Review: War of the Foxes by Richard Siken

By  | July 6, 2015 | 2 Comments | Filed under: Reviews



Review: War of the Foxes by Richard Siken
By David Anthony Martin
War of the Foxes: Copper Canyon Press. 47 pages, $17.00, paper.


In War of the Foxes, the poet and painter, Richard Siken, questions the impetus of artistic creation, the meanderings of word choice and revision in the artist’s attempt to translate experience. There is a search for meaning here, where the poet is a companion to the reader trying to understand the interiority of experience and expression. “When you have nothing to say, set something on fire.” Siken proposes, chasing it with, “A blurry landscape is useless.”

The “something” that he sets fire to is the artistic process, whether in language or in painting . . . and like a grass fire it spreads across the open spaces that connect the two. He examines word play and the language of inner self-talk. He turns thoughts over and over in his work, recycling them in his speech and they return to him in dreams. He examines the self criticism and denials creative artists struggle with, questioning everything from word choice and color choice to the very need to create with questions like “Why paint a bird?” as in the poem The Language of the Birds:


A man saw a bird and wanted to paint it. The problem, if there
was one, was simply a problem with the question. Why paint a
bird? Why do anything at all? Not 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 anything.


In War Of The Foxes poet and painter Richard Siken takes up both the pen and the brush, wielding them like torches in a cave. These are poems about painting and poems about writing, poems about the tools of the trade and poems about living and questioning.


Why build a room
you can live in? Why build a shed for your fears?
The life of the body is a nightmare.

(Portrait of Fryderyk in Shifting Light)


He paints these questions from the inside out, turning the unsettling sense of not-knowing toward the light to find wisdoms ranging from the very human “All thinking is / comparison,”(Logic) to the frank “There is rarely any joy in a frictionless place” (Logic).

One gets a sense of the artist in his studio, the drop cloth beneath the easel, of the canvas being painted and painted over, faces smudged out and painted back in. I would gamble that there are teeth marks on the wooden handles of the brush, and that by the light of the nearest windowsill he has held down a small notebook with one hand and with the other hand written a line or two with a paint-smudged pen.

War of the Foxes is a collection of interrelated poems, sharing the territories of both painting and poetry. The questions found in these poems, like the emerging color of a bruise, slowly develop into meaning and become answers. And it is these questions that are, perhaps, best rendered as poetry for, as Siken puts it, “You can’t paint the inside of anything, so why would you try? Painting the inside of anything is dangerous”  (“Portrait of Frydreryk in Shifting Light.”) But “Danger” as William Burroughs once said, “is a biologic necessity.” perhaps illuminating why Siken, like many artists before him, delves into a multiplicity of practices to more fully express himself. In poetry, Siken has chose an excellent medium to illustrate his insides, both beautiful and dangerous, for, as the post-beat poet Tony Moffeit has said: “Poetry is dangerous: The poet is an outlaw.”




David Anthony Martin is a contemporary writer, novelist and poet native to the Olympic Peninsula of the Salish Sea. He is the author of two collections of poetry, Span (Rhizome Press, 2012) and Deepening The Map (Middle Creek Publishing, 2014) and has been published in; Poetry Motel, The Han Shan Poetry Project (which resulted in saving a swath of old growth forest from development), Mountain Alchemy, Paragon Dreams, The Mountain Park News, The Pueblo PULP and several anthologies. He has made Colorado his home since 1995, where he lives in an unincorporated village in the Wet Mountains with his wife and dogs. He holds a day job, hikes when he can, forages mushrooms in season, collects feathers when he finds them and writes daily.


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