Richard Siken’s Crush

Siken, Richard. Crush. Yale University Press, 2005. (80 pages)

Louise Glück wrote the foreward for Richard Siken’s Crush, winner of the Yale Younger Poets Series Award for 2004, declaring: “This is a book about panic.” I would disagree. This book is about a species of desire that drives you to panic. Panic is the result, but the book is about a desire that is red, as in a slice of apple, a kiss, and blood. It is the desire of recurrent nightmares of illness, hunger, and bodies pulled from a river. The book also quietly lets the reader in on another secret: the strange pain of sustaining the sensitivity required of the poetic act. In one poem, Siken asks his reader to “Imagine standing in a constant cone/ of light. Imagine surrender. Imagine being useless.” In another, the light that is required of the poet is threatening, that when we are possessed by light there is the possibility that we will become accustomed to the light and not recognize it for what it is. Stunning. And enormous.
       If we can speak of form separately from content (and that is a Big If), Siken is already a master on the level of form, on the level of techne. Recall, that one of the first questions that students ask about writing poetry is how do you know when to go to the next line? You give them different answers based on the poetics of past writers. Maybe you discuss Ginsberg and breath or Duncan and heartbeat. You explain enjambment. You know that none of these offers a definitive theory of the line. Next year, I’ll use Richard Siken’s Crush as one of the best examples of line breaks. Here is an example from the opening poem, “Scheherazade”:

Tell me about the dream where we pull the bodies out of the lake
                                        and dress them in warm clothes again.
                             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. (3)

The effect is rather like falling down a waterfall and safely landing in the pool below. The lines and line breaks matched my reading of them; this is no appeal to organicism, believe me. There is a finality in the form that makes it impossible to imagine the poem working in any other way than the way it appears on the page. It is the tao of the line.
        As the opening poem title suggests, Siken is also concerned with narrative possibilities. Two poems stand out as the most accomplished in this matter: “The Torn-Up Road” and “Boot Theory.” The first line of “The Torn-Up Road”: “There is no way to make this story interesting.” The screenwriters of the movie Memento probably had the same thought, and with the same solution: a series of retelling starting from the resolution of the story and moving backwards through time revealing more and more of the backstory. The effect is reeling because the violence of the story is repeated in every stanza. In “Boot Theory,” each stanza begins with a similar opening, a take on the old jokes that begin A man walks into a bar and says…In “Boot Theory,” Siken spins out the possibilities of what happens next in each subsequent stanza. It is an emptying out of narrative possibilities until only one resolution is possible, which is revealed in the last stanza.
        But Siken is also skittish about what it means to write. In “Litany in Which Certain Things Are Crossed Out,” Siken is afraid that he has “ruined everything by saying it out loud” (12). He goes on to explain that writing is similar to making a doll (or a monster, depending on your reading):

You see, I take the parts that I remember and stitch them back together
        to make a creature that will do what I say
or love me back. (12)

It is the same dilemma he describes God having later in “You are Jeff”:

Let’s say God in his High Heaven is hungry and has decided to make himself some tuna fish sandwiches. He’s already finished making two of them, on sourdough, before he realizes that the fish is bad. What is he going to do with these sandwiches? They’re already made, but he doesn’t want to eat them. (51)

Adam and Eve as tuna fish sandwiches. Given the historical metaphors that have suggested the god-like vocation of the poet, Siken is perhaps suggesting the anxiety that comes along with writing. It was Ibsen who said that to write is “to sit in judgment of yourself,” and these poems agree.
       All this to say, Crush is the work of a mature writer, one that conveys a sense of permanent rapture while unwilling to become comfortable with that state. A glance at the acknowledgements page, and you realize that Siken has been working on this book consistently since at least 1999 because “The Dislocated Room” was included in The Best American Poetry 2000. Crush required more than five years to write. At least for Siken, the process takes longer than a three year MFA program to complete the kind of work he wants to produce. For him, it is a process that unfolds through history:

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. (5)

After meeting Emerson, Whitman said, “I was simmering, simmering, simmering, and Emerson brought me to a boil.” Then, he wrote the first edition of Leaves of Grass. My point, if you haven’t gotten it already: the pressure to publish early and en masse will result in a national poetry of mediocrity, one that Richard Siken refused to settle for when he wrote Crush. He waited for his pot to boil over until all his days “were bright red, and every time we kissed there was another apple/to slice into pieces” (3).

Lindsay Penelope Illich is a Texas poet working on her PhD in Rhetoric and Poetics at Texas A&M University. Her work has appeared in Gulf Coast, The Dos Passos Review, Cranky, and Brazos Gumbo. She has also served as an editorial assistant for Callaloo and BigTex[t]. She lives in Dallas, TX. (lindsay_illich@hotmail.com)

Boxcar Poetry Review - ISSN 1931-1761