A Pentecost of Finches
Long before English departments and writing programs went green, long before the advent of ecocriticism, Robert Siegel’s poetry and fiction firmly located the human in what is called “the natural world,” though what he sees is infused with something not comprehended by “nature” as many people now understand it.
One can consider the first lines of “Gettysburg: The Wheatfield,” a poem from his 1973 debut collection, The Beasts and the Elders, included in A Pentecost of Finches: New and Selected Poems:
The wheat is swimming toward the sunin the utter gale of Pennsylvania,picking the light of stones and pushingcataracts of trees over the hills.I see the spotless blue sky sweptclean by the hurrying fields, think ofbeards matted with sweat and pollen,oozing cherry, sour apple, hoarse criesthe bee dizzily searching for the smashed hive.
The poet reveals that “I hear only what I’ve read/ in American Heritage, the centennial histories,” and he sees “what I have brought to see,/ slickly embalmed from the Brady photos,/ to frame with empty trees and fences.” Such testimony, he muses, “seems hardly plausible/ among the dusty grass continually scratching/ itself. The creases in my tourist map have/ worn through several strategic locations.” Later, “driving west,” he remembers the druids, who practiced human sacrifice at harvest time, and from there his mind jumps to Auschwitz, where “one reads with mild surprise/ the oven-manufacturer’s name/ stamped on his warethe baker’s hands are/ immaculate, white with flour.”
In Siegel’s poems, the world is never denatured as it is in much contemporary writing; neither is nature a realm set apart from the human. Rather it is all a tanglehence Siegel’s favorite subject: the beasts, the animals, the birds of the air, the creatures of river and lake and sea, and all manner of creeping things. As American philosopher Thomas Nagel has argued, humans cannot know what it is like to be a bat (or a squirrel, or a mosquito). However, we can imagine other creatures in our own image, so to speak, trying at the same time to respect their particularity, their inscape.
Humans have been doing this as far back as we can trace, from cave paintings of bison to Aesop’s Fables (620-560 b.c.e.), from Native American cosmologies to Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind and the Willows (1908). Siegel has great riches to draw on: the riddle-poem, for instance, in which a creature speaks in its own voice, and the poem endsexplicitly or implicitlywith the question “Who am I?” (Children love riddles, and Siegel is one of those fortunate writers who have not lost touch with childhood.) His own poems in this vein are not exactly riddlesthe title (“Tiger” or “Inchworm” or “Llama,” for example) announces who is speakingand some of them (such as “Muskie,” “Bull,” and “Silverfish”) are in the third person rather than the first, representing another genre from the bestiary tradition. Nevertheless, he retains some of the spirit of the riddle.
Indeed, many of the poems from Siegel’s bestiary take the stock devices of the riddle-poem (first and foremost, incongruous comparisons that turn out to be surprisingly apt) and turn them up a couple of notches. Here, for example, is the beginning of “Alligator”:
I gather like an ideaon the calm waters.My nostrils, eyes, surfacewithout your noticing. Then,like the first dry land from primeval waters,in an uncertain mist,suddenly I am there, my low profile steady,where you saw only a log, a bit of deadwood.I am a museum of the Triassic, a special effectcome into sharp focus, my smilelong and obscene.
Everyone knows what an alligator looks like. People tend to be blasé about alligators, and about much else. Part of the poet’s job is “making strange,” allowing readers to see the alligator in his primeval strangeness. This recovery of wonder is a good thing, yet it is always in danger of becoming a shtick, of sliding into kitsch. The poet has...
(The entire section is 1,607 words.)