The War of the Foxes, by Richard Siken
Review by William Fargason
After the success of his first book of poetry, Crush, which won the Yale Series of Younger Poets prize in 2004, Richard Siken stayed quiet. He waited ten years before releasing his second book War of the Foxes in 2015. Now that we have his second collection, we have a point of comparison. Before, with just Crush, there was only that singular voice, that thread in the dark. Now we have a second, different side to the authorial voice started in Crush, a voice that comes with new anxieties—due to the fact that this new collection explores new spaces, new canvases. The following gained by Crush kept the anticipation for this new collection high. War of the Foxes is not Crush, Part II, nor should it be. Siken’s newest collection is both familiar and unfamiliar to those who, like myself, fell in love with the power of Crush. As he says in “Self-Portrait Against Red Wallpaper,” “There is no / new me, there is no old me, there’s just me, the same / me, the whole time.” This claim proves true throughout the book, as what is found when reading these new poems is characteristically Siken, but different.
If we think about Crush as an extended elegy, then we can think about War of the Foxes as an extended ars poetica—a poem about the act of writing a poem. This commentary on creating might come from the fact that Siken is not only a poet, but also a painter—his hands are always making, in one medium or another. One thing that made Crush so successful as a book was how well it cohered together. Images repeated, obsessively woven together. Lost love, bodily violence, and surreal narratives were present in every poem. In War of the Foxes, there are just as many repetitions of obsessive themes as in Crush, except now, ten years later, the themes have changed. The entirety of the book is fixated on the act of painting, as shown in one of the keynote poems of the collection, “Landscape with a Blur of Conquerors”: “I paint / them out, I paint them in again. […] // The mind / moves forward, the paint layers up: glop glop and / shellac. I shovel color into our faces, I shovel our / faces into our faces. They look like me.” So much of this collection seems fixated on painting, but what is behind this notion is really the act of creation, and what it means to be a creator. Siken uses painting as a medium and example to untangle his own ideas about writing.
These poems, like those in Crush, mimic the mental process of the speaker on the page. War of the Foxes is no less manic than Crush, and no less powerful, but the effort in this new book isn’t to pummel the reader with images. Rather, Siken follows a line of inquiry. Many of these poems use rhetorical questions to push this investigation further, to the breaking point, which is characteristic of Siken:
lem, if there was one, was simply a problem with the
question. Why paint a bird? Why do anything at all?
Now how, because hows are easy—series or sequence,
one foot after the other—but existentially why bother,
what does it solve?
And just because you want to paint a bird, do actually
paint a bird, it doesn’t mean you’ve accomplished any-
These lines come from another central poem in the collection, “The Language of the Birds,” which encapsulates one of the main themes of the book—self-doubt by the creator in their act of creation. This poem is an extensively revised version of his poem “The Problem,” which originally appeared on the website From the Fishouse. In the finalized version we see here, the poem about a man painting a bird becomes much larger in scale when framed with a parallel narrative of cave painters also painting animals—“mammoth, lion, horse, bear”—that “weren’t animals but they looked like animals, / enough like animals to make it confusing, meant / something but the meaning was slippery.” Here, Siken questions the actuality of the animal itself versus the representation of the animal. Throughout these poems, the line is blurred between actual object and representation of said object. An artist is only allotted so much accuracy. And the lack of accuracy afforded to the artist is a struggle Siken continually returns to in these poems. But the great thing for the reader is the fact that even the representation (and Siken’s representation of representation) is a beautiful mess to get lost in poem after poem in this collection. We as readers get to follow the workings of Siken’s mind on the page, which disorients as it illuminates in all its wonderful complexity.
“The Language of the Birds” is similar to other poems in the collection in its use of animal imagery (in this case, birds) as symbolic vehicles in the speaker’s journey toward a more-stable sense of selfhood. These animal symbols are not placeholders, nor are they simply stand-ins for meditations on nature. There are rabbits, birds, foxes, and stags that become much more than their tangible furry counterparts. They become parts of a larger allegorical structure that runs beneath the book’s surface interest on painting. The rabbits in the title poem become two lovers who hide inside each other to avoid the hungry fox, an idea that gets questioned in “Detail of the Woods”: “Everyone needs a place. It shouldn’t be inside of someone else.” The speaker becomes a stag in “The Stag and the Quiver”: “I put on the deer suit. I turned my ears in all directions. / I’ll live alone or in between. This is the testimony of the / deer: solitude, the long corridors, love from a distance.” The speaker throughout War of the Foxes both is and isn’t the symbols and allegories he creates—this is the simultaneity of being a creator who both finds himself within his creations and finds them utterly alien.
One of the biggest changes in this new book is Siken’s attention to more traditional forms. The poems in Crush were jaggedly indented, seemingly strewn in all directions, hardly keeping with any normal margin. This jagged lineation made the reader’s eyes dart back and forth, dancing across the page. Most all of the poems in War of the Foxes are left-aligned, and are often in a variation of iambic pentameter (give or take a beat or two). This more-traditional form gives the illusion of stability and control, form to the wandering mind. But many of these poems are just as scattered and jumpy in their logic as the poems in Crush, often resorting to choppy, short declarative sentences, as in the poem “Logic”:
Machines have knobs you can turn if you
want to. A hammer is a hammer when it hits the nail.
A hammer is not a hammer when it is sleeping. I woke
up tired of being the hammer.
The choppiness is often due to Siken’s usage of parataxis—the syntactical organization of phrases without connective tissue—and is characteristic of his poetry. This paratactic style is seen in “Lovesong of the Square Root of Negative One”:
I am the wind and the wind is invisible, all the leaves
tremble but I am invisible, bloom without flower, knot
without rope, song without throat in wingless flight, dark
boat in the dark night, pure velocity.
The effect of this constant use of parataxis is disorientation and complication. That is why many of these poems will become richer for the reader after a couple readings. These poems require the reader to untangle their maps, which become interconnected journeys with each reading, journeys well worth taking.
This book adds something to Siken’s writing that was missing up until this point: closure. This book acts as proof of moving past the loss explored in Crush. Siken states “I turned away / from darkness to see daylight, to see what would / happen. What happened?” This book is what happened. The speaker ages and looks back on loss in a less-messy way. He states in “The Stag and the Quiver,” of these allegories, that “It reminds me of some / tale, stay with me to remember, it reminds me of where / I was going without you.” The “you” of Crush changes in War of the Foxes; the “you” of this new book becomes the paint. Siken says of this new territory, “This is a story of loops, at least one. I stepped off the / loop. I spent time listening, testing realms. I snapped a / twig in my head and struck out.” Even though these poems meditate on failure, they are ultimately a success. The ars poetica thread throughout the book comes full-circle at the end, as the speaker/painter finally states he is “Putting down the brush for the last time—”. The last sentence of this last poem is left syntactically ‘hanging,’ purposely incomplete and devoid of closing punctuation. This stylistic move opens this last poem up, acting as a door through which the reader can exit the space of this collection of poems.
Siken focuses so much of his attention in this book on landscapes and the creation of landscapes. He states, “It should be enough. To make something / beautiful should be enough. It isn’t. It should be.” This book, for readers, is enough. We are given a cohesive work of beauty, even if the creator of the beauty doesn’t see it. The world of poetry is enlarged through War of the Foxes, and the voice that began in Crush is further developed toward a fuller selfhood.
William Fargason’s poetry has appeared in or is forthcoming from New England Review, Barrow Street, Indiana Review, The Baltimore Review, New Orleans Review, and elsewhere. He earned a MFA in poetry from the University of Maryland. He is currently a PhD candidate at Florida State University. He lives with himself in Tallahassee, Florida.