Book Review: War of The Foxes by Richard Siken

“Bird 1: This is the wrong story.
Bird 2: All stories are the wrong story when you are impatient.”

Richard Siken War of The FoxesI laid hands on my copy of War of The Foxes through a campaign heralded by a not-for-profit printing company – Copper Canyon Press. What this meant is, I had to wait a long, long time after the book released elsewhere and for a third of the price I had donated to Copper Canyon only because I was going to get a signed copy by Richard Siken. This is all still mostly a dream for me but I stub my toes and stumble often to realize just how lucky and fortunate I truly am.

Richard SikenAnyone who has followed this blog long enough knows Siken’s words mean the world to me. They fall just below the title of my page. Always. The nature, appearance, title of this blog have witnessed drastic and rather dramatic changes but the tagline has not. Richard Siken’s poetry came to me the way Joan Didion’s prose did. Siken came first but I can only put it in reverse chronology for some reason.

In retrospect, I believe I took from Siken’s words a meaning and understanding different from what he intended to express. I found in War of The Foxes, wilderness and love, violent and enormous desires too difficult to contain, devotion, self-perception and imagery beyond what I could have imagined without his words.

“In the wrong light anyone can look like a darkness.”

It’s hard for me to review War of The Foxes without talking about Crush – the book of poetry that preceded it. Crush, that did exactly what the title suggested until I had to deliberately put it out of sight instead of making a big mess of myself that I couldn’t clean up. Crush, that sang to me and spoke of grief the way Didion did in The Year of Magical Thinking. Two people so different, trying to deal with death through their words.

Coming to the book, a short collection of about 47 poems that slowly and steadily creep up on you and ravage the core of your soul. I find that whatever words I may use to describe the effect Richard Siken’s words have on me I will always fall short and appear very shabby. In War of The Foxes, Siken inspects further what it is to be alive. He asks questions that we are all afraid to think about. Siken turns over all things and blurs the lines between reality, paintings, landscapes in paintings. He takes the three things I love most – words, paintings and mathematics and draws truths and fabrications and confrontations between various ‘myselves’. What I love about this book, as I did about Crush, is that Siken weaves his own language, in a way. It’s a rearrangement of words in a rhythmic pattern hard to miss. Siken makes you read his sentences the way he would read them.

“Someone has to leave first. This is a very old story. There is no other version of this story.”

So, this book made me cry on subways and local buses and in bed. So, I wasn’t quite sure how I felt about some poems but some others tore me up, chewed me and spat me out. What I mean is, they made a mess of me that I willingly stepped into and unbeknownst to me came out wobbling and shaky, afraid that I was no longer me. I came out a different me. A person who is thinking beyond the lines that separate myself, myselves, my body, my skin, my flesh from the rest of the landscape that I exist in. I find that Siken’s questions sometimes as simple as “to supply the world with what?”, “why paint a bird?” and on separate occasions increasingly complex and intimidating, “how much can you change and get away with it, before you turn into someone else, before it’s some kind of murder?” are questions you can spend years and years trying to find the answers for, and before long, lose sight of the question entirely. Years of stumbling and walking around in rooms with dark shelving with thousands of books on them and still not know what you’re searching for.

“Your body told me in a dream it’s never been afraid of anything.”

What I love and love so dearly in this book are the continuations of thought processes from Crush. The slight nods to his faithful readers that took his words and made them so popular and mainstream that it would only be completely foolish to not put them in again. I remember gasping out loud when I found one of my favourite lines from Crush suddenly being thrown smack in the middle of the book. Everyone needs a place.

Although in War of the Foxes, Siken does not add the sentence that succeeds it in CrushEveryone needs a placeIt shouldn’t be inside of someone else.

I spent many days trying to understand why that sentence had been removed. I think ‘removed’ as in withheld not erased, not deleted, not (God forbid hope not) forgotten. I returned to War of The Foxes and reread it a couple of times, only to find that every time the book had a grip on me that went from a clutch on my gut, to a squeeze on my heart, a tingling in my tear glands and before long a stranglehold around my neck. I put the book down.

A few days back, I broke down in hysterics and threw a fit that I only wish I could have had in solitude. I showed my ugly and my damaged and I believe, in that moment, Siken’s words finally came through for me.

Everyone needs a place.

There is no need for a follow up to that sentence. In the poem, War of The Foxes, the rabbit Pip tells the other rabbit Flip that they are doomed because a fox is chasing them. Flip tells him they’re not and that Pip should hide inside him. Pip hides inside him. While the fox can still see Pip, he’s not there and we all know that. You can see him, but he’s not there. And what about Flip? He’s not there, either.

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