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Syllabic Fits of Speech: Cedar Sigos’ “All This Time”

Wave Books

“Sigo is a poet of utter seriousness, one who feels strongly about justice, the revindication of Native American identity, the calling out of cruelty and neglect, and many other pressing social matters. But he comes at the task with a meditative indirection, insisting on approaching these realities in a considered and careful manner.”

The Suquamish poet Cedar Sigo offers a simple, accurate description of his poetics:

“I never let the music of the line dissolve completely, and those edges (though always fading fast) will attach themselves to the next island of words, but without ever dying away completely. Every utterance is overlaid and connected acoustically in performance.”

His influences, as discussed in a series of lectures titled Guard the Mysteries, are myriad, beginning with the Projective Verse poet Charles Olson, whose The Maximus Poems, while ultimately rewarding, can feel like skiing up an icy hill, approaching the level of difficulty of Ezra Pound’s Cantos. Yet Sigo’s poetry, while sometimes elusive and allusive, feels more accessible, like rain droplets in a pond, dispersing the water already present with precipitation that keeps falling, now slower, now faster, a continuous visual and sonic displacement of volume.

His poetry collection All This Time shows Sigo at the peak of these acoustic powers. Such as this verse, from “Surface Waves”:

Larry Eigner’s words
Like golden
flies
stuck in
a loom—made
to fall
with sudden
strumming
they sound, separate
distinct
raining
down upon
pavement.

Sigo is not only a poet of the senses but, ultimately, a political one. He speaks freely of his line of descent from Allen Ginsberg, Diane Di Prima, June Jordan, their revolutionary spirit, and of his own activism around Native American heritage, in the manner of Joy Harjo. But action begins with calling things by their names, cultivating respect for words as words.

“More and more, I see the poet’s work as connecting bits of language

as they begin to surface out right. My dream of composition is not to

convey narrative but rather to illumine the fact that scaling these gaps

aloud creates intimacy. It is a revealing process. Its arrival may result

in entire lines or unsettled syllabic fits of speech.”

If offered the choice between reading bald declarations and syllabic fits of speech, leading who knows where, I will always choose the latter. I want to find the destination as I go.

From “Cold Valley”:

The best part
is grinding
the ink down
endlessly, filling
my brush
gray morning
I first feel
the mind
as reflex.

Olson famously spoke of a poet “managing both the acquisition of his ear and the pressures of his breath.” Sigo is alive to these demands. Yet, Sigo’s short, kinetic, yet somehow meditative lines fall less in the manner of Olson’s vatic delivery, polysyllabic and staid, in long lines, that of a self-assured prophet. (“But suddenly the huge underbody was above me, and the rear tires/were masses of rubber and thread, variously clinging together.”). Sigo’s fall more in the manner of an enthusiast. He is reminiscent of his avowed poetic mentor Robert Creeley, with brief lines comprising the sort of dynamic hover of a dragonfly over a lotus flower, seemingly still yet at the same time in continuous, but hypnotic rather than distracting, movement.

From “Symbol on a Box Lid”:

Bridled to ride
through entwined
circular gates
That tightening
the room back
after endless
waterfalls,
stadium applause
for our perfect
zoning-out poet
He courses in
and through
the ends of lines
(I think)
or by sealing
them off?

This effect is less a matter of surprising enjambment than it is of finding natural-seeming pauses, breath as Olson would have it, speech and thought as one, never insistent. Yet these are indeed fits (not to be confused with spasms), each existing unto itself, inviting us to pause on the line, break through to the next, pause, break through, and so on.

Sigo tries to explain this method when reflecting on listening to Creeley’s performances, and how the latter was able to turn something apparently plain into something altogether summoning.

“The words used were often quite short, words like things, one, fact, if, edges. All of these seemingly simple words are made so jaggedly present through an incisive patterning. It is not thewords themselves but the space they take up as marked, as reset. They have to be read with this constantly sharpening edge, otherwise in the end they seem to carry no weight.”

Such an approach strikes me as a healthy corrective to the prolonged vogue of indeterminacy—at its worst, it could have been named “high confusion”—of the 1980s and 1990s (and onward), when many poets strived to render verse as deliberately senseless as possible, thoughts clustered and free-associative in the extreme, registers of lexicon sometimes egregiously technical to the point of boredom. It is pointless to rescue “non-poetic” language from oblivion, if afterward you beat it to death. Sometimes this tour de force writing, of which I have read a great deal, struck me as brilliant and innovative—and other times, simply aggravating, showy to little purpose. Some poets insisted on being far-flung for its own sake, without an evident endgame other than “questioning language and master discourses,” and, as a result, the authors did not seem in possession of the span of words that they arrogated wantonly to themselves.

Indeterminacy is neither an automatic good quality in writing, nor an instant detriment. It depends on how one uses it. On some level, in most poetry except the most obvious, a reader is always trying to make sense of what is being said and cannot simply groove endlessly on the poet’s chain of private associations, one which she or he refuses to disclose. We are looking for the sweet spot between effort and ease. It really comes down to maintaining the tease of meaning, with us let halfway in and trying to puzzle out the rest of it because we sense we are so close to the goal that extended difficulty feels delicious. That is the nature of poetry in itself, giving and withholding in equal measure, whether through brainy allusions, half-recondite imagery, or linguistic bravado, without which one is doomed to the kind of banal speech one hears all day, every day, from the mouths of most people.

Sigo seems highly aware of this dual reality. He plays with us betimes, dropping such mildly nonsense phrases as “I feel much tractor about things now…/I feel longhouse/needles point/Icarus shoes.”

More often, in this book, the ultimate referent is art itself. All This Time functions, above all, as a sustained ars poetica. It does so in two ways: first, through constant references and stylistic homages to a surprisingly large number of poets, all of whose influence Sigo juggles without ending up sounding derivative of any single one. Rather, Joanne Kyger, Antonin Artaud, Sappho, Frank O’Hara et alii are actors in the pop-up play of this book, each enlivened by the author’s passionate remembrance. Second, this volume feels like a diorama of sorts, a playhouse fabricated for purposes of pondering poetry as such, of giving his household spirits a collective abode.

From “The Studio”:

Coyotes on a torn paper hilltop howling at the sun, a blaring red stamp
A circular pond with animals feeding in droves around it, brown, pink, yellow cheetah, bare trees full of lime-colored birds
A wooden ladder that swings down off its hinge
A huge room without bolts or nails, full of ghosts of friends (makers of poems)
Turquoise and black at battle in square shapes and ends of blades interlocked offscreen

Sigo is a poet of utter seriousness, one who feels strongly about justice, the revindication of Native American identity, the calling out of cruelty and neglect, and many other pressing social matters. But he comes at the task with a meditative indirection, insisting on approaching these realities in a considered and careful manner.

Characteristically, he explains his functional poetics thus: “taking on reality in luminous particulars, startling us with bound-up images unleashed. That is really the pleasure of the poet anyway: to redefine our engagement with the way language comes to guide our lives.”

A better and briefer manifesto of poetry’s mission would be hard to find.

Johnny Payne is the arts editor at Merion West. Johnny is a poet, novelist, playwright, and essayist. He has worked extensively in Latin American Studies, especially literature under dictatorship and Quechua oral tradition. He directs the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at Mount Saint Mary’s University, Los Angeles. He earned his doctorate from Stanford University.

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