Review: Language Arts by Cedar Sigo

by Jackson Meazle

languageartsWe’ve come a long way by the time the first poem of Cedar Sigo’s new book Language Arts (Wave Books, 2014) is over. It is a prose ode to poets, friends, publishers, and people in general who made the poet who he is as a collective presence. Where one unnamed beloved ends another begins with little hesitation or pause. Here is the peopled world that a poet’s mind can hold. Here and further on, it is a backstage world reminiscent of Robert Altman’s best films. Overheard lines cast into the poems make for a monologue out of probable dialogue.


I have been described as private, that’s other people

 (You never really know) One year I sent everyone

 A slice of the rose for Christmas. It was meant the way

It sounded, withdrawn. Two fires on the high road whistling

The phone only echoes back my voice

Entrenched mirror, high rise pathways,

Pistol unit, sword, english glossing, streetlights

 Sniping back. Mothers lock up your daughters

                                    [from “Plains Pictograph”]

There are many people talking, a ventriloquism of the sincerest kind. The kinetics of language through snippets are infinite pleasures of precise splices and cuts. Sometimes and sometimes not they drift freely across the vast light of the open page.

Much of the middle of the book contains sonnet-length variations on a private and desirous melody. We are led through a crystalline hell where the next heaven hovers just above the next poem in line. Written across the book’s midriff is a kind of travelogue through physical location—Paris, Zurich, Morocco, Bolinas, Suquamish—and the inner floating gears of the poet’s love- and hate-life.

 Fuck off with your crippling guilt
 The earth has edges, boys get thrown in fountains
 Dusk is painted over the moon, the sun grows black in your sleep
 Peel back your lotus to its bloody root
 No one is beyond reproach except the indians
And still I twist your fault against my grip

                                                                        [from “XXXV”]

“I take a vacation in color,” begins his poem “Fever.” The poet’s travels, where the images serve as landmarks or outposts, delivering us to various kinds of languages and ways of speaking by a balance of displacement and immersion. Another sonnet, “Verlaine Blues,” lays down a complacent anguish, possibly ennui, at the feet of falling rain. Otherwise, “Things to Do in Suquamish” shows a placid side to the poet’s interiors in a sprawling love list for his hometown. Also of note are two inventive translations of poems by Stephane Mallarme and Giuseppe Ungaretti. The latter is a lynchpin in the orchestrated climax of the book at its bedding-down period.

Sigo’s poems are unforgettable in their sly humor, but there is a bitter struggle in the art of signifying.

Moose jaw times herald Metz yellow bits
In a sprung for Yolanda game you know I am boss
In the shade of the running board, sun, eagle, owl
Diamond dove feathers take me down
Please stop this I’m heading your way
This is the happiest unrelated night of my life


I love strangers in an ailing mansion
That’s how they’ve groomed the stars of today, as escorts
I saw so many people I used to know. I like my nice
Portland white friends. They live to be super young
Pretty sloshed professionals of the language

                                                      [from “Language Arts”]

The title poem of book is easily the loosest poem here, an assemblage of phrases, imperatives, busted and rusted language quite reminiscent of city life and its voicing. “Language Arts,” as a single moment containing several tangential moments, is Exhibit Z to where his new poems are themselves traveling. “Language Arts” is an enigma that he himself has shoveled into the world. It reads like the real world’s rubble without the poet’s overcooked glaze, but also brings out the creative reader in the poet. The poem’s aroma is a sonic critique, possibly of our poetic lineage and definitely of the current poetic landscape. Its fidelity shines in an out-loud reading.

We have come even further. What is totally enjoyable is the attractive frieze across the library of the poems. Most of the poems’ scene-setting titles harness a point of view by reciting influence. There is an anxiety inherent to the form of homage, but Sigo references beautifully a film by Orson Welles, a now defunct East Bay bi-monthly magazine, the best American surrealist poet, a top-shelf strand of medical sativa, and notes to a favorite book by John Wieners. We traverse the real and the real contained within the fabled. We have what may be described as another classic songbook indeed.


Cedar Sigo was raised on the Suquamish Reservation in the Pacific Northwest and studied at The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at the Naropa Institute. He is the author of eight books and pamphlets of poetry, including Language Arts (Wave Books, 2014), Stranger In Town (City Lights Spotlight Series #4, 2010), Expensive Magic (House Press, 2008), and two editions of Selected Writings (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2003 and 2005). He lives in San Francisco.

Language Arts is available at your local poetry enclave and also from City Lights Books.

Sigo and City Lights Spotlight alumna Alli Warren (author of #10 in the series, Here Come the Warm Jets) will read as part of the exhibition opening for Imaginary Gardens With Real Toads in Them an exhibition of new work by Ajit Chauhan, with “Pacificas” by Colter Jacobsen at tonight at Alley Cat Books in San Francisco.

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