Colorado State University Center for Literary Publishing

Book Review

Living Must Bury

By Josie Sigler

Reviewed By Andrew Allport

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In The Order of Things, Michel Foucault writes that what we perceive as “the exotic charm of another system of thought, is the limitation of our own.” His example, the encyclopedia in Borges’s “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins,” categorizes animals as “(a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush…” As Foucault points out, to read these categories is to be struck first by their absurdity and then by the absurdity of any system of knowledge.

In Living Must Bury, Josie Sigler’s first collection and the winner of the Fence 2010 Motherwell Prize, readers run headlong into a similar recognition. Sigler begins by overturning the traditional table of contents, and instead of the neat rows of capitalized one- to five-word phrases, each of her titles is a kind of catalog, an index to an unruly field guide. The first poem, for example, is

those who curse horses, who repeatedly fail to tithe, including but not limited to: those who come from the river Lethe hulled with such knives. those who kill the animals that want to die. those who never suckle. those who mate for life. those given to pacing. those who turn their faces to the sky & howl…………….. 1

As Foucault says, making a pun that translates, to do away with the table is to spurn traditional modes of organization (the table of contents) as well as its violent acquisition (the operating table). Readers looking for surgical exactitude should go elsewhere: this is a bandage of a book, wrapped and rewrapped around a wound.

Let me try to convey, first of all, the shape of these poems. Most of them are untitled but begin with a similar address: “those who are infidels,” “those who covet coral,” “those victims of freshwater lies.” You might read all of these together as a long list, a gothic and disjunctive rewrite of Walt Whitman, Howl, or the Sermon on the Mount. Throughout the collection, italicized lines shoot like flashing banners through the text, a reminder of this continuing litany: “those barn cats having escaped fire, those who look

over their shoulder at every dry-grass crackle.” Like the voice of the Beatitudes, Sigler implies each of these, like the meek, the poor, the peacemakers, is due some blessing: “those ungulates used as bait, those for whom systemic overviews / reveal a merely cursory enchantment with survival.

At the center of the book’s investigation of order is the order, or disorder, of the family. In one devastating description, the speaker and her siblings “watched as he beat / our mother with a fist the size of our heads at birth.” And often, family is simultaneously the origin of pain and source of strength, as in this exchange:

Grandmother asked He get to you?

I went carrying a basin of water because that love,

so dull in its labor, so benign,

came too late, could not be real. She scrubbed the potatoes,

made the soup. She scrubbed the skin of my back with her rough hand,

parting my grief, agate-
shellacked. He get to you, I said.

In another moment, the speaker remembers being mistaken for her mother by her grandfather:

those who sat in church at seven years old screaming prayer
while God did nothing, God filing his nails, God whistling.

 

God Glowering from his hospital bed. As in my grandfather
stared at me & saw his daughter’s face & raged: Wasn’t

it you, wasn’t it you I come to get from that motel room
with some guy?
Wasn’t it?

In both episodes, the speaker doesn’t answer her interlocutor; the story of the poems is the transformation from that silence to speech, and then to song. Sigler is particularly interested in how this transformation has been informed and inspired by violent or erotic experience—central to her voice is the exploration of the nexus of sex, violence and language. In one poem, a woman “leans over our neighbor’s body, // a shaft with forgiveness stitched in its seams, mouths. / And comes my alphabet.” In another the narrator claims: “I’m saying the neighbor opened his wife’s neck. And something / came fluttering into me, into my chest, some alphabet about how to hold // a secret, write it down so no one would recognize the flap of skin.” And in the opening poem, she stands “before the row of headstones, each the size of a dictionary.” It’s one of my favorite images of the collection and is central to Sigler’s vision of the poet as a healer and surrogate speaker for the wounded. At times, she uses a direct address to the victimized, as in a personal and historical narrative on the phenomenon of so-called “feral children,” locked away in attics and cellars: “I’ll cut a hole and pull you through // Away from any voyeur who longs / to touch your cornsilk hair / fine with cobwebs / & soot.” In another poem, she asks, “Who, I ask you, will wail?” and answers, “I will.” It’s this sense of affirmative recuperation that makes Living Must Bury both bracing and, at times, directed too much by a sense of duty. The affirmative mode, like Akhmatova’s “I can” in “Requiem” or Plath’s “I shall count and bury the dead,” is a difficult task. It runs the risk of overvaluing both the self and the medium; the poet is most powerful when enacting, not proclaiming, her power.

Andrew Allport is the author of The Ice Ship & Other Vessels (Proem Press, 2008) and holds a PhD in Literature & Creative Writing from the University of Southern California. He lives in Los Angeles.