Crush, Richard Siken, Yale University Press
In the opening statement of her foreword to Richard Siken’s debut collection, Louise Gluck remarks, “This is a book about panic.” While the book indeed operates on themes of desperation, life-threatening situations, and an unavoidable sense of danger to body and soul, Siken’s poetry achieves greatness on many different levels. Siken’s themes and images range from the crushing effect of tragedy, (Road Music or Driving, Not Washing) the haunting influence of dreams, (Dirty Valentine and I Had a Dream About You) the insatiable human desire for emotional and sexual relations and the fall out thereof, (Wishbone and Dislocated Room) and the inescapable, unexplainable hope of redemption (Seaside Improvisation and Visible World).
While it is the practice of many contemporary poets to follow structure around single incidents, thoughts, or situations and to make that one moment exist as a definition for living, Siken seems to approach his poetry from the opposite side of the spectrum; that is, the entire universe as a single moment in time. The book’s opening poem, Scheherazade, is an excellent lens through which to begin exploring the intricacies of Siken’s work: “Tell me about the dream where we pull the bodies out of the lake / and dress them in warm clothes again.” (3) Not only does this poem begin with a thorough taste of what is to come in terms of themes and images as outlined above, but it serves as microcosm for the entire collection. We immediately see the speaker delving into the dream world for inspiration to attempt to deal with the unspeakably tragic blow that reality has dealt. In the lines that follow, the speaker and “you” share visions of wild horses, the succulence of sliced apples and kisses, and the unique sensation of light. Finally, in a move indicating a struggle out of the darkness, Siken ends with “Tell me we’ll never get used to it.” (3)
In another poem from the book’s first section, Siken begins to hone in on specific tactics to reach reader psyche. The Torn-Up Road, which is broken into five fragments, begins: “There is no way to make this story interesting. / A pause, a road, the taste of gravel in the mouth.” (9) As he’ll do throughout the remainder of the book, Siken begins to echo these opening lines in reconfigured syntax and from different angles. In the poem’s third section, the speaker states: “Can you see them there, by the side of the road? / not moving, not wresting, / making a circle out of the space between the circles.” (9) We see here Siken beginning to find the rhythm of a furious pace that knows no boundaries or constrictions. In fact, as the poem progresses, this heightened sense of ultra-awareness begins to take on its own meaning. By the final lines, we not only know the story, we have relived it through the minds of multiple characters: “And words, little words, / words to small for any hope or promise, not really soothing / but soothing nonetheless.” (10) Even in these early stages of the book, we see Siken attempting in earnest to make sense of an illogical world by expressing it in a non-linear, existential fashion.
Siken’s poetry consistently and beautifully transcends space and time, and as we move into the text’s second section, we see the poet continue with the momentum he has created. In Boot Theory, we see Siken’s repetitive, nightmarish language reach new levels of poetic gesture. The poem’s opening line, “A man walk into a bar and says: / take my wife please,” (20) is repeated four times throughout the poem as preludes to new stanzas of a speaker attempting to, once again, cleanse himself of a world that has brought him pain. Here, Siken deals specifically with a feeling of helplessness at not being able to purge these demons. By the poem’s conclusion, the speaker, who up to this point, has used linguistics to cope with trauma, turns to philosophical, self-examination: “A Man takes his sadness down to the river and throws it in the river. / but then he’s still left / with the river. A man takes his sadness and throws it away / but then he’s still left with his hands.” (21) While Crush is composed of countless examples of inverted phrases and playful distortion of words and cognition, the sense of jarring and dislocation that makes Siken’s work so memorable owes much of its success to the poet’s use of image texts. That is, in poems such as Planet of Love, Siken employs a filmmaker’s vision of camera angle and character shot to enhance the feeling of reader immediacy to scenes that sizzle with raw, human, sexual emotion, much like the prose in William Burroughs’ The Wild Boys.
Moreover, in Primer for the Small Weird Loves, another fragmented poem which ends the second section, we see the simultaneous use of language and image to create an exorcism of a past tattered by emotional and physical abuse. Lines such as “After everything that was going to happen has happened,” (22) “he’s teaching you how to hate,” (23) and “You do this, you do. You take the things you love / and tear them apart,” (24) are all repeated in various ways and presented through alternate perspectives to allow reader not only insight into the scenes, but kaleidoscope visions of conception.
Another aspect of Siken’s style contributing exquisitely to his stirring and poignant poems is his use of caesura to make particular phrases stand out and linger in the reader’s mind. Moreover, the white space that is illuminated around these uniquely structured lines seems to have as much to offer to reader interpretation as the language itself. Later poems such as Road Music and Meanwhile both contain instances of epiphany which are highlighted by the physical location of the words on the page. Siken’s execution of this vivacious form is a perfect stylistic supplement for the erratic reader emotions he evokes. In addition, this consistency in form renders the few poems that follow more traditional structure all the more powerful. That is, pieces like Unfinished Duet, Saying Your Names, and You are Jeff have a symmetrical feel that the reader learns to appreciate. Yet, despite the relaxation in experimental form, these poems take no back seat in terms of their quality and effectiveness. Indeed, as the final lines of You are Jeff so eloquently assert: “you feel like you’ve discovered something you don’t even have a name for.” (58 )
Thus, while Gluck is right about the panic-stricken mood and movements of Siken’s text, it is clear that Siken uses this sense of urgency as a springboard for a plethora of deep and intimate illuminations. Siken’s lines don’t run, they tear across the page at a pace and style so frantic, readers are forced to catch their breath. The problem with a pause, however, is the inevitable desire to return to the impetus of the poems and reread without stopping. These are not poems that lender themselves to stopping points or landmarks; rather, each piece is a frenzied dreamscape worthy of multiple reads and interpretations.
Yet, underneath this relentless chaos is a controlled vision which renders the speaker’s sublime visions as poetic and unforgettable. In trying to formulate a cumulative understanding of Crush, a detailed discussion of several pieces is certainly warranted. What we are left with is a dream vision perfectly woven by a poet who creates an atmosphere of feeling, memory, love, and clairvoyant understanding. Visually spell binding and spatially mesmerizing, Crush doesn’t open the doors and invite us into Siken’s uniquely poetic mind, it lulls us into its addictive cadence, and as in Little Beast, forces us to “punch ourselves awake.” (6)
Rick Marlatt teaches English in Nebraska . He has English and Philosophy BAs and a Creative Writing MA from the University of Nebraska, and he is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of California Riverside. Marlatt is the author of one poetry collection, Firecracker Swallow, and his most recent publications include Superstition Review, Barnwood International Magazine, and Amarillo Bay. Marlatt performs as an actor, poet, and writer, most recently winning the University of Nebraska Sigma Tau Delta Short Fiction Slam.