Crush (on Richard Siken)

I emailed Richard Siken this question: 

Explanations and biography can (in my opinion) kill a poem. I feel this way mostly because I see truth as a limitation. Ideally, the reader is able to enter the work, each stanza unlocking the next, each line break revealing something else. The act of writing a poem changes the truth in itself. You are transforming a fundamental truth by imagining (telling) a version of the truth. The fictionalizing of an event is inevitable. How we remember and describe particular moments allows and calls for imagination. Does it matter to you whether or not your work is received as confessional? What was your intention for this project? And, most importantly, when do I get to read your next book? I also told him that I was tickled by his recent BOMB interview!

I was so excited that he very kindly responded: “Your review is very kind. Thank you. I just did the BOMB interview last week. The same questions: explanation and biography. Yes and yes. I agree. I wish I had more to say. You already know the answers to your questions. I’ll answer other different questions when my next book comes out. Soonish, I hope. Gotta finish it.”

I am infatuated, and I anxiously await his next book…

Okay, so this book has been reviewed several times already, by much more prominent people, and it’s not so new, but I am in love with it. Yeah, I said it. I’m in love with this book, and all my friends know it. Richard Siken’s Crush is strong, fierce, and shameless.

The book is obsessive, and I am obsessed. It’s my go-to when I’m stuck, unmotivated, highly motivated, or want to impress a new friend. (I’m half-joking.) I write lots of love poems (gasp!). I know, it’s not cool right now to be doing that. I even got a rejection letter last year that said, “These poems are not subtle.” Well, that is most likely because I don’t write subtle poems, so that made total sense to me. Consequently, while working on my manuscript, like my many other poet-friends, I live in constant fear of melodrama, or of being too “loud.”

The genius of Crush is that it occupies a landscape that encompasses both intimacy and violence, and it also demonstrates the intimacy of violence, how being “ruined” is romantic.

In ”Scheherazade,” Siken writes: “Tell me about the dream where we pull the bodies out of the lake/ and dress them in warm clothes again.” There is such tenderness in this attempt to recreate what’s gone. To take what is dead or drowned and warm it up, breathe it back, pretend the act of pulling or dressing will have any effect on the past is frantic and attractive. And, the image itself is stunning: a sad and lovely metaphor for the relationship.

These poems are desperate in the most exciting and passionate way. Perhaps my favorite poem in the collection is “Little Beast.” Part of section 1 reads: “The radio aches a little tune that tells the story of what the night/ is thinking. It’s thinking of love.// It’s thinking of stabbing us to death/ and leaving our bodies in a dumpster….” and “Tonight, by the freeway, a man eating fruit pie with a buckknife/ carves the likeness of his lover’s face into the motel wall. I like him/ and I want to be like him…” This work is not only confessional but it addresses the impression left by a personal trauma within the context of a larger social trauma.
I’m always asking my students to assess what is “at risk” or “at stake” in their poems. I teach Siken’s Crush in my ENGH 396: Introduction to Creative Writing class because it is an incredible example of both risk (emotional, social, formal) and musicality. Each poem creates its own unique rhythm. Music itself as a theme is threaded throughout the work. ”Scheherazade” is again an excellent example: “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 could dance, and the days/ were bright red, and every time we kissed there was another apple/ to slice into pieces.” At times, the language recalls song, and in other places the language mimics song.

Another reason I like to teach this book is its accessibility. The common language is never elitist and is always used in fresh ways working to connect readers to overwhelming loss and grief. The clear erotic and sexual images are unrequited and violent. Readers are left with a clear sense of desire and longing and the ominous sensation of endless searching.

An interrogation, a confrontation, a personal struggle for communication and understanding, Siken’s writing adds a dimension of reflection, even meditation, on what exactly people in relationships, failed or otherwise, are left with and why it is left between us. I see this work as a courageous splitting open of self. In a literary terrain where it is sometimes unsafe to speak about the personal, the sensational, or the sentimental, what I find most interesting is that the emotional, personal, and sentimental is, to an extent, unavoidable when attempting to create a space of intimacy between reader and poet.

If to name something not only gives “it” power, but also turns “it” static, then Crush transcends naming.  Always forward moving, these poems highlight our inability as people to separate intimacy from violence and even the type of intimacy found within violence or being a part of a violent act. I believe we owe much to trail blazers like Richard Siken who aren’t afraid of being sensationalized.

XOXO Sarah








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