Mary Cisper reviews The Constellation of Extinct Stars and Other Poems by Scot Siegel
Salmon Poetry | 2016 | ISBN: 978-1-910669-36-5 | 75 pages
Perhaps myth is what memory becomes after passing through story. Dictionary definitions emphasizing myth’s falsity ignore its quality of resonance across time, overlook how underpainting affects surface coloration. In Scot Siegel’s latest collection, The Constellation of Extinct Stars and Other Poems, the American West, and particularly Oregon past and present, is the primary setting for narratives of buried secrets and elusive losses. A subtle current running under the whole is the impulse to mythologize.
Interlinked persona poems in Part I (“The Constellation of Extinct Stars”) introduce three speakers—a young woman teacher, a lineman, and a female ranch hand—and place the reader in and around late 1920s Summer Lake, Oregon, where storms approach “like flocks of swords.” Calendar dates, as poem titles and in epigraphs, move the reader through a pivotal year and, finally, into postscript 40 years later. Alkali dust borne on the ever-present wind is only one of the shrouds in a story where “a garden wall of silence” divides two of the speakers. Nevertheless, a triangular drama of attraction and loss seeps into the reader’s consciousness. Near section end, the title poem summons archetypes into being—unrequited Hawk and broken-hearted Moth forever missing connection. Displacement’s bittersweet yet healing potential arises. Through transformation of the singular, meaning moves through time.
The motion in Part II (“What Was Lost”) is one of fanning out in this territory of the hidden:
Before we were conceived
for eternity in reverse
we trudged across the darkness
and left no trace behind…
Pinched small towns, fires, predations, a soliloquy by Medusa, a lost translation of the Kama Sutra lift the book out of a sense of the strictly personal. In “Epistles to the Imnaha Pack: Dispatches from Journey,” Siegel revisits the persona form—a lone wolf (the notes tell us the first wild gray wolf known to have entered California in nearly a century) speaks: “Comrades, / the world is not what it seems.” History, a cobbling together after experience, is “afterglow.”
One question to ask a collection such as this is: What threads knit you together? Here, recurring images are not so much flashback as they are reverberation. Although Summer Lake has been left behind, what might be called soundings from its intertwined stories resurface—“an electrical charge,” the “lake exhaled through fissures in its heart,” a xylophone. Undertraces coalesce in a sense of return, déjà vu. Perhaps we have not so much left Part I’s shrouded narrative behind as we have stumbled onto broader (and Western U.S.) trajectories of loss—the Los Alamos Ranch School, mill closures, meth labs, the history of fire suppression: “Very soon this will be a long time ago.” Refraction makes for always moving undercurrent. Never do the mirrors suggest tidiness or a package of certainties.
A great dust cloud billowing “from the back of a tractor called Now” in the poem titled “Witnessed On a Country Road” opens Part III (“What Remains”):
No brilliant sparks clicked our
gritty windows. Then moths.
Decapitated deer. Oncoming Semis.
Unnamed wars. We took a stand.
Held hands like Jews fleeing Pharaoh.
In various poems in this last section, homecomings are anticipated, Bowie’s final album is released, figs are eaten. The book concludes with invocation, song, blessing. After the cloud of unknowing clears, what happens? The speaker says they sang. In concluding that many tastes are sweet—“grief / is rich and good as Poi”—The Constellation of Extinct Stars and Other Poems finds a balance point.
What kind of moves do these poems make? Throughout the collection, Siegel mixes voices, and following the sonnets in Part I, employs a variety of forms. Language is primarily straightforward with one foot grounded in the terrestrial specific. The other occasionally toes the underlayer:
I had wanted to walk across the lake
at daybreak, and watch the tragedies
hatch in the marsh […]
Most often, the poems employ narrative, yet there’s anaphora, address, aria. A run-on sentence in the last section of the closing poem, “His Final Resting Place,” fashions the book’s most lyrical space. In keeping with the collection’s expansive reach, one stanza ventures into mythic terrain:
and, in this secret cave of grown men weeping,
he tells me his bride has wandered off;
the green sea and ethereal forests of Pele
have taken her…
In this collection, hoarded secrets, lightning strikes, Venus, “The Hysterical Preservation Specialist,” and would-be lovers cross the stage. “The Voluptuary at His Back Fence” is just one of the poems that reminded me of the regionalist painter and muralist Thomas Hart Benton, whose narrative paintings with their muscular forms located the mythological in 20th century American settings. Erotic mayhem may name one of Siegel’s subjects. Could it be that myth is both proposal—“I think we deserve a story”—and question: Who or what goes there? Does myth catalyze a kind of embodied cognition within collective memory?—“The mind is the only object / that can retain our bearings.” Perhaps displacement makes it easier to accept shifts of fortune—this has happened before. Perhaps myth points to the inexhaustible magnetism of what we do not know.
The phrase “eye contact” recurs in the book; for the speaker, despite the coming and going of stars and forests and loved ones, this is the sacred moment. No doubt, reading here is also a form of eye contact–intimately uniting poet and reader outside the spiral of time. Placed near the middle of the collection, a poem titled “Samsara” acknowledges cycle and return: memory is rebooted, cranes migrate, “a plane lifts off and the heart / drops in the moment death decides what to do.”
“For You,” Siegel’s dedication reads, entrusting the reader with these poems.
Header photo of person silhouetted against stars courtesy Pixabay.