QUEER DISCOMFORT: DESIRE AND HETERONORMATIVITY IN RICHARD SIKEN'S CRUSH.
[...] desire, like a monster, crawls up out of the lake with all of us watching, with all of us wondering if these two boys will find a way to figure it out. --Richard Siken, "Driving, Not Washing"
Richard Siken, a social worker, painter, and poet, born and living in the United States, published his first collection of poetry titled Crush in 2005 after winning the 2004 Yale Younger Poets prize. The collection is described as "a book about panic" (vii) in the very first sentence of its foreword, written by Louise Gluck, who elaborates: "the poems are driven by what they deny; their ferocity attests to the depth of their terror, their resourcefulness to the intractability of the enemy's presence" (viii). In this way Gluck, like many reviewers, points to the internal sense of conflict that seems to emanate from Siken's work. To identify this sense of conflict or panic and simply put it forward as the main characteristic of this book would, however, be a superficial analysis, as Siken himself points out when he says: "All art has conflict. Explanation is easy and the truth is boring. What are you really asking?" (quoted in Mishler 2014).
The question here needs to go beyond the mere notion of conflict if one aims to examine the ambiguous representation of panic in Crush. Lindsay P. Illich (2006), for example, takes Gliick's claim a step further: "I would disagree. This book is about a species of desire that drives you to panic." Illich thus identifies both desire and panic as the main driving forces behind Siken's Crush and, moreover, emphasizes the relation between Gliick's panic and this so-called species of desire. It appears that the sense of panic, or rather the notion of the implied threat from which this panic results, which runs through the entire collection regardless of whether violence or pain seem imminent or not, is closely tied to the speakers' conceptualization and experience of desire, intimacy, and contact. The main conflict can then be identified as the tension between these opposing, yet strongly intertwined affective forces. While it is often brought up in reviews and interviews, the unsettling connection between desire, a powerful force that drives people toward contact, and panic, which tends to drive one toward isolation, shutting down or shutting out bodily experience, has not been thoroughly examined, as Siken's work has not yet been the subject of any literary criticism. Likewise, the fact that Siken's speakers are gay has been addressed by reviewers, but the potential role this plays in the interaction between desire and panic has not been extensively explored beyond questions regarding Siken's biographical inspiration. The fact that the desire in Crush can specifically be read as gay desire is often overlooked or written off with the claim that Siken's poetry represents a universal experience of desire and heartache without considering in what ways a world that assumes a heteronormative framework might influence that experience for those who do not have a place within that frame. Whether or not this aspect is explicitly or more implicitly present in the poems, it is fundamental to the background against which the poems unfold, and the extent to which it has shaped these poems makes for an especially pressing question when one considers the possible implications of a painful conceptualization of gay desire.
Perhaps the ambiguous title of the collection is the strongest, seemingly hidden way of summarizing the conflict that is the main theme of this book. "Crush" can be read both as "infatuation" and as "bodily trauma," not coincidentally representing the two forces that drive these poems. Both "to have a crush" and "to be crushed" are desired as well as feared by the collection's speakers. By exploring the ambiguous conflict between these different affective states, this essay hopes to answer the questions that Siken's Crush evokes and to shed light on the conflict identified by so many readers. I examine how and why the experience of desire is linked to the threatening, the violent, and ultimately even the traumatic in Richard Siken's Crush, uncovering the ways in which the narrative of gay desire established in the collection is informed by a heteronormative framework. As I consider the interaction between these affective forces, Sara Ahmed's work on affect and on heteronormativity, which she relates to the notion of comfort, will play a central role in my analysis. Finally, because the speakers are often given an active role in the creation of a narrative, this essay is also particularly concerned with their interaction with the connection between desire and panic and whether they ultimately possess the ability to reconceptualize their desire so that it might be associated with things other than panic and violence, or with the constructive force of love rather than the destructive force of death.
PANIC AND DESIRE: LOVE OR DEATH?
In essence, desire can be seen as an affective force that brings bodies together or drives them toward contact. That is, the intention of desire is to bring about contact, regardless of whether an expression of desire is reciprocated and thus will actually have this effect. Panic or fear, on the other hand, are situated on the opposite end of the contact scale. These affects instil an instinct to freeze or flee, to move away from contact; they are isolating forces, whereas desire works to overcome isolation. In Crush, however, these expectations are frequently inverted or confused. Desire does not reach the fulfilment of contact that it moves toward, or if it does, this contact is often violent, painful, or stressful in nature.
The collection explicitly references desire a number of times, but more often than not, the jarring representation of desire and related concepts is achieved by use of more subtle means. In "Little Beast," for example, what initially appears to be a description of a romantic setting suddenly becomes unsettling when the line jumps down to a completely different sentiment:
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. (Siken 2005, 5)
The position of the lines, broken up but in a continuing horizontal sequence, leaves the sudden contrast between "love" and the violent image of "stabbing us to death" to shock the reader. Moreover, the image gets an added sense of reality when the next line gives a degree of tangibility to the personified night's apparent consideration of murder.
These opposing images return throughout this poem, albeit less overtly. In the fourth section of the poem, which is centered around the speaker's desire for a boy with green eyes "flecked with yellow, dried leaves on the surface of a pool" (Siken 2005, 6), Siken once again employs a phrase that has the potential of a romantic interpretation when the speaker says: "You could drown in those eyes" (6). This meaning, however, is ironically questioned later, when the speaker and the green-eyed boy are "struggling at the bottom of the pool" (6; emphasis added). The definite pronoun suggests that this is the same pool that had been introduced earlier on whose surface the golden flecks of the boy's eyes had seemed to float, giving the notion of drowning in those eyes a literal, more destructive meaning.
The entire poem consists of startling shifts between images of romance on the one hand and images of violence or even death on the other. The contrast between these opposing spheres of experience, and between the figurative language use and its unexpected literalization, creates discomfort. Readers are forced to adjust their interpretation of the situation constantly, from the realm of feelings of desire to a harsh reality of violence. Parallelisms in the form of motifs or similar images encourage readers to connect these images in different contexts and to see these evocations both within and across different poems. Where "little words" (Siken 2005, 10) bring the speaker comfort in "The Torn-Up Road," for example, in the following poem ("Litany in Which Certain Things Are Crossed Out"), the words are revealed to be "spelling out desire, all spelling out / You will be alone always and then you will die" (11). In this way the crosspoem repetition of similar images or phrasings creates a movement from a bleak but seemingly comforting perspective to one of complete hopelessness, which is notably explicitly equated to desire in the second example.
Furthermore, through the use of associations or more overt connections, the meaning and object of desire become confused. Desire for intimacy, sex, or romance is associated with urgency, threat, and violence, so that ultimately the former desire becomes associated with a desire/or the latter, thus deforming the object of the original desire. When the speaker's expressions of desire or motions toward contact repeatedly fail to be reciprocated or when they lead to a reciprocation of a violent nature, the desire for love or intimacy will ultimately become confused with a desire for pain and violence, this being the only apparent option to attain any kind of intimacy. Moreover, the recurring desire for a dead or soon-to-be-dead lover, one of the central character types of the collection, complicates and potentially transforms the productive desire for love into a destructive desire for death. In this way, the poems in Crush evoke discomfort, positioning desire in a semantically negative network of associations. Desire is represented in a jarring, uncomfortable, yet somehow persistently hopeful way: even given the prospect of permanently unfulfilled desire and despite their pervasive fatalism, the speakers--hopefully, naively, or tragically--never appear to stop desiring.
The arena in which the battle represented by the word "crush," and so that of Crush, takes place, is the body. Simultaneously capable of affecting and being affected, crushing and being crushed, desiring and being desired, the body plays a central role in Siken's poetry. Drawing attention to the ambivalence of romantic discourse by literalizing this type of language in motifs that approach the body in rather invasive ways, Crush raises questions concerning the bodily experience and expression of desire. If the body and its orientation determine one's "belonging (or non-belonging) to a world" (Gregg and Seigworth 2010, 3), the boundaries between the entities that inhabit that world are of central concern, and bodily surfaces and the space between them become heavily charged. Sara Ahmed argues that a delay or forgetfulness of the conscious awareness of the boundaries of bodies is a characteristic of comfort:
To be comfortable is to be so at ease with one's environment that it is hard to distinguish where one's body ends and the world begins. One fits, and by fitting, the surfaces of bodies disappear from view. The disappearance of the surface is instructive: in feelings of comfort, bodies extend into spaces, and spaces extend into bodies. The sinking feeling [which constitutes comfort] involves a seamless space, or a space where you can't see the "stitches" between bodies. (Ahmed 2014, 165)
Comfort is determined by a body's interaction with the space it inhabits and the other bodies that occupy this space. To be overly aware of the body's boundaries, on the other hand, is a sign of discomfort, or a feeling of non-belonging to the environment, because an awareness of the boundaries of the self emphasizes the difference between self and other. Whereas comfort is marked by the disappearance of boundaries, pain is the transgression of boundaries, and thus a forced awareness of those boundaries as they are violated.
The dynamic posited by Ahmed, between comfort as an unawareness of boundaries and pain as a transgression of boundaries, is confused in the poems in Crush. The lines "You take the things you love / and tear them apart / or you pin them down with your body and pretend they're yours" (Siken 2005, 24-25) work well to summarize two of the main motifs in this context: the action of tearing something apart, which could be interpreted both as a transgression of boundaries and as a dissolution of boundaries; and that of forcibly keeping something in place, which in turn emphasizes contact between the surfaces of bodies and could be the expression of a desire to lose awareness of those boundaries, but can also turn into an experience of discomfort or pain. More broadly speaking, notions like close contact, sharing bodies, or tearing apart bodies, can all be interpreted in terms of comfort, desire, love, and shared identity, but also in terms of transgression, intrusion, violence, and loss of identity.
The heavily charged space between bodies is filled with potential meanings, whereas the closing of that distance to a point of contact establishes a concrete meaning. From a Lacanian perspective, desire is the ambiguity of this in-between space itself: "One could define desire as exactly this process: as the difference between the original message and that which arrives at the end. The key here is that desire is not the message itself. It is neither the original sentence nor the final one, but the process or structure of distortion itself" (Leader 1996, no). Not only does Siken explicitly present the "in-between" as a space of ambiguity, but the tension created by this temporary ambiguity between "the original message and that which arrives at the end" (no) is part of the near-constant stress the speakers of Crush seem to be suffering from. The speakers try to achieve a state of comfort in which "the 'stitches' between bodies" (Ahmed 2014, 165) disappear. However, stitches appear explicitly in some of the poems, representing a vulnerability in the body's surface through which an external entity could transgress the boundaries of the self. These stitches also appear as the consequences of another motif, namely that of the fragmented body. Bodies are violently taken apart; different body parts are shared, rejected, and alienated.
The boundaries between bodies are disregarded or transgressed either for violent purposes or in an attempt to reach a state of comfort and fulfilled desire. In "Dirty Valentine" the speaker wears his lover's clothes and substitutes his own body for his lover's in his imagination, making contact by pretending, by consciously confusing the self with the other in the absence of that other. In "A Primer for the Small Weird Loves," a man forces his own belonging within the addressee's body, painting a more painful picture: "He's turning your back into a table so he doesn't have to / eat off the floor, so he can get comfortable, / pressing against you until he fits, until he's made a place for himself / inside you" (Siken 2005, 23). This man seeks comfort within the addressee's body, but the latter becomes objectified in the process. This tendency of objectifying the body is internalized by the speaker of "Saying Your Names," who opts to use his body like a tool. As "A Primer for the Small Weird Loves" continues--"He hits you and he hits you and he hits you. / Desire driving his hands right into your body" (23)--desire itself is identified as the motivation behind this intruding force. In a later poem, the entire notion of hands reaching inside the body is presented as ambiguous: "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" (54). Love and failure, like love and death, or desire and destruction, share an essence which comes down to an external force having made its way into the body. The boundaries between opposing categories are thus crossed as the boundaries between bodies are violated.
This tendency also translates into confusion of identity in the poem "You Are Jeff," a narrative poem in which everyone has the same name. The poem both playfully and unsettlingly makes use of the confusion of identity that ensues. This confusion temporarily suspends the reader's understanding of the scenes, often leaving them wondering who is with whom, or whether they are kissing or fighting: love or death? The addressee's desire is presented as destructive rather than constructive or healing, but, finally, the addressee is explicitly asked to make a choice: "Two brothers: one of them wants to take you apart. Two brothers: one of them wants to put you back together. [...] The stitches or the devouring mouth?" (Siken 2005, 56). The correlation between love and death on the one hand and "the stitches or the devouring mouth" on the other is unclear and remains unclear as the speaker asks the second-person Jeff: "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" (54). Despite the addressee's choice for one direction, events suddenly turn in the opposite direction. In a similar way, the characters of the poems in Crush are confronted with different choices, between love and death, between desire and violence, between a crush and physical crushing, but they often seem unable to follow one distinct path, suddenly finding themselves somehow "driving the other way" (54).
The ambiguity of "crush" as infatuation and as bodily trauma is illustrated in the poems through the different approaches to the body and the representation of desire as a potentially destructive motivation. Likewise, the tension between different meanings of other words or phrases, particularly those of romantic and sexual discourse, highlights the narrow line between physical and emotional experiences, which can be extended to the narrow line between loving and healing affects, on the one hand, and violent and harmful ones, on the other. The dynamic between comfort and pain is confused, but without any subversive potential. Despite the heavy emphasis on bodies as subjects and objects throughout the poems, the body seems to lack agency or the ability to translate desire into a positive experience; movements toward contact fail or escalate into painful situations. Characters want to give away their body, use their body like a tool, or let others inhabit it, giving up their own comfort for that of others. In the series of unfulfilled desires, violent desires, or confused identities, the very role of desire becomes ambiguous. If anything, the objective of these desires as either pain or as comfort remains unclear: do the characters strive for a loss of boundaries or for an intrusion of the other? Do they act out of a loving desire or out of (self-)destructiveness? In order to answer these questions, it is necessary to recognize how the desire in Crush is always a desire between men, and, therefore, always a gay desire.
THE VIOLENCE OF GAY DESIRE
In a September 2005 co-interview with Siken and Jason Schneiderman in The Gay & Lesbian Review, poet Aaron Smith states: "It would make sense for a preoccupation with desire to suffuse the work of gay writers for many reasons. One in particular is that our desire is still outside the mainstream, and many writers, I think, at least the ones who are interesting, are drawn to the places of tension." Siken's work revolves, if anything, around places of tension. These tensions appear in the form of unfulfilled desires and unexpected turns toward violence in the interactions between the men in Crush, which, as Smith suggests, is not insignificant within the context of the marginalization of gay desire. It is necessary to examine allusions to homophobia as a motivating force to establish how the social background of heteronormativity can be seen to play a role in the conceptualization of desire. So far, the examples given have not offered a satisfying explanation for the jarring, violent representation of fulfilled desires. Perhaps the explanation is not to be found within the text as such, but within the context of the social reality with which it engages. Interactions are informed by wider structures that determine the norms pertaining to bodies and expressions of affect. As one of those social structures, heteronormativity heavily impacts the way bodies are perceived and approached. Heteronormativity dictates that the ideal relationship is a straight relationship, so that only interactions of an intimate nature between a man and a woman will be considered normal and right. Ahmed defines heteronormativity in terms of her theory of comfort:
Heteronormativity also becomes a form of comforting. [...] Queer subjects, when faced by the "comforts" of heterosexuality may feel uncomfortable. [...] Discomfort is a feeling of disorientation: one's body feels out of place, awkward, unsettled. [...] The sense of out-of place-ness and estrangement involves an acute awareness of the surface of one's body, which appears as surface, when one cannot inhabit the social skin, which is shaped by some bodies, and not others. (Ahmed 2014, 148)
Comfort is belonging, but desire is regulated by societal structures that decide who or what belongs, thus also determining who and whose desire can exist comfortably. In her conceptualization of heteronormativity, Ahmed draws attention to how structures of normality can cause a hyperawareness of the body and therefore a constant sense of discomfort. When bodies and affects are policed and scrutinized by exclusionary or oppressive norms, one not only becomes aware of the body as a surface, but also is continually faced with the knowledge that the surface of the marginalized body is a potential target for violence.
This hyperawareness of the surface of the body and the potential threat of violence clearly play a role in Crush in the form of obsession with the body and the constant sense of threat. Furthermore, Siken translates the effects of heteronormative thinking in particular into complicated notions of complicity and guilt, especially as the reader is forced to relate to and engage with the tensions the speakers are facing. The role of homophobic attitudes, for instance, is addressed most directly in "A Primer for the Small Weird Loves"; almost halfway through the collection, this poem identifies homophobia directly as one of the motivations behind the recurring violence by articulating that this violence is causally linked to being "a boy who likes boys" (Siken 2005, 22). The poem quickly moves from the perpetrator of violence to the internal fatalistic knowledge that the addressee has brought death upon himself, suggesting that this violence is not merely an external threat, but that the addressee bears a significant amount of responsibility. The original perpetrator seems to disappear gradually in the addressee's internal struggle between desire and accusation. It is perhaps this violence projected onto the addressee by the speaker that comes across as most concerning. The repetition of "you know" (22) functions as a violent attack on the addressee because it implies responsibility for the harm that is being done to him. The knowledge that the addressee's desire is wrong and deserving of death is likened to the basic knowledge of the simple things in life, like riding a bike, as if it were a self-evident fact of nature. The repetition itself thus represents the process of internalization of hateful attitudes as readers are repeatedly confronted with this norm throughout life. Because the individual expresses or invites harmful behaviors toward himself and others like him out of a sense of deserving, this internalization implies a degree of complicity of the self in every event of violence that is performed. Guilt and accusation are confused to such an extent that Katie Hibner (2015) argues that "[n]ot only does Siken avoid the role of victim, he assumes the role of perpetrator."
Attributing these roles becomes especially difficult given the ambiguous identity of the speaker. The second-person reference creates a potential divide between external and internal voices; an uncertainty regarding the boundaries between identities is evoked through the use of "you," which could refer to the reader, the speaker as a form of self-address, or another person within the speaker's universe. Even when one opts for the latter interpretation, the least problematic option in terms of crossing the boundaries between reality and fiction, the lack of clarification leaves "you" (and in the process you, the reader) hanging in a vague space of indeterminacy that contains all possibilities. Whether the speaker addresses someone else, himself, or the reader, the use of the second person ultimately involves the reader in the experiences that are described within the poems, forcing them to consider both the role of the perpetrator and the victim, or both at the same time, as these roles become ambiguously interconnected. In "A Primer" the speaker could be interpreted as an external observer representing the voice of the oppressive social world, but a potentially even more disconcerting option is that the speaker is the addressee, speaking from a perspective of internalization of the marginalization and demonization of gay desire. Putting the reader in this ambiguous position encourages them to consider the different possibilities and tensions at play in order to understand the complicated source of the connection between desire and violence.
By involving readers and creating a bridge between their reality and that of the text, the poems draw attention to the influence of external structures on seemingly internally motivated violence. Although the addressee is held responsible within the rhetoric of poems like "A Primer," the external world is not absent in moments of self-directed violence. Judith Butler points to the role of external processes in events of self-directed hate when she refers to "the peculiar turning of a subject against itself that takes place in acts of self-reproach, conscience and melancholia that work in tandem with processes of social regulation" (1998, 18-19). The speakers' fatalism and self-destructive tendency could thus be interpreted as being motivated by internalized homophobia and heteronormativity as aspects of social regulation. Ahmed, too, argues that oppressive norms are an attack on the body, and when those are internalized, violence is performed from the inside, as well as invited from the outside. This could therefore also explain the lack of resistance to violence that is often displayed in the poems, which the collection frequently associates with a sense of deserved punishment or guilt. In this way, the poems draw attention to how being marginalized means being the victim of oppression, but simultaneously being seen as deserving of the harm that is done to you on the basis of your marginalized identity. The marginalized identity invites violent reactions from the perspective of the oppressive norm, which in turn shapes the way marginalized individuals perceive themselves and their affective potential.
Violence is not only a threat but can also be used as a device to obscure gay desire itself, as Kent L. Brintnall explains: "Violence makes the homoeroticism of many 'male' genres invisible; it is a structural mechanism of plausible deniability" (2004). This issue can be recognized especially in Theodore and Henry's narrative, which is presented as a road movie, a Western, or "a downright shoot-em-up" (Siken 2005, 40). These would all typically belong in Brintnall's category of male genres, in which interactions between men are central, and often of an intimate nature, but never canonically acknowledged as homoerotic. As suggested above, the languages of desire and of violence pertaining to the body are very similar, and the role of both of these aspects in Theodore and Henry's story is ambiguous. As Brintnall writes, the potential of desire is obscured by the overt violence, although the effect remains an intimate connection. In Crush, intimate connections between men are characterized by violence, and thus the conceptualization of intimacy between men threatens to become inherently linked to the inevitability of violence, as becomes apparent in the many examples in which speakers suggest that the inevitable turn of events will be violent despite intentions of desire or love. This inevitability of unhappiness, pain, or loneliness, a notion or fear that has historically plagued gay communities, returns throughout Siken's poems. The implication of gay desire being consistently presented as unfulfillable and potentially dangerous is that it is not perceived as a desirable affect. The potential of gay bodies becomes limited to hurting, both in the active and in the passive sense, from the heteronormative perspective.
In "Road Music," however, the speaker rejects this continually negative turn of events and the notion of self-blame. While "it's good to feel things" (Siken 2005, 44), the speaker criticizes the acceptance of feeling merely hurtful things, as well as the heavy responsibility placed on the self: "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" (44). The fatalistic conceptualization of gay desire that Crush evokes is thus questioned as this tendency of self-blame and inevitable hurt is addressed directly in the poem. Moreover, near the end of the collection, in the closing stanza of "You Are Jeff," a more hopeful outcome is suggested as the addressee's lover challenges the addressee's internal struggle with guilt. While loving and being loved is initially experienced as committing a crime, and to act upon these desires is likened to suicide, the addressee's lover breaks through this barrier of fatalism and self-blame by reaching over, opening up an entirely new space in which desire can be experienced as a wholly new, nameless, and, most importantly, positive experience. In this way the poem moves from the sense of guilt in "A Primer" to an overcoming of that guilt and those fears, showing that there is a more positive or healing force in fulfilled desire between men. The addressee's body is reshaped by this interaction when the addressee's "heart [takes] root in [his] body" (58). Ahmed argues that
when bodies touch and give pleasure to bodies that have been barred from contact, then those bodies are reshaped. The hope of queer is that the reshaping of bodies through the enjoyment of what or who has been barred can "impress" differently upon the surfaces of social space, creating the possibility of social forms that are not constrained by the form of the heterosexual couple. (Ahmed 2014, 165)
In this way Ahmed suggests that "queer pleasures," interactions that go against the constraints of the structures of normality, not only reshape the bodies of those involved, but also create a positive change within the social space. In other words, while external structures shape bodies and the way they exist in the world, individual experiences can also leave an impression on "the social skin, which is shaped by some bodies, and not others" (148). This is the subversive or transformative potential of queer pleasure, which can shape the social space, bodies, and their belonging within the social space.
While positive interactions and outcomes are scarce in Crush, Ann Cvetkovich explains how a reclamation of more negative forces can be seen as equally subversive: "the reclamation of shame constitutes an alternative to the model of gay pride, carving out new possibilities for claiming queer, gay, and lesbian identities that don't involve a repudiation of the affects brought into being by homophobia" (2003, 47). As an affect that relies on and simultaneously challenges the boundaries between self and other, shame can work destructively as well as productively. Eve Sedgwick further specifies that shame can be "a structuring fact of identity" (2003, 64) and therefore cannot and should not be rejected entirely as a strictly negative, destructive affect:
The forms taken by shame are not distinct "toxic" parts of a group or individual identity that can be excised; they are instead integral to and residual in the processes by which identity itself is formed. They are available for the work of metamorphosis, reframing, refiguration, transfiguration, affective and symbolic loading and deformation, but perhaps all too potent for the work of purgation and deontological closure. (Sedgwick 2003, 63)
Sedgwick thus seems to suggest a more nuanced conceptualization of shame, since shame exists widely within queer communities and can play a constitutive role in the development of (queer) identity so that there is a space for it to be articulated and considered in its ambiguity rather than to simply go unacknowledged. From this perspective, Siken might be seen to reclaim the more negative affects such as shame and fear in order to acknowledge and subvert them. As discussed above, the poems themselves express criticism of the conceptualization of gay desire as inevitably leading to violent outcomes. If these affects are reclaimed, it is in order to ironically project the issues and painful experiences onto the reader, thus involving them and forcing them to consider their own responsibility, which is made possible especially through the use of the second person.
In a reading that foregrounds the aspect of gay identity, Crush can be seen to represent the violent reality of being gay and having desires. Siken's characters often appear as monstrous beings, in the sense that they are incapable of being soft, loving, or loveable but are prone to crush and break things or people. This warrants a consideration of the wider social implications because it is not a neutral image within the historical context of the marginalization of gay desire. The speakers are shown to struggle with the received notion that their desire is inherently unfulfillable; that it will, if anything, lead to a painful end. The background of regulating structures such as homophobia and heteronormativity can provide insight into the motivation behind the movements from romance to violence or from love to death, since those associations exist in the real-world narratives of normality that exclude gay affects from the realm of happiness and fulfilment. The poems thus testify to the traumatic experience of existing in a world defined by the comforts of heteronormativity, which shapes the way bodies are approached, the way particular lives and their potential of fulfilment is perceived, and the way desire is conceptualized. The reader comes to see how the violence of homophobia and heteronormativity is a transformative force that shapes ideas and interactions and is simultaneously shown a glimpse of the hope in the transformative power of pleasure and fulfilment of gay desire. In this way, Siken reveals a painful or complex reality to readers and forces them to consider their role in it.
SHAPING NARRATIVES OF DESIRE
Like stitches that point at vulnerable places in the surface of the body by drawing attention to the surface as such, the places where a text says something about itself are meaningful. Not only do Siken's poems rely on narratives of desire that are informed by particular values, but they also draw attention to the fact that such narratives are constructs that facilitate interaction and feature speakers with active roles. The explicit meta-textual references that can be found in many of the poems highlight the constructed nature of narrative. In these poems the reader becomes the witness of a process of storytelling during which the speakers appear to exert control over the reality they represent. In a number of the poems, the speakers are presented as either performing or directing a performance and thus are shown to engage even more actively with a given narrative or script. However, by displaying processes of constructing or editing a story, Siken also illustrates the influence of existing narratives on our own conceptualization and structuring of experience. Focusing especially on meta-textual references, we can ask questions relating to the narrativizing role of the speakers: What kinds of narratives do they construct? To what extent are they able to control the narrative? Given their role as storytellers, performers, or directors, actively influencing the representation of events, do they perpetuate the connection between desire and violence, or do they try to work against it and resolve it somehow?
Because of their structuring function and potential for meta-analysis, storytelling and performance are useful tools that can provide insight into the speakers' conceptualization of desire and, subsequently, their active role in the representation of desire. Storytelling is introduced as one of the main themes of the collection from the very beginning. The first poem is named after the One Thousand and One Nights narrator Scheherazade, which immediately connects the poem to an existing story that, notably, deals with storytelling. The poem itself integrates this theme by putting the speaker in the demanding role of the sultan holding Scheherazade captive, but the roles are confused by the absence of a second voice. The speaker repeatedly asks the addressee to tell a number of stories, but in the process of requesting these stories, they are briefly described and therefore already formed by the speaker, who remains the only voice in the poem. This inadvertent storytelling emphasizes the urgency of the longing for stories about comfort and desire represented by the poem. Crush thus aptly opens with its main theme, desire, in combination with storytelling, another theme that plays a central role in our lives: we understand, remember, and talk about our own lives by shaping our experiences into stories.
These stories are not neutral, but are informed by existing narratives that reflect particular values and norms. Bertram Cohler argues that our "shared understandings of self and social order are reflected in a 'master narrative' of ourselves and the world around us, which we learn first from our parents and other family members, and later at school and in the community" (2007, 10). In this way Cohler brings to our attention the influence of "the expectations of the social world" (10) on the way we understand ourselves within the world. If anything, he appears to point at the lack of control we have over the way we conceptualize our experiences in the face of prevalent social narratives. The "master narrative" that emerges in Crush depicts the world as a threatening space in which desire leads to (self-)destruction. If lives are thus scripted by regulating structures, it is necessary to consider in what ways the stories the speakers create interact with existing narratives and to what degree they can depart from the expectations of those narratives.
In a number of poems, the speakers are explicitly characterized as storytellers when they refer to the process of creating a story or to the fact that their representation of their experiences might be edited to fit into the narrative they want to construct. This attempt is not necessarily successful: the inability to shape a story plays a central role in "The Torn-Up Road," for example. Most of the poem consists of meta-references to the story, so that the story itself comes to exist only within the speaker's unwillingness to share it. The narrative itself represents violent encounters and unfulfilled desires. The speaker resists this course of events and seems especially unwilling to include his own desperation and self-destructive motivations, but the entire poem reflects his ineffectiveness: "the minutes don't stop. The prayer of going nowhere / going nowhere" (Siken 2005, 10). In the end "[t]here is no way to make this story" (9) into anything the speaker wants it to be, so that the only narrative that emerges from this poem is that of the speaker's failed resistance to the memory of his painful experiences.
In "Litany in Which Certain Things Are Crossed Out," the speaker appears slightly less ineffective in shaping his representation of his experiences when he identifies as the writer rather than the fairy tale characters he introduces: "I can tell already you think I'm the dragon, / that would be so like me, but I'm not. I'm not the dragon. / I'm not the princess either. / Who am I? I'm just a writer. I write things down. / I walk through your dreams and invent the future" (Siken 2005, 11). The dragon and the princess are classic fairy-tale figures with specific connotations: the former is typically seen as the villain, the latter as the object of desire. By identifying as a writer instead, the speaker initially places himself outside of the realm of dragons and princesses, and thus outside of the range of forces of destruction or desire, assuming a seemingly authoritative outsider position in which he has control over these affective forces. The writer is presented with the ability to shape reality or determine future events. The future he suggests is a bleak one, however: "Sure, / I sink the boat of love, but that comes later. And yes, I swallow / glass, but that comes later. / And the part where I push you / flush against the wall and every part of your body rubs against the bricks, / shut up / I'm getting to it" (11). Once again readers find themselves in a narrative of desire that threatens to progress toward violence and self-destruction, and this time the speaker is clearly presented as complicit in its creation. Moreover, the speaker's initial identification as the writer, clearly distinct from the fantastical characters of the narrative he presents, is undermined when he admits: "Okay, so I'm the dragon. Big Deal. / You still get to be the hero" (11). Despite his attempts to place himself outside of the narrative, he then appears as the villainous character after all. His identity becomes unstable and his authority and reliability as the writer are called into question. Furthermore, as the speaker presents the addressee's elevated, heroic identity as a constant, it is the addressee rather than the speaker who emerges as the underlying guiding principle behind the text, further complicating the speaker's role. The speaker continues to resist the turn of events he represents in his ambiguous authoritative role, however, by explicitly interacting with images depicting threatening scenes:
Here is the repeated image of the lover destroyed.
Crossed out. Clumsy hands in a dark room. Crossed out. There is something underneath the floorboards. Crossed out. (Siken 2005, 12)
As in "The Torn-Up Road," the reader is shown a glimpse of these parts of the story through their negation. Because Siken merely refers to the act of crossing out these images, rather than visually integrating this into the poem, the images are left to make an impression before they are negated.
The poem is presented as the result of this conflict between the speaker and the text, consisting of pieced together scenes and meta-textual references to the process of constructing the narrative. The speaker describes the creative process as follows: "You see, I take the parts that I remember and stitch them back together / to make a creature that will do what I say / or love me back" (Siken 2005, 12). Body and memory, and therefore body and text, become confused in the speaker's creation of a stitched-together creature through which he pursues either control or reciprocated desire. As pointed out above, stitches represent vulnerabilities, which suggests that the speaker's monster-of-Frankenstein-like creatures and their faults will haunt him rather than bring him the fulfilment he seeks. The text itself is full of these stitches in the form of meta-commentary. The speaker, unable to fully claim a stable authoritative role, seems to assume an impatient or disapproving addressee, as he continually refers to the story itself and what is yet to come, stitching together the story of his experiences with interjections and justifications. In this way the body of the text is taken apart, used, and forcibly put together into an uncomfortable, incoherent whole, not unlike the many other bodies in Crush.
In fact, the speaker's goal itself is unclear; he describes romantic scenes, threatening scenes, and his own future violent behavior, while he categorizes his story as a fairy tale, but later appears to honor the poem's title by addressing "Forgiveness" in prayer-like supplication. It thus remains ambiguous what kind of narrative the speaker means to create in the first place. Therefore, the narrative itself can only exist in these fragments and the speaker's attempts at stitching them together. The poem's form especially emphasizes this, which allows Siken to visually present this incoherent story in bits and pieces across the page. The speaker eventually has to admit his failure to edit his story into a satisfying result. The construction of a narrative out of these bits and pieces makes for an incoherent story, susceptible to the addressee's disapproval and unclear in its motivation. While the speaker appears to have more control over the narrative than the one in "The Torn-Up Road" by initially asserting his authority as the writer, he is still subject to the implied addressee's impatience and disapproval. The speaker becomes the author of an incoherent narrative that contains glimpses of positive experiences, but ultimately evokes a sense of discomfort and desperation. The absence of an actual second voice situates this conflict between opposing forces strictly within the speaker's mind, complicating the tension raised by his anxieties. Even though the addressee never actually appears, their assumed disapproval and impatience controls the way the speaker represents the narrative. In this way the implied judgment of the other runs through the entire poem, but ultimately only exists in the voice of the speaker, which cleverly illustrates the complex workings of the internalization of regulating social narratives. In the absence of a second speaker, but simultaneously presenting an incapability to disregard the other's potential judgment, the poem becomes a strained conversation with the self that does not allow the speaker's story to unfold naturally.
Poems like "The Torn-Up Road" and "Litany in Which Certain Things Are Crossed Out" feature speakers who actively take on the role of storyteller, but cannot seem to shape an uncomplicated narrative that represents their experiences in a way that does not continue to harm them. Either the violent reality that lies behind their experience of desire makes its way to the surface of the text regardless of the speaker's resistance, or the speakers struggle to represent their experiences out of fear of the other's judgment. The "master narrative" through which the speakers understand themselves and the world in which they exist becomes the speakers' hostile adversary when they try to shape their own narratives.
PERFORMING NARRATIVES OF DESIRE
The recurring characters Theodore and Henry, whose narrative consists of multiple poems spread out across the collection, are not presented as the active creators of a story, but find themselves within a predetermined scenario with which they fruitlessly interact. Theodore and Henry appear trapped in a scripted world in which they are doomed to repeat the same destructive motions. This is addressed directly in some instances: "It's another wrong-man-dies scenario, and we keep doing it Henry, / keep saying until we get it right... but we always win and we never quit" (Siken 2005, 40). Especially Theodore seems aware of the different possible turns their narrative could take: "But we both know how it goes--I say / want you inside me and you hold / my head underwater, I say I want you inside me and you split me open / with a knife" (40). In the script, as Theodore presents it, Theodore's expressions of desire are met with violent responses; the language of sexual desire is answered by literalized, painful transgressions of the body's surface. His awareness of this script allows Theodore to resist it: "I know you want me to say it, Henry, it's in the script, you want me to say / Lie down on the bed, you're all I ever wanted and worth dyingfor, too... /but I think I'd rather keep the bullet" (41). Evidently, though, the alternative he opts for is no less destructive. Theodore and Henry's narrative is driven by an almost implosive connection between desire and violence or, in their more extreme forms, love and death. One direction is simultaneously the other, so that any form of resistance against the script that directs their story is ultimately futile. Their fate is aptly acknowledged as such in "The Dislocated Room," the poem that concludes their story: "They are stuck in these scenes, representing an eternity, something they cannot escape" (48). Within the violent genre of their story, in which there is no space for fulfilment of homoerotic desire, this is the only way they can exist together, translating their desires into violent interactions and achieving contact only through painful transgressions.
Like storytelling, performance can work to help understand and structure experiences since one can actively control a scenario by directing or enacting it. The speaker of "Dirty Valentine" explicitly uses the frame of performance to make sense of his relationship with the absent addressee. Both the speaker and the addressee are presented as actors, "filming the movie called Planet of hove" (Siken 2005, 4). This frame creates certain expectations, implying a given narrative or script that, presumably, will represent a romantic story. Not unlike "Little Beast," this poem suddenly shifts away from the romantic scene it initially describes. The threatening image of "the too white teeth all night" (4) eerily hovers in between the surrounding lines. The narrative of Planet of Love is thus revealed to represent a progression from romance to threat. However, this narrative, too, is not allowed to unfold unproblematically. The boundary between performance and reality becomes unstable when the speaker adds meta-commentary: "There's a part in the movie / where you can see right through the acting, /where you can tell that I'm about to burst into tears, / right before I burst into tears" (4). The speaker draws attention to the fact that the events described are the result of a performance and can be uncovered as such. He cannot let the narrative continue without getting ahead of the script, anticipating his own emotional reaction.
The speaker appears to disrupt the next scene, too, when the addressee goes off-script and the speaker's emotional distress becomes too great. The frame through which he tried to understand these events brings him no comfort or closure, since he is unable to present this narrative from the necessary distance implied by his role as an actor. Instead, the physical imagery he uses in his cinematic reinterpretation of his relationship with the addressee suddenly, almost seamlessly, brings him back to his emotional reality. The boundary between the supposedly controlled, scripted environment of the performance and the speaker's affective reality thus becomes unstable, and is eventually lifted entirely when the speaker uncovers the technical reality behind the performance: "We know how the light works, / we know where the sound is coming from. / Verse. Chorus. Verse. / I'm sorry. We know how it works. The world is no longer mysterious" (Siken 2005, 4). The poem returns to the speaker's reality, as the painful image of "everything eating everything" (4) concludes the imagined narrative of performance. In his disillusioned state, the speaker seems to argue that the frame of performance is no longer useful to reimagine experiences, since he cannot escape the underlying reality of overwhelming loss. The technical reality behind the performance is too easily uncovered, so that the frame of performance does not allow the speaker to maintain a distance from the events he describes.
"Planet of Love" reappears in the collection as a poem, but the relation with "Dirty Valentine" is ambiguous and the roles are distributed differently. The speaker is now identified as a director, addressing the actor with instructions. As the director, the speaker sets up the scene, determining everyone's position and role. Reiterating the by now familiar, but not less unsettling connection between love and death, the director identifies the addressee's motivation for his performance as a wish to die for love. This motivation for the performance itself is scripted by the director, too, however: "You're going to die / in your best friend's arms. / And you play along because it's funny, because it's written down, / you've memorized it, / it's all you know. /1 say the phrases that keep it all going, / and everybody plays along" (39). The speaker is shown to exert control not only over the performance, but also over the reality behind the performance. The addressee is trapped by the way the speaker conceptualizes his motivations and thus becomes the victim of the speaker's imposed narrative. The speaker reveals more of the way he understands the world than of the fictional narrative the reader might expect him to create as a director. The scenario he creates instead, through his meta-commentary on the process of performance, reflects the violent conceptualization of desire and love that runs through Crush. In this poem the speaker abuses his authority over the performance as director to exert control over the reality behind the performance. He is not quite allowed to maintain control over the poem, however; it ends full of suspense, although there is no apparent cause for this seemingly panicked reaction:
I'm the director and I'm screaming at you, I'm waving my arms in the sky, and everyone's watching, everyone's curious, everyone's holding their breath. (Siken 2005, 39)
The speaker asserts his identity as the director once more before his frantic reactions suggest that he is suddenly unable to reach the addressee. Whereas he had been in control of the situation earlier, he cannot provide a conclusive ending. Like the characters in the poem, readers are thus left in suspense, "holding their breath" (39). Evidently, even as the speaker reiterates the connection between love and death, he is met with some form of resistance, although it is not clearly identified. In other poems the speakers likewise try to control the narrative, if not to a different effect, by assigning themselves authoritative roles such as the writer or the storyteller, but ultimately they remain unable to shape a fulfilling narrative.
The repetition of these notions of destructive desires works to present the progression from desire to violence as inevitable. This sense of inevitability is also enforced when, at many points in the collection, meta-textual references are not merely uttered by the speakers, but aspects of the narrative appear within the very world of the poems: "Can you see the plot like dotted lines across the room?" (Siken 2005, 46). Things and stories about them are intertwined in a spatial approach: "There is the road, and there is the story of where the road goes, / and then more road" (44). References like this one attribute a tangibility to the narrative by making it appear within the characters' reality, but this tangibility combined with the characters' inability to actually interact with the narrative emphasizes its inevitability. By situating aspects of the narrative in space, as a background object that the characters are not aware of or unable to interact with, it becomes fixed. This sense of inevitability is actively affirmed when the speakers are shown to either reiterate or fail to resist the representation of desire as a destructive force.
The inevitability of a particular turn of events is especially concerning in light of the issues discussed earlier in relation to the conceptualization of gay desire. While the poems do not always explicitly identify their characters as gay, it is definitely implied that they are, and to lose sight of this aspect's significance for the collection as a whole would create a gap in the analysis of the tensions at play. When Siken shows the speakers actively struggling against or perpetuating the connection between violence and desire, he reenacts the potential struggle of having particular desires in the real world, where the conceptualization of desire is likewise influenced by existing narratives that work to shape everything according to the heterosexual norm. The influence of heteronormativity can be recognized among the many stories, plots, scripts, and narratives that are assumed to be part of the fabric of the world of Crush.
In fact, I would argue that a considerable portion of the conflict identified, but not explained, by so many readers is the conflict between the speakers and their desires on the one hand and a heteronormative construal of gay desire on the other. From this perspective, the characters' desire will be inherently unfulfillable, and their longing for contact will only translate into violent encounters. This not only conflicts with the characters' longing for fulfilled desires and reciprocated, comfortable contact, but, to complicate matters further, the speakers' own narratives reflect this very conceptualization of desire as unfulfillable and destructive. In this way they are made to seem complicit in the violence that is done to them, so that it becomes impossible to differentiate between the roles of victim and perpetrator. This confusion of guilt and responsibility on the level of the self must also be considered an aspect of the violence experienced by the characters of Crush. The violence of norms such as heteronormativity can thus also be situated in their more insidious, internal effect on people's conceptualization of affects and experiences. The speakers express a wish for control over the repeated narratives of unfulfilled desire and violence, but they, too, ultimately often give in to destructive turns of events.
Ahmed explains how even resistance against harmful narratives does not simply mean that one can distance oneself from their influence: "to refuse to be compelled by the narratives of ideal heterosexuality in one's orientation to others is still to be affected by those narratives; they work to script one's orientation as a form of disobedience" (2014, 145-46). Ahmed thus implies that there is a particular "script" for gay people to follow within the social narrative of heteronormativity, even when they reject that narrative. That is not to say there is no room for different outcomes, as Cohler (2007) argues: "The act of telling or writing a life story adds to our collective understanding of ourselves and re-creates the meanings that we make of such aspects of social life as our sexuality" (10). Storytelling can reshape meanings and challenge existing narratives, but the storytellers in Crush struggle to exert control over their stories and thus remain trapped in the painful memory of their experiences. Siken refuses his characters the closure they seek. This way of leaving ends untied can be seen to represent the traumatic itself, especially when one takes into account concepts such as Maria Root's "insidious trauma" (Brown 1995; Cvetkovich 2003; Kaplan 2007), which refers to "the traumatogenic effects of oppression that are not necessarily overtly violent or threatening to bodily well-being at the given moment but that do violence to the soul and spirit" (Brown 1995, 107). The sense of unresolvedness, the motif of revisiting the same scenario, and the fruitless attempts to control the narrative may function as representations of the unresolved nature of trauma, the revisiting of memories of traumatic experiences, and the lack of control over the conceptualization of those experiences. The speakers struggle to process and move past their experiences, as if traumatized. Unable to escape the aftermath, they experience a seemingly misplaced sense of threat. Siken has not allowed them a world in which they can be free of violence, nor the ability to reshape their world.
However bleak and hopeless the image that has emerged here, narratives of heteronormativity and homophobia can be, have been, and are being challenged, both in the literary and in the real world. Glimpses of that movement, too, shine through in Siken's poetry. In this sense, the final poem in Crush, "Snow and Dirty Rain," is a fitting end to the collection and to this essay. Many hopes, wishes, promises, images of broken things, and unfulfilled desires that appeared earlier in the collection return, often subtly, in this closing poem. This time the speaker also speaks of "a gentleness that comes, / not from the absence of violence, but despite / the abundance of it" (Siken 2005, 60). In this utterance the speaker defies Crush's insistence on violence in a way that does not contradict it. Likewise, despite the violence inflicted upon it, the heart is now presented as a space of comfort where desire can be fulfilled: "this is the map of my heart, the landscape / after cruelty which is, of course, a garden, which is / a tenderness, which is a room, a lover saying Hold me/tight, it's getting cold" (60). The speaker of "You Are Jeff" had mentioned a similar space, although it did not yet exist: "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" (56). This promise is fulfilled in "Snow and Dirty Rain": "I made / this place for you. A place for you to love me" (62). By subtly returning to images like these and presenting them in a fulfilled state, this poem works as a healing force to many of the open wounds left in the preceding poems. In this way "Snow and Dirty Rain" ties together some of the attempted hopeful movements that had been left without result. This final poem can thus be seen as an effort to carefully, tentatively develop a narrative of comfort, which seems to retroactively emerge out of the entire collection through the use of these returning images. It does not quite allow closure, nor is it free of threats, but it is hopeful in its transformation of the representation of the affective forces that have thus far driven the characters in Crush primarily to (self-)destruction. The poem, and with it the collection, ends in a dream of "the gold room / where everyone finally gets what they want" (62). From this unreal but hopeful place, the speaker pulls the curtain on the violent world of Crush, initiating a movement in a different direction: "We are all going forward. None of us are going back" (62).
CONCLUSION: GOING FORWARD
As its title promises, Crush is a book driven by ambiguous forces, yet somehow it moves forward. By creating a network of associations through the use of startling images and conflicting meanings, literalizing the language of desire, and limiting representations of intimate contact to violent encounters, Siken presents desire as a destructive force, doomed to remain unfulfilled and prone to do harm to the desiring subject and the desired object alike. At the same time, Crush is fundamentally driven by desire. As such, it traps characters in an impossible position. This jarring representation of desire can be seen to relate to a social narrative that similarly associates particular desires with notions of fear, violence, or even death. When homophobia is identified as a motivation for the violence inflicted upon the speakers in response to their desire, the world of Crush is revealed to be informed by heteronormative values. From this perspective, the only intimate contact that can exist between men is the forceful contact that reflects traditional values regarding masculinity. The world of Crush thus appears to have adopted the heteronormative construal of gay desire as unfulfillable and destructive, and, moreover, does not allow its inhabitants to challenge this narrative. The potentially traumatic effects of regulating social narratives are illustrated in this manner; the speakers struggle to reshape the painful narrative through which they have come to conceptualize themselves as well as their capacity to love or be loved. Furthermore, Siken turns the insidious violence of heteronormativity outward into a tangible reality in the affective language of his poems. In this way, Siken ironically exaggerates or literalizes the effect of regulating structures that shape the way desire, intimacy, and romance are conceptualized in the world to draw attention to the easily overlooked violence of those structures.
In the end, Illich's "species of desire that drives you to panic" (2006) is the consistently unfulfillable or destructive desire that appears in Crush, which might now be identified as gay desire that one seeks to fulfill in a world that construes it as impossible and wrong. By involving the reader in this violent, painful reality through intimate, everyday images and second person-oriented language, the collection encourages the reader to reflect on or engage with the issues it raises. Readers thus become participants in the navigation of the tension between the destructive force of death and the transformative force of love that desire represents in Crush, as they, too, are made to experience its crushing threat. While the theme of gay identity is often mentioned in discussions of the collection, its relation to the tensions that drive the poems of Crush had not been examined. Readers can relate to the affective scenarios Siken presents or enjoy his work despite generally having little interest in poetry, as his poetry is highly accessible because of its strongly affective language, the sense of the everyday in the scenes it depicts, and its generally ambiguous speakers and addressees. However, to ignore the implications of the fact that these poems are informed by gay identity, is to leave many of the tensions at play in the collection unexplained. Desire is, of course, a universal human affect, but the recognition of Crush's desire as gay desire is vital to understanding the conflict it depicts.
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TINE KEMPENAERS works as a doctoral researcher and assistant in the Department of Literary Studies at Ghent University. Tine's dissertation focuses on trans poetry, poetics, and publications.