Robert Siegel was a poet dedicated to observing the natural world and bringing it vividly to life in his poetry. His poems grow out of a sense of wonder and awe at the abundance and variety of life, and the myriad ways it can be a vehicle for glimpsing the mystery underlying the created order.
In “Peonies,” the microcosm of a group of flowers leads the poet to consider the macrocosm of the heavens:
Robert Siegel (1939-2012)
In June these
globes of white flame
swell, explosions so very
slow, we see in them absolute
fire at the center, stasis
of star’s core,
or a fragile
ghostly in each alembic.
From their green ambush these
unearthly aliens assault
us with color
for a week
then gradually fade
into another dimension. As
Dante saw the stars in a glass,
a corolla of souls,
the other’s light
and charity, so in these
low white spheres we contemplate
mirroring heavens: petals, tongues
stammering silent music from
one root of fire.
The flowers remind the poet of a shifting series of objects: fire, a slow explosion (and thus the combustion engines we call “stars”), and an alembic full of moonlight (an alembic is a vessel used in distilling, with stem and bulb, visually similar to a heavy flower hanging on its stem).
The reader will also notice the way Siegel has shaped his words visually on the page, imitating the blossoms and the stars. There is a long tradition of poetry that takes a shape that represents its subject matter, and one here senses the influence especially of George Herbert, the 17th-century metaphysical poet whose shaped (or “concrete”) poems include “Easter Wings” and “The Altar.” In Siegel’s “Peonies,” the fact that the stanzas imitate the shape of the flowers and stars indicates that the poet is allowing his perception of the natural world to shape his very thought process.
And it is fascinating to watch this thought process unfold on the page. It seems that the medieval (alembic) and astronomical (stars) associations suggested by the physical appearance of the peonies puts Siegel in mind of Dante, the great medieval Italian poet, author of The Divine Comedy. In Dante’s epic allegory, the heavens are arranged in spheres, and close to God’s dwelling place is a sphere of stars, which are actually the souls of saints, forever proclaiming the Lord’s glory. In the final stanza of the poem, Siegel refers to “mirroring heavens,” implying that the microcosm of flowers not only shares visual similarities with, but also functions in the same way as the macrocosm of the stars (whether the stars are thought of as the massive combustion engines we now know them to be or, by act of imagination, the souls of saints). That is to say, they equally speak of the glory of God. Thus, at the end of the poem, Siegel sees the petals of the flowers as “tongues”—of fire, and of speech.
In Siegel’s poetry, we see the physical world as a wordless language, speaking of its Creator to those who attend closely, as in Psalm 19 (NIV):
The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words;
no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.
Siegel’s poems bear witness to the enduring power of the natural world to speak to us, though wordlessly, and to shape our hearts and minds—if only we attend closely enough.
“Peonies” is reprinted by permission of the Estate of Robert Siegel from A Pentecost of Finches: New & Selected Poems, copyright © 2006 by Robert Siegel, published by Paraclete Press.