War of the Foxes

By Richard Siken


Copper Canyon Press
April 2015

Reviewed by Trevor Ketner


There are few books this year, if any, I have been more excited about than Richard Siken's new collection War of the Foxes. Siken's Yale Younger winning Crush has to be one of the top five most important collections to my development as a writer and poet. I know, too, that this is the case for so many poets of my generation, so many "emerging writers." It is aggressive, obsessive, addicting, enthralling. I remember the moment I read Copper Canyon would be publishing War of the Foxes and I can tell you, with no shame, sitting in the middle of a café, I squealed.

The magic of War of the Foxes is how much it isn't like Crush. That is to say that formally, tonally, and thematically, these two collections couldn't be more different. In Louise Glück's foreword to Crush she paints a picture of a body both feverish and panicked. What War of the Foxes provides is a waking from that fever dream. Every bit as obsessive, War of the Foxes pursues a philosophical clarity that Crush, so embedded in the body, was not meant to, and therefore never could, achieve.

Okay. I'm done. This won't be a point-by-point comparison between the two collections. I think that Siken is ready to move out from under the shadow of the obelisk that is Crush, and the newness of War of the Foxes indicates that. Siken isn't a one trick pony; he's a master craftsman that says, "I learned how to make a book this one way. What's another?"

In the eleven years since Crush's publication, Siken has turned to painting to tame the birds of his hands, to figure out what to do with them. In this time he's also been writing poems, spurred on by his painting, that question the usefulness of art, what the difference between tools and machines might be, and how all wars are instigated by a lack of power. He's also interested in exploring how it's all (war, art, love) imperialism and claiming, seeking a difference, if there is one, between war and preying on others, and wondering whether art is kind preying, a breed of hunting. But what intrigues me most about War of the Foxes is the sophisticated aesthetic philosophy Siken presents and what this philosophy implies about the self, the world, and representation.

"All thinking is / comparison," Siken writes in "Logic." In this way all thinking is a representation, a re-presenting. In "The Landscape with a Blur of Conquerors" he writes, "To have a thought, there must be an object," and in "The Language of Birds," "everything is a metaphor for itself." It becomes apparent from the outset that this is a collection concerned with the philosophical repercussions of representation, specifically Siken's two passions, painting and poetry.

To borrow from "Birds Hover the Trampled Field," the question War of the Foxes is asking is this: representation (or art) "[supplies] the world with what?" I'd say Siken answers his own question, a common and interesting rhetorical strategy he uses throughout the collection, in "Nudes and Blue Roses" when he writes, "The blocks of color gather / together the flowers of thinking into argument." Art's purpose, then, is to cause meaning, to erect the argument of comparison. And "who gets to measure the distance between experience and its representation? Who controls the lines of inquiry? We do. Anyone can."

But Siken acknowledges the uncertainty inherent in the artistic endeavor. "The paint doesn't move the way the light reflects" ("The Way the Light Reflects"). And again, "You can't paint the inside of anything, so why / would you try?" ("Portrait of Frydreryk in Shifting Light"). Not only can't you paint beyond the surface, but the paint itself, the very medium of representation, is suspect and unfaithful, something many philosophers have said about language, the medium of poetry.

Siken comes to an interesting bit in answering the question of faithful representation: "[It] wasn't there but it remained, looked like the thing but wasn't the thing—was a second thing, following a second set of rules" ("The Language of the Birds"). Aha! The mode of representation is not reproduction, but production in its own right—to reproduce is also to create.

In the collection's title series, Siken seeks to illustrate this idea in the form of a fable. Two rabbits in a warren are avoiding being eaten by a fox. One rabbit says to the other, "Here, hide inside me," and they escape, the fox none the wiser. In this way, one thing is held within another, consumed (the desire of landscape Siken says in other poems) to protect it. To get the precious thing from here to there, from now to the future, you must hide it in something else.

"In turn there is a trace," he says, a kind of ghost. "What is a ghost? Something dead that seems to be / alive. Something dead that doesn't know it's dead. // A painting, for instance" ("Landscape with Fruit Rot and Millipede"). The painting, the poem, the first rabbit, the second rabbit (a sort of Schrödinger's rabbit if you will), all seem alive. But there is so much to be learned from ghosts, so much to be said for the haunting power of seeming.

I was so often reminded of the paintings of Rene Magritte while reading these poems. Siken seems to be consciously channeling some of the flatness of Magritte's overtly academic style to achieve the same end: a highlighting of the philosophical depth and potential of what the work of art represents. Siken is pursuing an ontology of aesthetics here—a world understood not by looking at it directly but by looking at how we represent it. War of the Foxes is like a telescope pointed at the human condition—what gets to the eye is actually only a reflection of the object itself, but by means of manipulating the reflection, the object becomes that much clearer. In this way the poems are a second reflection of the world, acting as mirrors for the paintings, which act as the initial mirrors for the world.

"To make something / beautiful should be enough. It isn't. It should be." Whether or not it is enough, Siken has done it. He has crafted beautiful things again and again—as paintings, as poems, as books. He has represented the thing itself and, through the prism of representation broken it into discrete beams (world into paint into words). He has made objects transcend themselves, made them beautiful even in the face of the potential futility of the entire artistic endeavor. For this sharp, stunning, intellectual beauty we should all be grateful.