“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 that 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
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.”
— Richard Siken, “Scheherazade”
This is how Richard Siken begins his 2005 debut poetry collection Crush. In the foreword, Louise Gluck says, “This is a book about panic,” and it is—panic and love and insatiable hunger. Every poem grabs you by the throat and won’t let go. The tone is conversational, accusatory, and unrelenting. The poems don’t know what they want but they know they need it. It is a feat of everyone’s inner compulsion to cry and scream and buck against.
Ten years later, Siken finally published his highly anticipated sophomore effort, War of the Foxes, with Copper Canyon Press. Given the impact of Crush, which shook up the poetry world with its calculated chaos, expectations were pretty high. The day it came out I immediately ordered it without bothering to read an excerpt because I was so sure it was going to blow my mind all over again. But after just the first line I knew something was off. In place of the urgent aggression of Crush I found an unexpected stagnancy in “The Way The Light Reflects:”
“The paint doesn’t move the way the light reflects”
Nothing about that line is compelling, and it certainly lacks the impact of his original work. Worst of all, the title of the poem mirroring the end of the line feels clunky and redundant. And the rest of the poem isn’t much better:
The paint doesn’t move the way the light reflects,
so what’s there to be faithful to? I am faithful
to you, darling. I say it to the paint. The bird floats
in the unfinished sky with nothing to hold it.
the man stands, the day shines. His insides and
his outsides kept apart with an imaginary line—
thick and rude and imaginary because there is
no separation, fallacy of the local body, paint
on paint. I have my body and you have yours.
Believe it if you can. Negative space is silly.
When you bang on the wall you have to remember
you’re on both sides of it already but go ahead,
yell at yourself. Some people don’t understand
anything. They see the man but not the varnish. There is no
light in the paint, so how can you argue with them?
They are probably right anyway. I paint in his face
and I paint it out again. There is a question
I am afraid to ask: to supply the world with what?
A writer as reckless and frenetic as Siken definitely understands the importance of a first impression, and this is not a good one. This poem sags and doesn’t know what it’s trying to say. The poems seem more like strange off-brand imitations of his old work than something he would actually write. “Negative space is silly” is such a sloppy, uninteresting line it confuses me that he allowed it to survive the first edit.
What was so beautiful about Siken’s style in 2005 has been completely gutted from his newer work: gone are the frantic, cinematic snapshots of love and desperation. The simplicity and honesty of a line like “Tell me how all this, and love too, will ruin us” is entirely absent from War of the Foxes. The poems in Crush worked because they weren’t trying too hard. Siken was writing poems that did not realize they were poems—they seemed more like fever dreams you never want to wake up from. In his newer work, every line trembles and flinches like it knows it’s on stage. Siken’s poems seem to understand the audience has high expectations, and his nervousness to deliver inhibits them from being as recklessly gorgeous as they could be.
I sympathize with his struggle. Judging by the ten-year gap between his first and second books, it seems like the pressure to follow his sensational debut with something equally impressive made him stiff and overly self-conscious. Whereas with his first book he let his messiness roam free, in War of the Foxes he is unable to shake the overwhelming weight of his own reputation, resulting in pretentious, confused poems that lack entirely the heart and character that readers have come to expect.
I don’t want to say War of the Foxes is a complete failure. If any other writer came out with a book like this, I imagine I would think the circling precision of “When you bang on the wall you have to remember/you’re on both sides of it already but go ahead,/yell at yourself” were at least fairly interesting. But lines like “I have my body and you have yours./Believe it if you can” simply don’t achieve anything. Worst of all, after reading Crush, anyone who is a fan of Siken knows that he can do better. He knows “I have my body and you have yours” isn’t really achieving anything, and that a poem can be so much more captivating and urgent than flat declarations like that.
Richard Siken is still one of the most influential poets currently writing today. He has achieved more fame and critical attention than most poets can expect while they’re alive, and he has somehow managed to infiltrate mainstream culture despite working with a medium as ignorable and outdated as poetry. War of the Foxes may have been a disappointment, but nothing can diminish the success and impact of Crush. He is still one of my favorite writers, and I trust that with his next book he will try to relax and trust the unruly potency of his own voice without actively trying to impress anyone. It’s almost comforting to know that even the most successful writers still can’t avoid getting in their own way once they start doubting themselves too much. Siken has the talent and vision to produce something truly beautiful, and I’m certain that once he’s out of this War of the Foxes rut, he will be able to transcend the eclipsing shadow of expectation that Crush has left behind. He will find his footing again, even if it takes ten more years. I can only hope it takes a lot less time than that, because I will always be insatiable for more of his work.
Kate Monica is a senior English major at UConn and the poetry editor for the Long River Review. Her first book of poems, Nervous Universe, was released by Electric Cereal in 2015.