War of the Foxes by Richard Siken

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War of the Foxes builds upon the lush and frantic magic of Richard Siken’s first book, Crush. In this second book (due out in April 2015 with Copper Canyon Press), Siken takes breathtaking control of the rich, varied material he has chosen. Louise Glück said in her forward to Crush: “This is a book about panic.” If Crush was about panic, then War of the Foxes is about transformation. By transformation, I mean the transformation that takes place when boundaries are blurred and membranes are breached. So, while I don’t necessarily mean religious or spiritual transformation, I can’t rule it out.

… When you paint

an evil thing, do you invoke it or take away its power?

This has nothing to do with faith but is still a good

question. Raphael was trying to say something about

spirituality. This could be the definition of painting.

The best part of spirituality is reverence. There are other

parts. Some people like to hear the sound of their own

voice. If you don’t believe in the world it would be

stupid to paint it. If you don’t believe in God, then who

are you talking to?

Siken is a painter, and in War of the Foxes he lays bare if/then’s that lurk under the surface of writing poetry by paralleling those he confronts as a painter. Most of the titles of the poems suggest titles of paintings. The title of the first poem – “The way the light reflects – sets the stage, and Siken begins:

The paint doesn’t move the way the light reflects,

so what’s there to be faithful to?

What we get to work with is this paint – or these words. That’s all we get. Here is the world –and we navigate it – paint it/write it –through our personal understanding of the integrity of its boundaries. Boundaries blur and shift under our scrutiny, or when we forget to look, or are torn away for a moment, or when the paint is applied unfaithfully.

The man stands, the day shines. His insides and

his outsides kept apart with an imaginary line ––

thick and rude and imaginary because there is

no separation, fallacy of the local body, paint

on paint. I have my body and you have yours.

Believe it if you can.

Siken paints and erases – the metaphor of painting with words allows him to leave those traces rsthat mostly go unseen. He is the Trickster. If paint/then no paint. He does this with astonishing candor and passion –  in cycles, sometimes violent.

The smear of his head––I paint it out, I paint it in

again. I ask it what it wants. I want to be a cornerstone,

says the head. Let’s kill something.

Later in the same poem:

…                             What does a man want?

Power. The men spread, the thought extends. I paint

them out. I paint them in again. A blur of forces.

What take more than we need? Because we can.

‘There are many loves but only one war,’ Siken says. But his deft and relentless blurring of boundaries within the subject matter makes me wonder – sometimes we have power over our chosen medium and subjects, over what we experience and how we convey it. And sometimes they take us. If the painter’s scrutiny gives him power over subject, then the subject will accumulate unremitting power over the painter – he must keep looking. From “Portrait of Fryderyk in Shifting Light:

… He is looking at the wall and I am looking at his

looking. Difficult thing, to be scrutinized so long.

Later in the poem:

…                                                                             It isn’t

fair, the depth of my looking, the threat of my

looking. It’s rude to shake a man visible and claim

the results. This side of his face, now that side of his

face. His profile against the tulips. I put down

the brush and walked around the room. Even when

I look away I am still looking. He is inside his body

and I am inside my body and it matters less and less.

Shared face, shared looking. A collaboration.

All of these if/then’s can have horrifying or trivial consequences. That might be your choice, as the reader. Your choice might change every time you read the poem. You might not choose at all. But there is no doubt that Siken’s writing is mesmerizing, exerts a power upon the reader that blurs many boundaries and keeps us looking.

The book’s last poem closes by forcefully breaking the spell, relinquishing us as readers back into the world–as if we had been Siken’s subjects, as if Siken had painted us, used his mighty powers to trap us inside canvases–

What does all this love amount to?

Putting down the brush for the last time––

Donna Spruijt-Metz is Professor of Psychology at the University of Southern California Center for Economic and Social Research. She directs the USC mHealth Collaboratory. She lived in the Netherlands for 22 years, where she was a professional flutist, trained at the Royal Conservatory in Den Haag. She got her PhD in Adolescent Health and Medical Ethics from the Vrije University in Amsterdam in 1996. After she moved back to the United States, she received her MFA from Otis College of Art and Design in 2006. Her poetry has appeared in OR and The New Review. More from this author →