Royals by Cedar Sigo (Wave Books, 2017)
Reviewed by Kim Jacobs-Beck
Cedar Sigo exemplifies a poet who is deeply read and constantly aware of the poetic influences upon him. In Royals, published by Wave Books in late summer 2017, Sigo’s topic is largely the poetic world he inhabits. In fact, the book goes so far as to be meta-poetic—the poems are about creating poetry, conversations with other poets, written to and for poets, and contain allusions to the works of other poets. Poetry as subject is infused into virtually every poem in this book.
The book opens with “Green Rainbow Song.” “Green Rainbow” is the name of a daylily hybrid, cultivated since 2005. Given the tiger lily image in this poem, the title, though a somewhat obscure reference, reinforces the imagery. The other half of the title, “Song,” is a nod to both the disguised sonnet form of the poem and the references to the blues. As the opening poem, it serves as a kind of invocation or prologue to the book although Sigo also is playfully disguising both parts.
“Green Rainbow Song” is essentially a sonnet, though it does not look like one, with short lines running down the middle of the page. Speaking of a previous poem he had written, Sigo notes in the craft essay “Fourteen Lines: A Personal History:”
The poem ‘Taken Care Of’ had initially been given short James Schuyler-like line breaks, but when performing it in front of an audience I saw that I was pausing at intervals that actually formed a sonnet. I think my disguising of its true sonnet nature must have stemmed from the form feeling so available that I questioned whether I was upholding the stress and glowing brick-like quality of traction that I associated with the masters of the form (Berrigan, Mayer, Coolidge, Hejinian, Greenberg, Mallarmé, Donne, Shakespeare, and Dante)” (17 April 2017).
The sonnet structure is apparent in the logic of the poem as well as in its breath or rhythm; the first section of the poem sets up echoes of blues lyrics as well as explicitly announcing their influence: “one too many/nights and never/a blackout/Doing the best/I can, only a man/it hurts me too/Blues in the Night/Verlaine blues. The second section shifts into “a blues for Anne,” and becomes subjunctive, discussing that which is not actual, but desired—“I wish us more luck/I wish my little/tiger lily sheltered/in a clear crystal/box (being carried).” The following lines, “Green pearl-handled/mallets edging/the annunciation/toward a new burn,” are a good example of Sigo’s combining of images that seem disconnected but are in fact joined by their juxtaposition. Mallets here recall the the musical references infused in the poem, since one sort of mallet is used with percussion instruments or piano strings. Mallets are also used in carpentry, for building. Since this poem is about composing poetry, the image reminds us of that intention.
The use of the words “annunciation” and “new burn” brings to mind Catholic imagery, and in fact, the angel Gabriel, who was the angel who brought Mary this news, is often depicted as being surrounded in flames. There is also a long tradition of linking the annunciation, the moment the angels tell Mary that she will carry the Christ child, with Moses and the burning bush of the Old Testament (Piper). Finally the “tiger lily” representing Anne in this poem links to the white lily that is symbolic of the virgin in Catholicism. Fire is often used as an image of purification, and lilies also are representative of purity. In this passage, then, Sigo relies on Catholicism’s visuality to add a layer to his poem, linking the undercurrent of spirituality in the blues to the human incarnation and therefore suffering, of Jesus.
In “Ode for Nine Voices,” Vigo’s topic remains meta-poetic; this is a poem about poetic influence, where Sigo illuminates some of voices that inform his:
Earth seems the holed side of a flat stone
flaunting its gold-blooded diamondback secrets
That we are all one
that we haven’t the privilege or time to change our minds (1-4).
As was true in “Green Rainbow Song,” Sigo conflates spirituality with the act of creating poetry: here, “we are all one” is pantheistic or universalist, a tenet of several variations of world religions. As the poem moves into the next stanza, it becomes clear that “we are all one” also represents a continual line of poets, as the narrator says “I chance on a lyre,” (5) the most familiar symbol of poetry, and of poetic history. He calls himself “a Bolinas separatist poet,” (12) referring to the colony of poets just north of San Francisco, where Joanne Kyger, Philip Whalen, Bill Berkson, Robert Creeley, and many other poets have lived and worked. In Bolinas, “The epigrams say more/when cannibalized,” (13-14) as poets working geographic proximity in a kind of collective influence and borrow from another. Sigo also makes clear the importance of other gay poets who served as models and mentors:
Held aloft in a fog of queer voicings
when the waves are altered to approximate
in the woods behind the house (16-20).
The use of assonance (“aloft,” “fog,” “altered,” “approximate,”) and consonance (“held,” “haunting,” “house,” “waves,” ‘woods”) reinforce this passage as a distinct sub-point within his larger poem: not only the influence of admired poetic predecessors, but of out, gay poets, who provide not only poetic influence but a sense of kinship and connection.
Later, Sigo moves to a more modern, humorous image of poetry:
The poets in glowing lab coats
expository prose, lightning white arms crossed with strobes
I turn my spade to the inset language
turning up late every other night
to demonstrate my own take on the sonnets, the lyric
even the most dividing
arrested arts of love
Sigo contrasts the poets in lab coats, who are clearly experimental, with the narrator poet, who is outdoors “turning up” or digging out language.. Sigo’s spade imagery places him in the earth of older, existing forms of poetry—sonnets, lyric poems, even love poems that he implies are controversial and “dividing.” Though he also includes prose poems in this book, which would seem to be the “expository prose” he mentions, Sigo seems to be pointing his focus backwards towards the traditions of poetry. This poem functions as a manifesto and an homage, a statement of Sigo’s poetic alliances.
Sigo’s work in Royals takes us deep into his literary life—his friendships, his forays into a variety of poetic forms, his poetic mentors and models. The effect of the book in total is of community and connection, of praise and honor for those who came before and those who are his peers.