Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Boot Theory by Richard Siken


Siken arranges his lines in a way that makes it difficult for me to call them strophes. The lines push back and forth against the margins as though the page could never be big enough to give them enough room. It's as though he wants to remind you that the page's edges are limitations, and without them, who knows how much space his poems might take up. You can look at the poem to see the example of this, as the blog does not allow for the indenting and spacing of his format. As usual, the experience holding the actual book only enhances the experience of his formatting choices.


In this poem Siken addresses a man/men in the third person and also introduces the pronoun “you” in such a way that it seems to slip from specifying another party, to being the narrator’s address of himself in the third person, to being a direct address of the reader as “you.” I’m currently more than a little fascinated about the use of pronouns in poetry about gay relationships. There is an obvious challenge unique to poems (as opposed to prose or fiction) because character names are so often excluded in poetry, so there is not that touchstone to help the reader follow the conversation or the story line.

I plan to spend more time looking at the effective use of pronouns in poetry and I have my fingers crossed that I might even find an article written on the subject as it pertains to gay poetry. For me I have an added challenge as I write up synopses of Siken's poems, as I also have to add him into the mix. So I find myself with the poet, his narrator, and any other number of characters referred to as ‘he’ or ‘you,’ and to add one more factor, in the case of this poem, ‘a man.’ In this collection of poems the appearance of a woman is rare, and this poem begins with one.

Shoe Trope

This is a three-part story of a man (or three men, or three-phases-of-man), and how the other shoe drops. Part one appears to be a heterosexual relationship, where the woman leaves, after which the man who lives in the apartment above lets one of his boots fall to the floor. There is a significant pause waiting for the logic of the second shoe to drop. It does. (It always does, right?) In part two this boot turns into a series of boots falling to the floor above. Also in part two are two men and a pretty serious kicking incident. In part three the man goes to a bar -- this time Siken makes a point of saying that the man is “you this time” -- and after the bar, the man, well... it is you. You go to a convenience store. You get kicked out.

I'm trying to do my "reading" of poems lately in a way that I enjoy the art inside of them, the workings of the mind of their creator and how I can personally relate to that through the poem. The artfulness Siken uses in this trope is how well he integrates and even hides the cliche of the other shoe dropping while he displays in full fanfare an even bigger cliche: the proverbial one liner. Well, in this case, there is nothing proverbial about it. Siken employs the father of the one liner, Henny Youngman, and his best known offspring: "Take my wife, please."

Vaudeville Theme

I’m a big fan of vaudeville, so I had to call this out. His opening line is (once again) an easy hook for me:

A man walks into a bar and says:
Take my wife–please.
So you do.

Part two goes like this:

A man walks into a bar and says:
Take my wife–please.
But you take him instead.

And part three:

A man walks into a bar, you this time, and says:
Make it a double.

A man walks into a bar, you this time, and says:
Walk a mile in my shoes.

I think this is a brilliant use of dry comedy. He dredges up this old routine, with all of its mainstream appeal, with its throwback to the era when so many gay men lived double lives. Eventually Vaudeville expanded from the cornerstone of American comedy that it will always be, bringing us relief from our own commonness. These comedians tackled all sorts of subject matter and did not shy away from our most embarrassing and awkward normalcy, the blunders of every day life and we could identify while pretending not to be laughing at ourselves through their heavy handedness and slapstick maneuvers. These guys played the clowns we knew all too well -- the ones inside of us. Television helped this expansion to happen. Milton Berle serves as a good example for my purposes here, before gay was even a word uttered in mixed company, there he was, gender bending his way right into the living rooms of middle America, as I recall it myself, watching at my grandma's house. My grandpa was not far behind, donning her wig and her robe to get the rise of hysterical laughter from me and my sisters. Berle was the first man to appear on TV in drag.

It's almost like Siken places an implied laugh track in this poem. A forced laugh. If that is indeed Siken's intent, if we are meant to assume the man in Boot Theory has a story that includes living The Lie with a wife, then I think Siken has chosen a good foundation for this subtext and he is taking this old cliche of a joke to another mother fuckin' level. Isn't he?


The poem gives a multiple perspective on this man/men. Just the other day I was saying to a friend that perhaps this sort of thing in poetry is akin to Cubism and the way that the elements of time and movement were introduced into painting. In this moment I’m thinking of Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase. But that is a larger conversation.

I have a few ideas about the meaning of the whole picture of Siken’s Boot Theory, but I’m going to attempt to keep my NaPo analyses a little more manageable by focusing more on structure and technique.

I will however go so far as to say that by the end Siken has sufficiently engaged me with this man -- in all of his roles and experiences -- that I end up right there with him on the riverbank in a moment of attempted surrender. The poem's focus shifts from the feet to the hands and Siken has the man "take" his sadness to a place of isolation. This man becomes humble and beautiful to me as he tries and fails, not once but twice, to let go:

A man takes his sadness down to the river and throws it in the river
but then he’s still left
with the river. A man takes his sadness and throws it away
but then he’s still left with his hands.


  1. Interesting poem. I like it up to the ending. Think it would have read better with the river rather than the hands, but maybe that's just me. Love the boots that keep falling. I like your take on the poem pushing the margins.

  2. I know I've complained at you before about the question of "Just how many people are there in this poem?" Now I'm thinking I should avoid being too pedantic about it. I don't know how many people there are in "Boot Theory", but the point definitely comes across without my knowing.

    There are some little mysteries in this one that puzzle me. (1) Five boots? How can there be five boots? and (2) Is the kicking literal, as in, men who will beat you up a gay man who hits on them, or figurative, as in, a lover who hurts you in ways that only somebody very close knows how? I'm not sure the answers are in the poem.

    Laurie, we'll have to respectfully disagree about the ending; I loved it.