Crush by Richard Siken

I read Richard Siken’s Crush mostly on the recommendation of a co-worker, though I’ve owned the collection for quite some time (as evidenced by the fact that it ended up on my TBR Pile Challenge list this year!) I’m glad to have read it, though it wasn’t what I expected.

Given the title of the book, its praise as a notable work of gay poetry, and, yes, the collection’s cover image, I fully expected this collection to be about love. Sure, maybe a gnarly kind of love, but love poems nonetheless. Then I read Louise Glück’s ruminations in the Foreword. Here’s what she had to say:

“If panic is his ground note, Siken’s obsessive focus is a tyrant, the body. His title, Crush, suggests as much. In the dictionary, among the word’s many meanings, ‘to press between opposing obdies so as to break or injure; to oppress; to break, pound, or grind.’ Or, as a noun, ‘extreme pressure.’ Out of this cauldron of destruction, its informal meaning: infatuation, the sweet fixation of girl on boy. In Siken, boy on boy . . . The risk of obsessive material is that it may get boring, repetitious, predictable, shrill. And the triumph of Crush is that it writhes and blazes while at the same time holding the reader utterly: ‘sustaining interest’ seems far too mild a term for this effect. What holds is sheer art, despite the apparent abandon.”

Louise Glück

“It writes and blazes.” That’s it, exactly. And as you’ll see from her marvelous introduction, she begins with that action verb: not just crush, but “to crush.” There is a force and physicality to these poems, not just in their subjects, in which force, even brutality, is certainly present, but in the delivery. Siken intends that these poems will hit the psyche, the heart, the soul, and they do.

This is one of few poetry collections that I longed to re-read as soon as I finished it. (This is not to say that I don’t re-read poetry. I do, all the time. But I usually want a nice, long break between re-reading.) I felt almost desperate to revisit these to make sure I felt and understood them, and because I think I almost numbed myself to receiving them on the first read through. And then I went out and immediately ordered another Siken collection, War of the Foxes.

Crush won the 2004 Yale Younger Poets prize and was acclaimed not only by one of my favorite poets, Louise Gluck, but also by one of my favorite writers of all-time, Dennis Cooper. It was almost a given that I’d fall in love with this collection, and that I’d be disturbed by that fact if I thought about it too hard. But with poems like “A Primer for the Small Weird Loves” and “Little Beast,” how could I resist being crushed?

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.

from “Scheherazade”

If you haven’t read Richard Siken, what are you waiting for?

Crush is Book 7 completed for my 2022 TBR Pile Challenge.

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