When I was a kid, I would re-read the books I found exciting, and which had characters I ‘got on with’ – a lot of Enid Blyton and Eva Ibbotson. The main reason I re-read things now is because I have to sit an exam on the text(s) in question; a process of revising plot and picking out quotes to memorise. It’s rare that I read anything twice for pleasure … yet, I’m not sure that pleasure is the reason I come back to Crush. I think I keep re-reading these poems because I’m still trying to understand them.

Crush won the Yale Series of Younger Poets award when it came out in 2004 and author Richard Siken was 37. The following year Siken received the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Men’s Poetry for it. It’s a small collection – the copy I have is 62 pages – but it’s not a light read. The 21 poems are dark in character and panicky in structure, falling somewhere between the dual meanings of “crush” as compression and as an infatuation. 

The opening poem is called ‘Scheherazade’, and its first lines do a good job of capturing the mood of the collection: “Tell me about the dream where we pull the bodies out of the lake / and dress them in warm clothes again.” The “Tell me” is a recurring phrase in this collection, reminiscent of the call for Scheherazade’s storytelling in One Thousand and One Nights. It’s also worth noting that many of the poems here have grown from the death of Siken’s boyfriend in the early 90s; sometimes they seem to be speaking to a ghost (or perhaps a body pulled from the late). Often it’s pretty explicit: the line “I don’t really blame you for being dead but you can’t have your sweater back”, from ‘Straw House, Straw Dog’, is typical in its black humour. In my personal favourite of these poems, ‘Seaside Improvisation’, Siken writes “You wanted happiness, I can’t blame you for that, / and maybe a mouth sounds idiotic when it blathers on about joy / but tell me / you love this, tell me you’re not miserable.” The frequent use of the second-person pronoun throughout these poems creates such a degree of intimacy that it almost feels as if you, the reader, are the lost lover. Line breaks that run all over the page present a visual version of Siken’s often highly intense tone.

It’s understandable if this isn’t sounding like the type of escapism you need right now; you may well feel plenty compressed already, and if mentions of mental ill-health, self-harm and suicide are triggers for you, I probably wouldn’t recommend this one. On the other hand, I’ve always found Crush a thought-provoking rather than depressing read. For me, its effects are comparable to being awake in the early hours of the morning, on your own; it feels a bit dangerous and difficult to decipher, but the emptiness also brings a form of peace. It’s not just about the crush, in whatever sense of the word, but also about the escape with it, the idea of calling on someone to take you away. To return to the story of Scheherazade, whose tales were designed to put off being killed by her husband, there’s a sense also of poetry for survival. Scheherazade succeeded and escaped her fate, so why can’t we?

The final line of the last poem in Crush, ‘Snow and Dirty Rain’, is “We are all going forward. None of us are going back.” Siken is clearly going through something in these poems, but in taking us on the journey with him he shows himself to ultimately come through it. I re-read these poems, still not fully understanding them – but I’m not sure they’re really meant to be understood. Their identity is so specific and intimate that their individual images are often elusive. As a whole, these are poems that are themselves still trying to work out how to talk about the loss of a person, how to cope in general, and how to keep going forward. If you’re going through something yourself – and who isn’t? – this collection may be the catharsis you need.