Weekly Poem: Scheherazade

a sunny summer evening of a hill with some houses and the ocean in the background, the words "WEEKLY POEM" are in the centre of the image in all caps

I stumbled upon Richard Siken’s poem Scheherazade by chance and it has quickly become one of my favorite poems. Despite the straightforward language being used, it is a challenging poem as it isn’t immediately clear what is being conveyed. The poem has a certain surreal quality to it that is very similar to how we perceive dreams—once I realized this (on my nth reading), the importance of the title became clear.

Scheherazade is a major character in One Thousand and One Nights, a collection of Middle Eastern stories. She narrates many stories to the sultan Shahryar over the course of 1001 nights in order to prevent him from condemning the women in his kingdom to death in his irrational need to get rid of any woman who could potentially betray him like his wife did. Scheherazade is an entrancing storyteller and often ends the night on a cliffhanger, so that the sultan is forced to let her live another day in order to hear the end of each story. In the end, the sultan decides to change his plan and marries her.

Siken’s poem in many aspects recalls this story, for instance in the opening lines. These remind of the sultan’s plea for Scheherazade to continue her fantastic stories and also serve as an allusion to the regret he might feel of the atrocious murders he’s been committing:

Tell me about the dream where we pull the bodies out of the lake

and dress them in warm clothes again.

I think that the poem’s confusing metaphors („it’s more like a song on a policeman’s radio“) and odd lines („and every time we kissed there was another apple / to slice into pieces“) further add to the fantastical and dream-like quality I mentioned earlier. Obviously, the poem is not meant to be only an allusion to the story, but the captivating style of the language in the poem certainly invokes Scheherazade’s voice. Overall, I think Scheherazade is a beautiful and intense piece of poetry and it will stay with me for a long time.

I leave you with the gorgeous final lines, which honestly knocked the breath out of me for the rest of the day.

Look at the light through the windowpane. That means it’s noon, that means

we’re inconsolable.

Tell me how all this, and love too, will ruin us.

These, our bodies, possessed by light.

Tell me we’ll never get used to it.