Hyacinth for the Soul
Poems by Joan I. Siegel
6 x 9, 87 pages
price $16.95 Now $14.00
Review 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 / sunglasses, rhinestone-studded. / Me with a candy cigarette hanging / from my lower lip . . . just like the real / mothers on our block. "The Bronx"
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 / himself open.
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).
These passionate, caring poems range seamlessly from personal lyric to public outcry, from a pair of well-turned pantoums of childhood memories to a poem that rewrites the liturgy of a responsive reading from the Passover service. Siegel knows how to go for the small specific details that illuminate even the darkest subjects.
Hyacinth for the Soul is a beautifully well-worked piece of imagination: ironic, lyrical, and elegant. Siegel's poems so often begin in daily living, poems that value the very simple or modest: what "abides" or "suffices." Sometimes somber, and sometimes happy, her poems shoot out into the cosmos and let us look at our living from that vantage. There are the pleasures of metaphor, where the parts of an idea suddenly condense or burst into a completely new structure that we recognize immediately: the "shape turning in the flame."
—Rosemary Deen Poetry Editor, Commonweal
Joan Siegel's new collection, Hyacinth For The Soul, "pushes the door open on memory," determined to resurrect the "forgotten things," and to preserve all that will be lost, from her daughter's first words, to the "blue that smells of rain and colors the wild lupine." Siegel does not hesitate to "lift the heaviness left at her door" and transform it through the details of human experience and a love for the natural world into finely crafted lyrical poems of witness. Remembering becomes a legacy for her daughter and a generous gift to her readers.
Reading this extraordinary collection, I'm reminded of John Crowe Ransom's statement that death "is the great subject of poetry, the most serious subject." Within its persistent shadow, Siegel writes of love, both domestic and romantic, of the burden of human suffering, and of the regenerative powers of nature and the human spirit. And she does so with the impeccable ear of a musician and the craftsmanship of a master jeweler. This is an important book.
The tactile, the visible and even the invisible become like avatars in Joan Siegel's poems. She writes of the voyeur's sensuous experience of everything surrounding her. These poems give you all her senses, transforming even the painful ones into lush realization.
An expert weaver at her loom, Joan Siegel threads death in and out of Hyacinth for the Soul. Written with a lyrical but unsentimental voice, there is not a poem in this impressive collection that is not an uncompromising encounter with reality. Binding us to her world with sensual detail, Joan Siegel refuses to let moments of communion be swallowed as her poems "tap in the dark, call to each other." Ultimately, providing a "map out of darkness," Hyacinth for the Soul teaches us how to ignite a candle that the heart can follow.