In an older study advice post on how to approach poetry, I wrote that a good poet should be able to make you feel something, whether you fully understand the work or not:
Often poems are not so much vessels of information, but more like an experience. A good poet can reach out and get an emotional response from you even if you have no clue what (s)he is talking about. Sometimes you need to read a poem a few times before you fully understand it, or you can spend the rest of your life reading a work and still not grasp what is actually about. Sometimes the poets doesn’t want you to get it. You’re not stupid or illiterate, it’s just… Poetry. If you feel it, you feel it. If you don’t, you don’t.
Even though Richard Siken is a fairly accessible poet, I had no idea what the poems in Crush were about the first time I read it, little over a year ago. But it didn’t matter, because I felt it. The words tugged on heartstrings I never even knew I had and left me staring out the window, trying to find the right words for the rush of emotions washing over me. I have read Crush two more times since then and I feel like I have a better grasp of it now, but it still leaves me staring out the window, at a complete loss for words.
…But let’s give it a go anyway.
The world of Crush is not a kind one; Siken presents a universe that is harsh, where neither nature nor the divine are on your side. The cold night air cuts into your skin, the sunlight pummels down through the window, angels whisper into your ear about suicide when you are at your lowest point… Danger is all around you, inescapable and indifferent. And in this dark world, we have people; vibrant, restless people, aching with desires they do not understand. Siken’s speakers are not heroes that fight back against the world’s cruelty. On the contrary: they are people who look into the mirror one day and suddenly realise that they were the monster at the end of the book all along.
In this book, Siken explores the messy side of humanity, the ugliness of being alive. The poems are intense and showcase a range of raw emotions like heartbreak, desperation, violence, depression, and blind panic. The speakers hurt. They curse, cry, spit, bleed, kick and scream, anything that might help them cope with the pain. They are drifters who try to connect to other people only to get their faces pushed into the gravel or under water for their trouble, and as a reader, your heart goes out to these furious balls of frustration and confusion. Life is overwhelming and blindingly bright, but we try to find a way to give it meaning anyway and sometimes pain is the only way we know how. In Siken’s own words:
There is empathy, maybe even surprising and suspicious empathy, but it’s for every singular thing that’s trapped in a skin and drowning in gravity, it’s for every singular thing that’s trying grossly, desperately, sloppily to make contact. Sometimes contact ruptures a boundary. Sometimes rupture is the only way to feel the contact.
However, these ruptures are not without consequences and bring more destruction than relief. In the final poem, “Snow and Dirty Rain,” Siken proposes that we need to search for something different, something new. The universe is still a cruel place, where our loved ones are taken from us and
monsters are always hungry, darling,
and they’re only a few steps behind you, finding
the flaw, the poor weld, the place where we weren’t
stitched up quite right, the place they could almost
slip right through if the skin wasn’t trying to
keep them out, to keep them there, on the other side
of the theater where the curtain keeps rising.
“We have not touched the stars, nor are we forgiven,” but Siken suggests that, perhaps, what we need is “a gentleness that comes, / not from the absence of violence, but despite / the abundance of it.”
Crush is a startling read that drags you through the deepest parts of the abyss, but not without giving you a shield to defend yourself with; in this world where chaos and violence reign, a soft touch can become a weapon to keep the darkness at bay.
Finally, I want to end on this quote from Siken’s short prose piece, “Black Telephone” (which you can read in its entirety here):
Personally, I’m a mess of conflicting impulses—I’m independent and greedy and I also want to belong and share and be a part of the whole. I doubt that I’m the only one who feels this way. It’s the core of monster making, actually. Wanna make a monster? Take the parts of yourself that make you uncomfortable—your weaknesses, bad thoughts, vanities, and hungers—and pretend they’re across the room. It’s too ugly to be human. It’s too ugly to be you. Children are afraid of the dark because they have nothing real to work with. Adults are afraid of themselves.
Oh we’re a mess, poor humans, poor flesh—hybrids of angels and animals, dolls with diamonds stuffed inside them. We’ve been to the moon and we’re still fighting over Jerusalem. Let me tell you what I do know: I am more than one thing, and not all of those things are good. The truth is complicated. It’s two-toned, multi-vocal, bittersweet. I used to think that if I dug deep enough to discover something sad and ugly, I’d know it was something true. Now I’m trying to dig deeper.
Now tell me you didn’t feel that.