The Last Poem I Loved: Richard Siken’s “Scheherazade”

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I was introduced to Richard Siken’s “Scheherazade” this past July through a tumblr quotation highlighting the last three lines of the poem: “Tell me how all this, and love too, will ruin us. / These, our bodies, possessed by light. / Tell me we’ll never get used to it.”

“These, our bodies possessed by light.” I was floored. The words themselves felt small and warm and radiant. They felt like a promise, an escape, a coming home. Even out of context, the closing was elegant—sleek and succinct, concentrated and brimming. I read the lines over and over, metaphorically relinquishing my body to Siken’s light. The quotation’s credit did not include the poem’s title, but, through a quick Google search, I found the full text, unfamiliar and challenging title included. Returning to Google again, I learned that the title is the name of the narrator of One Thousand and One Nights. The name of the tale was recognizable, and I felt erroneously confident in my understanding of what it was trying to reference.

I am going to be frank: I did not actually understand Richard Siken’s “Scheherazade” the first time I read it, or the next time, or the twenty three times I read it over the following two days. After three more weeks and innumerable returns to Siken’s scant, pulsing work, a true grasp of the poem still had not stricken me. I’ll assume that fact that I read the poem twenty five consecutive times over the course of two days is a testament to the fact that I must have understood its tension—its longing for continuation—on some personal, emotional, non-mechanical level. Yet, despite reading and loving and being destroyed by it over and over and over again, I could not articulate what it was that struck such a chord within me, or which chord was struck, or how the player found the chord, or what instrument was even being played. But its presence and power were undeniable, and I let them possess me to whatever extent they wished.

Eventually, I broke down, owned up to my fault, and refreshed my knowledge of the character from whom the title is taken. I re-familiarized myself with the surrounding plot of One Thousand and One Nights: Scheherazade is to be married to a vicious, bitter king who kills all of his wives on their wedding night. To avoid this fate, Scheherazade devises a plan: she will tell the king a captivating story every night; however, the stories are too long to be finished by sunrise. As that is the case, the king will have no choice but to spare her another night so he may hear the rest of the tale. This goes on for one thousand and one nights, until Scheherazade runs out of tales—fortunately, the king has fallen for her, and keeps her alive out of love.

It clicked. The revelation, which I felt in my heartbeat and the excitement in my fingertips, was almost as palpably triumphant as when I first read the poem months before.

The opening lines set the tone, one of redemption, elongation, intimacy, and caution, perfectly: “Tell me about the dream where we pull the bodies out of the lake / and dress them in warm clothes again.” The breaking stillness and a sense of necessity ebb from the words and the simple, arresting imagery they create. I can see it: I create a quiet midnight, chilly, a brisk breeze blowing somewhere just close enough to feel threatening. Siken offers horses that run until they forget themselves (the king, perhaps, forgetting his anger and motives; Scheherazade forgetting her fear; myself forgetting all the things that drive me towards seeking out poetry), the idea of roots (measurable, bracketed time) is dispelled. As I read, I feel myself melting away, time slowing down into something that feels more like the weaving of a blanket than a linear thread. As the poem progresses, the idea of prolongation grows and multiplies, exemplified by how “…every time we kissed was another apple / to slice into pieces.”

The structure of the poem lends itself to this concept, as well. Each shift of focus—throughout the dream and rumination to the ultimate return to a dimming, fleeting reality, dawn’s break—is signaled by left alignment of the text; as the idea lingers and extends, the lines begin to indent further and further to the right. When Scheherazade’s story is over, when Time comes back into the equation and the king’s decree of death once more looms with the now slowly lowering sun, the lines are aligned the farthest left, the farthest into convention and expectation. The idea of love, the ruiner, is far right. In my mind, I take this to mean that love only ruins what was once assumed—in this case, the cat and mouse game of avoiding death. When I first read the poem, I thought of it as a sort of anticipatory elegy; now, I see that that may have been right, if Siken is elegizing anticipation.

To the far left, I find “these, our bodies, possessed by light.” What else can I take from this but that the light, the light that first drew me so close and curious to the poem, is real? Maybe the light is the end, Scheherazade’s seemingly inevitable slaying. Maybe the light is redemption. Maybe, and I like this the most, the light is a freedom, the knowledge that none of this lasts—no matter how many kiss-apples you summon—and that none of that can exist beyond the ever-extending twilight that has been so carefully constructed. The closing line, far right, begs that comfort will never find the two, implying that, in a sense, the anticipation is what drives everything, what keeps the policeman’s radio running, the clothes that warm the very bodies it threw into the lake.

When I read “Scheherazade” (and still, I read it often), I am possessed by the light of the fleeting, the tangibility of time slipping through my fingers; the knowledge that it is leaving only makes the last touches all the sweeter. Every time I reread the poem is a penance for lost time and rushed time, a jolting reminder of perspective. `We are here. We are constantly procrastinating (something, as many know, I embrace well). But in those instances of avoidance and prolonging, we channel what ultimately matters. We are crafting narratives and wood-floored dances and love in this in-between time, this metaphorical Arabian midnight. In this time—which, if you think about it, is almost all time—we find our lives. It is arresting and it is jubilant.

As with many other poems I have loved, I count this as a form of reconciliation. This poem knows it exists on a brink, teetering and, while fearful, is invigorated by the idea of falling forward. It carries me to that brink along with it, nudges me, and traces the illusions and possibilities that are so intricately engrained in the darkness that, eventually, I forget I’m on a precipice at all.

Tell me, Richard, that I, too, will never get used to this.


Moira McAvoy currently lives in Fredericksburg, Virginia, where she studies English and Linguistics at the University of Mary Washington. She has served as the Editor of The Rappahannock Review, and can be found on Twitter at @MoyruhJo. More from this author →