Richard Siken’s book of poetry, War of the Foxes, explores the inner and subjective world of emotions, self-perception, and the imperfect pursuit of artistic expression. Within most of his free verse poems, Siken consistently uses the metaphor of painting to express not only the act of making art, but also the processes of human perception, connection and communication. The collection will especially delight readers familiar or interested in both the fine art of painting and creative writing. The poems function on multiple levels of visual aesthetics simultaneously, blurring the line between images evoked by the written form, and those in traditionally viewed in pictures and paintings.
By using the imagery of painting, Siken creates a strong metaphor for the act of making art itself. The opening poem begins with a discussion of the art’s inability to perfectly imitate reality, yet despite this, asserts art’s value and purpose: “The paint doesn’t move the way light reflects,/so what’s there to be faithful to?/ I am faithful to you, darling. I say to the paint.” (lines 1-3). The purpose of art is not necessarily to be true to reality, but rather to be true to the artist’s personal perception of reality, and to act as a tool of communication. This metaphor allows Siken to delve into the role aesthetics play in the navigation and negotiation of identity and interpersonal relationships through the art and aesthetics of the actual poems. While this approach may seem metaphysical, complex, and confusing, the poems read and present themselves naturally and seamlessly, and the emphasis on images and their intuitive, imprecise nature works, for the most part, to capture the intangible and abstract experiences involved in identifying and expressing the self.
There are few poems that do not touch on the metaphor of painting, and those that do not follow so closely to the theme of identifying and expressing the self that they hardly feel out of place. It is therefore interesting to find that the title poem, “War of the Foxes,” does not reference the process of painting. Instead, the reader finds vivid images of animals, nature, and people populating shifting and surreal anecdotes that flow into each other throughout the poem, centering on the struggles of finding, maintaining and communicating the self to others. At the beginning of the poem, two “twin” rabbits are chased by a fox, and to escape, one hides inside the other, and the fox is tricked into letting them go because he believes he can catch the remaining rabbit that must be unable to run away (l. 1-18). This instance is a vivid contemplation on the issue of the self and how it is or isn’t to be surrendered in a relationship or even community. To survive, one of the rabbits completely loses itself as an individual by merging with the other rabbit. Even though they animals survive the fox, the question is raised, at what cost? And more circumspectly, and much in keeping with Siken’s cyclical themes, a second question is raised: were the “twin bunnies” that different in the first place? The third stanza states: “This is the story of Pip and Flip, the bunny twins. We say that once there were two and now there is only one” (l. 12). The notion is troubling, and by the end of the stanza, it’s clear that losing one’s identity is disturbing, and possibly unavoidable to some extent when negotiating a relationship with others: “Together we trace out the trail away from doom. There isn’t hope, there is a trail. I follow you.” (l. 18-19). “War of the Foxes” works to solidify the discourses presented in the poems before and after it, clarifying what it means to express the self in any way, and the dangers that follow suit.
If the collection warrants criticism, it’s that the poems feel obsessive over the theme of negotiating and navigating the self. By the latter portion of the book, it’s predictable that, thematically, the poems will not bring about a satisfying resolution to the challenges that come with defining the self. They end presenting an existential sense of aimlessness in the speaker and other characters, and while the act of expression via art and aesthetics offers some relief and outlet for this conflict, it is a partial relief. It is not the theme itself that is problematic; that conflict is essential to the collection. Rather, it’s that readers may not need to witness every poem to understand the main conflict; once this was discovered, there was no further place to progress and each subsequent poem felt less significant. However, with this repetition, Richard Siken could very well be demonstrating the cyclical nature of the mind, and the illogical cycle of preserving and discovering the self while trying to sustain outside relationships from others that simultaneously demand compromise of the self. Nevertheless, Siken masters poetic and artistic imagery, and his description of human consciousness is striking and perceptive.
Richard Siken is a poet, painter, filmmaker, and an editor at Spork Press. He is a recipient of two Arizona Commission on the Arts grants, two Lannan Residency Fellowships, and a Literature Fellowship in Poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts.
About the author of this post: Meaghan Green is a senior at North Central College majoring in English Writing and Studio Art. She’s inspired by history, nature, and storytelling.