The Last Poem I Loved: “A Primer for Small Weird Loves” by Richard Siken


I read Richard Siken’s collection of poems, Crush, in a single afternoon last summer. Lying on my stomach in the sun, I raced through each poem, occasionally lifting my head furtively to check around me for witnesses. His poems, such as “A Primer for the Small Weird Loves,” excerpted below, are achingly intimate and best consumed alone.

      The blond boy in the red trunks is holding your head underwater
because he is trying to kill you,
            and you deserve it, you do, and you know this,
                  and you are ready to die in this swimming pool
      because you wanted to touch his hands and lips and this means
                        your life is over anyway.
                      You’re in the eighth grade. You know these things.
      You know how to ride a dirt bike, and you know how to do
long division,
and you know that a boy who likes boys is a dead boy, unless
                  he keeps his mouth shut, which is what you
                        didn’t do,
      because you are weak and hollow and it doesn’t matter anymore.

Although you are not gay or a boy, you know that desperate resignation to desire. You are sexually precocious; as a child you desire to be kissed, beg for hugs, sit on laps, touch yourself when you are alone. You are the ringleader when your friends play doctor. You don’t know yet to be embarrassed for your longing. During a visit to a relative’s house, you find a magazine with photos of famous men’s penises and you sneak it into bed, secretly kissing the glossy pages in the moonlight. You are nine.

Now you’re in the eighth grade and your desire is shameful. You know these things. You know how to charm adults and you know how to get good grades, and you know that a girl who likes to be touched is a dangerous girl.

      A dark-haired man in a rented bungalow is licking the whiskey
from the back of your wrist.
            He feels nothing,
                  keeps a knife in his pocket,
                              peels an apple right in front of you
            while you tramp around a mustard-colored room
in your underwear
                        drinking Dutch beer from a green bottle.
      After everything that was going to happen has happened
you ask only for the cab fare home
                  and realize you should have asked for more
                  because he couldn’t care less, either way.

Seventeen, and you spend your nights with men who don’t care about you. There’s the older boy who lives in his parent’s basement, the one who smirks as he shows you the porn he filmed with his ex and barely lifts his eyes to say goodbye when you slip out the back door. You are miserable each time you visit, but fuck you want to feel something and disappointment suffices. You write poems about rejection. The disinterest of men both attracts and devastates you.

You sleep with your best friend, the one with Egyptian nose, the Boy Scout, the one who will never love you. After everything that was going to happen has happened, you ask for nothing. You don’t yet know how to ask for what you want.

The man on top of you is teaching you how to hate, see you
as a piece of real estate,
            just another fallow field lying underneath him
                        like a sacrifice.
      He’s turning your back into a table so he doesn’t have to
            eat off the floor, so he can get comfortable,
pressing against you until he fits, until he’s made a place for himself
                              inside you
The clock ticks from five to six. Kissing degenerates into biting.
      So you get a kidney punch, a little blood in your urine.
                        It isn’t over yet, it’s just begun.

You are successful and have great friends, and you are attracted to men who you cannot reach. The alcoholic snarls at you, says he can’t remember a single time you had sex because he was always wasted. You fuck men who fail exquisitely to understand you, and who don’t pretend to try. You want nothing as much as you want to connect with the unreachable ones, but it is that distance that is a prerequisite for your own sexual desire. Striving produces lust. Sexual desire and emotional need intermingle in the nameless place where you orgasm and everything else, everything—family, history, future ambition—shrivels into a tiny entity as insignificant as a lost button. Your mind soars, liberated.

During a conversation with your best friend, she says, “The best sex I’ve ever had has been with men who don’t care about me.” You realize that you agree.

In return for the never-ceasing pursuit of desire, you hurt the good men. The honest boys, the earnest boys, the ones who come at you like an open book, they are the collateral damage.

Against all odds, you find a man who worships you without reservation. You share intense, furious love, discover a city together, make friends, become adults. A few years pass. But he is too satisfied. You want to grow, you want to be transformed like a chameleon, you want to be forced to strive for his approval. He loves you too completely. You leave him.

You leave him to fuck someone else, who is nobody. He is anybody. You are privy to so little about him and he knows nothing about you, and the sex catapults you into another world, one in which you have no identity. You are just a being, fucking, content.

You realize that you are destructive.

Sex is a method of forgetting. Sex centers your racing mind. That willingness to die for it, to drop everything and travel miles for it, to give up jobs and relationships and stability for the desperate taste of someone’s lips, it lodges in your chest.

Years go by.

You witness the hurt you cause by leaving someone who loves you so completely. Not only did you break the person who knew you the best, you broke your own heart. And your awareness of your own pathology—your own twisted fuckupness—renders you dirty, ashamed once more.

Someone arrives looking beautiful. He wants to know you. You turn away.

The stranger says there are no more couches and he will have to
      sleep in your bed. You try to warn him, you tell him
                  you will want to get inside him, and ruin him,
      but he doesn’t listen.
You do this, you do. You take the things you love
                              and tear them apart

      or you pin them down with your body and pretend they’re yours.
So, you kiss him, and he doesn’t move, he doesn’t
      pull away, and you keep on kissing him. And he hasn’t moved,
he’s frozen, and you’ve kissed him, and he’ll never
                  forgive you, and maybe now he’ll leave you alone.

Penny Lane is a writer and editor living in Queens who reads politics by day, poetry by night. More from this author →