When first I discovered the thrill of magical beauty I was a child, too young to comprehend what had happened -- still am, in fact. Oh I was smart enough back then to know that inside the little cardboard tube were mirrors and pieces of colored glass, which, when I peered into the small end and tapped the tube, those pieces would rearrange themselves into patterns so surprising, so glorious they rivaled the windows of the Lutheran church my mother took us to on Sundays and holidays. It wasn’t only the kaleidoscope’s mechanics that intrigued me, but something beyond, something deeper and subtler, some sublime transformation that in my small, random way I was able to bring about by myself. Beate Sigriddaughter’s new collection, Kaleidoscope, reaches me in much the same way, but with intricate strings of words instead of colored glass. Instead of tapping on a cardboard tube, she launches each new configuration with a clue that pulls us into a world so private and intimate we sometimes feel she’s describing our own.
This from the eponymous poem, Kaleidoscope, cuts straight to the heart: “It seems life has always been a marriage of huge hunger and surprise at what is on the menu. She is tired of the wounds she has to feel, many of them not even her own. A colored glass kaleidoscope at least delivers beauty with each nudge.”
With pursuit of beauty the overarching theme, overwhelming disappointment is a close companion. She ascribes the root causes of this disenchantment to culture and its conditioning, and male supremacy is the most damaging. In Power, she tells us she’d hoped “to mend the feelings of a boy broken to conformity, to coax a man from the cold prison of entitlement and hollow objectivity. . .to melt a politician's heart, to fashion a language of joy from the worn-out syllables of sorrow, to tread a path for women and men to honor each other in peace.” A sudden revelation eventually dashes these hopes.
While it might seem Sigriddaughter’s outlook is grim, without hope for beauty to assert itself and maybe save our species from extinction, Kaleidoscope also gives us joyful music, and sparks of wisdom and encouragement. “everyone wants to be heard while no one wants to listen” rides in the same coach as “Ditch perfection. Sanity is not inevitable. It must be chosen. It must be earned. Sing until the music cradles you. . . .”
But don’t get to taking comfort for granted: “Her soul is trapped in a cozy habit of acceptance.” Let your guard down, and her feisty spirit can bite you: “Everybody pays homage to conflict. Even the poets now participate. They swagger. They provoke. They shout in your face. How orthodox everybody has become. Secretly she cavorts with clichés, the sweetness of what millions before her have loved, fairy wings, gossamer gowns.”
Here she slips a little irony into our coffee, along with a Machiavellian sweetener: “if you. . .omit the fact that tantrums actually are far more often heeded, you will harvest a pleasing creature, plump with obedience and silent waiting for approval.”
If the cure for the world’s sorrow is unreasonable happiness, she plans “to be unreasonably happy in her stridently unnecessary life.”
Poems about facing a hostile world with barely muted sarcasm might seem too bitter for enjoyable beach reading this summer. Yet, maybe that’s just the way the kaleidoscope shows its face to me. I might be seeing only those parts I want to see, missing greater depths of Sigriddaughter’s penetrating insight and subtle writing. Should this be true, just feeling the infinity of layers in this book has kept me fascinated well beyond my initial reading. These poems will not be forgotten anytime soon.