In honor of Valentine’s Day this week, I want to celebrate a book of poems I’m in love with. Richard Siken’s Crush changed poetry for me; after reading this book, poetry suddenly became something that was passionate, tender, and complicated, but also accessible. This was the book that made me think I might want to read a collection of poems as much as I’d want to read a novel, something I’d never even imagined. Though at this point I had been studying poetry for years, this is the book that made me love poetry.
While working on my MA thesis, a chapbook of poems, at the University of Cincinnati, one of my professors, Danielle Deulen, in reviewing my work, said that my poems lacked tension. She was right. In trying to point me to poems that displayed different kinds of tension (dramatic, linguistic, as well as tension in form, in juxtaposition, in movement, etc.) she gave me a packet of poems that modeled these, as well as a list of exercises that might help me generate work that inherently contained “tension.” The first poem in the packet was Siken’s “Planet of Love,” filed under “dramatic tension” section. Danielle told me to read that poem and then go home and buy the book.
Crush won the 2004 Yale Series of Younger Poets competition. In his book, Siken writes about panic without saying “panic” and writes about obsession without risking cliché sentimentality or becoming predictable. While Siken is devoted to emotions, he is also interested in the physical body and the damage both can do. Siken spent fifteen years writing Crush, influenced by the 1991 death of his boyfriend. Siken was born in New York City and currently lives in Tucson, Arizona, where he is also a filmmaker, painter, and editor at Spork Press, a small press in Tucson that publishes a quarterly literary magazine called Spork, as well as chapbooks and novels. His second (and much anticipated!) book, War of the Foxes, is coming out from Copper Canyon Press in April.
One thing I like about Siken is that he is not afraid to use the entire page; long lines that often wrap around into the next line are mixed with short lines that are often indented or even flush to the right margin. Because of this, the reader can sense the chaos and panic in these poems before she even begins reading them; glancing at a single poem can make her feel overwhelmed, frantic, and even claustrophobic because so much is packed onto a single page without any sign of pattern. With the very long lines often come very long sentences, but just like the lines, there are many very short sentences amongst the long ones. The mixture of long and short sentences with long and short lines add to the rush by making the reader fall into the speed of the poems but slam on the breaks when she gets to a short line or sentence.
“I Had a Dream About You,” for example, is a dream poem about the speaker’s lust and desire for the “you” in the poem, which later turns almost savage and displays an emotional brokenness in the speaker and a physical brokenness in the “you.” After a whimsical and funny narrative about the speaker’s desire for the “you,” the “you” is lying on the highway and the speaker drives him home because the “you” is mangled and incoherent. Then the poem jumps to various locations: they are at the hospital, then by the side of the road. This poem is ultimately about the speaker waiting for the “you” to love him. The rushing mania Siken induces is evident in the images and shape of the line on the page:
There was a show on the television about buried treasure.
You were trying to convince me that we should go buy shovels
and go out into the yard
and I was trying to convince you that I was a vampire.
On the way to the hardware store I kept biting your arm
and you said if I really was a vampire I would be biting your neck,
so I started biting your neck
and you said Cut it out!
and you bought me an ice cream, and then we saw the UFO.
These are the dreams we should be having. I shouldn’t have to
clean them up like this.
Siken gives the reader anxiety, making her laugh, as well as breaking her heart. This is one of the things Siken does best.
Many would call Crush dark and grotesque. Consider the first six lines of “A Primer for the Small Weird Loves:”
The blond boy in the red trunks is holding your head under water
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.
While this passage, and the book as a whole, are certainly dark and sometimes painful to read, there are also many moments when Siken successfully pairs humor with heartbreak and vulnerability. One of my favorite examples of this comes from “Boot Theory:”
A man walks into a bar and says:
Take my wife—please.
But you take him instead.
You take him home, and you make him a cheese sandwich,
and you try to get his shoes off, but he kicks you
and he keeps kicking you.
You swallow a bottle of sleeping pills but they don’t work.
Siken’s book is full of moments such as this, moments that are gentle but violent, innocent but too grown up. One could argue that this is simply an entire book of moments, specific moments that are injected with lust, fear, desire, obsession, panic, and anxiety.
Crush accomplishes the rare distinction in poetry of being a “page-turner.” This first collection about panic and obsession effortlessly makes the reader obsessed with Siken. His ability to talk about both the beautiful and the ugly aspects of human desire that make the reader feel sympathy for the speaker (often while laughing) is what makes this book stand out. Crush is a success because it makes us ruminate about our own vulnerability. How romantic. Pick up a copy for your lover here.