Indiana’s blue top plopped six inches of snow on my little town, the day after Christmas. Already, this place is isolated, by poverty and drug use, by its flyover-ness and Midwestern desolation. Add in this big ugly hunk of winter slush and we fall farther away.
And in this isolation is where I find my admiration the most for M. Bartley Seigel’s poems from This Is What They Say. Here he has conjured up remarkable songs to represent the people’s experience, these people stuck in the “middle of nowhere,” these people trapped by their fear and their unluck, their spot in life and their hardships. The book, dedicated to the people and places of Montcalm County, Michigan, delivers itself as accounts from the collective We, the We who both exposes its hardships and hides just enough of its vulnerability to continue on—“Love is another word for we-the-people.”
Like in the poem on page 16, that begins with the realization that “sometimes we open our mouths and our fathers and mothers crawl up from out of our throats.” And when such happens so removed from the larger world, when you are Other, when the sun reaches you less, that crawling up, especially from an abusive father or plagued mother, can create serious dents in the self, until the self too is lost in the place, left to “misread the nature of our wounds and woundings…We imagine ourselves the kind of people who don’t lie or steal or break hearts or bones.”
This book resonates with me, has settled into a special place in my heart, because of its reminder of the place I’m from, that little speck of Indiana called Elwood, covered in meth and poverty, neglected kids and rowdy hearts. Yet, like the folks and places in this book, there’s a miraculous hope, a never-give-totally-up attitude. As the lack of daylight sucks away my outdoor time, I’ve been bundling up and heading out into the cold streets. Walking past memories and seeing new ones formed in the distance, I’m often confronted by what Siegel has seen—“The sun sets and in the distance dogs begin to bark. A child is lost. Something is forgotten and left behind, like distance, like time, like avoidance, like denial. A grave is dug.”
This book is a brilliant reminder that every action is dictated by an emotion, acknowledged or nah, and in these poems the emotions are loud and clear—the doubt and lust, the fear and the glimmers of hope. “We guard our cabinets of curiosities like our lives depend on it because our lives depend on it.” That’s the most striking part of this book, more than the difficulties and desolation, but the hope, the search for love in the dark. Because in the end, despite and because of all this, “meanwhile, we endure.”