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What Drifted Here By Barbara Siegel Carlson

What Drifted Here

By Barbara Siegel Carlson
Cherry Grove Press

There is an arresting moment in the middle of Kristof Kieslowski’s 1994 film, The Double Life of Veronique, where Veronique lies on her bed in the late afternoon watching what she thinks is reflected light sent into her apartment by a neighbor boy from across the street.  Veronique rises to look out the window, but the boy is gone, his window shut. Yet this light remains skimming across the wall.  What is this light? Another mirrored reflection? Possibly something deeper like the soul of her double, the Polish Veronika, who died from a weak heart shortly after Veronique caught sight of her in a square in Krakow? Hard to know since the truth of this light lies beyond our ability to fully experience.

I bring this up, because, like the Kieslowski film, Barbara Siegel Carlson’s new book, What Drifted Here, asks big questions, points to larger realities, and wrestles with qualities of life that border the inexpressible. Her poetry is filled with wonder, oftentimes observed in the smallest, everyday things.

The poems here are in constant search for the space between the known and the unknown, as the poet attempts to bridge each gap with her own filament thread.  Spiders and spider webs are some of the dominant images that populate the book, oftentimes working the way the artist does, like in the poem “Provisional”:

Thousands of webs are cast
Across the weeds at the pond’s edge
At dawn they’re all
Covered in dew each milky strand
Each web from a different spider
Each on a solitary creation that shudders
And sways in the breeze

Webs, like words, draw the eye to the endpoints and make meaning. As do leaves, another image representing something common enough to no longer notice, but when noticed, provokes insight.  Siegel Carlson never stops noticing.  Consider these lines from “Under the Leaves”:

Leaves stir around
the old well that’s been
covered for winter. Underground
the water flows through all
that is lost: potsherds
and bone flacks, hair
and sweat, teeth and blood.
What about voices and dreams?
Where do our memories go?

There’s something almost Platonic here – a discarded object in the real world has a metaphysical counterpart in the ideal world of our minds. Discarded leaves become enriching compost; can the same be said for our discarded thoughts and dreams?  And here lies the pleasure of her poetry: her questions provoke our own questions and pull us deeper into the book.

Speaking of the ancient philosophers, in interviews, conversations, and earlier work, Siegel Carlson has expressed a love of the old thinkers, noting Heraclitus has her favorite.  And while his idea of flux or flowing life is present in so much of What Drifted Here, I would be remiss not to point out the presence of one of Heraclitus’s contemporaries, Anaximenes, who posited that life’s essential force was not fire – as Heraclitus argued – but air.  There is evidence of this in her excellent haibun, “Dawn Remains”: “Under clouds, in the fumes of churned earth, breath / becomes mist that encloses each bud.”; and again in “Bora”: “Above a gust / sent a tremor across the blue lights to Timavo River that / begins in the Karst and disappears underground until it gushes / out a few miles from here on the coast at Dunio.” And like those Pre-Socratic thinkers, Siegel Carlson’s quest for meaning often returns to elemental forces.

Meaning is also found in human interaction, but even here Siegel Carlson holds a lament for the experience of the other we cannot bridge. In “Decent” a moment between two passengers on an airplane is signified by touching but without connection: “…our shoulders touch. But we’re unreadable, / our lives invisible to each other / who see only the surface of things.” This isn’t a description of the futility of life or missed connections, rather the unbearable depth of the other, of the profoundly complicated people, places, and things in the world we perceive but can only ever understand in thin, transient ways.

But that makes them no less a marvel.  The great joy in reading Siegel Carlson’s work is that wonder expresses itself in every poem, if not every line.  She finds enthusiasm for the world around her in the exotic locations she visits, the literature she reads, and most often, the landscapes that surround her home in Carver, Massachusetts.  One of the most affecting of these local landscape poems, “Manifesto of the Crumbling Shed” is a piece that serves as a long observation of a decaying shed in her backyard.  There are many such sheds returning to earth in many backyards across the country, and Siegel Carlson memorializes all of them, in a testament of what is in the process of disappearing: “The windows are cloudy, frames charred, roof drafty with leaves. / Winter buds hard as bullets sway over. / Who else hears the twigs quiver?”

Siegel Carlson’s meditations drift calmly into the unknowable elements of literature, “Sylvia and the Stranger”, “Pip in the Waves”, to dialogues with the visual art of Joseph Cornell and the music of Mahler.  These are kindred artists who search for the depth of human understanding in their respective work.  Through all of it each subject is considered with clear eyes that provide the reader with fresh ways of seeing the familiar.

These are poems written from the beginning of meaning, fused with the hope of understanding. Maybe, like Carlson Siegel, the most important thing we can do is to stop, look and understand the moment of experience with what is outside of us.  Unlike the randomness suggested by the title, the poems presented in What Drifted Here are the result of careful consideration. A deeper look into the lines reveal the deeper craft. A fine collection from a noteworthy poet.



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