Paul Stephens

Nude Siren


Peter Richards
Co-published by Zephyr Books and Verse Press April 2003 ISBN 0-939010-74-7 (paper) $12.95

Nude Siren? How could such a synesthetic projection of the masculine imagination be dressed? Romping around the Mediterranean tied to a mast, the long-lost Odyssean sailor is caught between goddesses, virgins, whores, and a wife. Loudly and brightly, the epic and the domestic collide, or rather they fuse (or are infused) into something like this book.

This very exuberant, very randy book would set a blush ablaze even in the cheek of randy Johnny Keats, both for its unabashed sexuality and for its extraordinary visual and aural (oral in some cases as well) sensory overflow. Consider "State Park," quoted in its entirety:

No one should piss this freely,
but I do. O bunting egg.
O Lord. Thank you for keeping
the grasses evil and smooth.
The park ranger is female.
She wears a stiff green ranger outfit
over her leotard of soft yeti hair.
She gave me a formal warning.
She gave me Bob Kaufman by the fire.
In twilight tasks proceeding new arrivals,
she gave me this site dilated by force.
A site thinking for itself, all by itself.
O deep in the hurry penultimate screw.

A "Lazuli Bunting egg," according to The Provincial Museum of Alberta Web site, is a bird's egg that is "subelliptical to oval, smooth and slightly glossy." Colour is very pale blue to green." The dimensions of a bunting egg are listed as 19x14mm. Any man willing to allude to his penis in such terms is arguably a man of courage, willing to step outside of the phallic order. Even so, there is something of an aura of the avant-garde locker-room in these poems—for instance in the association of Bob Kaufman and orality. As in a book like Kenneth Koch's Art of Love, the perspective in many of these poems is resolutely male. Take for instance, the conclusion of the book's titular poem:

There is a nude siren in the jelly.
She cannot sing, she is dissolving.
Her nakedness has no place in my poem.
Her breasts appear generally happy.
They seem full of self-awareness
and unafraid of the note I place between them.

The nude siren as mute sex object has to be taken as an ironic figure. Despite the attribution of "self-awareness" to the breasts of the siren, the poems are themselves self-aware. These poems have a wry, sensitive self-consciousness of the ridiculousness of our many acculturated projections of sexuality.

Matthew Barney came to mind for me when reading Richards' poems. (On a superficial level, they seem to share a common interest in Vaseline-like substances.) Like Barney's Cremaster Cycle, Richards' poems engage sexuality with a kind of swaggering irony. The masculinism of the poems can only be taken ironically, but the swagger may be a bit much for some. At the same time, one gets the feeling that the poems could not be as good as they are without the swagger.

Like Gabriel Gudding's recent work of hyper-hyperbole A Defense of Poetry, Nude Siren is not afraid to indulge in Rabelaisian description:

They march to avoid the two Ann Margarets
showering together in a prison way before
Midnight Express even came out.
When they embrace cross-legged
it's like a red and sun-lit wooly latch.

Maybe more description than we wanted, but indisputably skillful. Richards has an extraordinarily rare skill for metaphor-making, and metaphor when undertaken to this extent must be destabilizing. His hyper-compression often pays off richly, as in "The Glass Tree": "The glass tree left behind by a blossoming / tree waits in the debitage of its untaken / filament." Richards also has a rare feel for sound, as in a line like: "Easter's hatred forces my lavender hand."

Nude Siren, Richards' second book, is livelier and less elegiac than his debut Oubliette. Having been to Ashbery school, there are many mysterious second-person addressees in these poems. Your boat can be drowned with tropes in the deafening indefinitude of trying to figure out who "you" are or who "you" is. It is your job to bail, but in return your boat will sail in many directions—through calms, storms, battles, acts of divinity, episodes of the mundane, through futile clashes between East and West, through Gibraltars of sound. Whatever those things might be or might not mean, we cannot help but be captivated by how words sound and look when they are deployed so carefully yet so maniacally.

EPR #4:
Review of Winter Sex by Katy Lederer


© 2003 Electronic Poetry Review