Guard the Mysteries (Wave Books, 2021) is a collection of five talks given by poet Cedar Sigo for the Bagley Wright Lecture Series in 2019. His scope is broad, considering everything from poetry’s potential as a revolutionary force to concepts of identity, personal and shared histories, and the life and work of poets who have been influential in his practice. But “lectures” would be too reductive of a word for what Sigo has accomplished. Each talk works in dialogue with the others, oscillating fluidly between different themes and ideas, rhythmically building towards a satisfying culmination. The lectures, presented over several months, achieve an orchestral resonance when read consecutively. Sigo touches the heart of what it means to not only be a poet, but to be living. That is not to say these talks lose themselves in abstract, ethereal concepts—they are teeming with interesting anecdotes about key figures in America’s literary and activist history, and are firmly grounded in the real world. Writers and readers alike will find this work enriching and informative.
The first section, “Reality is No Obstacle: A Poetics of Participation,” centers on the writer and activist Diane di Prima and her series, Revolutionary Letters. Participation is the key theme, and it recurs consistently. He begins by framing the lecture in the lens of our current cultural and political moment, grounding us in the present. On a cursory reading, this might seem like the obligatory entry to any arts lecture. But its function is to remind his audience that these talks aren’t historical trivia, but are the raw material from which contemporary poets may draw inspiration. I believe that’s why he gives extra exaltation for the old mimeograph machines and underground presses—it’s more a call to return to the more collective DIY ethos than it is nostalgia. He intends this compendium as a training manual for revolutionary minded poets.
Di Prima’s practice was deeply involved in the radical political movements of the sixties and seventies. Sigo explores not only the craft of her writing but its context: how she practiced her art in the real world—how it functioned as an intrinsic element of her community. He uses her life and work to delve into the counterculture in New York and California as well as her relationship with such contemporaries as Audre Lorde and Amiri Baraka, and their work. This model of meandering through the myriad facets of a writer’s life is used in the other biographically focused sections as well: “Not Free From The Memory Of Others: A Lecture on Joanne Elizabeth Kyger” and “A Necessary Darkness: Barbara Guest And The Open Chamber.” These spiderwebbing sections connecting writers reinforce one of the other major motifs—the idea that poetry cannot exist in a vacuum, that it must engage with the world.
In walking with Sigo through the lives of these poets, we are invited into some truly intimate and special memories. The episodes vary from the majestic, as when he tells the story of Audre Lorde midwifing for Diane di Prima in a West Village Hotel—something I know I’ll surely be thinking about anytime I pass the building—to the fun, light gossip of nights at flat parties and Max’s Kansas City in New York in the sixties (as recalled by Joanne Kyger). These vibrant moments mingle happily with the theory and craft talk—this stylistic, formal meandering speaks to their implied inseparability. “We write the world we want to live in, calling it into being,” Sigo writes. This works on two levels. In one sense, he is offering advice and encouragement to the young poet; but I also see him as manifesting these very readers, the next generation of poets. He quotes poet Joy Harjo, “Incantation and chant call something into being. They make a ceremonial field of meaning. Much of world poetry is incantation and chant.” This compendium pushes this concept further, becoming the lecture as chant.
To Sigo, engaging with the world through poetry also means searching oneself. In “Becoming Visible” and “Shadows Crossing: Tones Of Voice Continued,” Sigo discusses his own writing practice and how it has been shaped by his Suquamish heritage, identity as a gay man, and the influence of the Buddhist-inspired writing program at the Naropa Institute. He discusses his family life, his adolescence, and the arts outside of poetry that he has drawn from. I found his consideration of Billie Holiday’s music to be especially beautiful. He discusses how as he grew and changed, what he found in her music also changed. He writes of the power latent in the silences of her later recordings, which echoes the importance of mindfulness and meditation within his practice. This also reminded me of Claude Debussy’s assertion that, “Music is the space between the notes.” We feed our inner poet with what we take in, but it only grows in the peace of quiet.
The new within the familiar is one of Sigo’s most poignant themes. His discussion of Barbara Guest’s work, Forces of Imagination: Writing on Writing, encapsulates how Guard the Mysteries itself might be understood. Sigo writes, “The talks and essays contained in Forces of Imagination intone a still, reflective surface in order to entice the reader (most likely a fellow poet) to dive straight through the mirror.” He describes the book as a wellspring of inspiration, finding something new each time he revisited it. Something tells me that this is how Guard the Mysteries will be for its readers.
Sigo’s lectures are a space where reality and enchantment are bound together. It is an earnest consideration of how a poetry community can be transformative for all involved. Call your friends, get a mimeograph, and start workshopping. Guard the Mysteries is available for purchase on June 2, 2021.
About the Author
Alex Kapsidelis is a writer of fiction and poetry, and translates from modern Greek. Originally from Richmond, Virginia, he currently lives in Brooklyn, New York with his fiancé. They have a pretty great dog named Dolly. He is pursuing an MFA in Fiction at Columbia University.