Monday, June 27, 2011

Litany in Which Certain Things are Crossed Out, Richard Siken

‘Every morning the maple leaves.’

Man, I just love his opening lines. This poem is like a series of short storyboards, each with their own built in contradictions and negating alternatives (which I know you will love, featherless). Siken begins with mention of a hero who ‘shifts from one foot to the other,’ and quickly moves on to write apology notes to the host of a party (which totally sparked a poem idea for myself). Sorry I couldn't come to your party... Sorry I came ... Let the opposites party begin!

Siken then has the narrator tell a ‘better story.’ He begins a fairytale where he changes back and forth from the dragon to the princess, and then addresses himself as ‘just the writer.’ ‘I write things down. I walk through your dreams and invent the future. Sure I sink the boat of love, but that comes later. And yes, I swallow glass, but that comes later.’ He transforms back into the princess until she sees herself in the mirror, at which point he slips back into the dragon, and confesses it: “Okay, so I’m the dragon. Big deal. You still get to be the hero!’ The ‘you' being addressed is his lover, and the speaker sells him on this role:

‘You get magic gloves! A fish that talks! You get eyes like flashlights!

What more do you want?

I make you pancakes, I take you hunting, I talk to you as though you’re really there.’

Right then he shows a moment of insecurity or fear or neediness, and asks, ‘Are you there, sweetheart? Do you know me?’ Interspersed through the first half of the poem are these fleeting intimate moments of the lovers’ relationship (remember, the one that would not get boring?).

The writer as playful inventor and hero of fun and exciting relationships shows up in these next lines: ‘Inside your head you hear a phone ringing and when you open your eyes only a clearing with deer in it. Hello deer.’ This little interlude of boyish charm is interrupted by a car crash and explosions, and then more apologies.

But things do not remain playful. Things get sad and there is a scene in a stairwell, allusions to other difficulties, and more apologies. Just to keep his equations from becoming too predictable, Siken also uses a double negative that totally turns my crank: ‘Here is the image of the lover destroyed. / Crossed out.’

Then he addresses all of the apologies by delving into a series of lines about forgiveness. I think the title’s ‘crossing out’ is all about the desire for an apology to result in forgiveness. ‘Here is the part where everyone was happy all the time and we were all forgiven, even though we didn’t deserve it.’

He invents another scene, this one not quite so dear as the deer in the clearing: ‘Inside your head you hear a phone ringing and when you open your eyes you’re washing up in a stranger’s bathroom, standing by the window in a yellow towel, only twenty minutes away from the dirtiest thing you know.’

Happiness does not appear to be a sustainable state. The second half of the poem is an accumulation of dynamics between the two lovers over time, and a fight, and then a cascade of images about the lovers reuniting, where he comes to visit the other in another city. There is a series of comparisons and an elated strain between the lovers along with observations of discrepancies between them and their pent up internal and external conflict. ‘We were inside the train car when I started to cry. You were crying too, smiling and crying in a way that made me even more hysterical. You said I could have anything I wanted, but I just couldn’t say it out loud.‘ What a beautifully impossible mind fuck of a promise, that is. (taking mental note for future reference...)

Then he gives up. He gives the pencil up and says ‘Okay fine, if you’re so great, you do it --’ and then proceeds to give instructions about how to write the story, the positioning of things, and he says build me a city, that history can be told in 70 minutes, forget the dragon, he says, as he quickly begins to collapse everything. He says ‘let’s jump ahead to the moment of epiphany,’ and then he brings in this imagery of gold and blue, ‘lakeside and backlit’ and he concludes with a back and forth between positive/negative, with a high point being ‘there were some nice parts, sure, all lemondrop and melon ball, laughing in silk pajamas and the grains of sugar on toast‘ (‘Lemondrop and melon ball’ is now an all time favorite piece of sound play for me).

At the close of the poem forgiveness is personified as ‘milling about in the yard,’ presumably where the maple tree from the opening line is sited. It always leaves. Forgiveness is invited to come in, ‘I saved a plate for you.’ There are such tender and maternal moments like that, but they are so quickly overtaken by shocks like: ‘ we clutch our bellies and roll on the floor...When I say this it should mean laughter, not poison.’ The love/death theme is entirely worthy of his conjuring up any number of Romeo and Juliet scenes.

Well, once again I love a poem once I get inside and make myself at home. I was not fond of this one on first reading (dragons and princesses are not a big draw for me), but I’m a fan now. One thing I am noticing, though. There is no place to rest in these poems.


  1. You do such a wonderful job selling his poems. From your description they do seem breathless and they seem to cover the gamut (in every poem) of the emotions.

  2. Thanks, Laurie. I sure do get immersed while reading his work. It's kind of cool by comparison to critting drafts of poems on pffa, being able to construct a narrative synopsis of his work from his collages of moments and images. It's great getting to know his work on such an intimate level.

  3. Jane, I'm sorry I haven't gotten around to commenting sooner (especially since this one mentions me specifically). I've been catching up with Silken's poems and your synopses, and I am really enjoying both. You're right that I like the play with contradictions and negations. I'm also very into the fourth-wall-breaking. (The bit that starts out "Okay fine, if you’re so great, you do it" is just so passive-aggressive! As is the part with the talking fish.)