Monday, August 1, 2011

Monday Muse Reads 'Full Blood'

Each of us changes when placed next to the other.
We place ourselves, or are placed or paired creating
stories, a new idea, sometimes love. . . . 
~ from "Every Atom" in Full Blood

The opening tercet of John Siddique's poem "Every Atom", the Prologue to his new collection Full Blood (Salt Publishing, April 2011), contains the essential idea behind all 78 poems in his book: that each of us lives in inescapable relationship — to our perceived self, our parents, the person(s) we love, our physical geography, our sense of place as city or country, and nature, which in Full Blood carries multiple meanings — and how we respond when "[w]e place our lives together" can make our lives "[. . .] mean something / if we choose them to." That word "if" is critical, a key to revealing what the choices in Siddique's poems mean, because our relationships either free us or hold us hostage.

Siddique takes on big themes of life, love, and death, of childhood and adulthood, of war, of allegiance to country, of racism, of sex* (both with and without love) and addresses them in barely adorned language. His words are lyrical, often starkly direct, frequently tender, erotic, and always deeply felt. The sense of a life lived at its most visceral and intimate — that is, in "full blood" — is a marked characteristic of Siddique's work here. It is underscored in the poet's use of repetition, sensual imagery, occasional irony, and deep contrast. 

Full Blood comprises four main sections: Via Negativa, Reclaiming the Body, The Tree of Life, and Xibulba. The names of these sections are taken from titles of poems and are telling short-hand for the stories they relate and the arc of connections they describe. Siddique opens with "Thirst", which is one of his most beautiful poems and sets a context for the poems to follow ("Imagine thirst without knowing water. / And you ask me what freedom means. / Imagine love without love.[. . .]"). From there he stuns us, literally and metaphorically, with a series of five linked poems collectively titled "The Knife". Perhaps like no other in the collection, this poem represents the penultimate meaning of "full blood", the union of unfathomable fear and alcohol-fueled hatred (racism) that "[. . .] pulses / deep in the balls, in the pit of the stomach, / a moment of orgasm, it lights in fists and feet / and slogans, the clean white beauty of violence." In linking orgasm, the culmination of an act of love, with raw and senseless violence, Siddique reveals what is at once a shocking and utterly recognizable human condition. 

Throughout Full Blood you notice ongoing, needful tuggings into togetherness, heart-breaking in a poem like "Rachel Last Springtime" ("She leans in to put her arms around him. [. . .] / She wants love, she leans in. He sits straight / as she leans in, he is still and doesn't speak, / well he speaks, but he doesn't say anything. [. . .]), and inevitable pushings-apart, as in "Circumnavigations: Trial Six—Shadows" ("[. . .] I always felt divided, days when I didn't know / who you were, days when I had no love for you, / days when words were as empty as justice. / Satan's along for the ride.").

You notice, too, when recognition of the strength of relationship, of its ability both to undo us and make us whole, is at its strongest:

Finally I reached across the table
to touch your face, the pads of my fingers
on your forehead first, drawing down near
the inner edge of your ear and under
to hold your chin, lifting your head slightly
as if I'm about to kiss you.

We are burning as if we are adulterers.
[. . .]

We are adulterers of talk and desire,
pretending that by not coming together
we are somehow still standing on the good side
of the line. [. . .]
~ from "Adultery"

When it was just me—I had no memory or breath,
I had lived alone for so long inventing prayers.
Full and empty—without possibility or change.
[. . .]

[. . .] then she was next to me. Let it be light. [. . .]

[. . .] When I am you and you—me—becoming.
We are the garden: grass, trees and the fruit.
~ from "Making"

India is my father.
Stop doubting who you are.

Jullundur is my shrine.
I say prayers to my ancestors here.

India is my wife, with her
I lay down my burdens.
Become a man again.
I take her strongly in my arms.
We are man and woman together.
I am the earth and she is the sky.
~ "Become"

There are many stand-outs in this collection: "Jali" and "Kitying, "Junmo", "Eagle", "Love Poem", "The Road", "A Place of Silence". Two I especially want to mention. Both are titled "One Hundred". The first comprises a list of 100 names, grouped in no order discernible to the reader in a number of stanzas, at the end of which Siddique adds one or two lines of poetry. They are the first and last names of soldiers from the United Kingdom killed in our current wars. The second is like the first, except that the 100 names do not come from the Ministry of Defence, as did the first set; they are the names of those we have never recognized, names like "Abdul" or "Mohammada", names that in too many of the stanzas are fragmented — a first name with no surname or only a family name — all that remains of a person who once existed in full blood and is now reduced to a line in a list on a piece of paper. Reading either of these poems is deeply affecting, marking, for some of us, our first time being in relationship with a name associated with a war-torn place where "[s]ky catches its breath/on the mountaintops", where "[w]edding voices / ring the mountain walls", where we leave behind "[t]he blue eye of the desert." Siddique — rightly, I think, to heighten his meaning — keeps these two lists separate and each name on its own line. (The period that end-stops each line forces you to pause, to take a (needed) breath; it is itself a device of separation among those in unchosen relationship.) When we read those names, however, there is no separation, no barrier. We face directly the mortality the names represent.

There is much more that could be said about Siddique's marvelous collection but I will end by emphasizing that these poems also speak to grace and faith and resilience, to that silent place inside each of us from which we all begin:

Awake on a mountain path
surrounded by butterflies.
I cannot hold or posses them.
They fly just ahead of my steps.
There is nothing to do but be here.
~ "Full Blood"


* The product description for Full Blood reads "... poems for adults...." It is the case that some of the poems in this collection are explicit in describing sex. Do not let that be off-putting. The language is wholly appropriate to the intent and meaning of the poems, necessary to their accessibility. Siddique manages his choice of words sensitively, with an eye to revealing relationship honestly; by stripping away both self- and culturally imposed censors (what Siddique has called "taboos and notions of sensuality"), he invites us past barriers that otherwise stand in the way of understanding.

* * * * *

John Siddique also is the author of Recital — An Almanac, Poems From a Northern Soul, and The Prize, and co-author of the story/memoir Four Fathers. His poems have appeared in Granta, Poetry Review, and The Rialto, among other literary publications.

My review of Siddique's collection Recital is here.

A number of Siddique's poems have been re-conceived as videopoems, and they are well worth watching. You may view some of them on his blog, A Writer's Life.

Listen to Siddique's reading of his "Thirst":

At the end of this videopoem of "Thirst", Siddique talks about his poem.


Louise Gallagher said...

I was enthralled by your entire review and was committed to acquire my own copy of Full Blood, and then, I listened to his reading of Thirst. And I fell into that place where I cannot imagine 'love without love'.

Absolutely beautiful and beguiling.

S. Etole said...

Hearing these read heightens my appreciation and understanding of their words.

Anonymous said...

i am liking voice recordings better than video.
and i like to have the written word along with the voice recording.
if i were to choose one of the three i would be hard pressed to choose between the written word and the voice recording.
hearing readings in person would be an event.

interesting post. thanks :-)

Jenne' R. Andrews said...

Dear M-- I am eternally stunned by the empathies and intellect you bring to bear in your reading of others' work and in fact of all art-- this is incisive, insightful, beautifully written. Vis a vis my poem-- yes, it is certainly all of the steps. i love this concept of "full blood." xj

the sad red earth said...

This seems from your review challenging, provocative poetry, both intellectually and sensually. You do Siddique a service.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

Thank you all for your kindness in response to Maureen's review of my book.

Maureen you really really have understood what the book is about.. funny that it took me 15 years to figure that out as I was writing it.. It has been such a long road bringing this text into the world. Your appreciation of it makes that long journey make sense a little more to me now. As writers and poets I think we have to commit to literature's cause. This is a crazy old world so we may as well do what we love a full bloodedly as we can.

Bless you Maureen, and thank you for your insight and generosity... and thank you all for comments re the recordings etc.. More recordings coming soon then..

Kindest wishes

Maureen said...

Thank you, John. After reading "Recital", I had to read "Full Blood" and am so pleased I did.

I just listened to your recording of "Every Atom", which beautifully conveys all that "Full Blood" is.

Wishing you great success with this and all your future collections and hope that I will have a chance one day to hear you read in person.

Maureen said...

For those of you who might like to hear John's newly made recording of "Every Atom", the important Prologue to "Full Blood", go here: