19 pages 38 minutes read

Richard Siken

You Are Jeff

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 2019

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

Richard Siken’s poem “You Are Jeff” was published in his first poetry collection, Crush (2005). It is a prose poem, consisting of 24 numbered segments (one can call them stanzas, even though they lack formal metrical structure), which are loosely connected by a few fragmented narrative lines and numerous reiterated images, phrases, and feelings. Like the whole collection, the poem is about gay male desire, hope, and heartbreak. It resists clear-cut messages and builds an overall sense of its meaning through suggestion, implication, evocation, and a gradual deepening and amplification of its emotional register.

Poet Biography

Richard Siken was born in New York City in 1967 and lives in Tucson, Arizona. He holds a B.A. in psychology and Master of Fine Arts from the University of Arizona. In addition to being an accomplished poet, Siken is a painter, filmmaker, and a co-founding editor at Spork Press. He has also worked as a social worker (though Siken refutes this). Crush, Siken’s first book of poetry, won the 2004 Yale Series of Younger Poets prize and was published by Yale University Press in 2005. It also won the Lambda Literary Award and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Siken’s work has been published in several journals and anthologies. He is a recipient of a Pushcart Prize, and grants from Arizona Commission on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts. While Crush offers a highly emotional exploration of various facets of being gay, desire, and queer life, Siken’s second collection, War of the Foxes (2015), is a more cerebral investigation of artistic creation and representation, largely inspired by paintings. Siken explains in multiple interviews that he was surprised by many readers’ visceral reaction to Crush and their desire to know more about autobiographical details that inspired his poems. He opposes reducing poetry to the author’s biography, and his second collection deliberately disinvites such readings. In March 2019, Siken had a stroke, followed by slow recovery, but he began publishing poems online once again in 2020.

Poem Text

Siken, Richard. “You Are Jeff.” 2005. Yale Series of Younger Poets.

Summary

“You Are Jeff” is a fragmentary poem which builds its meaning and effect through a series of diverse scenes loosely connected by juxtaposition and repetition. These scenes combine “memory and fantasy” (Stanza 3), with a few metaphorical images interspersed throughout the poem. The speaker constantly addresses someone (“You”), who could be another man, the speaker himself, or the reader. “You” could also refer to different or multiple men at various points in the poem.

The poem opens with a depiction of two men described as twins riding motorbikes (Stanzas 1-3). Both are called Jeff, but one is more aggressive than the other. “You” might be in love with one of them, but the speaker tells “You” not to choose sides yet. One twin pulls over and waits for the other with a lug wrench in his fist (Stanza 4). Then, “You” plays cards with three Jeffs; they turn out to be his father, brother, and boyfriend (Stanzas 6-7). A 12-year-old boy in a passing car watches the twins wrestle on the side of the road, fascinated by the intensity of their physical contact (Stanza 8). Next, “You” is in a bedroom with bunk beds and listens to someone singing in the bathroom, hoping that person is singing to him (Stanza 9). “You” is in a hallway, hesitating to open the door of a room (Stanza 10). Stanza 12 explains how much “You” loves to ride his motorbike and asks, “Who do you love, Jeff?” Then, “You” is described as having a cancer or a wound and bruises (Stanza 13). “You” is in a grocery store buying bruise cream and ingredients for a salad (Stanza 14). “You” is making out with a lover in a bar, and someone buys him a drink (Stanza 16). Two motorbikes are next to each other, and so are two lovers who are dancing, except that one of them might not really be there (Stanza 17). “You” is not there any longer, and the speaker describes the things “You” has left behind (Stanza 19). The twins are on motorbikes or in a garden, or in a field of daises, talking to “You,” who is in pain and cannot understand (Stanza 20). The speaker remembers things that he and “You” used to do together (Stanza 21). “You” missed a party because of being sick, but the speaker invites “You” to look out of a window and see a beautiful view (Stanza 22). Finally, “You” is in a car next to another man. They love each other but hesitate to say it. The other man reaches over and touches “You,” whose heart is filled with an emotion for which “You” has no name (Stanza 24).

In between these narrative fragments, there are a few more explicitly symbolic stanzas, sometimes with an ironic twist: God makes sandwiches with fish that has gone bad, as have the twins wrestling by the side of the road (Stanza 5); a heart with twin heads drowns in a container filled with river water (Stanza 11). Other such stanzas are more poignant, dwelling on unspecified hurt and pain (Stanza 15) or failed efforts to find a safe space in which to love (Stanza 18). Some stanzas are self-referential, describing the poem itself as “a love story” (Stanza 13) and commenting on “how you make the meaning” (Stanza 18). The penultimate stanza refers to the poem’s rejection of clear-cut explanations. The speaker is all the Jeffs in the poem, and “all of these Jeffs are trying to tell you something”—but not everything: “if we wanted to tell you everything, we would leave more footprints in the snow or kiss you harder. One thing. Come closer. Listen…” (Stanza 23). The poem invites the readers to engage closely with its images and emotions, so they can experience it in their own unique ways and find in it meanings and messages that speak to their own thoughts, feelings, and lives.

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