*Review of Rosanna Warren, So Forth (New York: W.W. Norton, 2020)
Reckoning in the classical sense involves a mixture of anguish, mystery, and wonder that ultimately lands at the threshold of silence. “I am on the brink of frightful speech,” says the herdsman in Oedipus Rex, to which the king, as if already conversant with approaching doom, replies, “And I of frightful hearing. But I must hear.” While Rosanna Warren’s new book of poems, So Forth, is not meant to perform a reckoning as monumental or as costly as the one met by the blind, fallen Oedipus, the collection elevates aging and loss to tidal forces beyond our control, yet which render us alive to being alive, albeit vulnerable in our knowledge of life’s passing.
Fittingly, the collection opens with a kind of visitation. Contemplating a cotillion photo of debutants as a “breed so pure./ They will never run,” Warren segues to a memory of herself as a young visual artist day after day trying to paint the “crackling sound” of a New England meadow as “Crickets were scraping marrow from the day.” The poet recalls “sun pouring down/ in a prickly meadow, and a garter snake skin/ laid out like fairy lingerie on a stone wall.” Having also spent the time reading Oedipus Rex, she humbly recalls, “I understood neither the snake skin nor the play,” although she echoes the play when “There came a day/ when I said to myself, ‘I should prefer sleep.’” Waking two days later “in the creaking barn/ at dusk, not knowing what day, what month, what year,” she is at least fortified by the new knowledge that somehow
What was to come
would come in its own good time
outside the frame. The moon was rising
above the hill, a shy wind gathered force,
and trees, in their black silhouettes, linked arms.
Many a writer would be tempted to explain the moment or have it explain the course of one’s life, but as with any oracle, much is left unexplained, resonance itself carrying the poem to a state of being arrived at and unfolding, unlike the “finished” state of the debutants caught in a photograph, “Each one aloft/ on a frozen wave of white cotillion lace—/ to resemble marriage, to resemble fate.”
“Cotillion Photo” displays from the get-go the flash and muscle at work throughout the book. The fugue-like weaving of debutants, meadow, Oedipus, and sleep; the evocative, yet measured description of the crickets; the speaker’s exhausted descent into sleep as a state in which “Small planets tasted dry and bitter on my tongue”; and finally the stoic reassurance of those trees linking arms – all of these weave the poem into a tableau we enter and explore, rather than the poem doing the work for us. This approach restores a sense of reverence and ritual to the everyday, the transitory linked with seeming portent in the image of a partner eating dinner:
Why go looking for sorrow. Yet
we look, we hunt: you probe
the boiled mackerel head for every mite
of sustenance: brain, the tiny white
golf balls of eyes, the fatty ribbon along the jaw—
an augury in each bite.
Likewise, Warren transforms the commonplace of “A Cardboard Carton” full of the writings and artifacts of long-gone ancestors into an act of sacred supplication: “my shades, I offer you/ only my mistakes: a few grains of barley, a saucer/ of honey at the door of the tomb.”
“What did I want/ and why did I want it so hard?” the writer asks in “As If.” This would seem to signal regret, but the collection is suffused more with the grounded anguish felt by “a self like rain driven/ aslant the fence,” but one that, as acknowledged in “Eclipse,” has also come to know, via Hölderlin, “god is near/ and hard to grasp/ but where danger rises,/ grows what saves.” However, lest the collection drift too far towards abstraction, just a couple of pages later Warren shifts back to the detritus of the daily world in “Graffiti,” its final lines extracting vibrancy from its subject:
Down the long, semi-abandoned street in Queens
calligraphy gallops toward the shop displaying,
like guitar strings, seven different iron rods
for gates. Hole in the wall, rose sound-hole,
ribbed sounding board – always from fissures and gaps
melody strains as trains thunderclank across
the girdered overpass, a siren keens, and a solitary man
ambles past amputated acacias fisting out with leaves.
Seen a certain way, the rundown street is transformed into a strummed guitar. Life will forth, says the poem, in more mysterious ways than all too often we allow ourselves to see or to know.
So Forth is very much a book about seeing, and on several levels. Firstly, be it the description of “the crab apple tree/ a crimson pointillist nimbus” (“For Chiara”), or a view of trout in a stream as “umber quaver in the bronze-flecked flow” (“The Line”), or a mink racing across a meadow “in bunched/ black parabolas” (“The Mink”), throughout Warren draws from her training as a visual artist to render images that are arrestingly vivid and precise. Taking the wider view, Warren devotes the book’s third section to a Chaucerian “Legende of Good Women” that retrieves several female writers and artists from the clutches of historical neglect and misogyny, among them Mary Sidney, gifted poet and sister of Philip, and Gwen John, who besides modelling for Rodin was herself a serious painter. Though these work better as “studies” than they do as poems, the aim is to see beyond the surface of the past in order that, as with the homage to Mary Sidney, such appreciations “Translate us too, rough line by line,/ into your crystalline/ severe design.”
This urge for historical justice also feeds Warren’s determined effort to see beyond bourgeois comfort in order to confront present suffering head on. Evoking the famous photo of a little Syrian boy who drowned as a refugee on a Turkish shore, she reminds us that it is “Not stone” we are looking at, but really “the face we/ cannot, do not/ want to see” (“Shore”). Similarly, amid the shallowness of an art opening that takes place in a palatial garden (“Vernissage”), her eye is quick to spot a group of handicapped children “wheeled through the vernissage, each body paired/ with a nurse to maneuver the small wheelchair// over the garden ruts, among the guests,/ canapés, champagne in plastic cups, the chat.” Warren, however, does not settle for armchair empathy, but instead braves deeper implication in the poem’s closing stanzas:
Their thin arms jerk, heads tilt over caved-in chests—
and isn’t this just how each of us will sit
in our own way and time? And the Earth was
without form, and the porter pressed the heel
of his hand in clay, then gathered to pinch and fuse
fjords, mesas, moraines, and the squiggles we call
human. And were we good? Or have we ever
been? Two arms, two legs, a swollen noggin,
and the chunked, twitching gristle of heart to stir
us to smash and caress, to roam off, to remain.
The expansiveness of the turn made here carries the poem to an altogether different level, the canapés and the children left behind for the haunts of human existence explored by the poet’s roving consciousness. We are made guests to a thinking through that is as relentless as it is reverent. “Why go looking for sorrow,” an earlier poem wondered. “Vernissage” supplies the answer.
Which brings us to the fifth and final section of So Forth and its telescopic view of life, aging, and loss coupled with stoic consolation. Tellingly, the book’s title poem appears here and encompasses both the subject and tone of the final sequence in its opening lines:
I rise from our tousled bed and adopt my distance
and find something friendly in the shack collapsing
season by season down the road at the edge
of the grove of birch and beech. The floor
buckles, clapboards sag, wires hang askew
like muscles in a bungled autopsy.
The nods to aging and decay are purposeful, but so too the recovery made through reverie at the poem’s close:
Whoever lived here
has shoved off into another atmosphere
and we, too, are simply passing through
though the sky is trapped, for now, in a window frame—
cerulean miniature with one fish-spine tree—
while the solstice grinds its teeth,
yawns and stretches, crawling from its den.
Again, it is the artist’s eye that does the conscious framing, the backbone of that fish-spine tree belonging to Warren herself in her ability to stare down disappointment, debilitation, and death with dignified equanimity.
The poetry of later years is a small, select genre. Yeats is no doubt its master, and Bishop’s modesty and clarifying memory were well-suited to it. Lowell catalogued his own withering survival, and Larkin wrote of old age more as a state of mind than lived experience. So Forth distinguishes itself for Warren’s ability to write of aging in medias res, and to do so with an exacting mien devoid of fear or self-pity. “We came from the unlimited, to it we return. So taught// Anaximander of Miletus, who thought we could be destroyed” (“‘That the earth is suspended…’”). Warren invokes the classical mode in her embrace of the unlimited combined with the possibility of being destroyed, the speaker’s perceived suspension between those two poles resulting in a state of steely wonder. Leading up to this, Warren asserts, “worlds are born, appear,/ and disappear. We perish, even the gods// fade. Spare me the industrial daffodils/ poking through scraps of snow.” Her no-nonsense refusal of any kind of manufactured sentimentality allows the poem later on to risk broader statement and arrive at the resonance of true sentiment.
“In Passing” captures particularly well the kind of suspended animation aging partners can feel they inhabit in the face of time’s implacable advance. Opening with “Birdsong. Juicings in the air, decanted summer,” the poem turns to a couple’s own passage through the seasons.
We’ve flipped through the spectrum: in early May
each daffodil lit its small oil lamp.
In mid-June wild irises translated water
up long stems into purple and creamy fire.
Now, late July, it’s tiny roses,
magenta coals strewn in a thicket of brambles.
We know it will all come to white.
The unspoken gravitas of this last line, the sudden entrance of a realization larger than the moment, opens up a rather different space. Warren, however, is careful to bring us back to an immediate setting, but one that is also more continuous, as she notes:
I have touched each mole, each mosquito bite
on your pale skin. Morning breaks
across the meadow, between branches of white pine,
and the catbird pours himself out
in disconnected trills, warbles, and cries.
The balanced economy of emotion here – nothing oversold, nothing let go on the cheap – is masterful. Physical intimacy in tandem with the spirit caught up in a quiet agon of trills, warbles, and cries. What more needs be said? The poem ends, having as well “come to white.”
The fourteen poems of this final section are a triumph in their own right. They open for readers and writers alike a territory left largely unexplored, mapping it out with care and understated grace. “Toward High Point” not only names a physical summit, but serves as the book’s own apex, the speaker and her partner hiking “an ancient seafloor thrust/ to the sky” in order to take in the deep vista of the landscape and their lives. “[W]e trust/ the mountain to hold us,” observes the speaker, but only to note as well the tentative hold it allows. Turning to her partner, she realizes “how dark you’ve grown/ heading into the sunset, a silhouette/ rimmed in snow-light, gilt-edged, and violet.” If the end of the directed gaze is love, its true culmination lies in the knowledge of the vulnerability of that love, as well as the gaze itself. Throughout So Forth, Warren opens pathway after pathway to such deeper knowledge, reminding us subtly and movingly that while we may wish for history to bend toward justice, life’s arc veers unwaveringly toward loss. Only art can save what passes, and even then it requires the nuanced, imbricate vision of a poet like Warren to capture it for what it is – wondrous, mysterious, bracing, wounding, and wounded.
Which makes “Glaucoma” (the penultimate poem, coming just before a brief envoy titled “Shabbat Candles”) a poignant denouement to the book’s extended project. For if So Forth is a book about seeing, “Glaucoma” contemplates the loss of even that, though again without falling into bathos or despair. Opening with “Garnet flashes in the wild turkey’s wattle/ as late sun singes the far edge of the meadow./ Lacework birdcalls unravel little by little/ into a frayed cat’s cradle for catching shadow,” Warren augments her painterly eye with sure-handed, unassuming rhymes. After the turkeys, we glimpse fungus arrayed on shale like “a party dress,” a stream that “has more to discuss,” and then a black bear, at which point the poem shifts gears, gaining greater torque as it does:
The black bear, on our walk, gave me a hard look,
then lolloped up the hill this afternoon
melting into the grove of beeches across the brook.
We’re all melting. This house is not our own.
Daily, my vision fails. What will it be
no longer to stare at bronze beech leaves strewn
on the loamy floor, at the stream’s currency, not to see
the pearled, shadowless dawn unspool the field?
Her own imminent loss, however, only drives Warren to acknowledge that experienced by others, the memory of a friend’s “last look” recalled as “enlarged by disease and sleeplessness, her eyes/ searched mine as if across a no-man’s land.” Eschewing grand conclusions, she ends by simply letting us see what she sees, trusting us to feel what she feels on our own.
Evening has settled now in the apple boughs,
the turkeys have gone. A half-moon chalks the sky.
The stream keeps lisping the only story it knows,
and a loosened cobweb veils the moon’s eye.
In moments like this, writing at the height of her powers, Rosanna Warren weds the wisdom born of loss to the poise of careful observance. In their elegant hold amid the flux of the liminal, the poems of So Forth are awash with fearless immediacy.