REVIEW by Amy McCauley

NWR Issue 108

Blood Work

by Matthew Siegel

For me, Blood Work has been a difficult book to review. Firstly it deals with a physical illness which has been – and continues to be – a lived reality for the author. (Taken alone, this presents no immediate problem). Secondly, however, I just don’t feel the poems stand up. And this is where the difficulty starts. It’s certainly possible to critique a book of poetry about illness without having direct experience of that illness yourself. Yet I feel a certain amount of trepidation when I say the poems fall flat. Perhaps it’s the book’s implicit claim to authority – ie ‘I can write about these things because I have suffered them’ (and the associated ‘and you have not suffered them’) – which introduces a troubling difficulty.

But I can think of other first collections which make a similar claim (Daniel Sluman’s Absence Has a Weight of Its Own, for example), yet which earn their right to speak with such authority by way of their inventiveness, originality and verve. The difficulty here then, relates to the question of how a poem earns its integrity as a poem. Because subject matter – however unusual or loaded – isn’t sufficient unto itself, especially in the absence of genuine moments of surprise, risk-taking, or poetic originality.

While the exact nature of the speaker’s illness remains vague in Blood Work, the book’s focus – for the most part – is on the necessary activities generated by the illness. As a consequence, blood tests, hospital visits and the insertion of needles – as well as images of (and metaphors for) the body under duress – are all central to the narrative. These activities, along with the speaker’s relationship to his dysfunctional family (in particular the somewhat Oedipal relationship with his mother), constitute the subject matter of the book. But for me, the subject presents no problem; rather it is Siegel’s treatment of it which I find unconvincing. The blurb from Mark Doty states that ‘illness reveals how barely contained any human being is’. Yet this rather one-dimensional idea of the body as abject is pursued repeatedly in the poems until it becomes nothing more than a cliché.

In ‘Blood Work’ for example, a nurse ‘lets me play with my filled tubes. Can you feel / how warm they are? That’s how warm you are inside // and I nod,’ the speaker says, going on to tell us that he ‘think[s] about condoms, tissues / all the things that contain us but cannot.’ And then in ‘[And sometimes I know I am having a feeling]’, the speaker says: ‘I want / to disappear in you, leave the sack of my body / strewn on the shore of you. Sometimes I’m inside / the sack and then sometimes I’m nothing more / than the stitching that keeps it from bursting. / Sometimes I carry the sack and sometimes the sack / carries me. I only know the difference sometimes.’

The dry, deadpan tone of faux-naiveté creates a consistent flat-effect, and the commentary on the body’s borders and edges soon becomes tiresome and predictable. Overall, it feels a little too self-consciously kooky for me. Nothing jars and nothing resists. The abjection of the body is described in perfectly balanced lines which deliver a kind of home-movie on the pragmatics of pain. Perhaps it’s the tone – with its semi-awkward, self-conscious register – which irks me the most. I consistently feel like I’m being addressed by a gauche but ‘winningly charming’ teenager, and many of the poems have the flavour of set-pieces.

Of course, the autobiographical truth of an author’s experience – with its immediate appeal to ‘authenticity’ – makes critical discussion of a book like this fraught with danger. Indeed any book which deals with autobiographical suffering surrounds itself (consciously or otherwise) with the unmistakeable power of the ‘authentic’ experience.

But this power can give a book the appearance of being unchallengeable since, after all, I have not suffered that experience. Despite the book’s appeal to authenticity, however, I felt little in the way of authenticity in the language. Blood Work is an easy read (I zipped through it in just over an hour), and its easygoingness is facilitated by every aspect of the poetry. The line breaks, pacing and diction all feel a little too workshopped and well-behaved for me. Each poem gives you a quick hit, holds the moment, and then grins at its efficiency in the last few lines. These are poems which present the illusion of a satisfying poetic experience, while in reality they offer little in the way of true substance.

Amy McCauley’s poetry has appeared widely in magazines, including Ink Sweat & Tears, New Welsh Review, The North, The Rialto, The Stinging Fly and Tears in the Fence. Her poem, ‘Municipal Ambition’, appeared in the 2014 Viking anthology, The Poetry of Sex. She has recently written a play called My Baby Girl and a verse drama based on Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus.


previous review: The Wood below Coelbren
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