Review by Rachel Chanter
Much of the reception of Matthew Siegel’s debut collection Blood Work (CB editions) has centred on the poet’s experience of being diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease at the age of sixteen. This autobiographical collection has been heralded by Mark Doty as ‘a genuine contribution to the literature of illness’, and much of the subject matter is concerned with the health, sickness and convalescence of the body. As in the work of Marcel Proust or Flannery O’Connor, the physical and psychological state of sickness in Blood Work is a site from which existential themes and questions branch out.
Most prominent is the preoccupation with physical and mental frontiers, touching on the divisions which can be made between mind and body, between self and other. ‘…my room, my apartment, my body are containers / and I am thusly contained’ the poet says in ‘[sometimes I don’t know if I’m having a feeling]’. And yet, the extent to which the human person is physically contained is constantly troubled. Siegel’s is a poetry of abjection, dwelling repeatedly on what intrudes and what transgresses the physical boundaries of the body: ‘…condoms, tissues / all the things that contain us but cannot’. Elsewhere, the body is a ‘sack’, linked to, but clearly differentiated from, the cogent speaking voice: ‘Sometimes I carry the sack and sometimes the sack / carries me’.
The speaker seems separated from the physical body in the opening poem ‘fox goes to the fox hospital’ – a self-referential poem in which the speaker writes about himself composing the poem, yet the description of his gaze simultaneously renders it a different poem. This feels like a slightly misleading introduction to the collection, however: the poem’s meta subject matter and style are not revisited elsewhere. The charming – if slightly cutesy – vulpine title is similarly incongruous, only referring to its conceit in the last few lines:
…But really wishes he could draw a comic
featuring a small mammal version of himself.
His animal would be a fox, he decides, and promptly
changes the title to ‘fox goes to the fox hospital’
The imagination which came up with this playful recasting of the of the sick poet as an animal self – presumably functioning as a coping mechanism for the very real traumas of illness and an alienating hospital environment – is also notably absent from the rest of the collection, and consequently gives this poem (specifically its last four lines and title) a slightly tacked-on feeling.
More coherent throughout the collection (though dealt with elsewhere without whimsical woodland creatures) is the regression and infantalisation which is inherent to the experience of extended sickness. Identification with the child-self is persistent, and is accentuated by Siegel’s poetic voice, which has a consistently naïve quality. A scattered sequence of poems sees the poet embody various child figures who appear in the photographs of Larry Towell and Elinor Carucci. The prevalence of the relationship with the poet’s mother is also a prominent and frequent feature.
The historically marginalised role of the invalid as literally being invalid – denied the status of complete and functioning human adult with full agency – is highlighted by the passivity of Siegel’s speaker, who is almost without exception both subject and subjected; to the mother who attempts to gift her son with pens, umbrellas, soup and finally her own liver in ‘Matthew you’re leaving again so soon’; to the nurse who takes his blood, ‘who draws from me smiles, always / remembers me, no matter how skinny I get’; to the acupuncturist who ‘taps a needle into my third eye’; to the dentist who ‘shoots a needle full of novocaine into the softest part of me’ and who forces the speaker to remind himself that ‘there is nothing cruel and unusual about this’. Even the lover in ‘What I fail to mention’ is cast in the role of carer, examining scars on the speaker’s back as he lies prone.
And yet no anger or raging against this enforced lassitude is evident. The absence of such emotions, whether due to physical or spiritual exhaustion, might itself have proved a rewarding avenue of examination, but is not addressed, and the accumulation of poems of negation – in which the speaker does nothing or says nothing – begins to feel wearing. For example, two poems placed close together, ‘What I fail to mention’ and ‘On the way to the airport I fail to tell my father I left some meat in the refrigerator’, both contain deliberate omissions on the speaker’s part which are never fully explained and therefore have the effect of slightly irksome coyness.
Despite the unaltered tone of passivity throughout, the effect is one of blandness rather than cohesion, and the reader is left with no impression of a distinct poetic style. This is compounded by the appearance of several more experimental poems which seem jarringly out of place, such as the Whitmanesque ‘The electric body’ or ‘At the farmer’s market’, in which every line ends with an exclamation mark for no very apparent reason (!). The autobiographical subject matter, whilst unproblematic in itself, is rarely used as a platform to venture more universal propositions about the human experience, and leaves the reader little room to bring anything to the poetry themselves. This is a shame, because there are a couple of instances in which the speaker turns his attention outwards that are genuinely moving and contain moments of penetrating insight. ‘For Bryan, 13, who sleeps through Li-young Lee’, depicts the poet – for the first and only time in an active role – as a teacher who allows a student to sleep on through his class as the result of a flash of compassionate identification:
Bryan, I am not going to tell you
how lovely you are asleep on your desk,
how one day, maybe you might turn into a man
who looks at a boy sleeping in his classroom
and instead of chastising him
wants to touch his hair
This is possibly the stand-out poem of the collection; stand-out in that it is both the most affecting and challenging, and in that the temporary respite from Siegel’s speaker as sole subject matter sets it apart from its fellows. Similarly, ‘[in the kitchen Mom stands with her back to me]’ relates the mother’s sadness as she listens to Enya, smokes a joint and ‘smiles as if the hurt is a balm’. The idea encapsulated in this phrase is one that bridges the gap of experience and invites the reader to consider the applicability of the sentiment in a more universal way.
‘Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to light’, said Virginia Woolf, failing to understand why illness had never become one of the major subjects of literature. Siegel’s debut is undoubtedly, as Doty says, a significant contribution to such a literature, but it feels as though an opportunity to depart from the specificity of subjective experience and forge a path across those undiscovered countries and deserts of the soul has been missed.
Rachel Chanter is a writer based in London