Five Reasons to Read: War of the Foxes, Richard Siken
Review by AK Afferez
“When you have nothing to say, / set something on fire.”
The fundamental question is asked almost immediately. Why bother writing, creating anything? It’s not the how, but the existential question – especially in the face of destruction, war and death coming back in each tale and in each landscape, obsessively. The soldiers that burn the fields, the fox hunting down the rabbits, the hunter’s son looking at the stag. the poet-painter painting a man. “All wars are the same war,” and everything’s a target. So what good is representation? A thread “sent downstream,” cast off in the future. Gertrude Stein “existed enough to be painted” by Picasso. Does it look like her? Who knows. But this is what we remember her as, this is her enduring presence.
Much has been made over time of the correspondences between painting and poetry – ut pictura poesis, words and colors echoing off each other, everyone trying to find out who is the superior sister of the two arts, everyone writing at length about ekphrasis. Siken goes down that road, writes about paintings that exist and paintings that may not exist, and details in those paintings, and then takes a hidden turn, blurring the line that cleaves color from word from body. Paint a field, trees and birds, a lone man within the landscape whose presence will call forth soldiers in another landscape; paint a still life, a vanitas with the usual fruit rot or the skulls; paint a man; paint yourself. Spare no color, though red is a constant. You will learn of the quiet and terrible divorce between the paint and the light.
Most importantly, you will learn how we’re “haunted by / each other’s knowledge,” how our selves leak into each other, like the boxes of the day, Monday into Tuesday, months into months containing ill-fitting days. You will learn how light fights against a face, and how to lose a face within the swirl of the brush as you’re painting it. If you pare things down enough, you might get at some inner truth not even the model is aware of, which might be terrifying to them, and you might have to let it go. See them: “The selves, glaze on glaze, / accumulating their moods and minutes.” It’s a collection crowded with ghosts and voices, and so many stories that could be different versions, splinters of the same tale of grief and love and change.
In quantum physics, what is observed changes because it is observed. You cannot know both where something is located and the way it is moving. In a painting, what lurks beneath the varnish and the coats of paint changes depending on our scrutiny. In the Painting that Includes All Paintings, the central panel is missing. Knowing also means looking into emptiness. The last words, “Putting down the brush for the last time” leave us hanging, dangling off from the voice that’s suddenly gone out, or that’s perhaps merely holding its breath, has us looking now for what is invisible but so close, for what has been painted over, for what could compel us to step ourselves into the canvas.