Wednesday Poet: Richard Siken (Part II)
Here is the first post on Richard Siken, with my favorite--Scheherezade.
Saying Your Names
Chemical names, bird names, names of fire
and flight and snow, baby names, paint names,
delicate names like bones in the body,
Rumplestiltskin names that are always changing,
names that no one’s ever able to figure out.
Names of spells and names of hexes, names
cursed quietly under the breath, or called out
loudly to fill the yard, calling you inside again,
calling you home. Nicknames and pet names
and baroque French monikers, written in
shorthand, written in longhand, scrawled
illegibly in brown ink on the backs of yellowing
photographs, or embossed on envelopes lined
with gold. Names called out across the water,
names I called you behind your back,
sour and delicious, secret and unrepeatable,
the names of flowers that open only once,
shouted from balconies, shouted from rooftops,
or muffled by pillows, or whispered in sleep,
or caught in the throat like a lump of meat.
I try, I do. I try and try. A happy ending?
Sure enough — Hello darling, welcome home.
I’ll call you darling, hold you tight. We are
not traitors but the lights go out. It’s dark.
Sweetheart, is that you? There are no tears,
no pictures of him squarely. A seaside framed
in glass, and boats, those little boats with
sails aflutter, shining lights upon the water,
lights that splinter when they hit the pier.
His voice on tape, his name on the envelope,
the soft sound of a body falling off a bridge
behind you, the body hardly even makes
a sound. The waters of the dead, a clear road,
every lover in the form of stars, the road
blocked. All night I stretched my arms across
him, rivers of blood, the dark woods, singing
with all my skin and bone Please keep him safe.
Let him lay his head on my chest and we will be
like sailors, swimming in the sound of it, dashed
to pieces. Makes a cathedral, him pressing against
me, his lips at my neck, and yes, I do believe
his mouth is heaven, his kisses falling over me
like stars. Names of heat and names of light,
names of collision in the dark, on the side of the
bus, in the bark of the tree, in ballpoint pen
on jeans and hands and the backs of matchbooks
that then get lost. Names like pain cries, names
like tombstones, names forgotten and reinvented,
names forbidden or overused. Your name like
a song I sing to myself, your name like a box
where I keep my love, your name like a nest
in the tree of love, your name like a boat in the
sea of love — O now we’re in the sea of love!
Your name like detergent in the washing machine.
Your name like two X’s like punched-in eyes,
like a drunk cartoon passed out in the gutter,
your name with two X’s to mark the spots,
to hold the place, to keep the treasure from
becoming ever lost. I’m saying your name
in the grocery store, I’m saying your name on
the bridge at dawn. Your name like an animal
covered with frost, your name like a music that’s
been transposed, a suit of fur, a coat of mud,
a kick in the pants, a lungful of glass, the sails
in wind and the slap of waves on the hull
of a boat that’s sinking to the sound of mermaids
singing songs of love, and the tug of a simple
profound sadness when it sounds so far away.
Here is a map with a your name for a capital,
here is an arrow to prove a point: we laugh
and it pits the world against us, we laugh,
and we’ve got nothing left to lose, and our hearts
turn red, and the river rises like a barn on fire.
I came to tell you, we’ll swim in the water, we’ll
swim like something sparkling underneath
the waves. Our bodies shivering, and the sound
of our breathing, and the shore so far away.
I’ll use my body like a ladder, climbing
to the thing behind it, saying farewell to flesh,
farewell to everything caught underfoot
and flattened. Names of poisons, names of
handguns, names of places we’ve been
together, names of people we’d be together,
Names of endurance, names of devotion,
street names and place names and all the names
of our dark heaven crackling in their pan.
It’s a bed of straw, darling. It sure as shit is.
If there was one thing I could save from the fire,
he said, the broken arms of the sycamore,
the eucalyptus still trying to climb out of the yard —
your breath on my neck like a music that holds
my hands down, kisses as they burn their way
along my spine — or rain, our bodies wet,
clothes clinging arm to elbow, clothes clinging
nipple to groin — I’ll be right here. I’m waiting.
Say hallelujah, say goodnight, say it over
the canned music and your feet won’t stumble,
his face getting larger, the rest blurring
on every side. And angels, about twelve angels,
angels knocking on your head right now, hello
hello, a flash in the sky, would you like to
meet him there, in Heaven? Imagine a room,
a sudden glow. Here is my hand, my heart,
my throat, my wrist. Here are the illuminated
cities at the center of me, and here is the center
of me, which is a lake, which is a well that we
can drink from, but I can’t go through with it.
I just don’t want to die anymore.
The eye stretches to the horizon and then must continue up.
Anything past the horizon
is invisible, it can only be imagined. You want to see the future but
you only see the sky. Fluffy clouds.
Look—white fluffy clouds.
Looking back is easy for a while and then looking back gets
murky. There is the road, and there is the story of where the road goes,
and then more road,
the roar of the freeway, the roar of the city sheening across the city.
There should be a place.
At the rest stop, in the restaurant, the overpass, the water's edge . . .
He was not dead yet, not exactly—
parts of him were dead already, certainly other parts were still only waiting
for something to happen, something grand, but it isn't
always about me,
he keeps saying, though he's talking about the only heart he knows—
He could build a city. Has a certain capacity. There's a niche in his chest
where a heart would fit perfectly
and he thinks if he could just maneuver one into place—
well then, game over.
You wonder what he's thinking when he shivers like that.
What can you tell me, what could you possibly
tell me? Sure, it's good to feel things, and if it hurts, we're doing it
to ourselves, or so the saying goes, but there should be
a different music here. There should be just one safe place
in the world, I mean
this world. People get hurt here. People fall down and stay down and I don't like
the way the song goes.
You, the moon. You, the road. You, the little flowers
by the side of the road. You keep singing along to that song I hate. Stop singing.
An all-night barbeque. A dance on the courthouse lawn.
The radio aches a little tune that tells the story of what the night
is thinking. It's thinking of love.
It's thinking of stabbing us to death
and leaving our bodies in a dumpster.
That's a nice touch, stains in the night, whiskey and kisses for everyone.
Tonight, by the freeway, a man eating fruit pie with a buckknife
carves the likeness of his lover's face into the motel wall. I like him
and I want to be like him, my hands no longer an afterthought.
Someone once told me that explaining is an admission of failure.
I'm sure you remember, I was on the phone with you, sweetheart.
History repeats itself. Somebody says this.
History throws its shadow over the beginning, over the desktop,
over the sock drawer with its socks, its hidden letters.
History is a little man in a brown suit
trying to define a room he is outside of.
I know history. There are many names in history
but none of them are ours.
He had green eyes,
so I wanted to sleep with him—
green eyes flecked with yellow, dried leaves on the surface of a pool-
You could drown in those eyes, I said.
The fact of his pulse,
the way he pulled his body in, out of shyness or shame or a desire
not to disturb the air around him.
Everyone could see the way his muscles worked,
the way we look like animals,
his skin barely keeping him inside.
I wanted to take him home
and rough him up and get my hands inside him, drive my body into his
like a crash test car.
I wanted to be wanted and he was
very beautiful, kissed with his eyes closed, and only felt good while moving.
You could drown in those eyes, I said,
so it's summer, so it's suicide,
so we're helpless in sleep and struggling at the bottom of the pool.
It wasn't until we were well past the middle of it
that we realized
the old dull pain, whose stitched wrists and clammy fingers,
far from being subverted,
had only slipped underneath us, freshly scrubbed.
Mirrors and shop windows returned our faces to us,
replete with the tight lips and the eyes that remained eyes
and not the doorways we had hoped for.
His wounds healed, the skin a bit thicker than before,
scars like train tracks on his arms and on his body underneath his shirt.
We still groped for each other on the backstairs or in parked cars
as the roads around us
grew glossy with ice and our breath softened the view through a glass
already laced with frost,
but more frequently I was finding myself sleepless, and he was running out
But damn if there isn't anything sexier
than a slender boy with a handgun,
a fast car, a bottle of pills.
What would you like? I'd like my money's worth.
Try explaining a life bundled with episodes of this—
swallowing mud, swallowing glass, the smell of blood
on the first four knuckles.
We pull our boots on with both hands
but we can't punch ourselves awake and all I can do
is stand on the curb and say Sorry
about the blood in your mouth. I wish it was mine.
I couldn't get the boy to kill me, but I wore his jacket for the longest time.
You Are Jeff
There are two twins on motorbikes but one is farther up the road, beyond
the hairpin turn, or just before it, depending on which twin you are in
love with at the time. Do not choose sides yet. It is still to your advan-
tage to remain impartial. Both motorbikes are shiny red and both boys
have perfect teeth, dark hair, soft hands. The one in front will want to
take you apart, and slowly. His deft and stubby fingers searching every
shank and lock for weaknesses. You could love this boy with all your
heart. The other brother only wants to stitch you back together. The
sun shines down. It's a beautiful day. Consider the hairpin turn. Do not
choose sides yet.
There are two twins on motorbikes but one is farther up the road. Let's
call them Jeff. And because the first Jeff is in front we'll consider him
the older, and therefore responsible for lending money and the occa-
sional punch in the shoulder. World-wise, world-weary, and not his
mother's favorite, this Jeff will always win when it all comes down to
fisticuffs. Unfortunately for him, it doesn't always all come down to
fisticuffs. Jeff is thinking about his brother down the winding road be-
hind him. He is thinking that if only he could cut him open and peel him
back and crawl inside this second skin, then he could relive that last mile
again: reborn, wild-eyed, free.
There are two twins on motorbikes but one is farther up the road, beyond
the hairpin turn, or just before it, depending on which Jeff you are. It
could have been so beautiful—you scout out the road ahead and I will
watch your back, how it was and how it will be, memory and fantasy—
but each Jeff wants to be the other one. My name is Jeff and I'm tired
of looking at the back of your head. My name is Jeff and I'm tired of
seeing my hand me down clothes. Look, Jeff, I'm telling you, for the
last time, I mean it, etcetera. They are the same and they are not the
same. They are the same and they hate each other for it.
Your name is Jeff and somewhere up ahead of you your brother has
pulled to the side of the road and he is waiting for you with a lug wrench
clutched in his greasy fist. 0 how he loves you, darling boy. 0 how, like
always, he invents the monsters underneath the bed to get you to sleep
next to him, chest to chest or chest to back, the covers drawn around
you in an act of faith against the night. When he throws the wrench into
the air it will catch the light as it spins toward you. Look—it looks like
a star. You had expected something else, anything else, but the wrench
never reaches you. It hangs in the air like that, spinning in the air like
that. It's beautiful.
Let's say God in his High Heaven is hungry and has decided to make
himself some tuna fish sandwiches. He's already finished making two
of them, on sourdough, before he realizes that the fish is bad. What is
he going to do with these sandwiches? They're already made, but he
doesn't want to eat them.
Let's say the Devil is played by two men. We'll call them Jeff. Dark
hair, green eyes, white teeth, pink tongues—they're twins. The one on
the left has gone bad in the middle, and the other one on the left is about
to. As they wrestle, you can tell that they have forgotten about God, and
they are very hungry.
You are playing cards with three men named Jeff. Two of the Jeffs seem
somewhat familiar, but the Jeff across from you keeps staring at your
hands, your mouth, and you're certain that you've never seen this Jeff
before. But he's on your team, and you're ahead, you're winning big,
and yet the other Jeffs keep smiling at you like there's no tomorrow.
They all have perfect teeth: white, square, clean, even. And, for some
reason, the lighting in the room makes their teeth seem closer than they
should be, as if each mouth was a place, a living room with pink carpet
and the window's open. Come back from the window, Jefferson. Take off
those wet clothes and come over here, by the fire.
You are playing cards with three Jeffs. One is your father, one is your
brother, and the other is your current boyfriend. All of them have seen
you naked and heard you talking in your sleep. Your boyfriend Jeff gets
up to answer the phone. To them he is a mirror, but to you he is a room.
Phone's for you, Jeff says. Hey! It's Uncle Jeff, who isn't really your
uncle, but you can't talk right now, one of the Jeffs has put his tongue
in your mouth. Please let it be the right one.
Two brothers are fighting by the side of the road. Two motorbikes have
fallen over on the shoulder, leaking oil into the dirt, while the interlocking
brothers grapple and swing. You see them through the backseat
window as you and your parents drive past. You are twelve years old.
You do not have a brother. You have never experienced anything this
ferocious or intentional with another person. Your mother is pretending
that she hasn't seen anything. Your father is fiddling with the knobs
of the radio. There is an empty space next to you in the backseat of the
station wagon. Make it the shape of everything you need. Now say
You are in an ordinary suburban bedroom with bunk beds, a bookshelf,
two wooden desks and chairs. You are lying on your back, on the top
bunk, very close to the textured ceiling, staring straight at it in fact, and
the room is still dark except for a wedge of powdery light that spills in
from the adjoining bathroom. The bathroom is covered in mint green
tile and someone is in there, singing very softly. Is he singing to you?
For you? Black cherries in chocolate, the ring around the moon, a bee-
tle underneath a glass—you cannot make out all the words, but you're
sure he knows you're in there, and he's singing to you, even though you
don't know who he is.
You see it as a room, a tabernacle, the dark hotel. You're in the hallway
again, and you open the door, and if you're ready you'll see it, but
maybe one part of your mind decides that the other parts aren't ready,
and then you don't remember where you've been, and you find yourself
down the hall again, the lights gone dim as the left hand sings the right
hand back to sleep. It's a puzzle: each piece, each room, each time you
put your hand to the knob, your mouth to the hand, your ear to the
wound that whispers.
You're in the hallway again. The radio is playing your favorite song.
You're in the hallway. Open the door again. Open the door.
Suppose for a moment that the heart has two heads, that the heart has
been chained and dunked in a glass booth filled with river water. The
heart is monologing about hesitation and fulfillment while behind the
red brocade the heart is drowning. Can the heart escape? Does love
even care? Snow falls as we dump the booth in the bay.
Suppose for a moment we are crowded around a pier, waiting for something
to ripple the water. We believe in you. There is no danger. It is not
getting dark, we want to say.
Consider the hairpin turn. It is waiting for you like a red door or the
broken leg of a dog. The sun is shining, O how the sun shines down!
Your speedometer and your handgrips and the feel of the road below
you, how it knows you, the black ribbon spread out on the greens be-
tween these lines that suddenly don't reach to the horizon. It is waiting,
like a broken door, like the red dog that chases its tail and eats your rose-
bushes and then must be forgiven. Who do you love, Jeff? Who do you
love? You were driving toward something and then, well, then you
found yourself driving the other way. The dog is asleep. The road is be-
hind you. O how the sun shines down.
This time everyone has the best intentions. You have cancer. Let's say
you have cancer. Let's say you've swallowed a bad thing and now it's
got its hands inside you. This is the essence of love and failure. You see
what I mean but you're happy anyway, and that's okay, it's a love story
after all, a lasting love, a wonderful adventure with lots of action,
where the mirror says mirror and the hand says hand and the front
door never says Sorry Charlie. So the doctor says you need more
stitches and the bruise cream isn't working. So much for the facts. Let's
say you're still completely in the dark but we love you anyway. We
love you. We really do.
After work you go to the grocery store to get some milk and a carton of
cigarettes. Where did you get those bruises? You don't remember.
Work was boring. You find a jar of bruise cream and a can of stewed
tomatoes. Maybe a salad? Spinach, walnuts, blue cheese, apples, and
you can't decide between the Extra Large or Jumbo black olives. Which
is bigger anyway? Extra Large has a blue label, Jumbo has a purple
label. Both cans cost $1.29. While you're deciding, the afternoon light
is streaming through the windows behind the bank of checkout coun-
ters. Take the light inside you like a blessing, like a knee in the chest,
holding onto it and not letting it go. Now let it go.
Like sandpaper, the light, or a blessing, or a bruise. Blood everywhere,
he said, the red light hemorrhaging from everywhere at once. The train
station blue, your lips blue, hands cold and the blue wind. Or a horse,
your favorite horse now raised up again out of the mud and galloping
galloping always toward you. In your ruined shirt, on the last day, while
the bruise won't heal, and the stain stays put, the red light streaming in
from everywhere at once. Your broken ribs, the back of your head, your
hand to mouth or hand to now, right now, like you mean it, like it's split-
ting you in two. Now look at the lights, the lights.
You and your lover are making out in the corner booth of a seedy bar.
The booths are plush and the drinks are cheap and in this dim and
smoky light you can barely tell whose hands are whose. Someone raises
their glass for a toast. Is that the Hand of Judgment or the Hand of
Mercy? The bartender smiles, running a rag across the burnished wood
of the bar. The drink in front of you has already been paid for. Drink it,
the bartender says. It's yours, you deserve it. It's already been paid for.
Somebody's paid for it already. There's no mistake, he says. It's your drink,
the one you asked for, just the way you like it. How can you refuse Hands
of fire, hands of air, hands of water, hands of dirt. Someone's doing all
the talking but no one's lips move. Consider the hairpin turn.
The motorbikes are neck and neck but where's the checkered flag we
all expected, waving in the distance, telling you you're home again,
home? He's next to you, right next to you in fact, so close, or. . . he isn't.
Imagine a room. Yes, imagine a room: two chairs facing the window but
nobody moves. Don't move. Keep staring straight into my eyes. It feels
like you're not moving, the way when, dancing, the room will suddenly
fall away. You're dancing: you're neck and neck or cheek to cheek, he's
there or he isn't, the open road. Imagine a room. Imagine you're danc-
ing. Imagine the room now falling away. Don't move.
Two brothers: one of them wants to take you apart. Two brothers: one
of them wants to put you back together. It's time to choose sides now.
The stitches or the devouring mouth? You want an alibi? You don't get
an alibi, you get two brothers. Here are two Jeffs. Pick one. This is how
you make the meaning, you take two things and try to define the space
between them. Jeff or Jeff? Who do you want to be? You just wanted
to play in your own backyard, but you don't know where your own yard
is, exactly. You just wanted to prove there was one safe place, just one
safe place where you could love him. You have not found that place yet.
You have not made that place yet. You are here. You are here. You're
still right here.
Here are your names and here is the list and here are the things you left
behind: The mark on the floor from pushing your chair back, your un-
derwear, one half brick of cheese, the kind I don't like, wrapped up, and
poorly, and abandoned on the second shelf next to the poppyseed dress-
ing, which is also yours. Here's the champagne on the floor, and here
are your house keys, and here are the curtains that your cat peed on.
And here is your cat, who keeps eating grass and vomiting in the hall-
way. Here is the list with all of your names, Jeff. They're not the same
name, Jeff. They're not the same at all.
There are two twins on motorbikes but they are not on motorbikes,
they're in a garden where the flowers are as big as thumbs. Imagine you
are in a field of daisies. What are you doing in a field of daisies? Get up!
Let's say you're not in the field anymore. Let's say they're not brothers
anymore. That's right, they're not brothers, they're just one guy, and
he knows you, and he's talking to you, but you're in pain and you can-
not understand him. What are you still doing in this field? Get out of
the field! You should be in the hotel room! You should, at least, be try-
ing to get back into the hotel room. Ah! Now the field is empty.
Hold onto your voice. Hold onto your breath. Don't make a noise,
don't leave the room until I come back from the dead for you. I will
come back from the dead for you. This could be a city. This could be a
graveyard. This could be the basket of a big balloon. Leave the lights
on. Leave a trail of letters like those little knots of bread we used to
dream about. We used to dream about them. We used to do a lot of
things. Put your hand to the knob, your mouth to the hand, pick up the
bread and devour it. I'm in the hallway again, I'm in the hallway. The
radio's playing my favorite song. Leave the lights on. Keep talking. I'll
keep walking toward the sound of your voice.
Someone had a party while you were sleeping but you weren't really
sleeping, you were sick, and parts of you were burning, and you
couldn't move. Perhaps the party was in your honor. You can't remem-
ber. It seems the phone was ringing in the dream you were having but
there's no proof. A dish in the sink that might be yours, some clothes on
the floor that might belong to someone else. When was the last time you
found yourself looking out of this window. Hey! This is a beautiful
window! This is a beautiful view! 1 hose trees lined up like that, and the
way the stars are spinning over them like that, spinning in the air like
that, like wrenches.
Let's say that God is the space between two men and the Devil is the
space between two men. Here: I'll be all of them-Jeff and Jeff and Jeff
and Jeff are standing on the shoulder of the highway, four motorbikes
knocked over, two wrenches spinning in the ordinary air. Two of these
Jeffs are windows, and two of these Jeffs are doors, and all of these Jeffs
are trying to tell you something. Come closer. We'll whisper it in your
ear. It's like seeing your face in a bowl of soup, cream of potato, and the
eyes shining back like spoons. If we wanted to tell you everything, we
would leave more footprints in the snow or kiss you harder. One thing.
Come closer. Listen . . .
You're in a car with a beautiful boy, and he won't tell you that he loves
you, but he loves you. And you feel like you've done something terr-
ible, like robbed a liquor store, or swallowed pills, or shoveled yourself
a grave in the dirt, and you're tired. You're in a car with a beautiful boy,
and you're trying not to tell him that you love him, and you're trying to
choke down the feeling, and you're trembling, but he reaches over and
he touches you, like a prayer for which no words exist, and you feel your
heart taking root in your body, like you've discovered something you
don't even have a name for.