Josie Sigler, Living Must Bury
Publisher: Fence Books
2010, 63 pages, paperback, $16
JOSIE SIGLER’S FIRST book, Living Must Bury, is a careful curation of sorrow. In it, she collects and displays various objects and moments of pain with a provocative and skilled hand. With a title like Living Must Bury, one might assume that Sigler has gathered this collection of pain in order to put it all to rest, but such an assumption would be a mistake. Sigler’s work functions less like a burial and more like an exhumation.
Though formally demarcated as twenty-eight distinct poems, the work is a cohesive whole, displaying a unity of form and content throughout. Sigler is telling one story here, and the formal thread that runs through this book is her anaphora, which repeats the phrase “those who.” In addition to appearing at intervals within nearly every poem in this collection, this beautiful list is apparent in the curling script on the cover of the book, and it is collected again in the table of contents—a sort of poem in itself. “Those who curse horses, who repeatedly fail to tithe,” “those who covet coral,” “those who live in the forest long enough to know where the gold is buried,” “those who see the nameless form of a woman & love her in the morning, arm beneath a pillow, arching”—this is just a selection of the anaphora which is visually and audibly woven into the rest of Sigler’s jagged, fragmented text. Are the “those” of the anaphora the ones whom the living must bury? Are they the dead? This list acts upon the reader in a number of ways. First, the endless “those,” “those,” “those” of Living Must Bury draw the reader into the work because of the haunting quality of the audible and visual repetition. Sections which are a part of this list are italicized, setting them apart visually, and they likewise display a marked difference in the formality of tone. As such, they have an incantatory quality and invite the reader to participate in repetition that feels ritualistic. When we see the visual cues and hear the repeating sound, we engage our memory of seeing and hearing them before. In this way the anaphora lends the book an “oh, yes, I remember this” quality. However, the diversity of references within this list also has a sense of strangeness. These elements coupled create a compelling atmosphere of mystery, and the anaphora invites us into a story that is deeply personal and complex. It invites us to look deeper, to wait, to discover the truth.
But because of its fragmentation, the truth in Living Must Bury is resistant to discovery, and ultimately Sigler’s anaphora becomes repellant. Once we are lulled into the work, Sigler’s list—the recurring “those” for whom the text must account—begins to feel distanced and impersonal. It defies empathy. Sigler’s dead are “those” rather than “these.” They are not a part of the reader nor the speaker. They are not here; they are not ours. Sigler’s list of “those” dead is braided into the rest of her text, which contains elements of the confessional, of pastiche, and of psalm. It is devastating in its use of image and object. There are real moments of horror here. Living Must Bury speaks of the private horrors within a family, as well as the global horrors of the holocaust. Examination of Sigler’s notes provides evidence for the diversity of her references and subject matter. Her broad scope certainly creates a sense of a life steeped in pain. A life in which the pain of millions and the pain of one are connected. A life in which there is an entire world of pain. It’s moving work. Particularly striking are the moments of personal recollection. For example, in the poem “those lost, those anonymous, those dream singers,” Sigler writes,
I slept in an attic across
from the man who broke me, that square of light
& how it framed the carrying grief. In a small space
you get used to bodies, the famed bridge of his crooked nose
as he sat at his own window table. A prison cell endured for the day
he took his mother down the porch steps & beat her
while the neighborhood watched. And we watched as he beat
our mother with a fist the size of our heads at birth.
Likewise, in the poem, “those animals insane for the destination,” Sigler frames another scene of personal violence. She writes, “As in the canary my mother buys so she won’t be so alone / with this man who makes a sign with his fingers like ‘okay’ // And flicks the bird in the face until it cannot walk or fly.” Sigler completes this moment a few lines down: “As in she fills a pan with water, / holds the bird down. // As in the heartbeat slackens against her palm.” These lines leave a reader pained and reeling, but Sigler immediately follows them with more of the anaphora—distant, formal, and disconnected. Turns like this are how this book begins to break down.
Rather than empathizing with the speaker we are repelled by text that demands distance. The violence of the content, the fragmentation of story, and the juxtaposition of image here are difficult to abide for the length of this book, and Sigler provides her readers with no place to rest. While the anaphora could have served this purpose and been like Ariadne’s thread, comforting us and guiding us through the labyrinth, it ultimately does the opposite. It pushes us away from the story and from the speaker violently. The anaphora does this because its images are too disconnected and too uncommon to be comforting; its word choice (i.e.: “those” instead of “these”) forces distance, and its formality of tone is jarring when we shift away from the main text.
Sigler’s work is beautiful and heartbreaking. She presents us with one image after another of pain and sorrow, carefully crafted and collected. The language is tightly wrought. The images are sharply drawn. She creates a world of this pain, but to what end? Not understanding. The text is jarring and violent to its readers. It refuses entry, and it refuses empathy. Not knowledge. The story is elusive and unknowable. Not hope. There is no justice in these poems. The victims are more captive than the assailants, and even the moments of potential love are too fleeting to overcome the pain. Living Must Bury is ultimately a work of memory, but it is not a memorial. All of this ultimately leaves me with this burning question about poetry’s purpose: is exhumation, carefully curated as it may be, enough? I’m not sure, but I do think it is a text worth suffering through to come to that question.