Reviewed by Paul Telles
This Swarm of Light by Suzanne Sigafoos
I-Beam Books (2020), 65 pp $16
ISBN #: 978-1-938928-10-9
Available at: https://shop.spybeambooks.com/product/this-swarm-of-light
In her first full-length collection, Portland poet Suzanne Sigafoos delivers on her book’s title with an enchanting swarm of poems that moves fluidly through a garden of themes that include mortality and the joys to be found in nature and art. Published in 2020, This Swarm of Light consists of 43 poems sorted into three sections that offer illuminating perspectives on each theme while introducing new topics and concepts of their own. The result is a loosely autobiographical meditation, focused more on emotions and insights than personal history.
Although This Swarm of Light does not follow a strict narrative arc, the thematic center of the collection comes in the middle section, titled “Bloodlines,” that chronicles the unique story of Sigafoos’s recovery from spinal surgery while she cared for her mother who was dying of cancer. These touching poems show the women growing progressively closer as Sigafoos regains her strength and her mother nears her end. “Uncharted Terrain” finds them living together under one roof, shared.
One of her daughters, I’m strong again, and able.
Mother, lighter, smaller, has no strength,
her bad days longer by a mile, no — by a tundra.
The two women grow closer through their suffering. Although she says plain talk is not our custom, Sigafoos shares her deep-set fear that she will die alone. After the mother reassures her, they bond over an atlas and their shared lack of sleep.
I offer her valerian. If sleep’s a thing that can’t be found,
I hold the atlas open to the pages she prefers:
maps of oceans, maps of plains.
The mother’s final moments are portrayed in “Break,” an elegant poem reminiscent of Frank O’Hara. However, they are foreshadowed in the book’s first section, “Light Swarms,” a series of 14 poems that connect human suffering and loss with nature and its consolations. “March – April – May” presents the mother’s death as a one of several painful events Sigafoos experienced in springtime.
The Ides were easy – April was the cruelest,
two years in a row. My mother died. I wasn’t there
my sister called me with the news. April, next —
a suicide, a friend, who inked my name on
his exit note. Police were on the phone to me at 3 a.m.
Night fractured. Furious, I flew from room to room.
By the poem’s end, Sigafoos finds solace in nature’s cycles and seasons. I am eager now, for spring’s relentless orbits –, she says in the penultimate stanza. She concludes:
Daphne, tulips, Stars of Persia, tulips, tulips –
then dicentra, Bleeding Hearts, in May. Any day gets better
if you look through branches at the sky.
The book’s final section, “Landscapes, Seascapes, Soundscapes,” celebrates the arts. Many of the section’s 15 poems are ekphrastic, while others focus on the spiritual and emotional experience of art-making. “Art Class, 1957,” for instance, depicts a woman’s immersion in the process of filling page after page with new / versions of “Moonlight on Water.” As her engagement with this work deepens, she finds release from the burdens of selfhood. Even with color, the speaker says:
nothing is lost – ocean, night, immensity, depth,
her wish to walk that wide, bright path,
her wish to disappear.
The ekphrastic poems go beyond mere description to enact the joy and exaltation that can come from encounters with great art. “Still Life, or A Surface, Teeming” begins with an impassioned, but straightforward, description of Jean Brusselmans’ “Still Life with a Fan”:
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.
As the poem describes the painting’s many elements, including a checkerboard, a black-and-white photograph, and a conch shell, the speaker gradually reveals a broader vision of the arts. After quoting poet Robert Penn Warren’s observation that a poem is a hazardous attempt at self-understanding, the speaker concludes by observing that all genuine art requires risk. There you are, painter. There you are, poet. Two of you joined / in your hazardous longings.
Even though these poems do not directly address issues of mortality, their proximity to the poems describing the death of Sigafoos’s mother gives them a special poignancy, as if they represent a return to life after a harrowing journey through an emotional underworld. This feeling is underscored by the final poem, “Departure,” a quiet, 12-line piece about a couple parting as one boards a train. The poem reaches its climax as the speaker reflects on her own death in a way that recalls Sigafoos’s earlier fear that she would die alone.
I want death to be like this:
one on a platform, one on the train,
both closer to a foretold, lonely beauty.
Written in accomplished but unobtrusive free verse, This Swarm of Light often reads like a thoughtful and super-literate journal, touching on a wide range of emotions and experiences that include a reminiscence about a childhood mentor, a visit to a Christo installation, and auditioning for roles in New York theater. The poems cast light upon each other and the world, swarming to form a mature and expressive collection that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Paul Telles’s poems have appeared in Verseweavers, Pif Magazine, Rat’s Ass Review, Book of Matches and other print and online publications. He is a winner of multiple Oregon Poetry Association prizes, including an Honorable Mention in Fall 2020. He is a two-time finalist in the Pacific Northwest Writers Association literary contest.