jay. (endorsements) wrote,

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Richard Siken; Crush

I finally got a hold of Richard Siken's Crush, almost one whole year after I discovered him. I gotta say - I was not disappointed. There is such a strong feeling of interconnectedness between his poems, so many repeated images and themes (the chlorinated pool, swallowing glass, a film called the Planet of Love, golden light, a man named Henry). Because of this, there is a smooth flow from poem to poem, and the more you read, the more you'll love him.

I have spent roughly six hours or so (chemistry assessment task be damned!) digging up his poems from various corners of the web, in order to have them in one organized post. I also typed up the Foreword, tricky formatting and all, and included my favourite parts from his poems. This is mainly for self-reference, but I really do hope that someone will get something out of this.

I encourage you - even if you're not really a poetry person, if you're not really a reader, check this out. Skip the tl;dr foreword and read anything that catches your eye. The ones marked with a (∞) are my favourites, maybe check out those first?

Because I never really thought I was a poetry person - until I read these.

Foreword; Louise Glück

This is a book about panic. The word is never mentioned. Nor is the condition analyzed or described - the speaker is never outside it long enough to differentiate panic from other states. In the world of Crush, panic is a synonym for being: in its delays, in its swerving and rushing syntax, its frantic lists and questions, it fends off time and loss. Its opposite is oblivion: not the tranquil oblivion of sleep but the threatening oblivions of sex and death. The poems' power derives from obsession, but Richard Siken's manner is sheer manic improv, with the poet in all the roles: he is the animal trapped in the headlights, paralyzed; he is also the speeding vehicle, the car that doesn't stop, the mechanism of flight. The book is all high beams: reeling, savage, headlong, insatiable:

...Names called out across the water,
names I called you behind your back,
sour and delicious, secret and unrepeatable,
the names of flowers that open only once,
shouted from balconies, shouted from rooftops,
or muffled by pillows, or whispered in sleep,
or caught in the throat like a lump of meat.
I try, I do. I try and try. A happy ending?
Sure enough - Hello darling, welcome home.

The poem can't stop:

...Names of heat and names of light,
names of collision in the dark, on the side of the
bus, in the bark of the tree, in ballpoint pen
on jeans and hands and backs of matchbooks
that then got lost. Names like pain cries, names
like tombstones, names forgotten and reinvented,
names forbidden or overused...
"Saying Your Names"

Or, in "Wishbone":

    I’m bleeding, I’m not just making conversation.
There’s smashed glass glittering everywhere like stars. It’s a Western,
Henry. It’s a downright shoot-em-up. We’ve made a graveyard
    out of the bone white afternoon.

and later:

    Even when you’re standing up
you look like you’re lying down, but will you let me kiss your neck, baby?
Do I have to tie your arms down? Do I have to stick my tongue in your
    mouth like the hand of a thief,
like a burglary...

The poem's desperate garrulousness delays catastrophe. Accumulation and reiteration avert some impact, some deadly connection. This is also the way one would address an absence, allowing no pause for the silence that would constitute response.
That Siken turns life into art seems, in these poems, psychological imperative rather than literary ploy: the poems substitute the repeating cycles of ritual for linear progressive time - in Crush, the bullet enters the body and then returns to the gun. Cameras are everywhere , and tapes, the means by which an instant can be replayed over and over, manipulated. The poems' tense playbacks and freeze frames - their strategies of control - delineate chilling certainties and immutabilities. Which means, of course, the poems are driven by what they deny; the ferocity attests to the depth of their terror, their resourcefulness to the intractability of the enemy's presence. Everything is a trick, the poems say, everything is art, technology - everything, that is, can still change. This is Siken's way of saying the reverse in these poems, everything is harrowing and absolute and deadly real:

It was night for many miles and then the real stars in the purple sky,
    like little boats rowed out too far,
begin to disappear.
       And there, in the distance, not the promised land,
                                                 but a Holiday Inn,
with bougainvillea growing through the chain link by the pool.
    The door swung wide: twin beds, twin lamps, twin plastic cups
wrapped up in cellophane
                 and he says No Henry, let's not do this.
Can you see the plot like dotted lines across the room?
    Here is the sink to wash away the blood,
here's the whiskey, the ripped-up shirt, the tile of the bathroom floor,
         the disk of the drain
                   punched through with holes.
Here's the boy like a sack of meat, here are the engines, the little room
     that is not a room,
the Henry that is not a Henry, the Henry with a needle and thread,
       hovering over the hollow boy passed out
                           on the universal bedspread.

Time passes:

                              The bell rings, the dog growls,
and then the wind picking up, and the light falling, and his mouth
     flickering, and the dog
howling, and the window closing tight against the dirty rain.

And later:

He puts his hands all over you to keep you in the room.
            It's night. It's noon. He's driving. It's happening
      all over again.

              I've been in your body, baby, and it was paradise.
     I've been in your body and it was a carnival ride.
"The Dislocated Room"

If panic is his groundnote, Siken's obsessive focus is a tyrant, the body. His title, Crush, suggests as much. In the dictionary, among the word's many meanings, "to press between opposing bodies so as to break or injure; to oppress; to break, pound or grind." Or, as a noun, "extreme pressure." Out of this cauldron of destruction, its informal meaning: infatuation, the sweet fixation of girl on boy. In Siken, boy on boy. In its fusion of the erotic and the life-threatening, the inescapable, Crush suggests The Story of O, although bondage here is less literal. Sometimes the poems that most sharply delineate this obsession work from the moment outward and backward, in waves; sometimes we get eerie flashbacks, succinct, comprehensive, premonitory, as in the first section of "A Primer for the Small Weird Loves," thirteen lines that predict and summarize a life:

   The blond boy in the red trunks is holding your head underwater
because he is trying to kill you
         and you deserve it, you do, and you know this,
                        and you are ready to die in this swimming pool
   because you wanted to touch his hands and lips and this means
                                    your life is over anyway.
                   You're in the eighth grade. You know these things.
   You know how to ride a dirt bike, and you know how to do
           long division,
and you know that a boy who likes boys is a dead boy, unless
                                      he keeps his mouth shut, which is what you
                                                                 didn't do,
   because you are weak and hollow and it doesn't matter anymore.

For a book like this to work, it cannot deviate from obsession (lest its urgency, in being occasional, seem unconvincing). Books of this kind dream big; they trust not only what drives them but the importance of what drives them. When they work, as Plath's Ariel works, they are unforgettable; they restore to poetry that sense of crucial moment and crucial utterance which may indeed be the great genius of the form. But the problems of such undertakings are immense; Plath's thousand imitators cannot sustain her intensity or her resourcefulness. The risk of obsessive material is that it may get boring, repetitious, predictable, shrill. And the triumph of Crush is that it writhes and blazes while at the same time holding the reader utterly: "sustaining interest" seems far too mild a term for this effect. What holds is sheer art, despite the apparent abandon. Siken has a brilliant sense of juxtaposition, a wily self-consciousness , an impeccable sense of timing. he can slip into his hurtling unstoppable sentences and fragments moments of viciously catty wit, passages of epigrammatic virtuosity:

Someone once told me that explaining is an admission of failure.
       I'm sure you remember, I was on the phone with you, sweetheart.
"Little Beast"

...That is where the evening
splits in half, Henry, love or death. Grab an end, pull hard,
          and make a wish.

Some of these have a plangency and luster we haven't expected:

Every story has its chapter in the desert, the long slide from kingdom
    to kingdom through the wilderness,
             where you learn things, where you're left to your own devices.
"Driving, Not Washing"

Inevitability and closure haunt these poems; the deferred, the fated - impending loss and deserved punishment - suffuse every line. The poems draw a feverish energy from what they don't really believe: even as the speaker lives his strategies, he doesn't believe in his own escape. Not every poem operates this way. Siken occasionally locates a poem in loss as enacted, not implicit, event. these are among his most beautiful poems, their capitulations heartbreaking in the context of prolonged animal struggle against acknowledgement. One begins the book, positioning the reader as complicitous:

Tell me about the dream where we pull the bodies out of the lake
                                                             and dress them in warm clothes again.
        How it was late, and no one could sleep, the horses running
until they forgot they are horses.
               It’s not like a tree where the roots have to end somewhere,
       it’s more like a song on a policeman’s radio,
                      how we rolled up the carpet so we would dance, and the days
were bright red, and every time we kissed there was another apple
                                                                                           to slice into pieces.
Look at the light through the windowpane. That means it’s noon, that means
        We’re inconsolable.
                                              Tell me how all this, and love too, will ruin us.
These, our bodies, possessed by light.
                                                                     Tell me we’ll never get used to it.

Tell me, the poet says, the lie I need to feel safe, and tell me in your own voice, so I believe you. One more tale to stay alive.
It is difficult, given the length of Siken's characteristic poems, to convey in an introduction a sense of the cumulative, driving, apocalyptic power, their purgatorial recklessness. In other ways, this introduction has been difficult; because of the poems' interconnectedness, the temptation has been to quote everything. Such difficulty is, in itself, praise of the work.
We live in a period of great polarities: in art, in public policy, in morality. In poetry, art seems, at one extreme, rhymed good manners, and at the other, chaos. The great task has been to infuse clarity with the passionate ferment of the inchoate, the chaotic.
Siken takes to heart this exhortation. Crush is the best example I can presently give of profound wildness that is also completely intelligible. By Higginson's report, Emily Dickinson famously remarked, "If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me, I know that it is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that it is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?"
She should, in that remark, have shamed forever the facile, the decorative, the easily consoling, the tame. She names, after all, responses that suggest violent transformation, the overturning of complacency by peril.
In practice, this has meant that poets quote Dickinson and proceed to write poems from which will caution and hunger to accommodate present taste have drained all authenticity and unnerving originality. Richard Siken, with the best poets of his impressive generation, has chosen to take Dickinson at her word. I had her reaction.


i. Scheherazade

                                            Tell me how all this, and love too, will ruin us.
These, our bodies, possessed by light.
                                                       Tell me we’ll never get used to it.

ii. Dirty Valentine
(I could not for the life of me find a correctly-formatted version of
this poem online ;___; Perhaps I'll unlazy and write it up myself.)

We're shooting the scene where I swallow your heart and you make me
         spit it up again. I swallow your heart and it crawls
                                                               right out of my mouth.
You swallow my heart and flee, but I want it back now, baby. I want it back.

iii. Little Beast

History repeats itself. Somebody says this.
                History throws its shadow over the beginning, over the desktop,
over the sock drawer with its socks, its hidden letters.
                                                        History is a little man in a brown suit
      trying to define a room he is outside of.
I know history. There are many names in history
                                                                          but none of them are ours.

iv. Seaside Improvisation

                               You wanted happiness, I can't blame you for that,
and maybe a mouth sounds idiotic when it blathers on about joy
       but tell me
you love this, tell me you're not miserable.

v. The Torn-Up Road

    I want to tell you this story without having to confess anything,
without having to say that I ran out into the street to prove something,
                                                            that he didn't love me,
that I want to be thrown over, possessed.
                      I want to tell you this story without having to be in it:
    Max in the wrong clothes. Max at the party, drunk again.
Max in the kitchen, in the refrigerator light, his hands around the neck of a beer.
                                        Tell me we're dead and I'll love you even more.
I'm surprised that I say it with feeling.

vi. Litany In Which Certain
Things Are Crossed Out

I can tell already you think I'm the dragon,
                that would be so like me, but I'm not. I'm not the dragon.
I'm not the princess either.
                           Who am I? I'm just a writer. I write things down.
I walk through your dreams and invent the future.Sure,
             I sink the boat of love, but that comes later. And yes, I swallow
         glass, but that comes later.
              And the part where I push you
flush against the wall and every part of your body rubs against thebricks,
            shut up
I'm getting to it.


vii. The Visible World

      The dawn was breaking the bones of your heart like twigs.
You had not expected this,
                       the bedroom gone white, the astronomical light
                                                            pummeling you in a stream of fists.

viii. Boot Theory

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 itaway
                                                            but then he's still left with his hands.

ix. A Primer for the
Small Weird Loves

                     You’re in the eighth grade. You know these things.
       You know how to ride a dirt bike, and you know how to do
              long division,
and you know that a boy who likes boys is a dead boy, unless
                                   he keeps his mouth shut, which is what you
                                     didn’t do,
       because you are weak and hollow and it doesn’t matter anymore.

x. Unfinshed Duet

He wants to be tender
and merciful.
That sounds overly valorous.
Sounds like penance. And his hands?
His hands keep turning into birds and
flying away from him. Him being you.
Yes. Do you love yourself? I don't have to
answer that. It should matter.

xi. I Had a Dream About You
(Once again, the formatting is shot to hell on this one)

             Oh, the things we invent when we are scared
and want to be rescued.

xii. Straw House, Straw Dog

I woke up in the morning and I didn't want anything, didn't do anything,
         couldn't do it anyway,
just lay there listening to the blood rush through me and it never made
           any sense, anything.
And I can't eat, can't sleep, can't sit still or fix things and I wake up and I
wake up and you're still dead.

xiii. Saying Your Names

All night I strechted my arms across
him, rivers of blood, the dark woods, singing
with all my skin and bone Please keep him safe.
let him lay his headon my chest and we will be
like sailors, swimming in the sound of it, dashed
to pieces
. Makes a cathedral, him pressing against
me, his lips at my neck, and yes, I do believe
his mouth is heaven, his kisses falling over me
like stars.


xiv. Planet of Love

                         I'm the director
    and I'm screaming at you,
                         I'm waving my arms in the sky,
                                                 and everyone's watching, everyone's
                                                                                  curious, everyone's
                                                                            holding their breath.

xv. Wishbone

 I swear, I end up feeling empty, like you’ve taken something out of me, and I have to search
          my body for the scars, thinking

Did he find that one last tender place to sink his teeth in?   I know you want me to say it, Henry,
it’s in the script, you want me to say  Lie down on the bed, you’re all I ever wanted

          and worth dying for too.

xvi. Driving, Not Washing

It's a road movie,
           a double-feature, two boys striking out across America, while desire,
                like a monster, crawls up out of the lake
with all of us watching, with all of us wondering if these two boys will
     find a way to figure it out.

xvii. Road Music

He was not dead yet, not exactly—
    parts of him were dead already, certainly other parts were still only waiting
for something to happen, something grand, but it isn't
                                            always about me,

he keeps saying, though he's talking about the only heart he knows—
    He could build a city. Has a certain capacity. There's a niche in his chest
where a heart would fit perfectly
        and he thinks if he could just maneuver one into place—

                                            well then, game over.

xviii. The Dislocated Room

Here's the boy like a sack of meat, here are the engines, the little room
     that is not a room,
the Henry that is not a Henry, the Henry with a needle and thread,
       hovering over the hollow boy passed out
                           on the universal bedspread.
              Here he is again, being sewn up.

xix. You Are Jeff

This time everyone has the best intentions. You have cancer. Let's say you have cancer. Let's say you've swallowed a bad thing and now it's got its hands inside you. This is the essence of love and failure. You see what I mean but you're happy anyway, and that's okay, it's a love story after all, a lasting love, a wonderful adventure with lots of action.

xx. Meanwhile

Trees outside the window and a big band sound that makes you feel like
             everything's okay,
       a feeling that lasts for one song maybe,
                                    the parentheses all clicking shut behind you.

xxi. Snow and Dirty Rain

We have not touched the stars,
nor are we forgiven, which brings us back
to the hero's shoulders and a gentleness that comes,
not from the absence of violence, but despite
the abundance of it. The lawn is drowned, the sky on fire,
the gold light falling backward through the glass
of every room. I'll give you my heart to make a place
for it to happen, evidence of a love that transcends hunger.
Is that too much to expect? That I would name the stars
for you? That I would take you there?
Tags: (♥) words, clearly i adore richard siken, list-based entries are fun

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  • e.e. cummings; six nonlectures

    I picked up this book about a month ago on a whim. It's the first I've read of cummings' prose (I'd only ever read his poetry) and I absolutely…