Tag Archives: Joan Didion

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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I Should Be Writing Instead

“They seemed to be in New York as I was, on some indefinitely extended leave from wherever they belonged, disciplined to consider the future, temporary exiles who always knew when the flights left for New Orleans or Memphis or Richmond or, in my case, California. Someone who lives with a plane schedule in the drawer lives on a slightly different calendar. Christmas, for example, was a difficult season. Other people could take it in stride, going to Stowe or going abroad or going for the day to their mothers’ places in Connecticut; those of us who believed that we lived somewhere else would spend it making and canceling airline reservations, waiting for weatherbound flights as if for the last plane out of Lisbon in 1940, and finally comforting one another, those of us who were left, with oranges and mementos and smoked-oyster stuffings of childhood, gathering close, colonials in a far country.”

-Joan Didion, Goodbye To All That

This is the first time I’m quoting from my favourite essay by Didion. I tried my hardest to not do that here because I was afraid that this essay says a bit too much about my life right now. It explains in torturous detail what I’m thinking but not quite ready to say out loud. But that’s the funny part, I read it almost everyday. I read it while huddled in a corner of my room, trying to make sense, trying to find something in between the lines that may have slipped past me the first time, the third time, the hundred and seventy fifth time.
I think, often, about how I could be anywhere but here. And then I see that Didion thought that, too. It’s oddly comforting.
Right now, I should be doing something else. I’m actually supposed to be doing something else. I have in front of me, more than eighty-five printed papers to be memorized, a pen cum highlighter that never fails to stain my fingernails, a packet of spicy, minty potato snacks that expired last month but I keep around because I like how it smells.
At nights, I huddle up under two blankets even when it’s awfully warm. I don’t eat very much but that’s only because nothing has changed. Guilt is overpowering and dulls the senses – in my case, taste. I get asked often by people who want to know if I’m doing okay whether I have any friends. And that’s a trick question, I believe. I never cared much about friendships anyway. For me, a friend was always someone who knew, understood, told me they cared then carefully stepped back. God knows I have loved those friends more than I thought I could. I have three separate blogs written in my head and I revise them everyday while I’m on the bus. Time will come when I can be writing and submitting again as I was at this time last year. Much has changed. Yet nothing really has. I’m doing what I need to do and on some days, I’m even perfectly happy with it all.

Writing is cheaper than therapy or drugs.

Sometimes you wish for something so hard and then it actually comes true. Has that happened to you? Against countless odds and still, your wish actually came true. Does it count as being lucky or should you be careful about hitching your hopes up too high? I’ve been thinking these thoughts for a while now. I’ve been thinking so much about it and I’ve also been trying not to think at all.

So much has happened since the last time I was here, blogger friends. So. Much. Where do I start from and how do I explain any of this? I am not sure. But I want to take it one step at a time. Keep my emotions in check. Make sure I’m not borrowing more happiness than I deserve to have in my share.

I can’t write like I used to. I’m putting that out there so you can decide whether to read further. This will be another of those journal style entries and while I could’ve just used my diary I cannot risk anyone laying their hands on these thoughts, again. I can, however, trust people I’ve never met. It’s something I do effortlessly.

I remember reaching a point in my life where I kept telling myself that if a particular thing was possible, I would do this and if this particular thing happened then I could do that and the conditions and clauses were infinite. I remember that life had become monotonous only running on that little proverbial speck of light at the far end of the dark tunnel. An endless pile of possibilities while I sunk down deeper and deeper and pretended I was fine – hopeful even. I did everything that was asked of me and I remember all too well – even though I wished I didn’t – what I received in return.

But now it’s time to forget everything I remember.

Maybe someday when I want to go back and experience pain and disappointment and need to write something of the sort I can resurface those memories. Maybe someday they’ll actually be useful.

But not now. Not when I’m this happy. Not when I’m finally getting everything I’ve wanted for so long.

I was on the phone with a friend the other day and I told him, “Everything worked out. This is really happening.”

He replied, “I’m actually happy for you.”

I said, “…okay, thank you?”, not sure about the tone in his voice.

He clarified, “I’m never really happy for anyone but I mean it, I’m happy for you.”

And I said to him, and to myself, really, “Everything is perfect except my writing. I can’t write.” I took a pause and added, “Though I’ve been reading a lot.”

He and I discussed it a bit more but I couldn’t make sense of it and changed the topic soon enough.

I think about writing a lot. More than I actually write I spend hours on end thinking about it. The words float around in my mind and it’s my personal heaven right there. Writing was what helped me and writing was what brought me ashore and it was writing that ultimately led me to the best things in my life. It’s hard to bring up anything else to par with it. Yet, I told my friend quickly that I was reading a lot and it wasn’t me trying to backpedal. When I can’t write, I read. Is that supposed to be some sort of consolation to the sad fact that my writing is no good? Does that even come close? I’m not sure if that makes sense. If my reading compensates for the part of my life where I’m unable to write well, is it a much truer love than writing?

Maybe going back to a repressed memory will help me understand.

When I was younger I started reading, collecting and hoarding books while children my age were going out and being social after school hours. Sometimes I remember being asked how I had spent my evening and I realized that the response was the same, every time. With my books. I grew up with words more than I did with people my age. I grew up in different times and different places through the escape provided in the book realm, obviously I felt no need to go anywhere. When I reached an age where subtle romance and other emotional references in books started making sense, I desired to write them down for keeps. I picked up sentences and emotions behind them and started jotting them down as I read them. I wanted to come back to these words and inspect them when the time was right and when I felt the way the characters in the books did. I knew better to keep these notes and pages concealed because my mother would not have been pleased to find them. The reasons for which are so fragile, so complicated and difficult to make anyone understand especially if they haven’t met her. However, soon enough she found the pages.

The scribbles of words and expressions of emotions so much more mature and deep than she expected I was reading. I remember sitting frozen as she put on her glasses and read each and every thing and glanced up at me once with an expression that guaranteed me that I was in a lot of trouble. Who would’ve thought reading and wanting to preserve what you read would be such a heinous crime? I couldn’t think that way then. As far as I knew, I was so scared at what would happen next I couldn’t move a muscle, afraid that I’d wet myself. (I had poor bladder control when I was younger.) While she read through all of them, handling the pages with no care whatsoever, I knew something inside me broke. It was over. Years later I understood reading was my first love. The heartbreak I felt when she stood up, tore the pages into bits and pieces and burned them on the stove will never equal to anything any mortal being has made me feel. In that moment I knew, I didn’t need to copy things other writers wrote. Because my mother would find them and throw them away and probably stop me from reading completely. Which she did, for a while. (Though, I started reading secretly at school again and no one really stopped me there.)

I wasn’t reading anything forbidden but I wonder what my mother thought I was going to do with words. She knew, probably, that words have unprecedented power. I then read books and tried to mark subtle dots in between alphabets and scratches on pages that I wanted to go back to. I then read books and memorized things in my mind because I knew my mother couldn’t get inside my head and tear up my memory. And then suddenly, it came to me that I didn’t have to depend on someone else’s words. I didn’t have to hide and read books when I could one day, write my own.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been so unimaginably happy but I couldn’t come back here to establish that on my blog. I’ve come here in the past and ranted and shared my apprehensions so many times. I’ve even had to leave this place and come back with a different identity and conceal parts of me after that, but I’ve always been around. Is writing about happiness really all that difficult? Why is my writing so afraid of being found out? Am I really never going to be able to write anything good enough and always hide myself behind this anonymity? Was my mother only trying to protect me from eventually realizing my inadequacies, the portent of failures to come? Then again, as Rita Brown rightly put it, “A writer’s life is not designed to reassure your mother.”

A few weeks back I finished Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and my life was put back into perspective. I thought to myself, “I’m glad I can’t write. I’m glad my writing isn’t good enough now because I can appreciate her words so much better. I can see that her sentences are so fluid and so perfect and her thoughts are untainted by the way other people think and express themselves.” I could connect to how Didion felt the pain of being separated from her husband, also a writer. I felt tears of tremendous joy pour down my face when John, her husband, read out a passage of her book for her on her birthday and after closing the book he said, “Goddamn. Don’t ever tell me you can’t write. That’s my birthday present to you.” I reeled over when Didion expressed the fact that it took her a year after John’s sudden death to realize he’s not coming back. I took excerpts of various pages of this book as I read it and sent them to the person I love, also a writer. I was able to explain, in whatever way I needed to satisfy myself, to another person how words move me and how I connect with them. This person has, on several occasions made me realize that my love for words, for books, for book people, for random internet writers is completely sane. He said once, and I quote, “I will champion your literary appetite’s every whim.” To be able to simply share pages with someone of a book I lived vicariously through is a joy I can’t see being compared to anything else and I couldn’t have done it if I was immersed in my writing.

I think that sometimes you spend your entire life searching for people who understand you and then you find someone who does and everyone else in your life suddenly starts falling short to this standard. I explained to my friend that leaving home like this does not affect me because in my heart and mind I had already left this place long back. People ask me if I’m going to miss them and while I know that I will go back and think of them sometimes, I will reminisce and recall fondly moments with them that made me who I am today but I will not be able to imagine going back just for the sake of those things. Home was a place I never fit in fully. Although I was sure that one day I would leave, the difference is I was not sure if I’d have anywhere to come back to. I read somewhere an odd poem of sorts which went along the lines:

How to be unloved

Lose all family,

By chance or by coincidence…

I think about those words now and I wonder if it was chance or coincidence or it was something else entirely. Destiny, maybe? I told my friend that there comes a point in life when for better or for worse a family is finished. I guess finding a safe place in someone’s heart is enough family anyone can need. And finding someone that inspires your writing, someone that respects it and believes in it even when you can’t find the courage to do so, enough love anyone can need.