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:

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

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.