You, Midge, and the box. (A poetic exercise for Richard Siken)*

by Marie Marshall


There is a harsh, yellow light coming right in, right past the


It is steady, like a searchlight but dimmer.

Hotter. You

came here along a cinder path, you came of your own free will,

and here you are.

Midge is mute in the rectangular room,

she can’t hear you, taking things out of the box, putting


into the box. Three nails, a book, and a folded scarf.

You call to her,

Midge look at me,

and she answers but it is like underwater, like at the pool when


are underwater and everyone is talking and laughing on

deckchairs. The box is blue, rectangular, with sharp corners.

The lid

is battered and won’t fit,

and the lock scratches your fingers.

Midge comes and licks your fingers and complains that they taste

of gasoline,

and you can smell it. You know this is not


right box, but you can’t say.

It is full of clouds. It is full of clouds

and peeling sunshine. Also the cries of children from outside,

and a backfire from an old car.

It is sick and cold here, and aching joints,

and all the time the television flickers. The shadows in the


in the harsh yellow light, are hard, and they move.

They make a man’s shape, the seaside man, the man you know.


man lies down beside the box.

He nestles to it and shivers,


his back is bare, and Midge says

Look there, at how they criss-cross like tic-tac-toe.


man has scars and deep wheals

like the furrows in a ploughed field.

The man

has scars like dogtooth check. The scars are like rivulets of


running with rainwater, wheel-ruts, the mud sucking at

your feet.

There is a cold, cold mist in the fields, but not here in




It is still summer.

It is still.

It is summer. Dust is dancing

in the sunlight, though the sunlight never moves. The man

turns his face to you,


you know him because he has been on a thousand billboards.

He has laughed at you from magazines,

from the magazines your mother once bought for you.


is saying

Quick, come quick. Or go. Come with me or go.

But he isn’t moving. Lying there with one arm


the box, while

Midge is taking out the nails, the book, the folded scarf, and

putting them in a neat row.

You take them

and make the order go backwards;

a nail, another nail, another nail, a book, a scarf folded neatly.


takes them

and makes the order go backwards.

Backwards and forwards,

a neatly folded scarf, a book, another nail, another nail, a nail.


takes the scarf and knots it round her neck,

she stands upon a chair,

a black chair with a red seat and Arabic writing like a prayer.


man is laughing and Midge says

Goodbye, and goodbye,


is a sound outside like a single backfire from an old car.

You look from the light to the empty box,

from the empty box to the light. From the overturned chair to

the light, and always to the blue,

empty box.


* There are dangers with imitating the style of another poet. Firstly that your product will be a poor imitation, secondly that it will be a parody – these two don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand, but that’s just for starters. A few years ago I was asked to write, as an experiment, a poem in emulation of Richard Siken’s ‘The Dislocated Room’. At the time I hadn’t come across any of his work, but I bought his 2005 collection Crush and read the poem. Siken is one of these poets whose work I don’t know if I actually like, but nonetheless I find it compelling. ‘The Dislocated Room’, like other poems by him, seems to convey a sense of unease; images, phrases, whole scenes seem to repeat, but from a different angle or with a layer added; there is the ‘familiar unfamiliarity’ of a disturbing dream, one which is almost but not quite a nightmare. It starts thus:

It was night for many miles and then the real stars in the purple sky,

like little boats rowed out too far,

begin to disappear.

And there, in the distance, not the promised land,

but a Holiday Inn,

with bougainvillea growing through the chain link by the pool.

The door swung wide: twin beds, twin lamps, twin plastic cups

wrapped up in cellophane

and he says No Henry, let’s not do this.

I’m a fairly good parodist, so in my experiment I had to try to avoid that pitfall, hence I used the word ‘emulate’ above, rather than ‘imitate’. However, I couldn’t possibly get inside Richard Siken’s head. What I felt I could do was get close to the unease, the disturbing images, the implications of violence in the original poem. I needed to get out of the dislocated room and into another place to do it, a place inside my own head with my own unease; and so what I think emerged wasn’t a Siken poem but a Marie Marshall poem with Siken harmonics, undertones, overtones.

I’m posting this for the simple reason that this morning I stumbled across a reference to Richard Siken on Twitter, and it set me thinking.