“My body is a series of bodies: / now & before” writes Matthew Siegel, in “The electric body”, and there is perhaps no better way to introduce Blood Work. His collection addresses themes of the physical self primarily, dealing with illness (hospital visits, and relationships), but also features occasional portraits of a broken family. For the most part, this is done very successfully, and taken as a whole it offers an easy and enjoyable read which feels almost prosaic in nature. Some investigation into Blood Work’s background reveals that the illness presented in the collection is specifically Crohn’s Disease, and that the poems are also autobiographical in nature; yet at no point during reading is this obvious. In fact, Blood Work really benefits from its broader approach to illness – it is easy for readers to relate to many of the poems. Investigation also reveals that Blood Work has won the Felix Pollak Prize in Poetry 2015, and it is very possible to see why.
The cover of this edition is an eerie flesh pink, and layered beneath is a sickly yellow page, reminiscent of infection, as if the book itself is a body. And though a few critics have called Siegel’s exploratory lines on the nature of the physical self – the body – repetitive and blunt, they are at the heart of the book, and it is through them that Siegel’s real talent for imagery shines. Lines such as “…I split the stem of one, / ran my thumb along the wet insides. They were alive, / the irises, somehow still blue as veins.” and “…I nod, think about condoms, tissues / all the things that contain us but cannot…” reveal a fascination with the idea of the human body, asking questions artfully without answering. This fascination really brings the collection to life, leading the reader along with interesting ruminations.
Stylistically, Siegel writes in two different forms. The first is an airy, easy and sparsely arranged collection of stanzas of two or three lines apiece, and the second has a simple prose-poetic shape. The former certainly suits his direct style of writing, giving the reader space to breathe between each bright image, while the latter serves as a more difficult arrangement, feeling at times relentless in its pacing. In both instances, Siegel’s metre is barely apparent. Instead, he relies on his own rhythm, free of syllabic constraints, which is an inexact and organic thing that entirely suits him thematically.
One of the collection’s only real weaknesses is that it does feel a bit too direct in places. Consider in “Matthew you are leaving again so soon” the line “they will keep you healthy my son” which feels as if it would benefit from losing those last two words, or replacing them with the name “Matthew”, for the sake of letting the reader come to the idea of the mother (or father) and son relationship without being told about it so blatantly. A fine example of where a moment of subtlety works is in “Faster”, in the lines, “… he spends his day dragging / an oxygen tank across the floor.” which, in the context of the rest of the collection brings to mind the idea of an oxygen tank as an extension of the body – or perhaps a metal lung – without needing to tell the reader.
It can be argued that Blood Work is perhaps a little too easy to read. There is a lot of artfulness, certainly, but none that requires careful examination, and it is in this way that Blood Work may not open itself up sufficiently to re-reading. It is a very enjoyable read, absolutely – and deserving of the scrutiny and praise being set upon it – but not one to return to for further enjoyment. Blood Work is worth your time, but won’t take up too much of it.
Read ‘fox goes to the fox hospital’ from Blood Work.