I’m not the first person to point out that there’s power, even violence, in the act of seeing. Think of the language of photography: you snap, shoot, or take a picture; you capture a moment. Behind that simple click lurks a lexicon of aggression, war, and conquest. We’ve all heard of the male gaze, but regardless of gazer or gazee, this sort of seeing—detached yet domineering—is embedded in our language. So many of our words for authority contain this combination of vision and power/hierarchy: overseer, supervisor, superintendent.
Yet in his new book War of the Foxes, poet Richard Siken presents another way to see seeing—a way counter to the quasi-predatory way vision so often works. Also a painter, Siken references, via his titles, genres typically reserved for that visual medium: ”Landscape with Fruit Rot and Millipede”; “Still Life with Skulls and Bacon”; “Portrait of Fryderyk in Shifting Light.” He even uses the art history convention of the “detail shot” with titles like “Detail of the Fire” and “Detail of the Woods.”
Anchored in visual genres, the book as a whole is an investigation of the the ethics of seeing. But ultimately what’s at stake in this book of poems is its own medium, specifically, an ethics of language. The guiding concerns of that investigation are made clear in the first poem, “The Way the Light Reflects,” which opens, “The paint doesn’t move the way the light reflects / so what’s there to be faithful to? I’m faithful / to you, darling. I say to the paint.”
Faithful is of course a term of aesthetics—with regard to subject matter, a faithful representation is accurate, appropriate, or sympathetic. Mimesis. And of course faithful is also an ethical term: to be faithful is to be true, loyal; to be worthy of trust, honest; doing what you’re supposed to do.
Siken wonders “what’s there to be faithful to?” and his answer is “paint,” conjuring another aesthetic notion with ethical overtones, “Truth to materials.” But this answer begs another question, hesitantly asked at the end of the first poem, and sensed throughout the book: “There is a question / I am afraid to ask: To supply the world with what?” A few pages later, we find a variation of this 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?”
As Siken takes up this difficult and essential question, ways of seeing collide. There’s the predatory sort of seeing, reference above: “It isn’t / fair, the depth of my looking, the threat of my / looking” and “Everything’s a target, says the / hunter. No matter where you look.” Such seeing is instrumental, treating all it encounters as either something to be mastered and used, or a means of achieving that goal:
The hunter’s son watches the stag.
Clench is a hand word. His hand is clenched. Door with a bad hinge, it wouldn’t open. Do not let go of the arrow, let it slip through your fingers as you relax your grip. This is good advice. He couldn’t do it. There is no way to get to the future from here.
The key to archery is sustained attention. An arrow is a stick with feathers, an extension of the mind. Men and their thoughts, their quivers and their arrows: it helps to see how these things move, and where they land.
“The arrow is a stick with feathers, an extension of the mind”: it’s a tool, and tools arose, they say, to answer the development of the opposable thumb—homo habilis—and to extend one’s literal and metaphorical grasp, one’s control over things. “The hand / sings weapon. The mind says tool. The body serves / in the service of the mind… .” Like the eye, tools allow for mastery while ensuring distance. If an arrow is a stick with feathers, Siken seems to suggest, a brush is a stick with hairs:
Like the arrow, the brush is a tool guided by the eye, ensuring distance, mastery, and accuracy—terms suggesting a comportment towards the world that seeks to own and control it, to treat the world as a riddle to be solved: “Take this / bird, for example: make it equal something. Get it on / one side of the sky. Solve means isolate. Solve means / conquer.”
Siken questions the central term of his own guiding question: “Why paint… what does it solve?” If to solve is to conquer, and if accuracy is, literally, deadly, Siken seeks something like their opposite, that honors “the blurriness of being alive” (“Self-Portrait with Red Wallpaper”). Rather than trying to achieve synoptic vision, this alternative way of seeing allows for shadows and respects the opacity of its subject. It “solves” nothing, but “stays with the puzzle of things,” to borrow a phrase from poet Larry Eigner. This alternative aesthetic is explored most fully in the poem “Portrait of Fryderyk in the Shifting Light”:
Realizing that attempts to see and master only create unmasterable shadows, the speaker is confronted with the opposite of clarity, a resistance that paradoxically makes things more present: “Opaque /in the sense of finally solid, in the sense of / see me, not through me.”
This is the opposite of predation. It aims to “let the animal get away”:
This willed blindness is the ethics of sight, where the poet-painter surrenders the dream of clear vision to the “vague and smeary” world (“Landscape with a Blur of Conquerors”). War of the Foxes concludes with what’s presented as an act of love: the poet-painter opening to a lacuna in vision and putting down the brush for good: