Warren’s “Being Here: Poetry 1977-1980”

"Being Here: Poetry 1977-1980," dedicated to Warren's grandfather, focuses on the passage of time and the sense of loss that accompanies that passage, attempting to comes to terms with those losses, perhaps not surprising since Warren was nearly seventy when the first of these poems were written.

In an endnote to these poems, Warren says:

There is one more thing I may mention. The order of the poems is not the order of composition (and certain poems composed during the general period are not included). The order and selection are determined thematically, but with echoes, repetitions, and variations in feeling and tonality. Here, as in life, meaning is, I should say, often more fruitfully found in the question asked than in any answer given. The thematic order-or better, structure-is played against, or with, a shadowy narrative, a shadowy autobiography, if you will. But this is an autobiography which represents a fusion of fiction and fact in varying degrees and perspectives. As with question and answer, fiction may often be more deeply significant than fact. Indeed, it may be said that our lives are our own supreme fiction.

Though I'm not sure this quotation is necessary to understand these poems, it reminded me of statements I've read on some fellow bloggers' pages.

One of my favorite poems from reading the poems when they originally appeared, is:

GRACKLES, GOODBYE

Black of grackles glints purple as, wheeling in sun-glare,
The flock splays away to pepper the blueness of distance.
Soon they are lost in the tracklessness of air.
I watch them go. I stand in my trance.

Another year gone. In trance of realization,
I remember once seeing a first fall leaf, flame-red, release
Bough-grip, and seek, through gold light of the season's sun,
Black gloss of a mountain pool, and there drift in peace.

Another year gone. And once my mother's hand
Held mine while I kicked the piled yellow leaves on the lawn
And laughed, not knowing some yellow-leaf season I'd stand
And see the hole filled. How they spread their obscene fake lawn.

Who needs the undertaker's sick lie
Flung thus in the teeth of Time, and the earth's spin and tilt?
What kind of fool would promote that kind of lie?
Even sunrise and sunset convict the half-wit of guilt.

Grackles, goodbye! The sky will be vacant and lonely
Till again I hear your horde's rusty creak high above,
Confirming the year's turn and the fact that only, only,
In the name of Death do we learn the true name of Love
.

Time may well be measured by loss. Nothing stands still, and even the best moments are but temporary. Every year, no matter how delightful, invariably parts. We celebrate this sense of loss in tributes to "fall," whether through celebration of fall harvest or through appreciation of fall leaves. Warren masterfully ties this celebration to a memory of holding his mother's hand while kicking piled yellow leaves. The general acceptance of the passage of time is masterfully juxtaposed to the image of his mother's grave obscenely covered in fake grass, a loss he is not prepared to accept. This motherless child realizes that only in Death do we learn the "true name of Love."

The equally dark "August Moon" is memorable for the startling images that open the poem:

AUGUST MOON

Gold like a half-slice of orange
Fished from a stiff Old-Fashioned, the moon
Lolls on the sky that goes deeper blue
By the tick of the watch. Or
Lolls like a real brass button half-buttoned
On the blue flannel sleeve
Of an expensive seagoing blue blazer.

Slowly stars, in a gradual
Eczema of glory, gain definition.

What kind of world is this we walk in?

It makes no sense except
The inner, near-soundless chug-chug of the body's old business-
Your father's cancer, or
Mother's stroke, or
The cat's fifth pregnancy.

Anyway, while night
Hardens into its infinite being,
We walk down the woods-lane, dreaming
There's an inward means of
Communication with
That world whose darkling susurration
Might-if only we were lucky-be
Deciphered.

Children do not count years
Except at birthday parties.
We count them unexpectedly,
At random, like
A half-wit pulling both triggers
Of a ten-gauge with no target, then

Wondering what made the noise,
Or what hit the shoulder with the flat
Butt of the axe-head.

But this is off the point, which is
The counting of years, and who
Wants to live anyway
Except to be of use to
Somebody loved?

At least, that's what they say.

Do you hear the great owl in distance?

Do you remember a childhood prayer-
A hand on your head?

The moon is lost in tree-darkness.
Stars show now only
In the pale path between treetops.
The track of white gravel leads forward in darkness.

I advise you to hold hands as you walk,
And speak not a word.


The phrase "stars, in a gradual/ Eczema of glory" particularly grabbed my imagination since stars are so often used to symbolize an infinite, benevolent universe. Confronted with a father's final heart attack and a mother's gradual disintegration into alzheimers, no wonder we're forced to ask, "What kind of world is this we walk in?"

If the loss of parents wasn't enough, some event in our own lives forces us "like a half-wit pulling both triggers/ Of a ten-gauge" shotgun, to suddenly realize our own years are rapidly disappearing. Hopefully we can counter this shock with the belief that "who wants to live anyway/ Except to be of use to/ Somebody loved?" If we can "be here" in the immediacy of love, if we hold the hands of the ones we love as we walk through life we can love life while we're here.

6 thoughts on “Warren’s “Being Here: Poetry 1977-1980”

  1. I like the way leaves are important in both poems. But I don’t quite understand the half-wit… is it figure representing one who has not seen, or is otherwise unaware of, the leaf which seeks “Black gloss of a mountain pool, and there drift[s] in peace”? Perhaps the half-wit is also demonstrating lack of insight or acceptance by the act counting years.

    There’s not much to beat walking silent, hand in hand, through the trees.

  2. I think “half-wit” refers to the way most of us keep track of our age. In other words, we’re always surprised at how old we’ve gotten.

    It take something unexpected to suddenly remind us that we’re not as young as we thought we were, like not being able to make it all the way up the mountain or somebody calling you “Sir,” or “Ma’am.”

  3. I was struck by what I sensed as the difficult music in the poem “Grackles, Goodbye.” A lot of words, such as in “bough-grip, and seek, through gold light of the season’s sun,/Black gloss of a mountain pool if the intent” trips the tongue, slowing the speaker down into what seems (to me) breaths between sobs. It wasn’t until the last stanza, once the speaker said goodbye to the grackles and the sky was clear, that the pace became even — or rather, the music of the poem, took on a more flowing rhythm. Talking about the grackles in their absence seemed to have removed the tension and drama that dominated the previous stanzas in which the grackles presence signify the whirl of time lived — not talked about.

    It’s been a while since a read Warren’s work, so thanks for these posts!

  4. Actually I hadn’t consciously looked at the rhythms in the poem, but upon re-exmaination the first part of the poem reminds me a little of Gerard Manly Hopkins.

    Although I’m usually drawn to a poem more by ideas than by style, the ones that I remember usually have powerful rhythms in them.

  5. I particularly liked the second poem. I liked the words and the images, as you say; but more than that, it’s the first ‘Fall’ poem I’ve read that isn’t all over fuzzy with a sense of melancholoy.

    Fall is a crisp time, with no room for sighs and vague recollections. The animals must scurry about to gather food for Winter and the trees must not be held back from their job — leaves must die, hopefully with the appropriate amount of color — and fall to cover the floor to protect their roots. All the actions of Fall are geared towards life, not death.

    August Moon seems to reflect that crispness, and even an irritation with the general rather reflective mood we all fall into, this time of year:

    Children do not count years
    Except at birthday parties.
    We count them unexpectedly,
    At random, like
    A half-wit pulling both triggers
    Of a ten-gauge with no target, then

    Wondering what made the noise,
    Or what hit the shoulder with the flat
    Butt of the axe-head.

    Wonderful.

  6. I agree about GM Hopkins – it’s what I’ve been thinking when reading all the Warren poems you’ve been sharing… it’s something to do with the way he piles up words. But then I live with “Windhover” as a personal tinnitus so it’s hardly surprising that old GMH springs to mind. Lucky I like it!

What do you think?