Richard Siken's second collection, coming a decade after his Yale Younger Poets prize-winning debut Crush, finds the poet a subdued man with more mature preoccupations. The erotic energy and dazzling infatuation that drove Crush are replaced in War of the Foxes with frustrations about the impossibility of creating pure and true artistic representations. Siken sets this conversation in motion from the book's opening line: “The paint doesn't move the way the light reflects, / so what's there to be faithful to?” The trappings of aesthetics are insufficient: “It should be enough. To make something / beautiful should be enough. It isn't.”
The personal nature of this artistic seeking is most evident in the poem “Portrait of Fryderyk in Shifting Light,” in which Siken's attempt to paint his subject, presumably a lover, begins with the troubled assessment “There is something terribly wrong with his face—” before launching into a brilliant description of an uncapturable beauty: “his eyes shine like wedding rings.” In this case, the inability to provide an exact portrayal is a proxy for the actual problem, the inability to truly know another person. The effort ends in an artfully admitted defeat, “I turned off the headlights of / my looking and let the animal get away.” “The Museum” addresses the chasm of the other that cannot be breached in allegorical fashion; a man stands before a painting, fixated by something unnameable: “Perhaps it was something about yellow / near pink,” while his disinterested lover waits nearby, yet a world away.
Immediately following, “Three Proofs” attacks the problem from a more academic perspective, as the poet considers paintings by Picasso, Raphael, and Caravaggio. The Picasso is his portrait of Gertrude Stein, but is the image an adequate likeness? More importantly, he wonders, can the painting tell us something about Stein as a person? “She existed enough to be painted” is the reluctant conclusion. The events of Raphael's Saint George and the Dragon are recounted and then routinely devalued by the spare statement that “All these things happened. Allegedly.” The analysis of Caravaggio, a “thug whose soul / was as big as Rome and full of anvils,” is more complex. Siken considers the painting of Caravaggio's own face on Goliath's severed head as a reference to his potential murder sentence. Is this an admission of guilt? But “truth doesn't count / in law, only proof.” The maddening question remains: What constitutes proof and where are we to find it?
An exploration of tools and their functions is a further steady preoccupation as Siken seeks something definitive and concrete to, perhaps literally, hold onto. This plays out most effectively in “Logic,” in which “The body / puts glue on a twig and catches a bird. Glue is a tool, / unless you are a bird.” Siken may be working out his own artistic demons, where tools represent coherence and order and the antithesis of a more frenetic anarchy of feeling the poet is accustomed to. “Logic is boring because it works,” he declares; “Being unreasonable is exciting.” Apollo and Dionysus cannot both rule supreme. “A hammer is a hammer when it hits the nail,” a useful tool, and a reworked euphemism for telling something like it is, but then Siken admits, “I woke / up tired of being the hammer.” The poem ends with the unsubtle statement, “This / is an argument about goals.”
As if in response, the very next poem, “Lovesong of the Square Root of Negative One,” seems to find Siken purged of this dilemma by embracing a somewhat controlled chaos, the tools of the body and the mind merging with exquisite, rhythmic panache:
I am the hand that lifts the rock, I am the mind
that strings the worm and throws the line and feels the tug,
the flex in the pole, and foot by foot I find the groove,
the trace in the thicket, the key in the lock, as root breaks
rock, from seed to flower to fruit to rot
Siken may be finding himself at odds with his new tone, cautious and seemingly tempered by experience: “Everyone needs a place,” he says. “It shouldn't be inside of someone else.” In “Self-Portrait Against Red Wallpaper,” a poem about accepting the inevitable, the imperfect, and the intangible, the wearied poet offers more sage counsel: “Don't try to make a stronger wind, / you'll wear yourself out. Build a better sail.”
It would be simplistic to say that Siken ultimately solves anything or comes to a conclusion about the questions of representation he posits, but it is notable that the later poems—like “Self-Portrait”—seem to espouse a begrudging acceptance. Searching is important, yes, but it isn't everything. In “Glue” (a tool, as we've been told, and also a substance for fixing and affixing), Siken states, “We could pull it apart, spend our whole lives pulling it / apart and have no time left to do anything smart with / the pieces.” Take what you can from it and go, move onto the next thing, the assessment seems to be. Use the tools, be inventive. Create something beautiful if you can, and if it bears something genuine, something close to the truth, even better. Otherwise, you may find yourself still thinking about that painting in the museum years later, your lover long gone.
Lisa Butts is a poet and critic whose work has appeared in Pleiades, Contemporary Poetry Review, and Publishers Weekly.
War of the Foxes
by Richard Siken
Copper Canyon Press, 2015
$17 paperback; ISBN 978-1-55659-477-9