Monday, June 20, 2011

The Torn-Up Road (Richard Siken)

"There is no way to make this story interesting."

In this opening line, Siken just out and out lies to the reader. It's a transparent manipulation that reminds me of a guy I once knew myself, a drug dealer who told me the best way to con a person was to tell them right up front that you were going to con them. This brings up one of the oldest defense mechanisms in the book: ‘You can’t fool me that easily! (What kind of a chump do you take me for, anyhow?)’

Siken keeps telling us in this poem how he wants to tell us this story without having to confess that he (narrator) "ran out into the street to prove something.” This something comes across as trying to make a very private thing very public. It feels like hysteria and desperation and an intense fear of losing something of vital importance. In my eyes he did not even have to include the lines that tell us what he set out to prove... “that he didn’t love me, that I wanted to be thrown over, possessed.”

The 'he' seems to be Max and Max is sketched out:

Max in the wrong clothes. Max at the party, drunk again.

Max in the kitchen, in the refrigerator light, his hands around the neck of a beer.

Tell me we’re dead and I’ll love you even more.

Siken tells us that the narrator responds to Max's direction in a way that seems almost Pavlovian:

I’m surprised that I say it with feeling.

The poem is written in five parts, the first part introduces the setting as a country gravel road that the narrator tastes and feels while he has the "sense of being smothered underneath a sack of lentils or potatoes;" the second part introduces the characters (as above); and each of the final three parts is like smoke and mirrors, a different angle on the narrator making his scene and running away and being subdued by another man. Because Siken switches POV -- and because Max seems to be a little withdrawn (or maybe passed out) -- it is not, for me anyhow, a forgone conclusion that this man is Max. It could be a scene from the narrator’s past, or a scene he recently observed and identified with.

The recurring image is his body being covered by this other man, who holds him down to coerce a promise that he will not run out into the street again. It is almost a parental level of control over a child who does not understand danger and will not practice common sense. It’s a fierce brand of care that comes off as a bit over the top, but as I read and re-read these lines I am reminded that I am being told a story that is uninteresting. Pshaw, right!

It’s uninteresting like your first visit to Manhattan. You’re in Chinatown, and you’ve just given your third $20 bill to some shaggy looking dude with nothing but a cardboard box and a game you don’t even know yet is called 3-card monte. You’re reaching for your wallet again because this time, you are certain. Well, no lousy street bum is gonna take your money like this, right?What are you, some small town hick? You lay down another $20 because this is the last time you'll need to, because he is offering to triple it this time. And now you’ve figured out his game, and this are gonna pick out that ace.


  1. Oh, wow. Janelo - are you trying to 3-card monte me? Does your day job have anything to do with sales? Because I am so sold on this poem and this book! So...did you buy that guys drugs?

  2. :) That made me laugh, Laurie!

  3. Hmm, I have a different take on this, not to say I think mine is more correct though. I agree w/ the opening negation remark, but the story to me is that his drunken lover gets run down on a gravel road. But then he doens't want to have to confess that he was wanting to prove something and not just on an altruistic rescue. "I wanted to have the wounds nailed shut" could be double meaning both his own emotional, and Max's injuries. "I want to tell you this story without having to be in it", that one really resonated w/ me as, this is a horrible thing to have remember, to live w/, I wish this was just a story I had no part in, that it wasn't my lover who got run down. In the end, I'm not sure if Max dies, but certain language suggest maybe.

  4. Shoot, my link did not show the whole poem! Try this one:

    That may or may not sway your interpretation, Jeanne. The whole poem certainly does contain the shock of an accident.

  5. Well, and furthermore...
    The first link is also different version!
    I kept looking in my book for the line you were quoting and I could not find it! Huh. A downside to 'pixel poetry' I guess. Sorry about that. I'll be more careful with the links I choose.

  6. Don't be sorry, I think its a happy and interesting accident. A similar thing happened when Aric sent me his latest poem, via in PFFA, but also w/ a link in here. Though in this poem's case, the versions are quite different and not just the odd tweak. I'm thinking that your first posted version wasn't a mistake in the whole thing not posting, but just a quite different version, which does quite change my interpretation. Different stages of drafts, methinks. Makes me wonder, when I'm sending out drafts for opinion, or just sharing w/ fans (ack, cannot say that w/ a straight face or w/out cringing, but I have some) if different stages of my drafts could someday crop up like this, hmm.