Book Review: Like Oysters Observing the Sun by Brenda Sieczkowski
Whether examining the mechanisms of pop-up books, the structures of the human brain, or the intricacies of particle physics, Brenda Sieczkowski’s work is obsessed with the ghost in the machine. Like Oysters Observing the Sun is a relentless exploration of the physical world, in which Sieczkowski searches for the connection between physical matter and its intangible counterpart, human emotion.
Like Toni Morrison’s Pecola Breedlove, who dissects her blue-eyed babydoll in an attempt to discover the hidden secret of whiteness, Sieczkowski’s narrator relentlessly dissects the objects of the material world in an attempt to discover where memory and feeling reside. Yet the physical world seems to offer only the shallowest reflection of emotional reality. The book is populated by ghosts and missing presences: phantom limbs, lost teeth, dark matter, Elvis, Bloody Mary’s ghost-babies and, significantly, Melville’s Moby Dick. Also ghosting the book is the narrator’s own trauma, never directly narrated but persistently indicated through the telltale symptoms of PTSD. Like Melville’s elusive Leviathan, this trauma surfaces and subsides throughout the text. In “White / Wail,” Sieczkowski identifies the effects of past experience as they make themselves known through absence: “What is the ghost of heart’s not there,” she writes, “Fruit from a phantom limb.”
The book’s relentless search for the meaning extends to an interrogation of language, as Sieczkowski probes etymologies and offers fragments of widely-disparate found texts. Placing physics and anatomy textbooks, pop songs and nursery rhymes, Melville’s epic and Beatrix Potter’s children’s tales on an equal footing, she offers these snippets as a kind of forensic evidence or corroboration of loss. Her own language ranges from beautifully-constructed lyric poems to experimental forms in which language is strategically splintered to create a kind of experiential map. In “Episodic Memory,” word and image radiate from the page as the narrator and her companion buy specialty umbrellas: “I get / a jellyfish, you get an octopus,” she writes, as
falls in overlapping lobes, but
you remember a lantern.
We glow, dissolving into cobbled night.
Here the “lobes” call to mind the two halves of the brain, and the poet’s own interrogation of the insular cortex, the seat of higher-order cognition. With equal skill, she readily employs scientific language and metaphor in “Sea of Trees,” where “Shreds of red cellophane lap at each aphasic trail.” Sieczkowski’s fearlessness use of scientific metaphor and vocabulary is especially refreshing in a poetic landscape that often professes ignorance of such specialized language, and she uses it to stunning effect.
Though haunted by pain, this inventive collection is always animated by a sense of textual play. The book’s unusual central section—a prose essay—is both an exploration of emotional scarring and a meditation on pop-up books. Similarly, in the series entitled “Eschatology: Wonder Girl in Monster Land,” the central charter, Yomi, befriends a wounded bear. The two spend their time watching movies together: “The remote paddles through Bear’s paws like an oil-slick fish; now the color settings on the television are immutably reversed. But Yomi doesn’t mind the inversion,” we are told, “. . . . Naked sky flipped the color of warm marmalade” (“All Through”). The poem is both hilarious and graphic as Bear “crunches [potato chips] through the dark and sucks salt from his paws and then, most nights, begins licking restlessly at the raw stump where he chewed his left leg from the trap.” Later, as Bear falls sick and begins to disappear, Yomi “Cracks open honey-flavored protein shakes” in an attempt to nurse him back to health. Similarly, the concrete poem “Thought Balloon” seems to offer the setup for a joke as “A aeronaut / scientist, and Strindberg / drift off in a varnished balloon.” Here, too, sly humor conceals the underlying threat as “Hubris and Polaris, two / monsters prick their sharp ears.” Sieczkowski’s humor is that of the survivor: tough, dark, and omnipresent.
In her use of scientific language, traditional lyric-narrative, prose essay, found image, and experimental fragmentation, Sieczkowski adeptly seizes control of all of the forms available to the contemporary poet. If her work has difficulty finding a home in the landscape of contemporary poetic discourse, it will be due to precisely this virtuosic range. Though the combination of lyricism, technical language, and prose essay might at first glance seem disjunctive, the collection has an underlying coherence that rewards careful attention. Sieczkowski entertains even as she interrogates, offering a generous array of poetic forms and textures. Like Oysters Observing the Sun is a rare hybrid from a writer whose talent and daring combine to form an original new voice.