Believing the Line: The Jack Siegel Poems
by Mark Silverberg
Cape Breton, NS: Breton Books, 2013
142 pp, $18
Variations on Blue
by Pam F. Martin
Halifax, NS: Acorn Press, 2013
74 pp, $18
Cape Breton University professor and poet Mark Silverberg won the 2014 Eric Hoffer Award, a prestigious, U.S. prize presented to authors published by small—or independent—presses.
His debut book, Believing the Line: The Jack Siegel Poems, is thus a prized, small-press book of poetry issued in English-speaking North America last year.
The distinction is good for Wreck Cove, Cape Breton-based Breton Books—and merited by Silverberg. However, the brilliance of Siegel’s art outshines Silverberg’s poetry —sometimes.
Arguably, Silverberg means for the art to take centre stage, for the poetry enacts a homage to Siegel and his oeuvre, both of which lapsed into critical obscurity when Siegel (1915-2007) returned to Toronto in 1970 after star turns in NYC and London, became a vagabond artist “living on bagels and sardines,” and then, by 1988, lost his vision and, following debilitating falls, his mobility, becoming confined to a nursing home.
The bio of the Romanian-Canadian artist is crucial to Silverberg’s project, which is to dust off Siegel’s reputation, intermittently recognized in Greenwich Village and Soho, and renew his fame, especially in Canada.
Siegel’s pencil and ink drawings and occasional watercolour and oil paintings (reproduced in full colour) render Believing the Line a handsome book and inspire Silverberg’s own lines: Each of his poems, most untitled, respond to art prominently positioned on right-hand pages.
An educator in Africa, Asia, and Canada, Silverberg is an expert in American poetry, visual arts, and poetic experimentation. His knowledge becomes know-how here, prefacing the reproduced art with usually abbreviated lyrics that attain the openness of William Blake and the humaneness of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes.
A Siegel drawing of a curly-haired head is, for Silverberg, “a mountainous doubt / of hair.” Period.
A drawing of an old man whose face has disappeared—vanished—into the crook of his arm is described thus: “To test / the limits / of emptiness/ emerging / from scrawl.”
A man on a park bench, his back turned to us, one leg folded over the other, is rendered nicely: “Backs in desperate / unforgiving lines, / loudly needing nothing.”
The image of a woman with a sorrowful—or questioning—expression wins the bluesy rhyme, “I asked for the truth / yesterday / And when morning came / you’d gone away.”
Though some poems try to mirror the laconic poignancy or piquancy of Siegel’s art, they become prosaic sentiments. So, the picture of a schoolboy in formal dress is written up as “an image / of painful constraint: / hands clenched / vest tightened / everything fixed / on a point.”
A pun comes to mind: I get the picture.
Weak passages aside, Believing the Line is a treasury of Siegel’s art and the now-and-then consummation effected by Silverberg’s words. If one poem is particularly well-matched to the art, it is “On blindness”: The violence of the face / came out of nowhere / … a face emerging / from a river of scribbles.”
Formerly a barista, model, tree-planter, grocer, bookseller, foster parent, student, and social worker, Pam F. Martin is now a poet. Her first book is Variations on Blue,/i>.
Martin has lived in Ottawa, Victoria (BC), and La Ronge (SK), but now calls Charlottetown (PEI) home.
Her lyrics are simple, deceptively so: “Her kindly memory / strips away / the flesh of truth // leaving us to fill / spaces / between the bones.”
They are bare statements—reports or memories—enlivened by imagery: I sat down / beside Alice Munro / on the bus in Victoria // … to shy / to speak, / I flared my nostrils / to extract / every bit / of Alice Munro / from the stuffy / public transport air / but there was / no scent, / save the lingering smell / of (her jacket’s) old leather.”
Martin limns fine images (“colours sharp as wine”), but chokes some poems with clichés or dull prose. But she is just getting started.
The finest of these short and/or skinny lyrics is “Preacher Man”: “his hands fall free / from his sleeves / like a mountain waterfall … // and who knows / what those hands / get up to / when they aren’t / at church.”
Nice to see socially conscious poetry.