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.

Warren’s “Now and Then: Poems 1976-1978”

"Now and Then: Poems 1976-1978" is the first book of Warren's poetry I ever read, and, perhaps luckily so, for it is by far my favorite section so far in the Collected Poems. In fact, I like so many poems in this section that I'm hard pressed to choose just one to represent the section.

These poems focus more on childhood and on making sense of the past than Warren's earlier poems. And whether true or not, there is a greater sense of personal exploration, personal involvement, than in his earlier poems.

I'm not sure why I chose this poem, perhaps merely because it is one that I remember vividly from my first reading of this book:

WHEN THE TOOTH CRACKS-ZING!

When the tooth cracks-zing!-it
Is like falling in love, or like
Remembering your mother's face when she-and you only
A child-smiled, or like
Falling into Truth. This,
Of course, before the pain
Begins. But even
The pain is something-is, you might say,
For lack of a better word,
Reality.

Do you
Remember that Jacob Boehme saw
Sunlight flash on a pewter platter on
The table, and his life was totally changed?

Is the name of God nothing more than
The accidental flash on a platter? But what is accident?

I have waked in the dark with the heart-throbbing conviction
Of having just seen some masterly
Shape, but without name. The world
Is suddenly different, then
The pain begins. Sharp as a snapped tooth, it strikes.
And, again, I have waked knowing
That I have only been dreaming,
In classic and timeless precision, of
Winter moonlight flooding a large room where
No spark now winks on the hearth, a broken
Brandy snifter glitters in moonshine by the coffee table, a
Half-burned cigarette butt beside it. And
A woman's slipper lies on its side
On the moon-bleached rug. In moonshine,
Silky as pastel, dust covers all.

It is only a dream, but it must have a name.
Must we totally forget a thing to know it?
Perhaps redemption is nothing more than the way
We learn to live with memories that are no longer remembered.

But it is hard to know the end of a story.

We often pray God to let us have Truth.
It is more important to pray God to help us to live with it.
Especially if your memory is not what it used to be.

Perhaps I merely liked the opening metaphor. Too often that's exactly what discovering the "truth" seems like. There is the instant recognition of "truth," of reality, but too often the discovery is accompanied by pain. Cerainly that's the kind of truths that Warren often seems to discover in his poems. Although we all like to say that we want the "truth," too often we end up hearing Jack Nicholson's famous line, "The Truth. You Can't Handle the Truth" echoing in our ears when we do discover it. Of course, that pain doesn't mean that we don't need to know the truth in order to avoid other forms of pain, now does it?

Like the mystic Jacob Boehme, most of us want to believe in God, and, because we want to believe, we're afraid to examine our beliefs too closely, don't want to believe that God is merely a "flash in the platter."

Too many of us have dreamt of past loves only to awaken to the realization that those loves have slipped away, have left us, like Dickens ' Miss Havisham, with our dreams left in the dust.

Perhaps it's merely the old man in me talking, but I particularly liked the llines "Perhaps redemption is nothing more than the way/ We learn to live with memories that are no longer remembered." Life is often learning to live with the results of our mistakes, learning to find joy despite, not because of, our past actions.

It may well be that the most important thing in life is not merely to discover truth, but, rather, to learn to live with the truth. Poems like this almost make me agree with Harold Bloom that Warren's poems "find a place with Melville's best poems, formidable exiles from our dominant Emersonian tradition. Like Melville, Warren forces us to look at our dark side rather than glibly assume the best about ourselves.

Warren’s “Or Else: Poem/Poems 1968-1974.”

Though I'll have to admit that I generally find Warren's numbering of his poems at worst annoying, at best, irrelevant, he did use an interesting numbing system in "Or Else: Poem/Poems 1968-1974." We see the pattern begin to emerge in the very first poems:

I. The Nature of a Mirror

The sky has murder in the eye, and I
Have murder in the heart, for I
Am only human.
We look at each other, the sky and I.
We understand each other, for

The solstice of summer has sagged, I stand
And wait. Virtue is rewarded, that
Is the nightmare, and I must tell you

That soon now, even before
The change from Daylight Saving Time, the sun,
Beyond the western ridge of black-burnt pine stubs like
A snaggery of rotten shark teeth, sinks
Lower, larger, more blank, and redder than
A mother's rage, as though
F.D.R. had never run for office even, or the first vagina
Had not had the texture of dream. Time

Is the mirror into which you stare.

The numbered poems, the majority of the poems, seem to attempt to portray the everyday reality of our lives, the physical reality that tends to dominate the "news." If we judge the world from what we observe, from the news that dominates the newspaper and television, it would be hard to deny that "the sky has murder in the eye" and that, as fundamentalists would have us believe, all men "have murder in the heart" for we are inherently sinners. In other words, if we use these mediums as a way of seeing ourselves, it would be hard to deny that man is inherently evil.

The "Interjections" question that view of reality and suggest that perhaps what's "real" isn't quite as clear as it might seem. If, we re-evaluate ourselves through introspection, we may find that other possibilities exist:

Interjection #1:

The Need for Re-evaluation

Is this really me? Of course not, for Time
Is only a mirror in the fun-house.

You must re-evaluate the whole question.


The "whole question," apparently suggests "what does it mean to be human." We are not merely what is reflected by the media and by society as a whole.

In "Interjection #2 Caveat" Warren continues to suggest that the world may not be exactly as we see it:

Interjection #2:
Caveat

For John Crowe Ransom

Necessarily, we must think of the
world as continuous, for if it were
not so I would have told you, for I have
bled for this knowledge, and every man
is a sort of Jesus, but in any
case, if it were not so, you wouldn't know
you are in the world, or even that the
world exists at all-

but only, oh, on-
ly, in discontinuity, do we

know that we exist, or that, in the deep-
est sense, the existence of anything
signifies more than the fact that it is
continuous with the world.

A new high-
way is under construction. Crushed rock has
been spread for miles and rolled down. On Sunday,
when no one is there, go and stand on the
roadbed. It stretches before your eyes in-
to distance. But fix your eyes firmly on
one fragment of crushed rock. Now, it only

glows a little, inconspicuously
one might say. But soon, you will notice a
slight glittering. Then a marked vibration
sets in. You brush your hand across your eyes,
but, suddenly, the earth underfoot is
twitching. Then, remarkably, the bright sun
jerks like a spastic, and all things seem to
be spinning away from the univer-
sal center that the single fragment of
crushed rock has ineluctably become.

At this point, while there is still time and will,
I advise you to detach your gaze from
that fragment of rock. Not all witnesses
of the phenomenon survive unchanged
the moment when, at last, the object screams
in an ecstasy of
being.

Most of us spend our lives living within the notion that time, and our very existence, is "continuous," except, perhaps, for the child who worries that when the parent goes out of sight they actually disappear. It would be difficult to go to sleep at night if we didn't believe that our lives were continuous. Otherwise, we might fear that we would not awaken from our dream world.

We are, after all, on the road of life and, if we look up ahead, we should be able to see our future. Metaphorically, as a nation we all seem headed in the same general direction, and our neighbor's fate and our fate are the same. We are taught this simple concept our whole lives, so why would we see it any other way?

Warren suggests, though, that if we really look closely at life, if we meditate on it, "fix your eyes firmly on one fragment," then we may begin to see the world differently. Look at something too closely and instead of appearing solid and sedate, it will appear to move, perhaps "to be alive."

Suggesting that he himself has done this, he warns you "while there is still time and will, " detach your gaze from that fragment of rock" or you risk changing your view of the world when "the object screams in an ecstasy of being."

"Interjection # 6" goes even further:

What You Sometimes Feel on Your Face at Night

Out of mist, God's
Blind hand gropes to find
Your face. The fingers
Want to memorize your face. The fingers
Will be wet with the tears of your eyes. God

Wants only to love you, perhaps.

If these poems, these interjections, were presented by themselves they would have presented a shocking shift in Warren's view, but because they are presented next to the gritty, poems about, say, a "Man Coming Down Steps Of Court House After Acquittal On Charge Of Having Shot To Death Ad Episcopal Minister Reported To Be Working Up The Niggers," they simply make us think about what is real and question whether or not we have any choice about how we view reality.

Warren’s “Incarnations, Poems 1966-1968”

Despite Harold Bloom's assurances that in "Incarnations, Poems 1966-1968" a "new Warren emerged with astonishing intensity," I found it difficult to find a poem that really resonated with me like his later poems.

However, after repeated readings, "In the Mountains" struck me as my favorite poem in this section because it best introduced later themes, or, perhaps, simply because it best fits my own view of life:

IN THE MOUNTAINS

To Baudouin and Annie de Moustier

I. Skiers

With the motion of angels, out of
Snow-spume and swirl of gold mist, they
Emerge to the positive sun. At
That great height, small on that whiteness,
With the color of birds or of angels,
They swoop, sway, descend, and descending,
Cry their bright bird-cries, pure
In the sweet desolation of distance.
They slowly enlarge to our eyes. Now

On the flat where the whiteness is
Trodden and mud-streaked, not birds now,
Nor angels even, they stand. They

Are awkward, not yet well adjusted
To this world, new and strange, of Time and
Contingency, who now are only
Human. They smile. The human

Face has its own beauty.

II. Fog

[A]

White, white, luminous but
Blind-fog on the
Mountain, and the mountains

Gone, they are not here,
And the sky gone. My foot
Is set on what I

Do not see. Light rises
From the cold incandescence of snow
Not seen, and the world, in blindness,

Glows. Distance is
Obscenity. All, all
Is here, no other where.

The heart, in this silence, beats.

[B]

Heart-oh, contextless-how
Can you, hung in this
Blank mufflement of white

Brightness, now know
What you are? Fog,
At my knees, coils, my nostrils

Receive the luminous blindness,
And deeper, deeper, it, with the
Cold gleam of fox-fire among

The intricate secrets of
The lungs, enters, an eye
Screams in the belly. The eye

Sees the substance of body dissolving.

[C]

At fog-height, unseen,
A crow calls, the call,
On the hem of silence, is only

A tatter of cold contempt, then
Is gone. Yes, try to remember
An act that once you thought worthy.

The body's brags are put
To sleep -- all, all. What
Is the locus of the soul?

What, in such absoluteness,
Can be prayed for? Oh, crow,
Come back, I would hear your voice:

That much, at least, in this whiteness.


At first I was simply attracted by the beautiful skiing images in the opening stanza. Part of the appeal of skiing is simply the austere beauty of the snow-covered mountains and the sensation of flying though the snow at super-human speeds, freed from everyday bodily restraints. And yet, in this poem, the people don't quite become "human" until they come to a stop "where the whiteness is/ Trodden and mud-streaked." On first reading, the last sentence, "The human/ Face has its own beauty," while obviously true, doesn't quite seem to fit, becoming clear only within the context of the whole poem.

The second stanza captures one of the basic appeals of the mountains in the winter, one I've referred to earlier in "Saigyo: Poems of a Mountain Home." Although it may well be true that each snowflake is unique, it doesn't appear so to the human eye, and areas covered in snow, even, remarkably enough, clearcuts, take on an abstract beauty. Seen through the "fog" of abstraction many things appear beautiful, even if they may appear less so when seen in their full reality.

The third stanza, though, presents the central dilemma of the poem. How can the heart, suspended in this blinding whiteness, this total abstraction, know itself? In such abstract beauty, the heart must invariably lose itself. Is there room for love in total abstraction. Can anyone truly "love" a painting called "White on White?"

In the final stanza, a stanza reminiscent of Yeats' "Crazy Jane Meets the Bishop," the crow, or perhaps a raven, in all its blackness, intrudes on, or, perhaps, redeems, the blank, snow-covered landscape. Is it only the tarnished human soul, never totally redeemed, that can give meaning to life?