Suzanne Sigafoos’s new book of poetry, This Swarm of Light, published by I-BeaM books out of Mead, Washington is a rich, deep collection, always accessible to the reader. The poems most often have a fresh directness while at other times are wonderfully mysterious in tone. It’s my experience that good contemporary poems can offer a mystery, perhaps even veiled content that the reader can peel away upon a second or third reading. If done well as in this volume, it makes for a meditative connection with many of the pieces. In This Swarm of Light, the poet presents worldly images and then is undaunted by exploring large, cosmic themes. Sigafoos brings her cosmic ideas down to earth and instills in her commonplace observations a kind of magic realism inhabiting a world of her own making. These worlds interweave, and the reader will find comfort there.
This Swarm of Light is divided into three sections, Light Swarms; Blood Lines; and Landscapes, Seascapes, Soundscapes, with a dozen or more poems in each. The poems are short, most of them a page in length. This also brings together the overall cohesiveness of the book; the poems have separate lives but build to a single work. One can enjoy a slow read with moments to reflect upon the deeper meanings that the poet is exploring. Every word, line and stanza are well thought out and chosen. One can acknowledge the writer as craftsperson, but this is appreciated only after the book is read. I never felt the poet was making me aware of her writing as I was reading. It was only afterwards that I felt the interplay of the art and craft.
I enjoyed the brief disclaimer at the end of the book: “…some of the longer lines encountered marginal difficulties and were forced to endure unauthorized indentations.” Perhaps tongue-in-cheek but also serious, this statement should be remembered by every poet whose long lines may work in long-hand or on the computer screen but need that obligatory adjustment on the published page. I mention this because in my reading of This Swarm of Light, I felt that all of the line breaks formed a natural flow and sense. The meanings weren’t obscured or forced.
I was first acquainted with Suzanne Sigafoos’s poetry with her first chapbook, Held In the Weave, published by Finishing Line Press. (2011). Several of the poems from that chapbook are included here: “Fever Season” and “Incarnations” which serves as prologue and epilogue to the new book with a playful resequencing of lines. In a review of Held In the Weave, Steve Slemenda, founder of the Silverton Poetry Festival said, “. . .I’ve read and reread it, I found it a treasure.” I’ve reread that chapbook several times and wholeheartedly agree.
The reader is introduced to This Swarm of Light with three poems that bring in nature images: “Canyon”, “Cooper’s Hawk”, and “Nepenthe.” But this set up doesn’t move us down the path of descriptive nature poems; we find here a narrator using these natural sights as a springboard to reflect on deeper personal thoughts. The poems create an interior/exterior, an inner/outer world perspective. And this kind of reflection will be present throughout the book.
From “Cooper’s Hawk”
I study the hawk, review today’s sad news and cry.
The raptor stares, unblinking. Disciplined at his art,
wait — “stares” is wrong — the hawk watches me like a hawk.
I liked the dark humor of “Westward”, a piece that many readers will identify with, but at first I didn’t understand how it fit into the first section. I reread and realized that all the poems preceding it are set in the near present, in the poet’s west coast life. The poem, “Westward” is a memory piece, a flashback from a former life.
Seeking work in New York theater, I wore
a game face, found a purposeful stride, lied
to the temp agency — I’m ill, or Auntie Mim has died —
and stood in audition lines. I walked onstage:
Yes, read this monologue, or No, too tall. Next.
New York giveth, New York taketh away.
Another subset of poems that will peak interest is “Quartet: Repurposing the Bard.” Here are four poems that journey through the land of Shakespeare’s King Lear. For some, this might be a wide departure from what has come before, but it’s another exploration of characters in the writer’s world. We meet Lear’s exiled queen/ wife (the poet’s own invention), Cordelia and the Fool, all with their (and the poet’s) existential thoughts. I felt that these were some of most powerful pieces in the book made even stronger by: “Mother, You Told Us (2)”, the piece that follows. It beautifully ties together the reimaging of the Bard with a mother/daughter contemporary moment and solidifies the section’s title, “Bloodlines.”
Much of the last section, “Landscapes, Seascapes, Soundscapes” brings a freer style, with many pieces expanding into prose poems, some of which are ekphrastic poems, based on artworks.
From “Still Life, or a Surface Teeming”
What pleasure to look at still life paintings — pear and apple
beauties, fallen petals, a dewdrop bright on variegated rind,
open, offering melon flesh and seeds. Condensation on a wine
glass — life held, light caught, time stopped.
This Swarm of Light covers a wide range of subject matter through nature, art, and personal experience and memory. Some are serious, but never turgid. Some are more playful but never skim the surface. Together, they create a whole cloth; the reader is never outside the poet’s vision. These poems, with all of their ideas and imagery, were (and will be again) a pleasure to read. I highly recommend it and wait for more from poet Suzanne Sigafoos.