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Almost a year ago, when I first heard Robert Siek’s poetry at a reading at the Bureau of General Services – Queer Division in New York, I immediately responded to his brazen, sharp-tongued, surprising and intimately detailed work. One poem in particular, a sendup of online dating entitled “Good Wording and Perfect Punctuation,” stuck with me. It’s that striking, lonesome opening detail of a landlord’s rained on couch on a lawn that sparked. In his vibrant and blunt debut Purpose & Devil Piss, Siek’s poems have a way of hooking you in with the specificity of daily life’s doldrums (commuting, car battery lugging, grocery shopping, mail opening, dishwashing, working, and working out) and the speaker’s inner thoughts and lively, sometimes brooding associations. These thick-blocked poems recall Bishop in the way that they unravel ordinary events in a stream of detail and “filthy reminders” that make them end up otherworldly. I think of the collection’s title as a sort of division one can face in the everyday: Purpose (the what-we-have-to-do-to-get-by) and Devil Piss (the fanciful and dark ruminations we all may harbor). The title poem, shaped different visually (in couplets: the past and present self) from the others, appears towards the end as a sort of demented prayer (“I’m the first man on earth, / no worries, no past”). In fact, many of the poems in the book end on ambiguity and prayer: “Thank God for turkey dinners / on Saturday afternoons and new family members to care for— / proof that something happened here” and in the evocative “Holiday,” a beautifully described still-life of an urban neighborhood on the eve of Obama’s inauguration, that cleverly pleads “let’s pray for change.”
In “Plastic Bags and Coated Leashes,” a drycleaner expounds upon the entrapment of his job and the pervasiveness of artifice and chemicals (“pieces of material coated in an unnatural shine) around him while watching all the “rich townspeople” and caged-up animals outside. Chemicals (“toxins… shutting down our reasoning,” Lysol, colognes, the overpowering scent of an IKEA bookcase) appear throughout the collection, perhaps most notably in the form of drugs. From the snorted powders at Tunnel (the now defunct dance club) to “lingerie models on Percocet” to the “clear head aided by antidepressants,” Siek’s poems are piercing in their descriptions of drugs’ effects on the spirit and mind. Note the extraordinary strangeness given to ordinary things in the recollection of addiction in “My Parents’ Pills and Butter”: “I thought I’d die in this house / like an unwashed butter knife / attracting dust in the dark / or a parent watching television, / falling asleep sitting up.”
Familial bonding—the good, the bad, and the opaque—is a theme in the book, dredging up some incredible imagery. A child’s quirky clown-costumed stance in “Plug Filter” also graces the cover of the book. That image, in its bold, funny, and creepily gussied-up appearance (a costume crafted from many different objects), defines Siek’s work so well. “Plug Filter” is full of sharp, wonderful transitions and reminiscing. I love the description in its closing lines of the house that “went down in ’87… gutted, half-demolished, / a wet clay cylinder-shape smashed inward, still on a spinning wheel” and the memory of that suddenly jarred by the beep of a microwave. Siek also creates a distinct “birth” opening with a son’s remembrance of being taken to a theater by his father to be terrorized by David Cronenberg’s The Brood: “Shapes are moving in the last row, / like ink spots on Rorschach tests—three dimensional, animated— / as though breathing under sheets like inflated body bags.” It’s a strong capturing of a child’s woolly view. Cronenberg’s films are actually well-suited to the mood and thematic elements of Siek’s work. In the beautifully rendered “Fireworks,” the speaker sees his neighbor in the building across the way through the window and imagines him “in his underwear, / leaning on the kitchen counter, or naked from the waist down, / hands moving below the window sill.” The voyeuristic vibe (also in the erotic locker room peek “Fit for Worship” and in the desire “to dry hump” the ass of a workmate in “Coffee in Camelot”), the stylization given to run-of-the-mill settings, the surprise in characters’ movements and their outwardly cold but deep, stirred-up psyches (not to mention the motif of hands which pop up throughout the book) are all reminiscent of Cronenberg.
Siek is a little bit of John Waters too (who is mentioned here and there). The poems are often risqué and carnal in its descriptions while backed by retro pop. With an energetic sense of capturing and describing movement, a fun trio of poems meshes different eras and sexualizes “Bandstand Boys, Football Players, and Greasers”: “The dance floor rumbles like tectonic plates shifting / underground, teenage earthquake, hips bounce / like bumper cars banging and spinning.” Whether describing the Shangri-Las’ music fading like “raccoon eyes staring as headlights flash past,” or a hookup set to The Wiz soundtrack, or a leg-warmered Flashdance dance routine, or in the shimmy of Shug in The Color Purple, there’s vibrancy and poignancy in the quirky allusions of Siek’s dynamic, memorable poems.
Purpose and Devil Piss
Sibling Rivalry Press
Paperback, 9781937420505, 84 pp.