I’ve read many poetry collections in my time, and I found this quite a unique experience. I’m not one to watch a horror movie, say, to feel scared. And while I can be convinced to read a dystopic novel to feel fear for the future, or to read about tragedy to try to find empathy or understanding, I probably would have shied away from this collection if told that it would induce such a feeling of queasy, unease, as if I’d wandered into a kind of 60s renegade Western film, violent scenes and dirty hotel rooms. But I would have regretted shying away, as I found this book both engaging and accomplished.
There is repetition in the work, and it’s not a long collection, so sort of felt like a dream. I caught myself at first not sure what was happening, and not sure I was liking it, but to risk so many poems with unreliable narrators: there’s something going on here much more complex than most collections, to play with the idea of who is narrating and what the hell is happening, really, in this dreamlike word, acts of violence, identities shifting. I like the juxtaposition of high drama and emotion with mundane details, often of food: a tuna fish sandwich, a bowl of soup.
The language, rather than poetic, is often from storytelling, or like the script of a play or movie: ‘Are you there, sweetheart? Do you know me?’ Yet when it’s all jammed together, it has this end effect of rather good poetry: visual, emotive, inconclusive. I found Louise Glück’s introduction useful: providing context from an expert poet (and one of judges who awarded this collection a competition prize). But I would probably admit that my favourite poem was more traditional in form (as his poems are often splashed out over the page). ‘Saying Your Names’ grabbed me from the first lines:
Chemical names, bird names, name of fire / and flight and snow…
Finally, I had a little peek online to find something more about Richard Siken and found he is working full time as a social worker and is also a filmmaker and painter – and that’s what I felt from this book too, that he’s an original voice speaking from his own experience, not trying to be particularly literary or fit into a literary genre or canon; these poems felt like blood pumping through the body’s veins and arteries, very alive, very visceral.