So Forth: Poems
(W.W. Norton & Co., 2020, 83 pp., $25.95).
I envy Rosanna Warren her capacity for retreat. So Forth, her newest book of poems, retreats in each of its five sections: to memory, to the self within the city, to history, to foreign cities, and finally to a mountain cabin where “waterfall / careers down among umbers and blanks of ice-filigreed rock.” At first, the leisure out of which these pieces spring seems almost mythic: whence comes this endless means to travel and withdraw, and the inner and outer peace that allows thinking to move from observation to art?
From a lifetime of habit, no doubt. This is Warren’s sixth book of original poetry, and, as her readers are aware, she has enjoyed a distinguished career not only as a poet, but also as a critic, translator, and scholar (her biography of Max Jacob is recently released by Norton). She developed her sensibility as a young person, and while many of her readers may have struggled through their middle school years in less than poetic circumstances, she spent hers in the French lycée: “‘Amo, amas, amat,’ ‘hic haec hoc,’ ‘ille, illa, illud,’” she has written, “still evoke for me the scents of lavender, thyme, eucalyptus, cypress, dried goat turds: the sweet and acrid smells of the Midi.”1
The poems themselves manifest careful diligence and acuity in their formal skill and complicating insights. I think of Yeats in “Adam’s Curse:”
Better go down upon your marrow-bones
And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones
Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather;
For to articulate sweet sounds together
Is to work harder than all these, and yet
Be thought an idler by the noisy set
Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen
The martyrs call the world.
In So Forth, Warren does not attempt the longer, more biographic pieces that made her prior collection, Ghost in a Red Hat, so distinctive, though she does seek to enter the psyche of women and men from the past. But even as I cannot fathom its leisure, I am also frightened (and pleased) by a peculiar quality in this new work: a sense of daemonic visitation, if you will, that seems to move against its developed quality of peace and wellbeing.
“Diamonds,” for example, showcases a disconcerting intensity:
In those pictures you took
the thigh carves a perfect arc against the thicket at the mouth of the cave
and flesh pleats illegibly…..….. If it’s a god
who touches us when we lose ourselves
he’s the briefest of flashbulbs, the image cannot endure
I shone in your arms
blindly………. Blindly you cried out in the electro-chemical light
We leave a burn on the air
Morning hauls us, morning with crinkled eyelid, abdominal creases
and enlarged pores
Gingerly we test our heaviness, feet on the floor
Gingerly we hold our balance on this spinning crust of soil.
Earlier portions of the poem suggest privilege, achievement, and balance: purity of form. But the disorientation of these lines—using spaces instead of periods and semicolons; pairing language like “electro-chemical” and “flashbulbs” with the ancient notions of a god and a cave; insisting, phrase by phrase, that sexuality persists, “crinkled eyelids” and “abdominal creases” notwithstanding—all of this functions as a more primeval cry.
This intensity of experience persists even when Warren is writing toward the past rather than the future. Indeed, I will not easily forget the energy of a poem like “Samson, 1674,” dedicated to Milton:
Their theaters cackle and bray, their carriages
Clutter the streets: cockades, torches, liveries
Clash. Philistine hearts
jocund and sublime, they smear their deals
gold on columns and cornices….
The second stanza continues in this larger-than-life dismissive vein (“Let the poor creep into the shadows: they offend”), before the third moves into a description of a blind old man:
He’s seen too much. Kingdoms askew,
skies collapsing, idols crammed back into shrines.
Let the mad cavalcade pass by.
There’s a kind of retreat that resembles victory.
There’s a temple raised up only in the mind
and another to be pulled down
in dream, arms wrapped around massive pillars
to tug and shatter the roof on guzzling lords.
Not by his arms, not by his gouty hands.
But the phoenix spark sleeps in ash.
I like this poem because it is as “crammed” as the idols it speaks of—neither too careful nor too loose, but intellectually and imaginatively stimulating. It is formal, but has a sense of escaping formalities too, something characteristic of Warren’s work over the years. The poem curtails the Miltonic line, but uses some of the same techniques of enjambment and compression (“Clash. Philistine hearts” strikes me very much in the Miltonic spirit). I particularly appreciate the sound-sense rhymes of shrines/mind and pass by/victory in the fourth stanza, as well as the way the final line escapes the quatrains. The sudden anapests and truncated rhythms startle, and it carries a power that reminds me of Yeats’s beast, slouching toward Bethlehem to be born. The line may be dramatic, and contemporary readers may think of Harry Potter rather than Milton. And yet I admire its celebratory quality, its refusal to be silenced.
With its ironic energies, “Samson” brings a particular kind of temptation to light: that of the poet to sit self-contained amidst activity and perform imaginative, Miltonic world-building. Age, perhaps, heightens this temptation. At times (I think of the poem “July”) the lyric speakers of Warren’s poems seem to observe the contemporary version of Samson’s “mad cavalcade,” and consider themselves apart from the city in which they subsist. The theme of blindness or vision loss recurs, drawing implicit parallels between Milton and the poet. But Rosanna Warren seems determined not to allow bombastic dismissal of culture, infatuation with her own imagination, or insular withdrawal to be her poetic lot. Her retreats, instead, continue to be vigorous encounters with reality. In the words of Milton: “fierie virtue rouz’d.”2
The majority of poems in So Forth, for me, convey the Miltonic sense of “vigorous most / when most unactive deem’d.” There is great intellectual power and talismanic force in them, as Warren moves from the memories of the personal interior into urban concerns and then into the irrepressible voices of women from the past. Here, for example, is the elegant, savage fashion designer Coco Chanel:
We live in an age with no interiors
and his blood scrawled the pavement by the crumpled car
Embellishment gives way to line
and ease of motion. A Bugatti flair
Wealth assuming the proportion
of catastrophe And if the other was a German officer
I’m on my knees with a corona
of pins bristling from my lips It’s not
adoration It’s revenge
Living under the constraint of Naziism, Chanel, the artist, finds ways to jab. For me, this poem also says something about the poetry and the public way in which, after modernity, we tend to spill our interiors. I’m inclined to read in this piece a bit of rebuke toward the vengeful qualities of modern art, even as the poet becomes intimate with the impulse rather than creating an adjudicating distance. “Wealth assuming the proportion / of catastrophe” is a cultural indictment. Is it too much to wonder whether, like Chanel’s alleged intimacy with the German officer, a poet’s intimacy with the occupying forces of art and the academy may be a kind of “revenge”? Or is this only ketman?3
Warren’s attraction to the intensity of women under constraint (including the constraint of age) is something that recurs throughout So Forth. She asks Mary Sidney to “translate us too / rough line by line / into your crystalline / severe design,” and writes a powerful, affectionate tribute to a musician friend who “had the face / of a pike, the thrusting lower jaw and silvered / eyes, pure drive.”
She also turns this piercing eye to the natural world. The trees in this book are remarkably marred: in different poems, the sycamores are “hacked-at” and the acacias are “amputated.” The ginkgoes are “anorexic” and purple flowers are “vetch,” a noxious weed. These phrases all occur in the book’s second section, which describe the city. But in the fourth section, which occurs on foreign soil, and the fifth section, which describes a wooded retreat, the sense of imbalance and decrepitude returns even to these more ordered places:
buckles, clapboard sag, wires hang askew
like muscles in a bungled autopsy….
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.
Nature and humanity’s withdrawal to nature are not an escape. Time becomes more creaturely there (“history bounds / into the present, glitter-eyed, with musky anal glands / and daggering eye teeth”), but not less mysterious or dangerous.
The lines above are from the title poem, “So Forth,” and I’m struck by how gracefully the end words of the poem as a whole encapsulate its story and perhaps the story of the whole collection:
……………one fish-spine tree—
To the sense of disorientation, in which boundaries collapse, the poet introduces her living lines, which give the passage of time a frame. But what happens at the end of the poem? The tree captured in the frame becomes teeth, at which point the domicile turns inside out, and is revealed to be a den.
This is the “something” that disturbs the poems time and again in So Forth, the creaturely daemon which Warren is not afraid to encounter. In fact, this unpredictable force can in fact be a source of comfort to the poet, even as it disorders her givens. She cannot exactly invite it, but she can arrive at it, as she does in my favorite poem of all, “Darklight.” When the den is encountered on its own grounds, the human soul can sense more strongly its place in impersonal, archaic cycles. Notice how the sentences don’t quite end:
in the gully gnashed dark thoughts about the rocks
and we steered
by treetops, tall spruces with the necromancer’s sleeves,
white pines raising arms in
supplication, celebration, who could tell:
from the meadow we’d seen
Cassiopeia’s maternal zigzag: hard to lose
a daughter to a sea monster, then to bridegroom, but all
that family sorrow now
twinkles quietly in the enormous sky: everyone
in place, father, mother, daughter, reaching
starry arms to hero husband: here on earth
the mother bear at twilight
heaved a rock
over with one shove and scooped carefully for grubs
while the small pointy-nosed cub sat on its haunches.
Coal black, the bears, and the mountain laurel in bloom
lay like a drift of summer snow.
It is hard to describe the depth of consolation this poem provides me. Its plot is very simple. But so much human pain and quietude coexist in this vision of the cosmos, “everyone / in place.” So much maternal care is mirrored between the mythic stars and the mother bear. The tone is both heroic and gentle, and my own concerns fade in light of this mysterious lullaby. Warren is speaking her quiet rebuttal to Matthew Arnold, perhaps. The world as she knows it is vigorous, full of powerful absurdities and intense desires. But it does have joy, and love, and light, and certitude, and peace, and help for pain.
I am aware that my own longing for stability and deep-seated sense of an ordered universe may inform my reading here. Can we in the modern age ever speak unequivocally of a hero husband or a bears’ habitat undisturbed by human greed? Everything in the poem balances: the timeless cycles of the stars against the brief cycles of the blooms, sorrow against resolution, myth against experience, man’s interpretation against beast’s simple instinct, fragments against a larger unity. And yet the final line complicates this poise by highlighting its continuous transformation: the bloom becomes snow. Nonetheless, the poem consoles me.
What a summer this has been in which to read Rosanna Warren. We all are feeling the burden of civil unrest, many of us torn between a love for liberalism and the liberal tradition, and an increasing knowledge of its inherent, even vicious, contradictions. At one point in So Forth, the poet wakes up from a nightmare of the “police state,” and no doubt her readers have felt intimations of the same. I am a mother; I want, like Cassiopeia in the heavens, nothing so much as to hold our cities and their teeming prisons in my arms and console, and heal, and restore.
But Warren reminds me that many lively persons—Milton, Mary Sidney, Chanel—have come into their own in times of unrest, heeding their peculiar vocations. I have hope that the powerful conversation of which Warren is a part will not be lost as we perform our necessary critiques. “Tradition, we may say, is conjunction,” Warren has written; if this is true, then So Forth is in a tradition that sees a future. It assumes a continuing conversation, and gestures toward a long progression aware of its own inner recurrences. “Daily my vision fails,” the poet writes. And yet, the phoenix spark sleeps in ash.
2 The passage in Samson Agonistes which talks about the phoenix reads:
But he though blind of sight,
Despis’d and thought extinguish’t quite,
With inward eyes illuminated
His fierie vertue rouz’d
From under ashes into sudden flame,
And as an ev-ning Dragon came,
Assailant on the perched roosts,
And nests in order rang’d
Of tame villatic Fowl; but as an Eagle
His cloudless thunder bolted on thir heads.
So vertue giv’n for lost,
Deprest, and overthrown, as seem’d,
Like that self-begott’n bird
In the Arabian woods embost,
That no second knows nor third,
And lay e’re while a Holocaust,
From out her ashie womb now teem’d
Revives, reflourishes, then vigorous most
When most unactive deem’d,
And though her body die, her fame survives,
A secular bird ages of lives. (1687-1707)
Warren’s ironic treatment aside, it’s a remarkable passage! One of my personal favorites in all of Western literature. How many persons, when they face discouragement, could bear reminding that “virtue, giv’n for lost / deprest, and overthrown, as seem’d . . . / revives, reflourishes, then vigorous most / when most unactive deem’d?”