Review by Lynn Levin
by Paul Siegell
ISBN 13 978-0-9816283-2-5
2009, 121 pp., $12.00
I haven’t had this much fun reading a book of poems in a long time. Paul Siegell’s fast-paced rave-on-the-page jambandbootleg follows a loose narrative in which the speaker and his friends travel the country attending concerts by their beloved jam band Phish. The poems mostly explore the ecstatic experiences of phandom and concert-going. For me, the most exciting moments—and there are scores of such moments—center on the revelry of the “phans” in parking lots before the concerts and the descriptions of the emotional rush of the music in the midst of them. The poems surge with the love of fun, and it’s about time poetry engaged fun.
While Siegell’s poems treat the reader to a rock concert party, his work reveals a deep awareness of his poetic elders, especially Allen Ginsberg (the voracious jazzy language and beat rhythms), G. M. Hopkins (the trippy whirling phrases), and Walt Whitman (the joy and expansiveness). While the poems speak mostly of “phandom” and the hyped-up pleasure of the music, they also engage some of the unhappy sides of youth culture (which Siegell spells as “Uth Culture” ): the travails of job-seeking, the uncertainty of what path one should take in life, the woeful lives of some down-and-outers, and the stories of phans who have lost their way. But mostly the subject and the mood is joy.
As I read the poems, I kept thinking that if Allen Ginsberg had not been kvetching and ranting he might have been writing lines like these from Siegell’s poem “*SET I*”:
stoked split-sec/onds of sensitive, extraAbstract
bandana-delicate aficionados patchwork’d in flux>
how the plan is to play jazz:
the happiness of having tickets—have you examined much:
the forensics of a parking lot?
eYeLeVeL w/ the spontaneous relationships & bizarre
bazaars of Jamband Tailgate Showcase Multitudes—
Come along, my friend my friends:
Shall we off to the estate?
after flirting in a minor key, the great “YEAH!” of rockNroll
cries out from inside—
of a peak’s release, a chills-guaranteeing song, of a peak’s
more ridiculous liftoff
Siegell’s lines provide wave after wave of emotional highs. As with Ginsberg’s “Howl,” these poems look spontaneous on the surface, but they are well-worked pieces. Siegell incorporates witty word plays, language poetry moves (see how Picasso invades “*Patchwork Acrobatics: Harlequin Period Typos*”), references to Jewish spirituality (“*Tekiah Gedolaaaaahhhhh*”), neologisms, anaphora, slant rhymes, unique and comic spellings, and artistic use of typography. I found no clichés, no commonplaces here, but countless wildly inventive descriptions of peak emotional states. Siegell’s sense of awe just keeps on coming.
To appreciate the collection, I had to read up on the band Phish, which Siegell spells as “PHiSH,” and that definitely enhanced my understanding and appreciation of the poems. Plus, I loved getting an inside look into the phan culture. For example, I learned that Phish phans in the audience legally produce bootleg tapes during concerts by holding up boom microphones. They then trade these bootleg tapes, a practice that is also in compliance with Phish’s policy. Hence the title of Siegell’s collection, jambandbootleg. In the poem “*SET II*” the poet writes of:
tradable hours&hours recorded Inside,
during the show, by the microphoneforests of tapers
… consider bootlegs the closest thing
our jampastime has to baseballcards …
I also learned that the Phish phans caravan across the country following the band, setting up tents in parking lots and campgrounds at which the band performs. One poem, “*MIDNIGHT to SUNRISE: N. Y. E. PHiSH 2000*” describes the weary but amazed aura worn by phans after a two-day marathon Y2K Phish concert at a Seminole Indian Reservation (N. Y. E. stands for New Year’s Eve). This was said to be the largest of the Y2K concerts in the US with over 75,000 people present. Much of this poem’s text is laid out in a large numeral 2 to represent the year 2000, and while I will not attempt to reproduce the graphics, here are some lines from the poem:
a two-day fête soundboarding
84 celebrated songs w/ enough gumption
to make it, & us, feel: Meaningful>we_were there
An A+ ambitious,
a once glowring-
I love that Siegell lets me ride along on his excited vibe, that he shares his tipsy neural wow with me. And I don’t even have to camp out and get all sweaty and dirty like a real reveler. I can groove at my desk. Cool!
Other poems in Siegell’s genre of shaped or concrete poetry include “*06.25.00 – PHiSH – Alltel Pavilion, NC,*” a poem that was originally published in Rattle, and which is laid out in the form of a flame. In a portion of “*SET II,*” Siegell rotates some of the type to set up an isosceles triangle. In one non-Phish poem about a younger set of concert goers – “emo/alt teen boys/ in shirts &/ ties…” at a Bright Eyes show, Siegell lays his lines out in a guitar shape. Diversity in layout is key for Siegell. Short lines, long lines, double-column poems also provide constant graphic interest, but the poet never sacrifices language for shape on the page. I also appreciated Siegell’s witty use of typographical illustration as in “<*(((><.” And see “*Meet Me at Will Call*” for some more typographical fooling around.
Taking a break from the plunges into the concert midst, Paul Siegell also writes these beautiful rhythmic lines in “*12.03.05 – Iron & Wine w/ Calexico – Electric Factory, PA*” about a woman for whom the speaker falls in a crush:
girl of the keyhole, haloed
statue in the negative space:
legs bent, posed in a pull on of jeans –
how may I align with such rare signature?
Another calm-down occurs in the long and wondrous poem “*SET III,*” which comes to rest with these final lines, “for Dionysus speaks:/Apollo descends w/ boundaries.” Although I loved the ecstatic poems, one of my favorite poems in the collection was a very grounded one entitled “*Pass/Fail*” that recounts the speaker’s father’s close encounter with the Selective Service. jambandbootleg then has its meditative moments, but mostly its poems dance with musical joy and Phish phandom. They are poems that love being alive, and that’s why they make me cheer.
Lynn Levin’s newest poetry collection Fair Creatures of an Hour was a 2010 Next Generation Indie Book Awards finalist in poetry. A review of it appeared in Rattle.