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Crush by Richard Siken
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Sep 19, 2008

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bookshelves: poetry
Recommended for: Someone who feels cynical about love...
Read in September, 2008

There is a mania to Richard Siken's poetry. It is wild, relentless, at times darkly humorous, at times despairing, always troubled, and leads me to imagine hat it bursts from him unceasingly. There is absolutely heartbreak and pain at the core of this volume, and Siken's articulations of it are manifold. He seems to be telling and re-telling a story in a myriad of ways, from all points of view--sometimes hurt, sometimes, bitter, sometimes resigned and humorous. But the reiterations are only variations on a theme.
Siken expresses a view about love that some might find cynical, and one that in my lower moments I agree with--that love ends, usually, in disaster and in pain--that it is destined to consume and destroy us. But the dark humor enters the picture because our speaker seems to understand this from the beginning, that even when it hurts, he knew that it would be so:
"I wanted to be wanted and he was
very beautiful, kissed with his eyes closed, and only felt good while moving.
You could drown in those eyes, I said,
so it's summer, so it's suicide,
so we're helpless in sleep and struggling at the bottom of the pool." -from Little Beast

What I sense in Siken is a mind that perceives and produces great detail and complexity, but who grapples with heartbreak.

In Litany in Which Certain Things Are Crossed Out, it becomes obvious that the speaker, by dint of being hurt himself, feels little about hurting others as well, and in one brief moment I sense a line of great importance to understanding this volume:
"Here is the repeated image of the lover destroyed.
Crossed out."
The lover, the who experiences passion and love is destroyed, is crossed out. There is an inevitability to this in Siken, and the articulation of it is this volume.

Siken's poetry reads as almost frantic. It's certainly propulsive. It seems to have a short attention span. Again, in Litany, the speaker says:
"The entire history of human desire takes about seventy minutes to tell.
Unfortunately, we don't have that kind of time."
Though, I take these lines slightly out of context, I think they speak to a very telling quality in Siken's writing. His stylistic choices limit my enjoyment of his poetry. His lines, though they often paint a very real picture, seem to come at me like edits in a television commercial (sometimes referencing camera cuts, appropriating the techniques of the filmmaker). His lines certainly have the effect of propelling me onward and creating an impression that works very well with his subject matter and with what I imagine to be his objective in writing these poems. However, I feel that I seek beauty in the poetry that I read, even if the subject matter is dark. This can accomplished in many ways--most immediately I think of sumptuous language, or at least a choice and a structuring of words that elicits a transcendent moment or two.
In Siken, I find that few of the poems impress me tremendously when I return them in rereading. This isn't the sort of poetry, it seems to me, that moves one so profoundly that one memorizes and quotes it. Rather, I feel as if the most that can be achieved in these poems is my corroborating the truth of the sentiments, as if I'm comforting a rather morose friend who has just had his or her heart broken. And for me, this is a lesser pleasure. Is there a transcendent beauty in commiserating cynicism? Even pain? Perhaps for some. Personally, emotional therapy is important, but somehow only a small part of the larger movements in the world. I think I need something more, though the nature of that something that I seek in poetry is as fleeting and amorphous as our experience of life itself.
For this reason, I seek a beauty in poetry that is just outside of my grasp, like the notes of a beautiful piece of music that slip away and elude me just as they overwhelm me. I need a bit of mystery, a bit of the eternal, yet in Crush:
"We know how the light works,
we know where the sound is coming from.
Verse. Chorus. Verse.
I'm sorry. We know how it works. The world is no longer mysterious."

In poetry I seek an image of truths that apply to humans, yet also convey profounder truths--truths that hint at the complexity of the universe. When I indulge my cynicism, my anger, my callousness, and my emotional pain I feel as if I'm residing in the shallower aspects of my being (hurt pride, upended vanity--things of that sort). Though I am human, and my experience is planted firmly in the realm of human thoughts and emotions, I also understand that I am a very small part of this universe. Though I have been hurt deeply, and hurt others, I temper this pain with the understanding that my experiences are very limited. There is so much more than me, so much more for me and that I am capable of, that I find I am able to let go of sorrow. I can walk away, and remove myself from the often self-destructive and unproductively reiterative nature of the tendency to wallow in tragedy. The windows must be flung open, the curtains pulled away. We have to move on, go for a run, go for a car ride, play music, write poetry. I am as sure of this as I am sure that love tears human beings apart. The two certainties exist together, and perhaps this is just a cynicism modified, but I would rather find peace in the face of the undeniably destructive nature of love than despair.
I imagine that writing this was very cathartic for Siken. I hope so.

Further, there is a violence to Siken's words that I do not have the life experiences to truly understand. And perhaps that was what I found the most illuminating in his work, that I could glimpse his traumas so vividly--that he can arrange words before my eyes so that I might see them, and understand what particular types of violence, betrayal, and heartbreak can do to a man. As Gluck points out in the introduction, "For a book like this to work, it cannot deviate from obsession (lest its urgency, in being occasional, seem unconvincing)." And there is some truth to this. And Gluck even references Plath's Ariel as an example of a book of poems that is relentless, and "unforgettable." In the case of Ariel, I agree. Yet, I guess I sometimes yearn for tender moments in poetry. I feel this way about Crush. I did not feel that way about Plath's Ariel.
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Quotes Austen Liked

Richard Siken
“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 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.”
Richard Siken, Crush

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