being the first to walk on new-fallen snow arrested me as I read a number of these poems—there is that pristine sense of beginnings being imparted. The work doesn’t clamor for attention, but when you look back you see how you have come here and you reflect that a footfall doesn’t have to be cast in cement to be memorable. Surely the music of Satie and Debussy, if not the poets, has taught us that.
Later, in the street, you lifted
your face to the snow and
loved the lamp post, the sky,
Where is the music
when the dark piano lid is shut?
That an informed reader might on occasion argue with a poet’s choice of word or meter doesn’t necessarily call into question the poet’s achievement, but nonetheless it’s remarkable that Siegel almost never invites such an issue. I was watching the Winter Olympics when I read Hyacinth for the Soul the first time, and I thought that if these poems were figure skaters and I a judge I would forget to score them for the sheer pleasure of their presence.
Toward the end
I carried him like a baby
through my dreams. I worried
I’d lose him in the crowds.
Now he visits my sleep.
Dying was the easy thing,
he says, then drives off
in his 1940 Studebaker.
—”How we look after each other”
I admire the sure-footedness of this poem and Siegel’s many poems like it, as if there were no other possible way to say this, as if this is the perfect line length, the perfect break: an inarguability of poetics, rare and deft.
Siegel’s poems are often like herons that know just where to stand by a pond so that the fish won’t see their shadow. Every step, every movement is choreographed in perfect attunement to the sensibility of the sentiment, to the recognition at hand.
These are youthful poems that could not have been made by a youth, because they have that becoming, tempered interiority that eludes all but the rarest youth (Keats comes to mind). There is a youthfulness that comes to some in old age because the luggage of pretense has been shed or lost in the terminals of experience. Sometimes a lightness, redolent of Voltaire’s smile, characterizes the work of older artists. In Siegel’s case it’s manifested by the exquisite footfalls of each poem upon the page, a reassuring inevitability about the path taken. We’re never tempted to ask, Are you sure this is the way? It is the only way. That is not characteristic of youth, however exciting the path.
Joan Siegel is professor emeritus at SUNY Orange and lives in Blooming Grove, New York.
The cover of her book, whose production values are superb, is a story by itself. It’s a photograph of a quilt made by her sister as record of their father’s struggle with Alzheimer’s Disease. This story suggests how much we lose in a marketer’s society obsessed with youth and its potential buying power. We lose not only our respect for the elderly but the hard-won wisdom they have eked out of their experiences. This advertising mentality leads us to think new experiences are more unique than they are and we have little to learn from the past. Hyacinth for the Soul is powerful contrary testament.
Hyacinth for the Soul is collected into four unnamed sections and dedicated to the poet’s family. The title poem, which appears in the middle of the second section, is explained in the first quatrain:
Bake two loaves of bread, my mother used to say.
Give one away and plant a hyacinth for the soul.
I never understood and she did not explain.
It was one of those sayings from the old country.
The hyacinth is ubiquitous in Victorian homes and as a symbol of love whose fragrance is redolent of the soul’s eternal nature. It provides the very scent of eternity. Here the 13th Century Persian poet Musharish Ud Din Sadi writes:
If of thy mortal goods thou art bereft,
And from thy slender store
Two loaves alone to thee are left,
Sell one, and with the dole,
Buy hyacinths to feed thy soul.
Hyacinth for the Soul’s internal organization is worth noting because of publishers’ pervasive bias against books lacking overt themes. Deerbrook Editions, to its considerable credit, correctly discerned that thematic threads may be so subtle and unobtrusive that they elude all but the most sensitive editor. This book is a record of a recollective, integrative life: Not a box of verbal snapshots, but a navigational rutter, denoting landmarks, landfalls, troubled straits, hard passages, warnings, premonitions and precognitions.
The marketer’s bias for strong thematic books of poetry precludes much good poetry and often compels poets to impose themes. Much good poetry is squeezed out of the market by this predeterminant.
Siegel’s work addresses a situation in poetics that I notice from time to time the way you might notice a soup stain on someone’s tie or blouse. There is a vogue for plain speech which, while welcome in its own right, often lapses into a kind of soap opera plastered like icing into line breaks characteristic of prosody but in effect having none. Her work is intrinsically lyrical and cadenced, so much so that one is tempted to think her ordinary thought process—the way she thinks things through—must resemble her finished poems.
The deeply moving collection reminds us that without the gracious wisdom of the elderly, without respect for their experiences, we are half a society. —Djelloul Marbrook