Blood Work by Matthew Siegel
Reviewed by Jacob Victorine, Book Reviewer
“You my rich blood!” bellows Walt Whitman in “Song of Myself.” It’s with this epigraph that Matthew Siegel introduces the poems of Blood Work (The University of Wisconsin Press, 2015), his strikingly intimate debut collection of poetry. Siegel’s book is a candid conversation with illness and the body; his speaker suffers from Crohn’s Disease, a chronic gastrointestinal ailment that millions of people have—including numerous members of my family—but very few seem willing to speak about. Whitman may have published his unabashed celebration of the body over a hundred and fifty years ago, but our bodies, and especially our bowels, are something societal norms encourage many of us, including myself, to rarely speak of.
Siegel writes with a familiarity toward the body that challenges the reader to look past the body as a source of shame. In the collection’s opening poem, “Fox Goes to the Fox Hospital,” he writes: “In the gown he feels naked, / notices his softness, how his sex has never seemed less willing / to rise” (8-10). Siegel not only touches on the ability of illness to impact the body in unexpected ways, but also does so with a language rarely seen from men. The penis is more often soft than hard, yet when is it shown as such, unless for comic effect? This “softness” (9) of which Siegel writes with, and about, creates closeness between the reader and his speaker’s body that the reader may not even have with their own.
Space within and between bodies is a common theme in Blood Work. For much of the book, Siegel’s speaker is preoccupied with the body and all it does and does not contain. The title poem places the speaker in a room with a woman drawing his blood:
She lets me play with my filled tubes. Can you feel
how warm they are? That’s how warm you are inside
and I nod, think about condoms, tissues,
all the things that contain us but cannot. (14-17)
For many people with a chronic illness, having blood work done can be a confining routine: an invasive weekly or monthly task that may not lead any closer to a cure. Siegel’s speaker understands his body is more than the illness it contains or the objects that contain it. Whitman writes, “I contain multitudes” and Siegel responds by questioning how the multitudes move beyond the body.
Yet Crohn’s Disease creates more than questions for Siegel’s speaker; it also creates pain. In poems like “The Electric Body,” Siegel writes with directness—even playfulness—towards physical suffering that may be disturbing to the healthy, but is all too familiar for the chronically ill. It’s the voice you might use with a person who has broken your heart more times than you can count, yet the two of you stay together: “Hello, old pain. So strange / how you resemble my old face. / Won’t you come inside (66-68)?” Earlier in the poem, we learn of the speaker’s first conscious experience with his disease:
At sixteen something broke inside me
in the gym locker room. I’d never wear
those shorts again. Breath swept
from boiling water. (15-20)
By pairing confessional and lyric couplets, Siegel finds new language for his speaker’s illness: his body is “boiling water” (20), turbulent and ready to break; the “mist” (19) is blood, the sense of calm pulled from the body, and a veil torn from it. These lines not only represent the speaker’s realization that something is physically wrong, but also show a new understanding of the self:
My body is a series of bodies:
now & before
I realize how much blood
moves within me. (21-24)
Blood Work is a journey through the trauma of the physical body, but also through the trauma of remembering. Throughout the book, Siegel’s speaker works toward a deeper understanding of the self through the physical body and through the way he relates to his family and his past. In “Watching Christmas Trees Burn, Ocean Beach,” Siegel writes:
I am thinking of my childhood on fire.
No, I am wondering how a child could forgive
a parent as black smoke bends
toward the parking lot. (1-4)
Like the mist in the “The Electric Body,” the smoke eventually clears to reveal pain and a deeper understanding of its origins. The “fire” (1) is the means with which the speaker wishes to “burn the memory/ of a father” (12-13) who inflicted pain on his family through physical and emotional distance:
Who made a fortress for himself
on the couch or deep inside the telephone
while Mother bolted every lock
inside herself and slept. (15-18)
Is it any surprise that a child who watches his mother suffer to break down her husband’s walls grows into a man fixated on breaking down the walls of his own body? Poems like “Watching Christmas Trees Burn, Ocean Beach” not only offer deeply personal vignettes of a child—and a family’s—pain, but also help to complicate our understanding of the connection between body and mind. How related is the speaker’s illness to the emotional pain he suffered as a child? How does early trauma shape the way we understand ourselves? Siegel does not offer answers—or even draw direct connections—but instead uses the diction of containment (condoms, tubes, bodies, fortresses) to challenge his reader to question the way his speaker’s—and their own—body relates to itself and the bodies that surround it.
In the end, even Siegel’s speaker shows hesitance in declaring his body and its illness. In the final poem of the book, “Rain,” Siegel writes:
This isn’t the first I’ve spoken of this
but I can’t stop thinking about all the mouths
that keep so tight the lips throb,
hands that ball into tight forever-fists. (10-13)
The speaker seems to know that speech, specifically self-declaration, is the path to freedom—if not from Crohn’s disease, then at least from the shame too often associated with it. Yet, despite this belief, it’s his first time speaking about the pain that results in him “tightening my asshole like a bolt” (2). It is this form of candid language and emotional honesty that makes Blood Work such a powerfully intimate experience. Siegel never talks down to the reader as a poet concerned with cleverness might; instead—like many of the poets I cherish—he understands that exploration offers more, and so he invites the reader into his speaker’s body, his memories, even his doubts. Siegel doesn’t pretend to know the solution to handling a chronic illness, but he is willing to write toward it with an openness Whitman would be proud of, even if his speaker is only “halfway / to becoming ok with this” (14-15).