Categories
Robert Penn Warren

Warren’s “Rumor Verified: Poems 1979-1980”

If I hadn’t liked so many of the poems in “Rumor Verified: Poems 1979-1980” when I first read them nearly twenty years ago, I would be tempted to suspect that these are the kinds of poems that only us old folks would love. Many of the poems seem to reflect the kind of wisdom that comes from looking back on life.

Part I of “Paradox of Time” is one of the first poems in the section, which may be the main reason I chose to include it over several other poems in this section that I love:

PARADOX OF TIME

I. Gravity of Stone and Ecstasy of Wind

Each day now more precious will dawn,
And loved faces turn dearer still,
And when sunlight is withdrawn,
There, over the mountain’s black profile,

The western star reigns
In splendor, benign, arrogant,
And the fact that it disdains
You, and your tenement

Of flesh, should instruct you in
The paradox of Time,
And the doubleness wherein
The fleshly glory may gleam.

Sit on the floor with a child.
Hear laugh that creature so young.
See loom its life-arch, and wild
With rage, speak wild words sprung

From vision, and thus atone
For all folly now left behind.
Learn the gravity of stone.
Learn the ecstasy of wind.

The title alone is nearly enough to make this poem memorable. But when you’ve gone through a near life-ending event, the opening two lines, clich”d though they may be, take on particular significance. I also like the way Warren transforms the distant star into a symbol of “disdain” because it, unlike this “tenement of flesh,” seems infinite.

Instead of causing despair, though, this disdain causes the poet to revel in “fleshly glory,” to celebrate the sheer joy of a young child. If we cannot endure like stone, than we must learn the “ecstasy of wind.”

I probably chose “English Cocker: Old and Blind” for personal reasons, too, since my first dog as a child was an English Cocker and I was as devoted to him as he was to me and our family. Unfortunately, that also means I’ve experienced the “heart-stab” of this poem:

ENGLISH COCKER: OLD AND BLIND

With what painful deliberation he comes down the stair,
At the edge of each step one paw suspended in air,
And distrust, Does he thus stand on a final edge
Of the world? Sometimes he stands thus, and will not budge,

With a choking soft whimper, while monstrous blackness is whirled
Inside his head, and outside too, the world
Whirling in blind vertigo. But if your hand
Merely touches his head, old faith comes flooding back-and

The paw descends. His trust is infinite
In you, who are, in his eternal night,
Only a frail scent subject to the whim
Of wind, or only a hand held close to him

With a dog biscuit, or, in a sudden burst
Of temper, the force that jerks that goddamned, accurst
Little brute off your bed. But remember how you last saw
Him hesitate in his whirling dark, one paw

Suspended above the abyss at the edge of the stair,
And remember that musical whimper, and how, then aware
Of a sudden sweet heart-stab, you knew in him
The kinship of all flesh defined by a halting paradigm
.

Of course, the poem isn’t really about a dog, is it? It’s really about all of us who share “the kinship of all flesh defined by a halting paradigm.” Although we may get angry at those we touch in our lives, there is a bond of trust that transcends all anger.

Still, when we finally stand at that final abyss we will put our final trust in those who have touched us, just as we have touched them.

Though perhaps the reason we bond so with a dog is that they, unlike most people, seem to place “infinite” trust in their master, deserved or not.