Essay

Nerve-Wracked Love

A profile of Richard Siken.

by Nell Casey
Richard Siken is poised and ready to pounce. He is talking about a new kind of poetry, more optimistic and compassionate, moving forward from the insistent sadness of his first book, Crush. He is thinking about a different life, one with a community of writers and conversations about language, perhaps as a teacher at a university. He is leaping forth in conversation when the words, or the meanings they offer, seem off mark. “If you think the world is a golden place made out of love, then the book is ‘grim,’” he countered when I used the adjective to describe the despair and murderous images that appear in his poetry. “If you think that life is brutal and short, then the book is uplifting. I don’t know if it’s grim. I think it’s true.”

The 39-year-old poet is wise to be considering his options. Crush, chosen by former poet laureate Louise Glück in 2004 for the prestigious Yale Younger Poets Prize, was also recently nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award. These are two of the highest honors in the poetry world. With a single book, then, Siken has achieved more than many writers do in the span of a career.

Siken’s debut collection, 15 years in the making, hurls the reader into a world of nerve-wracked love—relationships haunted by obsession and futility—expressed with such eloquence as to make the pain of it strangely alluring. With sophisticated wordplay and provocative shifts between first and second person, Siken expresses a frustration with earthbound details and bodily confinement. He effectively juxtaposes holy wishes with mundane images—making them both seem beautiful by some strange lyrical alchemy—throwing love in with the sock drawer.

Siken takes keen advantage of the fragmented structure of poetry, where the fits and starts of thought and meaning add up to much more than if the author ever tried to explain himself in full. Take, for example, his lead poem, “Scheherazade”:
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
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.
This poem, one of the gentlest in the collection, sets up the first of three sections in the book. Each section, Siken explains, moves us through the speaker’s relationship with death. In the first, he views death romantically and with longing; in the second, he understands it as a reality; in the third, the speaker “has been shot,” says Siken, “and is possibly dying against his will.” As it turns out, Siken is not merely working through death as an abstract fear. Although he is quick to point out that his book is not autobiographical, and he is not the speaker, he does allow that the 1991 death of his boyfriend influenced his work. “It made the book a little more about elegy,” he says, “and I guess a little more desperate because everything seemed fragile and temporary.”

Alternatively, Siken gives this explanation for the structure of the book: “The first part is man against man, the second is man against God, the third is God, the director of the movie, in a helicopter trying to give advice and finding that no one is listening.” This also gives a good sense of the flashes of Fellini-like absurdism that appear on occasion in the poetry, offering dark humor amid the wreckage. From “Dirty Valentine”:
There’s a part in the movie
where you can see right through the acting,
where you can tell that I’m about to burst into tears
right before I burst into tears
and flee to the slimy moonlit riverbed
canopied with devastated clouds.
We’re shooting the scene where I swallow your heart and you make me
spit it up again. I swallow your heart and it crawls
right out of my mouth.
The tone is always pitched at a shriek, though, and Siken aimed for that. He began to write some of the poetry included in Crush when he was in his 20s, and later decided to preserve the mood of that age. “I wanted to talk about reckless, romantic love, and that has immaturity to it,” he explains. “There comes a point where it gets silly or you can’t get invested in it or you’ve had so many experiences or so many comforts, it doesn’t seem as terribly tragic.” Fortunately, Siken brings the wisdom and restraint of his elder self to the ardor of his youth, which keeps the book, with the exception of one or two moments, from becoming melodramatic. “Everything that isn’t urgent falls away in revision,” Siken explains. “I can refine [the writing] so that it becomes kind of a wallop.” In her introduction to the book, Glück aptly compares the work to Sylvia Plath’s Ariel, in that both writers are able to “restore to poetry that sense of crucial moment and crucial utterance which may indeed be the great genius of the form.”

His success has made him want to “play”—maybe go to a book party or shake hands with Jack Gilbert (one of his longtime heroes, and now one of his competitors, as Gilbert is also nominated for an NBCC award this year). Yet Siken is not convinced that it is possible to have a career as a poet. Poetry, he believes, is made possible only by a supplemental income. “Poets aren’t rock stars. I’m not sure they should be. Poetry rattles you, and it’s hard to pay for that,” he offers. “I’d hate to see poetry commodified. It keeps it safe and sacred.”

Siken has supported himself for the last 16 years with a job as a social worker caring for developmentally disabled adults. He received a B.A. in psychology from the University of Arizona before attending the graduate program for poetry there. Siken still lives in Arizona, working two 20-hour shifts on weekends in order to have his weeks to himself. He uses that time to write as well as edit Spork, a literary magazine he founded with friend Drew Burk in 2001, in addition to making regular entries on his blog (birdswillpeckyou.blogspot.com), which includes not only his writing but his art too. Playful watercolor images—one of a bluebird, for example, and one of a man with a cucumber sandwich—accompany his quirky stories.

Perhaps his sobering work as a social worker, along with his rugged sense of survival as a writer, keeps Siken from dreaming beyond a certain scope. “[My success] may mean more ease in future publication and that’s encouraging,” he says. “But I didn’t get a raise at work. I didn’t get a discount on rent. I didn’t get more gas mileage. It is what it is and it’s only part of what I do.”

He is able to part with expectation in a more philosophical way as well. “Someone that I remember wrote Crush, like an old friend that I don’t talk to anymore. The author is gone and the book is out in the public realm,” he says. “I have to let that Richard Siken go every day if I want to adapt and move forward.”

And it is on that note that he leaves Crush and looks toward his next project. “After the revelations in Crush, after the last declarative [in the final poem “Snow and Dirty Rain”], ‘We are all going forward. None of us are going back,’ the speaker has to write from a place where that has been internalized, being close to death and surviving death,” Siken explains. “There is less room for whininess or self-pity. There have been successes. And I’ve had successes. I can’t write ‘poor me, poor me’ anymore.” And so, in an act as mysterious as poetry itself, another Richard Siken emerges.
Originally Published: February 27, 2006

COMMENTS (20)

On December 3, 2007 at 9:55am Nicolette Sharidon wrote:
I found the book, and Siken's poetry generally, very timid and cliche-ridden. I don't think it is moving forward for poetry to be come bad, romantic prose. What was Louise Gluck thinking? I really don't see what's so great about this book. It makes me feel very tired.

On January 24, 2008 at 5:52pm Elizabeth Cunningham wrote:
I fervently disagree. If by cliche-ridden, you meant the poems address issues of the everyday, mundane tasks we all, as humans, burden ourselves with out of sheer desire for acceptance and survival, fine. ("I knot the tie and go to work," or, "The way it's night for many miles, and then suddenly it's not, it's morning, and you're standing in the shower, holding a bar of soap up to the light for an hour"). I think these moments are wonderful particularly because of their ability to capture the universally mundane in a poignant way.

Not to mention Siken's shift in tone to more desparate themes. ("Tell me we'll never get used to it") -- wow. Those who feel deeply know this mantra by heart; Siken has now given words to it.

P.S. After "Averno," I trust any of Gluck's selections.

On March 5, 2008 at 6:07pm heather ann schmidt wrote:
I LOVE this Book...his writing is amazing and makes me want to write more poetry.

On June 18, 2008 at 11:51pm Miss Nell wrote:
It's amazing poetry. The excerpts I've read, here and elsewhere, made me buy the book. Timid? Cliched? No. No, not at all.

On September 11, 2008 at 9:23am Mather Schneider wrote:

I sent 20 bucks to Richard Siken for a copy of Spork a few years ago, along with a complimentary letter, and didn't get a word in response.

This does not endear me to him, nor does his mealy mouthed poetry.

On September 11, 2008 at 3:49pm i. h. wrote:
I love Richard’s poems. They are beautiful, touching, and have a certain intensity that the great majority of poems nowadays lack.

On September 15, 2008 at 12:22am Longfellow Winters wrote:
Siken's poetry is well written, yet lacks a certain feeling to them. Sure, they capture the mundane well, but they do not add anything to the "mundane".

I have read many poems, by lesser known poets who write about the same things as Siken does, but evoke far more emotion.

I wouldn't say Siken is doing anything extraordinary in poetry. It's not a step forward, or a step backwards. It's more of a subtle shift of the left foot about 1.5in to the right.

Siken just furthers the stereotype that all poets are sad and miserable and only write about the bad in their life and in others. That's not a bad thing, but the way he does it does not celebrate it.

On January 24, 2009 at 12:16pm Tom Allen wrote:
I have only read one of his poems--the one that is featured on this site-Litanies etc.It struck me with wonder. Timid? Like a blowtorch.

On February 13, 2009 at 11:35am Murphy wrote:
I appreciate the intense emotions, but I do not find Siken's language transformative in any way--what am I missing? The poems threaten to become tedious, I find...

On March 3, 2009 at 8:17pm Sam wrote:
Timid is not the word I would use to describe what I've read. These excerpts alone have convinced me to buy the book.....I think it's brilliant. As a poet myself, I find his words are inspiring.

On May 1, 2009 at 8:28am Stella wrote:
I first came across Richard Siken's poetry somehow on the internet. The first peom I read was 'You are Jeff' and I have to disagree with some people who commented on his work here. I think his poetry evokes a lot of emotion, and I guess it depends on person to person as to whether it is effective or not.

In my personal opinion I find it all very powerful and somehow every word makes me smile.

As Siken says “If you think that life is brutal and short, then the book is uplifting. I don’t know if it’s grim. I think it’s true", and I couldn't agree with him more.

It would be harsh to say he furthers the stereotype of poets being sad and miserable because without emotional experience you can't write good poetry.

On June 24, 2009 at 9:13pm tammy wrote:
i have yet to find a poet who makes me more jealous and throw away all the stuff i ever wrote ... who makes me ashamed of what i was calling writing. his collection "Crush" is my bible ... i whisper his words and mark the pages, chapter and verse, before i roll over and turn the lights off to go to sleep. he resonates with the honest side of me. the side i swallow so no one will see who i really am. Love is not the word ... he has used up all the good phrases and I don't know what to call anything anymore.

On June 25, 2009 at 5:03pm josh wrote:
I find Siken's poetry to be beyond anything I have read before. It resonates with the mundane manipulated in a manner that reveals the deepest of emotions.

On December 3, 2009 at 9:21pm Kelly Muldoon wrote:
I'm not sure what to say, other than Thank you, Richard. My parents passed away back in March, and I've been searching for something to relate to, and grow from all of this. I don't know your meaning behind Straw House, Straw Dog, but I have been able to apply my parents and their death within the entire piece. Thank you for creating something for me to relate to!

On May 8, 2010 at 11:26pm kate wrote:
I don't find his poems tedious, or timid, or
cliche, or any of the other things people
have said here.

When I read them, they suck the breath
out of me and I am left feeling like I
understood something for the first time,
without having the slightest idea what it
was I understood.

On August 14, 2010 at 5:25pm Anna wrote:
My blog reader is subscribed to an online community where people post other people's poems. I've been reading it for years. All sorts of people get posted: Plath, Eliot, Yeats, Atwood, and many Eastern European and Spanish-speaking poets in translation.

Usually when a poem moves me, I take a breath, reflect, then glance at the author. It's usually Atwood, Yeats, Eliot, etc, and I nod and think, "Makes sense."

Richard Siken? I had never heard of him. But over the years, a double handful of his poems are bookmarked on my computer as favorites. Eventually I (the worst person with names) stopped remembering him as "Richard Silken" and learned his actual name. When I realized he had become one of my favorite poets of all time (up there with Yeats, Eliot, and Wallace Stevens) I decided that I needed to learn more about him in order to not feel ridiculous.

Siken, wherever you are, thanks! Your poems are like bricks, they are solid and make good foundations!

On September 12, 2010 at 5:24pm Stella wrote:
Crush is Ambrosia.

On November 1, 2010 at 3:43pm Michael Fitzgerald wrote:
I would love to know what sort of work moved a person who fancied poetry but was not, themselves, moved by Mr. Siken - you've either been numbed by some brilliance you ought to be sharing with the class or just strung different than the rest of folk and I would like to know which way.

On January 2, 2011 at 9:04am DeMaris Gaunt wrote:
I've been reading "The Best American Poetry" for 2000, and when I read Richard Siken's "Dislocated Room" pg. 161, I found myself repsonding emotionally and physically in a way that I have never been moved before by poetry...and I have loved poetry since I could open a book on my own! I was was so moved by this one poem that I had to find out more about him online. The discussions have made it clear that I am not the only one who feels changed by this man's ability...and yes, one poem is all it took. My best to Richard Siken...I look forward to reading everything else he's written...

On February 17, 2011 at 6:15pm Richard Atwood wrote:
Gee, Anna, I didn't know you were reading me -- or anyone else, for that matter. But I guess you're talking about my cousin, Margaret. Too bad. Everyone knows her. No one knows me: yet.
About Mr. Siken: I just got CRUSH. The few I've read I've like alot. He has a strange way of using images unrelated to his story, to tell his stories. Or to create a whole different world, than one planned or can understand (clearly); yet seems sharp as glass, yet easy.
I look forward to reading more.

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