Scot Siegel, Skeleton Says
Publisher: Finishing Line Press
2010, 26 pages, paperback, $12

the difficulty one may come to when reading a chapbook is that, since concision is king, there often are two camps of complaint one can find in reading such a short work. First, the chapbook may be too narrowly focused; we are aware that these couple dozen pages have perhaps been extricated from a longer work, where they have the benefit of a broader swath of poems—a place more appropriate to hone in on subject or theme. Or, the chapbook may have too little focus: these couple dozen poems are a grab bag, a workshop portfolio thrown together, the author hoping the reader will glean meaning from the hermetic tropes. Scot Siegel’s Skeleton Says has neither of these problems; it is a work that stands alone, but still offers a variation in perspective and subject that is usually assigned to a full-length manuscript.

“I walk through a brisk May dawn / in a bosky mood high on nostalgia,” the speaker tells us in “Ski to Die, Live to Tell.” We do not expect these reflective lines in a poem with a title that sounds like it should be a niche-sport flick of the mid-1990s. We also get little clue as to how one’s mood can be “bosky” or shrouded by trees. A poet’s focus on hermetic nostalgia, the chasm between introspection and reader, is usually a shortcoming. For Siegel, though, these brief non-tellings are the subtle snare of a poet who can intrigue the reader without stomping his feet in poetic histrionics.

The title of Siegel’s third collection, Skeleton Says, promises (perhaps?) a world dissociated from the one we find comfortable and familiar. While the recurrent Skeleton flirts within a mode and landscape that is something like surrealism, these poems exist mostly in those comfortable places: the verdant landscapes of California and Oregon; the falsely-haloed light of the grocery store; the creaky yet domestic atmospheres of clapboard homes. We as readers of these poems stand around in these places, the speaker our meditative guide. He seems to whisper to himself and to us in sleep. Where a less-measured poet (perhaps like the one writing this review) would prefer to offer nothing but the dissociative spaces, Siegel treads lightly (read: effectively) through these environments.

I don’t mean to say these works are subjugated to that much-maligned genre of the “nature” poem. Siegel knows that what is left out is what is most compelling, and he certainly has a deft handle on absence:

Men who knew him, all have gone,
Junipers shrug where they stood…
Her children, too, moved on
No sound fills their room…

“Trysting Tree of Dayville” reminds us that familiar places, while often comfortable and nostalgic, contain pregnant silence. The threat of absence is also at stake in “California Sweet Pine Rations”:

you hushed me as I entered you; your ears pricked
for your father sliding the screen door open

but he did not come; he did not traipse across the black
tarp by the bleeding tree; he did not grumble with an axe

or unhitch a rusty lock on the falling-down shed
he did not free your mother’s rutty German shepherd—

While showing us the negative spaces around this youthful tryst could be argued as manipulative, it’s Siegel’s adroit handling of absence that cordons off the hyperbolic What Ifs that threaten youthful coitus. As he says in “Skeletal Outline,” “the love poem lives in the white space / between the first and second stanzas.”

—Jared Walls