The Complete Stories
by Noah Warren
(Copper Canyon, 2021, 96 pp. $16)
The title of Noah Warren’s new volume of poems, The Complete Stories, suggests several different ways of understanding the book. First, it informs us about the kind of poetry Warren writes: a poetry that tells stories about personal experience, knits them together with fragments from multiple generations, and unsettles this composite story with a rigorous skepticism about narrative credibility. Toward this task, Warren writes within a diverse set of poetic subgenres, many of them narrative: the prose poem with its anecdotal logic; the collage of fragments bound together by a single, searching mind; the rarefied, lyric drama of the extended moment of perception. Joining these favored forms are “Letter,” a Richard Howard-esque dramatic monologue, and the title track, “The Complete Stories,” a chatty metropolitan party-poem. (There are a couple scattered outliers, too, such as “Two By Two,” which anchors its rhyming couplets to a triple-meter backbone.) The aesthetic question The Complete Stories raises is: In what ways can a short poem tell a story, and what does that partial story leave out?
The poems are often self-conscious about the difficulties of telegraphing a life into verse. Warren’s poetic persona is sometimes caught in the act of composing the poem itself, with all the ordinariness, ambivalence, and discomfort that that act entails. The first poem, “Wall Mice,” begins with a scene of writing. The speaker is sitting at a desk, moving “documents” from one pile to another. “Some pages have almost nothing on them, maybe / eight words floating in eggshell space. / They have to be read too, // so I do, I drift over them.” While the figure seems to be engaged in a dutiful process of sorting and filing, the rhyme between “too” and “do” signals the presence of a poem, something more than the transcription of a task. Here, perhaps, is the very book we are reading, or a version of it, which now extends beyond its finish to a process of sifting and sorting, of choosing the right version from among multiple drafts:
In a previous draft, I understood myself
as a man who preferred to write
on cocktail napkins, because they’d tear if he got too invested.
In that one, I kept Father apart from my loneliness.
“Wall Mice” imagines different versions of the self and its relation to writing: is every appearance of the individual a “draft,” and if so, then what happens to the earlier ones? Reversing the progress of the Proustian narrative, which moves from the trigger of memory to the nascence of the text itself, Warren starts his collection at the end instead. Yet the end contains various possibilities for what the book, and the person, might have become.
The title of Warren’s book is obviously tongue-in-cheek—this is his second collection—but it offers up a serious problem. Whose “complete stories” are these, anyway? To tell the “complete” story of a person or a family is to take on a quixotic task. As incompletists from Faulkner through Ernaux have shown, the past requires endless return visits, accountings, and reckonings. The provisional nature of writing might be at odds with the note of finality, but it works well for the ostensible subject of The Complete Stories, which is the changing place of the poet within his family as he grows older. That is the root of the tugging melancholy of the title phrase, I think, as well as what motivates the occasional brushstrokes of deflating self-irony in the poems.
As Warren looks inward, he discovers distance, detachment, fakery, convention, and predictability:
Have I improved at all? I imprudently
prayed in my notebook the afternoon
of my 28th birthday, after purchasing
the austere and mid-shelf Vouvray.
In such moments of ironized confession—a “pristine salad” makes a similarly impish appearance in a different poem—Warren’s poems hold a place open for genuine revelation by providing its endless counter-images and decoys. Looking outside, there is a greater security in appearances and, perhaps surprisingly, in their mutability. “Jetty” begins with the line “the water shrugs.” Typical of Warren’s poetry, the metaphor arrives in the verb and confirms the action associated with the noun. The exact description of the morphology of a wave is more important than the prosopopoeia that comes along with it.
But it would be wrong to see Warren as evading any genuine reckoning with time, change, and the self in favor of skepticism about the access to self-knowledge that a poem might provide. In the moving poem “Notes on the Mystery,” inside and outside, feeling and description, are held in a consoling suspension. The poem narrates the changing of a friendship in two scenes, interrupted by two descriptions.
Younger, I could go to my friend
when her heart had been pierced
and she was gasping for breath,
and I could tell her, nothing is lost
Thinking back on the moment, the speaker remarks, “I’d said more // than I believed.” Then the poem turns to an extended image of “fine pins // of ice” before coming back to the friend in the first few lines. He’s lost track of her—she who, in another precise verb, had “melted” from his life—and apologizes for this “special faithlessness.” The poem concludes with a final image, the speaker using his father’s “green flannel shirt” to buff a floor with varnish. “Notes on the Mystery” is austerely elegiac, unsentimental, and relatively uncompromising in its view of the human being as guided by practical knowledge and spontaneous feeling rather than by flights of philosophical abstraction or political thought.
The penultimate poem in the book, “On Value,” approaches intertwined questions of aesthetic judgment, individual guilt, and racism through a series of fragmentary vignettes. This poem achieves its effect by adopting different distances to its subject, circling around and probing, much as an ode will advance towards and retreat from an object, person, or idea. What makes the poem all the more charged with anger and mourning is the fact that the poet’s own grandfather, Robert Penn Warren, is the primary interlocutor. Or rather: his poems and essays are. In the poem, Warren’s grandfather appears first through the objects that remain after his death: sewing table, gun closet, volumes of Library of America “through 1985,” a birthday card “from Max Ernst,” and a crow. Then he encounters his grandfather as the author of Audubon: A Vision, “his best poem,” and of “The Briar Patch” as well. The poem does not tarry with the obvious racism of the essay, nor does it ask how the white liberal position taken by Warren’s later work is haunted by “The Briar Patch,” which had advocated for segregation. Rather, “On Value” is about the inseparability of the younger Warren’s poetry and his grandfather’s legacy—a relation that also has, in the poem, scenes of tenderness and affection. Stalked throughout by the very poems and objects left by Robert Penn Warren, Warren ends by recognizing the minatory presence of his grandfather himself: “Someone I know / is in this room with me, observing me closely.” The “complete story,” in this case, is not only the complicity of his grandfather’s poetics with his politics, but of both of these with the younger poet’s desire for his own art to be read and to endure. Yet the final line is less than hopeful: about the crafting of a “long dove-feather gown,” a substitute for the artisan product of poetic making, the speaker writes that “it has taken months; it will not sell.”
Although it comes close to the end of the book, the spectral, premonitory figure of Warren’s grandfather at the end of “On Value” is a departure from the book’s more frequent valuation of openings, accidents, and attention to what is immediately in front of the poet. The poetic drama of The Complete Stories most often comes from the restless movement of the mind in its task of picking up and revising. So it is that poems such as “Rustling Mind” or “Wind,” like the longer series “Nous” and “On Value,” reveal the same speaker at different moments in time. “Wind” presents the individual from three different perspectives, recalling the techniques of a cubist painting: “I was sitting close,” “I was wearing my hat,” “I was walking up into the foothills.” While this poem arranges discrete snapshots of the self, other poems dramatize, through hypotactic sentences with anacolutha and subordinate clauses, the sustained attention to what lies directly in front of the poet. “Architecture” is a poem of the latter sort:
The grass that filled this space
was of at least four different species,
not counting clover or the mosses
and so at any time
I might observe hues that ranged from whitened lime
to olive, to lustrous blue-green, to a deep forest
green so dark, when soaked or shadowed,
I took it for black.
The action in this poem takes place in the syntax, with the two successive modifications of color (hues that…green so dark [that]…) giving way to a series of five percussive monosyllables. The “story” of the poem has characters made up of clauses and syllables; this is a kind of story that must be experienced in the process of its unfolding through the resources of language.
Inevitably, The Complete Stories is stuck with the task not only of piecing together parts of personal history, but also of finding some “truth” in what Louse Glück has called the “actual,” that wayward course of time and event that both solicits and rebuffs human understanding and judgment. These poems recognize that endings are provisional, wobbling their landings in resonant images that linger past the finish. The couplets that close “Rustling Mind” are distracted by the memory they comprise: “A kettle moans, you stir. / Mother smooths your hair.” “Nous” ends with the house that has been built over the course of the poem coming undone in the summer heat: “hundreds of tiny nails / lifted their heads from the soft pine floors.” Throughout the book, as in these two examples, any uncanniness of effect is immanent to the way language typically works (like in “the water shrugs”). The strangeness comes from the world itself and what it allows to happen. Sometimes what happens is a kind of repetition that is not disappointing but fervently desired. In spring, for instance, we could find that “new buds, swelling from the same soft spots in the bark / as they did last year, replace what was there with what it was.”