There are several things that I am thankful for in life. There is banana bread and there is my pink jacket that I bought in Paris; there are pretty glass jars, blue flowers, and hoop earrings that make everything better.
And then there is the night I stumbled across the poem Litany in Which Certain Things Are Crossed Out on the internet.
Knowing me and my night owl tendencies, it must’ve been a little past 2am when I first found the poem, just like it is now, as I write this. I must’ve been lying on my side, lights off, squinting as I read the poem because my eyes felt like they were on fire from staying awake for too long. I must’ve skimmed through the poem first, eager and impatient, ready to absorb it in– before I read it once again, this time at a slower pace, trying to swallow every word that came my way.
That was the night that Richard Siken entered my life. First, it was just this one poem– this one, beautiful, captivating, chaotic poem. The poem that creeped its way onto the top of my list of favourite things, the poem I had memorized within no time, the poem I'd recite every few hours as my friends sighed.
Litany in Which Certain Things Are Crossed Out was the poem that made me feel.
It was the poem I couldn’t let go of, the one that I could never forget– it just stayed, in the back of my mind, with the reminder that there is more, so much more to find, if only I looked up this mysterious, enigmatic person who wrote it.
And so, the poet slowly begin to sneak his way in. At first, it was just a Google search– an interview here, a recitation there. Then, before I knew it-- it was two books ordered off Amazon, and an endless week of waiting for them to arrive.
Crush and War of the Foxes came, and with that, I was gone.
I had never been into poetry before I read Crush– I'd read some poems, of course– loved them, even. There was Robert Frost's Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening, Alfred Tennyson's Break, Break, Break, a poem or two in the school textbook that I couldn’t help but adore– but that was all the poetry I loved before Crush, the book that swept me away, and showed me what art really can do to someone.
Written in a state of pure panic– hysteria, even– the book, that took Richard Siken 15 years to complete, is divided into three parts: the first part views death romantically, with longing. In the second part, it is understood as a reality. The urgency of the narration only increases with every poem, and in the third and final part– the
crescendo, if you will– the speaker has been shot and is dying against his will. It is the part where death is suddenly not as tempting anymore, blended with fear and desire and the idea of love.
Every poem is frantic, obsessive, images upon images, stories, pain and stunning flashbacks.
Although not entirely autobiographical, Richard Siken has stated that the death of his boyfriend in 1991 definitely influenced the book.
He further explained, “The first part is man against man, the second is man against God, the third is God, the director of the movie, in a helicopter trying to give advice and finding that no one is listening.”
photo: saachi gupta
Here is a confession: the first time I read Crush, I did not understand it at all. I still don’t know if I do.
It's always been a surreal feeling to read it– flashes of moments, like a dream you can’t wake up from. But even without understanding the book, it still stuck– the emotions, the fragility, the flickering stories– they all stayed, leaving me feeling delicate for days after.
There are some words, especially, that stay, long after everything else is gone.
From Scheherazade, the gentlest and very first poem in the book:
‘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 Little Beast:
‘I couldn’t get the boy to kill me, but I wore his jacket for the longest time.’
I could quote something like this from every poem-- a line that knocked the wind out of me-- but for now, I will stick to just one more– expectedly, from my favourite poem Litany in Which Certain Things Are Crossed Out, on page 11-- a detail I haven’t forgotten for three years:
‘Actually, you said Love, for you, is larger than the usual romantic love. It’s like a religion. It’s terrifying.
No one will ever want to sleep with you.’
Although it is about death, Crush isn’t really sad, as such. As Richard Siken said, “If you think the world is a golden place made out of love, then the book is grim. If you think that life is brutal and short, then the book is uplifting.”
There are moments of humour, too– sharp, unexpected humour that always manages to make me breathe out a laugh.
Again, from Litany in Which Certain Things Are Crossed Out, on page 11:
‘We clutch our bellies and roll on the floor...
When I say this, it should mean laughter, not poison.’
From Boot Theory:
‘I only wanted something simple, something generic...
But the clerk tells you to buy something or get out.’
From I Had a Dream About You:
‘We were in the Safeway parking lot. I couldn’t find my cigarettes.
You said Hurry up! but I was worried there would be a holdup and we would be stuck in a hostage
situation, hiding behind the frozen meats, with nothing to smoke for hours.
You said Don’t be silly,
so I followed you into the store.
We were thumping the melons when I heard somebody say
I leaned over and whispered in your ear I told you so.’
photo: saachi gupta
And in the midst of all these dreams, this ethereal madness, there is a little bit of reality: documentations of being queer, of grieving, of coping (or failing to cope) with death.
These lines will throw you right back into the real world, after so much time spent in flashes of strange moments.
One of the most famous excerpts, from A Primer for the Small Weird Loves:
‘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
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 a boy 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.’
And from Straw House, Straw Dog:
‘I wanted to fall down right there but I knew you wouldn’t catch me because you’re dead.’
‘I don’t really blame you for being dead but you can’t have your sweater back.’
And so, I could go on forever, quote each and every line that has been with me for so long– but that would just end up boring you, more than I probably already have.
The point is: Crush is completely addictive. Once you start, you cannot stop.
It is a book that has saved so many. A book that I cannot review objectively because it’s special, in a way that pulls your heart out of your chest, and squeezes it till you’re feeling everything all at once.
It is a book that has changed my world, that made everything feel real again, with its striking descriptions and colours and vividity.
The irony, however, is not lost on me: Crush is a book that revolves around death, and yet there is nothing that can make me feel more alive than it does.