Upon initial inspection, the title of Rosanna Warren’s latest collection of poetry, So Forth, might seem like the self-deprecating wave of a too-weary hand: I’ve published for some time now. And I have these new poems, if you care to read them. The recipient of numerous literary honors, a former Academy of American Poets chancellor, and currently a professor at the University of Chicago, Warren does not, I am pleased to report, place such a wilting laurel on her head. Instead, in this welcome addition to her oeuvre, she engages with the inexorability of aging and death, and struggles mightily to find meaning in an inscrutable, diminishing world. So Forth refers not to her poetic output but to the pressing passages of mystifying time.
Warren’s poems are traditionalist—occasionally, though not merely, academic. If she is sometimes sparse with her verse—most poems are without regular meter or end rhyme—she is also a master of a powerful free verse diction. Her words and phrasing routinely delight the mind’s eye and the body’s ear: they sparkle and shimmer, thump and pound, and leap up like Wordsworthian hearts among the daffodils. Her imagination, never overwrought, is capable of scientific precision as well as striking metaphorical insight. From “In Passing”:
Birdsong. Juicings in the air, decanted summer.
The small child burbles the reinvention of language
as filaments of the spider’s web
trap morning in a corner of the veranda.
Within polished spheres of classical antiquity, fine art, and music, Warren fashions syntheses of individual and landscape, between seer and seen, like two glass slides fused under the same microscope: “What did I want / and why did I want it so hard? Not emptiness, // but a self like rain driven / aslant the fence, the hacked-at sycamore (“As If”).”
Indeed, water wells up frequently enough within these pages to claim a central metaphoric position. Poem after poem is set on or near rivers, oceans, lakes, streams, reservoirs, inside sagging clouds of heavy rain. In any of its forms of flexibility, restlessness, placidity or exuberance, water will often connect to a key passion or argument of hers, enlarging its scope by bringing it into contact with the natural world and, thus, to universality. Warren is particularly keen on the confluence of liquid nature with time and the histories of both our species and her own, private story. “At Villeneuve-lès-Maguelone” opens:
On this strung-out strand where once the Saracens raided
and the bishop defended, not only surf whirs in—
tumble, soothe, and seethe of waves at slow boil.
We lie motionless and cracked as driftwood.
Middle age has tossed us here.
Though Warren does not (and, of course, must not) take her poetry lightly, the future she knows it is headed for is ultimately one in which her lines, like our lives, “will crumble to mulch.” It is this ravenous nature—beautiful and mysterious, yet at root for the poet, red in tooth and claw—that pervades Warren’s sense of self. In “The Point,” her “long shadow paces and the skreak of gulls / hauls evening down and furls it along the edge of the lake.” A look to the sylvan turns brutal in “Darklight,” as a rough environment transforms into the abyss itself:
as we felt our way along
the night road, gravel crackling
under our feet: the stream
in the gully gnashed dark thoughts about the rocks
and we steered
by treetops, tall spruces with their necromancer’s sleeves
Warren does not welcome her own death, neither does she bristle at it. She knows this most reliable transformation will happen to us no matter how alive we are, how handsome, how intense our verbal gifts. As the speaker intones in “Augusting”:
We tread on silver flakes and shadows.
Downward, ever downward, to the meadow
where the ghost lily, late summer wraith,
gapes, ash-pink, with news
of the underworld dusted on its tongue.
Naturally, along this diminishing road is unavoidable aging. In “Glaucoma,” a poem about the blurry outlines of her vision as well as the opacity of the natural world: “At the edge of the pond, a single heron stood, / a hieroglyph. I don’t know what he spelled.” Warren’s eye is unblinking, despite its lack of ocular health. She sees well enough the “[g]arnet flashes in the wild turkey’s wattle,” “the yellow fungus” in “its party dress,” and even if this fungus “dreams of rot,” “[w]e’re all melting,” in any case. Perhaps, since it too seems not to know itself, even nature may be blameless:
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.
For me, the success of this welcome collection resides in its overarching tonality, which is never strident or authoritative, never off-key, but gently mournful and wistfully so. So Forth is a book written by a poet in late middle age, now weighing up and deciding again, reminiscing upon and regretting, all the while struck by the fantastic nature of the universe while adrift on its difficult, often mundane currents. Death may take us all, says Warren, and poetry may not last, but for now it builds paths down which one may, at very least, catch a quick, sublime glimpse of our ultimately tragic impermanence.
By Rosanna Warren
W. W. Norton & Company
Published May 19, 2020