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Poetry’s Chokehold: A Look at Richard Siken’s CRUSH

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As we continue stocking the shelves during our soft opening, more and more of the titles we love are arriving in the store. One of those: CRUSH by Richard Siken, a collection of poems about obsession and love.

It’s rumored a woman used Richard Siken’s poem “Scheherazade” as her suicide note. Who knows. Her boyfriend told Siken, but what was he supposed to do with that? The same sort of guilt by association placed on Marilyn Manson after Columbine. Regardless of this story’s validity, Siken’s collection CRUSH, selected for the 2004 Yale Series of Younger Poets prize, is tinged with this seediness; his book is the celebrity, not him.

There is an emphatic dedication to CRUSH by his readers (myself included), as though it’s a prophet to the fringe, the addicted, the self-destructive. The book feels like it could save your life, and so you’d die for it, too. Its readers are like devout patriots to an under siege country.

In discussing CRUSH recently with a friend, we realized we both place this book on a pedestal and don’t want anything to “ruin” it. He said he’d avoid meeting Siken just to “protect” the way he views the book. It’s essentially perfect to him. It never goes on the shelf. With a cult-like following, CRUSH has been transcended; we take it in like a drug that fully dissolves but won’t leave the body. The poems are no longer Siken’s but some “other’s.” Where did they come from? What do we do with them? It’s not an overstatement to say this is the most important book some people will read, and they’d tell you this to your face, rolling up their sleeve to reveal a CRUSH line tattooed on their arm: “Tell me we’ll never get used to it.”

The experience of reading CRUSH is exhilarating. The form is such that it won’t let you stop until it’s finished with you. It’s not up to you to decide when you’ve had enough: “So you get a kidney punch, a little blood in your urine. / It isn’t over yet, it’s just begun.” In her judge’s citation, Louise Gluck describes the collection as “panic.” It’s Siken’s use of repetition that corners the reader, a dizziness surfaces; you’re moving but not going anywhere. This is especially evident in the poem “Straw House, Straw Dog,” where Siken uses anaphora as a stand in for obsession: “You can sleep now, you said. You can sleep now. You said that. / I had a dream where you said that. Thanks for saying that. / You weren’t supposed to.” Siken drives his lines like a stake into us, a hypnosis.

Why do certain pieces of literature become necessary to us? And how far will we commit ourselves to them? It’s hard to imagine another contemporary collection of poetry that stares at its readers and says, You can never be rid of me. But this is what the book does: it explores destructive relationships, the voice throughout begging for a place where it can just be safe and loved, but it never finds it. And so it is with the reader: waiting for some resolution between themselves and the book, but the poems never allow for safety, for love, only shove back harder or curl up into themselves wanting to disappear. Yet it is this denial of love, this pulse of aggression and insecurity that forces the reader to return. CRUSH becomes a child, sad and staring at the ground, the one you reach out to comfort, only to realize the child is you.

Staff Pick Logo
Crush Cover Image
By Richard Siken, Louise Gluck (Foreword by)
$18.00
ISBN: 9780300107890
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: Yale University Press - April 11th, 2005