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Visions and Revisions

Crush (Yale University Press, 62 pages)
by Richard Siken 

Reviewed by Adam L. Dressler

The winner of the 2004 Yale Series of Younger Poets competition, Richard Siken's Crush is not so much a collection of poems as a weaving together of slightly varied versions of the same poem, or, at least, poems of a single common theme—romantic obsession after the fact. If English possessed a case somewhere between the upper and lower, this would be the case given to the first letter of “romantic” here. For although the book is decidedly modern in its form, music, diction, meta-referentiality and complexity of tone, it is constantly, restlessly propelled onward by what drove Keats and all his kith crazy—the loss of love. Indeed, each poem is set after things have not worked out, and serves as a post-emotional, post-coital post-mortem of erotic stillbirth as the foregone conclusion and, perhaps more alarmingly, the impetus of the sexual impulse itself, along with whatever threads of intimacy are tied up, inextricably tangled in it.

The book, which is divided into three sections, opens with “Scheherazade,” the very title of which suggests a cyclical singing for survival in the face of the imminent and actual violence that pervades these poems, and hints at the telling and retelling that one might be tempted to view as the two pistons of the book's engine if it weren't regularly speeding along on at least six cylinders:

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 forget 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 could 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.

The constant repetitions—one might call them refrains—here and throughout create the impression of a litany's call and response, as do the tidal alternations of long and short lines shuttling back and forth across the page. The repetitions, the patterns of the lines, provide a sense of regularity, but never stability; the footing is far from sure. This is also true of the setting and the logic (or non-logic) that governs it: this is neither a dream nor the waking world, and while one might be hard pressed to parse the exact progression of “It's not like a tree where the roots have to end somewhere” to “it's more like a song on a policeman's radio” to “how we rolled up the carpet so we could dance,” the gentle repetitions of “it's” and “how” along with the beautiful, surprising images, prevent the reader from overly questioning how she has arrived. And while surprise is important to any successful art, it is especially so here, where revision and repetition abound. The poem's closing plea, “Tell me we'll never get used to it,” can almost be taken as Scheherazade's prayer to the sultan, made in the knowledge that boredom will bring death.

Fortunately for the reader, no matter how repetitious these poems can become, they never grow lax—Siken is adept at subtly providing just enough variation to keep the reader on her toes. Here, for example, is the first section of “Straw House, Straw Dog”:

I watched TV.      I had a Coke at the bar.      I had four dreams in a row
where you were burned, about to burn, or still on fire.
I watched TV.      I had a Coke at the bar.       I had four Cokes,
four dreams in a row.

Here you are in the straw house, feeding the straw dog. Here you are
          in the wrong house, feeding the wrong dog. I had a Coke with ice.
I had four dreams on TV.          You have a cold cold smile.
          You were burned, you were about to burn, you're still on fire.

Here you are in the straw house, feeding ice to the dog, and you wanted
an adventure, so I said          Have an adventure.
The straw about to burn, the straw on fire. Here you are on the TV,
         saying Watch me, just watch me.

Just when it seems that the parade of Cokes has ended with the first stanza, another pops up in the second. There is neither straw nor dog in the first stanza, whereas both appear in various forms in the second and third, and TV shows up in all three. The tone is also surprising, moving from the neutral declarations of “I watched TV. I had a Coke at the bar” to the bluesy accusation of “You have a cold cold smile” to the wry humor of “and you wanted / an adventure so I said Have an adventure,” with the intralinear white spaces quietly but powerfully creating suspense.

And yet, despite these alternations, the voice is unquestionably cohesive, at least in part for the uniformity of its distance from its subjects. Although the narrator is often physically, violently close to his one-time or can't-be beloved, and even addresses him directly, e.g., “Hush, my sweet. These tornadoes are for you,” (“A Primer for the Small Weird Loves”); “I say I want you inside me and you split me open / with a knife” (“Wishbone”), the perspective, even when the tense is present, is invariably of the past. The narrator is a kind of Prufrockian revenant, balancing, often wryly, between life and death, love and death, half-manically relaying his visions and revisions as he visits and revisits the ruined settings of his failed affairs—houses, hotels, bars, and, most commonly, the road, which is itself, given its inherent hypnotic duality of uniformity and modulation, a ready-made metaphor for the unfulfillability of desire; there are stops, to be sure, but the road is always there, a constant symbol for the narrator's own insurmountable distance.

This distance is also achieved through the narrator's meta-referentiality, his often humorous acknowledging of how he is manipulating the narrative of a particular poem. This is particularly evident in “Litany in Which Certain Things Are Crossed Out,” which begins

Every morning the maple leaves.
                      Every morning another chapter where the hero shifts
        from one foot to the other. Every morning the same big
and little words spelling out desire, all spelling out
                                            You will be alone always and then you will die.
So maybe I wanted to give you something more than a catalog
            of non-definitive acts,
something other than the desperation.
                  Dear So-and-So, I'm sorry I couldn't come to your party.
Dear So-and-So, I'm sorry I came to your party
             and seduced you
and left you bruised and ruined, you poor sad thing.
                                         You want a better story. Who wouldn't?
A forest, then. Beautiful trees. And a lady singing
               Love on the water, love underwater, love, love and so on.
What a sweet lady. Sing, lady, sing! Of course, she wakes the dragon.
           Love always wakes the dragon and suddenly
                                                                                  flames everywhere.
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...”

And later reveals

                                                Okay, so I'm the dragon. Big deal.
                          You still get to be the hero.
You get magic gloves! A fish that talks! You get eyes like flashlights!
            What more do you want?
I make you pancakes, I take you hunting, I talk to you as if you're
              really there.

The wonderful combination of surprising statements, jaded tone, and, especially, humor almost always keeps the speaker posed between a passionate present and dispassionate past, but every once in a while, the voice falters into brief episodes of sentimentality—“You swallow my heart and flee, but I want it back now, baby. I want it back.” (“Dirty Valentine”); “I just don't want to die anymore” (“Saying Your Names”). There are also a few moments, particularly at the end of poems—when the language, previously hell-bent for leather, must come to a stop and runs out of steam—that the repetition that works so powerfully elsewhere has a deadening effect—“Getting the bullet out. / Digging out the bullet and holding it up to the light, the light. / Digging out the bullet and holding it up to the light.” (“The Dislocated Room”); “green yellow, green blue, / green beautiful green. / It's simple: it isn't over, it's just begun. It's green. It's still green.” (“Meanwhile”). But these are truly rare exceptions in a book that profoundly and deftly explores, in Siken's words, “the repeated image of the lover destroyed” by intertwining past and present, joy and jadedness, humor and horror into a gnarled, emotional Gordian knot that proffers no solutions to the problems that brought it into being. For to attempt to solve the puzzle, to sever the knot, would be to attribute the connection among these antithetical strands to chaos and coincidence, which, while they certainly contribute to the tangling, are never given full control over it. That is the role of something much more human, more messy, and, quintessentially, more R/romantic.

Adam L. Dressler graduated from Harvard with an A.B. in Classics in 1997. He has since received an M.A. from Boston University and an MFA from Columbia. He serves as an assistant editor at Parnassus: Poetry in Review and lives in Brooklyn with his fiancée and two cats.


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