Stranger in Town
Stranger in Town
Cedar Sigo
City Lights, 2010
The Stranger We Knew
Andrew Najberg

Upon seeing Sigo’s title, it is easy to recall novelist John Gardner’s famous plot binary:  all stories distill to ‘someone went on a journey’ or ‘a stranger came to town.’   Within the first few poems of Stranger in Town, one might find themselves spurred by the disparate, fragmented images, elusiveness of traditional direct narrative, and ethereal voice to be inclined to agree:  yes, truly, a stranger is in town.  Images float on the page, and particles of thought linger the way a comma might if there were nothing before or after it.   Readers may feel themselves adrift, perhaps even a bit lost as they navigate what appears to be a difficult and unfamiliar psyche.

Yet it does not take long for the uncanny effect of this to set in.  In the poem “Daybreak Star,” Sigo writes, “The films and tapes/ & cinemascopes/ I screened all together/ & typed out a list/ THINGS I FIND EXTINCT/ The audience, my own/ a higher order/ with whom/ I would consent to learn/ read, converse, never this building/ a replica world,” and the reader realizes that in this book, a stranger hasn’t come to town; the town was not the town we thought it was to begin with.   “The audience,” the one wowed by past works, can’t be wowed by those works again for the first time.  Sigo is not necessarily concerned with asking us to reconsider the familiar as is typically seen in the stranger-came-to-town-formula, but rather to dare to strip the familiar to pieces and build something entirely new out of it, to rediscover recognition by looking deep into the eyes of a stranger who expresses in the titular poem that he “enjoy[s] reading signs/ through the fog.” 

Through the sign metaphor, we begin to see a book that offers a fresh perspective on the concept of location and one’s relationship to it.  When strangers approach a town, (in other words, the space of the book’s meaning), we see the signs on the highway, and we build the town ourselves out of the impressions they create before we even arrive – we imagine the context, lay out streets, and plant trees in the space between the images the signs create.   Furthermore, even when we arrive at the town and discover it isn’t precisely what we imagined, the signs shape our perception of what our senses ultimately receive.  As a result, we share the same nervous space as the speaker of “Seriously Underdressed” as he runs the list of clothes he deems insufficient for an unnamed destination, we pour over the “Blueprints/ for imperial/ washrooms” on his desk in “Lisbon,” and we find ourselves building a depth of understanding of the speaker from such glimpses and shadows that we could never have gained with the speaker’s whole world bathed in light.

To this reader, this is both how the images in Sigo’s poems and the poems themselves operate.  They are signs in the fog that shape and craft the reader’s view of the space of the collection, but the reader invests them with both conscious and subconscious associations and bridges to draw them together.  When we encounter poems like “A Gallows Garden” whose spacious formatting draws the eyes across the page to sparse and intriguing fragments, we see each 2-3 word phrase as a separate sign with its own illumination, even when they directly follow the prior phrase syntactically.   In this way, the cumulative effect of Sigo’s approach to spacing, image, and meaning invest the work with an impressive sense of economy and compression.

Of course, Sigo also provides some clear street signs for his reader as well, such as in the poem “Morning Train.”  Here, we see the speaker settling down to compose a poem in his hotel room, finding “in every verse/ an alcove, a rest, a bloody lumbering foot,” and the directness and simplicity of the narrative in this poem makes perfect sense; every traveler recognizes the inside of a hotel room.  It’s easy to find comfort in the familiarity of overnight furnishings, but Sigo ensures that this sense of comfort is fleeting.  The “rest” is marred by the deep throb of the foot, which we sense means the burden of travel, the toil of craft, and the inevitable restlessness when dealing with unsurprising confines.   Furthermore, the speaker has “cracked the words filled with wine,” and we know the real pleasure lies not in the respite, and that the speaker has already mentally thrust that bloody foot out the door.

All these elements coalesce in the prose poem “The Sun” which appears late in the collection as Sigo tells the reader “When I allow a narrative to develop between lines it feels as if I’ve left open a door to my room, flooding it with outside light.”  Sigo does not want to tell a story, he wants the reader to collaborate on building one with him because “boredom is the cardinal sin.”  If the reader awaited the narrative passively outside that door, Sigo’s poems where “all surrounding lines slide out at the last possible second.   The lines that remain are then shocked into levitation” would raise signs in the fog with no stranger to guide.  The reader must consider that Sigo aims to marry the craft of the poem to something more akin to the craft of the magician.  This is not to say that Sigo plays a trick, but rather he invites us to share a new reality, one that is sometimes dark and toilsome and sometimes magical, and one that always requires the consent and contribution of the audience.   After all, a vanishing act would not make us gasp if no one stepped up and asked to disappear, but the real magic is that Stranger in Town not only draws out our willingness to collaborate with the page:  it lets us find ourselves somewhere we’ve never been until it is time to reappear.

Andrew Najberg

Andrew Najberg is the author of the chapbook of poems Easy to Lose and teaches at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.  His individual poems have appeared in North American Review, Louisville Review, Nashville Review, Yemassee, Artful Dodge, and various other journals and anthologies.