A note: I'm late on this review because half-way through it, I realized I hadn't organized my thoughts well enough for the second collection. I actually took time to reread it. Apologies!
In my drafts and in my head, I refer to this post as "Richard Siken." It just easier for me to organize my thoughts around the author rather than the collections, and explain the works under a bracket of authorship instead of collection title.
So, Richard Siken is a poet, among other things. His website describes him as, "a poet, painter, filmmaker, and an editor at Spork Press. He is a recipient of two Arizona Commission on the Arts grants, two Lannan Residency Fellowships, and a Literature Fellowship in Poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts."
In other words, he's a hella rad artist, and other people in the hella rad artist community all agree on his hella-radness.
A bit of a disclaimer: this is my first attempt at reviewing/critiquing poetry. My strengths are in prose, and I specifically studied fiction and creative nonfiction in school. I apologize in advance to any poets in the audience who see the bigger points I'm missing or fail to appreciate. That being said, the only reason I'm even bothering to try to articulate a coherent thought about Siken's work is because of how completely in love I am with it.
I first came across his work in the vastness of social media and the internet at large. People who make graphics and photo manipulations for their favorite fictional characters quote his work often, and though sometimes its use is very much out of context, his words are still heart-wrenching and beautiful. Most, not all, credit him and, at the time, his only published collection, Crush. That's how I learned his name.
When I bought Crush--and when I buy any collection of works, really--I completely forego the forward. I like to be as much of a tablua rasa as possible, especially when it comes to poetry. Forwards, in my opinion, can prime the reader to interpret the work in certain ways instead of allowing the reader to understand the work themselves. My personal practice is to read the collection first, and then read the forward. I actually really appreciate understanding how the work was intended to be read or having a theme explained to me plainly--it feels a lot like a class discussion or lecture, and helps me see things from other perspectives.
Crush resonated with me on a very personal level. A lot of the text is visually disjointed, and the vocabulary and syntax dance the line of rationality. There's a lot of fear, a lot of self-destruction, and a lot of passion. Things are hot and unhealthy and terrifying but so damn addictive, the narrator and, in turn, the reader just can't stop. No matter how rationally disturbing the impulse or sentiment, the reader is beyond reason, entrenched with the narrator in this barbed, downward spiral. How much you bleed doesn't matter, only that you do, and you feel it.
For the longest time--and I say longest time because before buying Crush, I found every line and stanza and complete poem available on the internet and devoured them--I couldn't quite pinpoint why I felt so deeply connected to what I'd read. A lot of the specifics in the works--drug use, violence, brutal sex--were not present in my life, so why? WHY? Why was I identifying with stories that were so different from my own?
Crush was published way back in 2005, so the copy I bought ten-some-odd years later had a forward. After reading the collection, I was only more confused about why I felt like my life was written on these pages. Then, I read the forward. The first line explained everything in a single sentence.
Ah, there it was. I couldn't identify it in the poetry because, at the time, I hadn't identified it in myself. Panic. Anxiety. Hyper-vigilance. I felt like my life was bloodletted onto the page because it was (and still is, to a great extent) my life, and I needed a professional to help me see it. It manifests in the pace of the reading, the jagged line-breaks, the unfinished and wandering thoughts, and the copious use of commas. And, well, subject matter. The forward does a really fantastic job of everything I want to do in these reviews, so I won't attempt to replicate it.
War of the Foxes, however, is a much different beast than Crush, and having just recently been published (2015), it lacks a forward.
If Crush is a collection about Anxiety, then War of the Foxes is about its twin, Depression.
The back flap of the book tries to frame the poetry in terms of "the problems of making and representation" and claims that, "simple questions--such as, Why paint a bird?--are immediately complicated by concerns of morality, human capacity, and the ways we look to art for meaning and purpose while participating in its--and our own--invention."
This, I think, is a complete misrepresentation of the collection, especially within the context of Crush, Siken's only other published collection. The titles are almost completely the titles appropriate for visual art. Painting, its parts and pieces, its processes and perceptions, are a heavily relied upon metaphor (or imagery--I'm really weak with poetry), so it's easy to see how this could be understood as a collection of poems about art. But it's not. It's just not.
The question quoted in the back flap--Why paint a bird?--comes from the poem The Language of the Birds, section 2. The full stanza (is that the right term? They're numbered...) is this:
A man saw a bird and wanted to paint it. The problem, if there was one, was simply a problem with the question. Why paint a bird? Why do anything at all? Not how, because hows are easy—series or sequence, one foot after the other—but existentially why bother, what does it solve?
If that--in its entirety--isn't symptomatic representation of depression, I honestly don't know what is.
Every poem offers something of this dire and dreary sort of nihilism, where the meaningfulness or meaninglessness of a thing or desire or attempt at anything is questioned. Basically, what's the point? The the speaker offers no answer. In fact, the speaker sometimes poses retorts akin to, "What's the point of asking what the point is? There's nothing you can do about it anyway."
And isn't that a hell of a downer.
Unlike the disjointed and jostling formatting of Crush, War of the Foxes is neat, tidy, painfully monotonous, like how life feels when one suffers depression. Some of the works pose arguments that are so difficult to follow--they wander off, get angry, and rail against a machination of existence the reader isn't entirely welcome to connect to--it exhausts the reader to the point of asking, why bother? And I think that's very much the point.
In my opinion, Crush and War of the Foxes are the beginning and ending cycles of anxiety and depression, respectively, and should be read in sequence. The reader is dragged up and up and up, faster and faster, and through more violence and pain and obsession through Crush, only to crash into the apathy and numbness and existential crisis of War of the Foxes. Whether this was Siken's intent is anyone's guess, but this is my understanding of the works.
As someone who felt such connection to Crush, and later, to War of the Foxes, I can't recommend these collections enough. Sometimes emotions are hard to explain, and sometimes poetry is hard to understand. But when a poem, or collection of poems, evoke an emotion in a way others can experience, communication becomes easier. "Here, read this," is much easier than tearing out a bleeding heart to garner compassion.