by Patricia Callan
More than what I've done,
I'd say I am the sum of what I know
and make my own by loving.
hus, the formalist poet Deborah Warren describes a poetic life in which she travels all over the renaissance map: art, music, philosophy, history, mythology, science, nature, the classics, contemporary mores, and domesticity. Equipped with a vast and dazzling vocabulary, a solid knowledge of the classics, an extraordinary metrical gift, and the pitch of a concert mistress, her brilliance is sui generis.
(In this essay SH refers to The Size of Happiness, ZM, Zero Meridian, DWF to Dream with Flowers and Bowl of Fruit.)
Every poet has her history, her personal journey toward the cities of poetry and their illuminations. Although Deborah Warren has only been writing poetry for a recent fourteen years, she has always been on the road toward her destination. On the occasion of her parents' 50th wedding anniversary, being the 'literary' one among siblings, she was asked to write a poem. The result: a sonnet, the form learned in adolescence, dormant and just waiting for a party. After submitting the poem to a magazine, she said, "They took it and actually paid me for it." At about the same time, she became affiliated with the Powow River Poets in Newburyport, Massachusetts, a group of mainly formalist colleagues. Here, her clear, forthright voice tells the truth; her observations astute and gracious.
In the mysterious world of poetic preference, formalism is often dismissed but Warren's poems refute every misconception about metrical verse. In a review for The Hudson Review, Bruce Bawer commented on The Size of Happiness: " . . . she is also able to bang out, for example, a neat poem about email that doesn't seem out of place amidst the antiquities . . . an apparently effortless ability to segue from silly puns to sober thought about the Ultimate Questions, all the while keeping the pentameter line."
In the way a wine connoisseur recalls the first taste of a vintage year, Warren has a vivid childhood recollection of her early exposures to poetry: Mother Goose rhymes, specifically the edition illustrated by Tasha Tudor. The illustrations are significant for their New England landscapes, anticipating the poet of observation and place she would become; Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses, with its lilting tetrameters ( as comforting to children then, as they are now ) were also part of her earliest years:
These early children's poems helped establish meter in this young girl's malleable ear.
Through all the pleasant meadow-side
the grass grew shoulder high,
Till the shining scythes went far and wide
And cut it down to dry.
In addition to her home-honed language, Warren's childhood included her best friend's family who spoke only French. The language, learned before puberty, is still alive, fluent and without the accent heard when French is learned later in life.
"Silent Reading" (ZM, 9), a poem with its subtext of sound, embodies the manner in which aural properties are discerned by the brain. This, as well as a natural affinity for meter, regularly heard in childhood, made memorizing easy. In high school, she was assigned the usual battery of Shakespeare's iambic speeches. This connection to Shakespeare seems to have infused her blood and poetry with lyricism. "Landscape in March" (SH, 36) is as soft as the sfumato technique it recalls.
It's smoke that sets the pace in this slow landscape,
smoke from olive groves and last year's vines;
here and there in the hills and distances
behind a Madonna--behind Annunciations,
The witty "Aphrodite at the Old-Age Home" (DWF, 58) with its opening dialogue could have been written by the playwright. Annunciations, Nowadays reveals both Warren's sly wit and Shakespearean incisiveness.
She didn't expect to be entertaining an angel,
She didn't think: I'll wear the blue sateen
and sit and wait with some needlework or a book....
.... That's the way it is with so-called angels
nowadays. They still come unannounced,
to a shabby room.
Deborah Warren's remarkable high school education at The Ethel Walker School required additional memorization: pages of Les Miserables. (It could be argued this might not be the best pedagogic tool in teaching French.) However, the experience added to her already fine-tuned Gallic ear and accelerated the easy flow of language which serves her so well as a poet.
The formation of a writer occurs in many ways, but a fine teacher can reveal a poet in the way a sculptor finds the statue within the stone. At a formative time in her life, Deborah Warren and her connection with Miss Florence Hunt helped form this adolescent poet in her writing, poetry and prose. Keats, particularly the Odes, infused her memory; perhaps Warren's examinations of time and dimension have their origins in "Ode to a Nightingale". As Warren's high school poetic foundation moved from Keats toward Tennyson, she became cognizant of a more modern diction, further drawn to meter. Tennyson's tribute "To Virgil" speaks of meter, ". . . Though thine ocean-roll of rhythm / sound forever of Imperial Rome--".
At fifteen she selected the sophisticated "Woman from the Washington Zoo" by Randall Jarrell for a memorization assignment, an unusual, yet not surprising choice by this young woman. In her career as a poet, this early influence of Jarrell appears, as Warren often guides the unsuspecting reader to unimagined turns and endings.
Musicality, subject matter, and meter unite figuratively and literally in her many poems about music. "The Two-Week Sonatina," (SH, 58) in which the speaker has fallen for a certain piece of music, conveys the wonder of learning a new dance, an etude, or a song; when the excitement of newness wanes, it's analogous to the dimming of new love. Celebrating the symbiotic relationship of the pianist to the rehearsal, "Ballet Rehearsal: Chopin Waltz," (ZM, 8) could be an encore.
While music is a frequent topic, other subjects are numerous and no less adroitly tackled: love in later life, "Baggage," (ZM, 32) and marital discord, "Malus Domestica," (SOH, 96) :
What hope (if even what I call
In a more sardonic manner the poet addresses a devastating topic, asking fictional adulterers "Anna, Emma" (ZM 7) for advice: "How to manage the black lace, the mascara, / All the tricks that are wasted on a husband."
an apple you contrive to view
as quite a different animal)
have I of understanding you?
Rhyme is only one of her poetic skills; "Sleep Technicians" (SH, 29) with the end rhymes technicians and omniscience enliven the quest for a good night's sleep as well as the poem. In her first volume, "Wedding Day at Troldhaugen (Edvard Grieg)" (SH, 57) the choice of Mendelssohn to rhyme with epithalamion is just right and brilliant. In the mythology poem, "The Twelfth Labor: What Eurytheus Sent Back" (ZM, 51), hell teamed with Asphodel keep the story intriguing and exciting.
The use of the epigraph is always well conceived, never for the sake of too much explanation, or to follow the current trend of the epigraph as a display of erudition. J'en ai froid dans le cur, Edith Piaf, the epigraph that begins "Jealousy," (ZM, 38) chills the woman who has ever imagined her.
Nature. . .has mixed us of clay and flame, of brain and mind.--William James, the epigraph for "Clay and Flame" (SH, 15) precedes a sonnet which, in the first ten lines, explains the evolution of the brain.
Up from the mineral mud and ore,
from mildew and bacterium
and mold and thallophyte and spore
to fungus, rust and diatom;
from moss and fern and flowering seed
to coral, fluke and sponge, and from
flatworm and snail and centipede
to fish to swamp until we come
to mouse, to monkey--to the brain . . .
Warren is a sister to Frost; the quatrains in "Scope," (SH, 20) both Frostian in subject matter and meter.
But not the hawk--who apprehends the air,
Yet, it wasn't until her middle years that she knew him in depth, along with his "loose iambics". In "Roof-Walker," (ZM,27) we read:
his own blue field, and, equally, the lower
brown domain of mice--and who's aware
that watching equals power.
. . . (up there between the silver or the snow
and heaven) to the roof and to the sky,
to brushing the weather away--and if you'd grow
too seasoned in the barn-roof point of view
to come back down to the flat brown earth you knew.
Farmer and Latin scholar that she is, Warren chooses to read Virgil's Georgics the way others read a novel. She meets bi-weekly with a long-time friend to discuss, not only Virgil's poetry and practical advice, but the mutual connection to history, mythology, the land, and its hardships. She forms a trio with Virgil and Frost; if we include the early influence of Jarrell, we have an impressive quartet.
Deborah Warren's work includes many forms of metric verse. She is not, however, rigidly locked into them. Dream with Flowers and Bowl of Fruit, her third volume, includes an epithalamion "Prospect and Retrospect," (DWF, 53) displaying her exploration of what I call, imagined dimension. Looking at long-term marriage through the bride's reflection in a mirror the poet writes:
There--it's the present; and from the mirror
now, with the mist rubbed off, floats out a song:
The song with the scent of apples and of flowers,
echoes the tune of light you walk along
reflecting and following you--to then from now.
The Shakespearean sonnet, "Tapping the Northfield Maples," (ZM, 30) examines weather, which gives a poet/farmer frustration, anxiety and provides endless material. In an even less bucolic mood, the edgy poem, Voodoo, (DWF, 23) shows her comfort with a dark subject:
Two pins through his wandering eyes--
a double prick for his deceit.
one for the lips that spouted lies.
One for the heart, two for the feet.
Few poets can handle terza rima as successfully in the way "Hera's
Gift" (SH, 54) makes the grade. Hera, the most jealous woman in mythology, has been a subject for many writers, but Warren nails the topic shut with a contemporary twist; Hera infuses our blood with jealousy: ". . . Touch your temples. / Hera brought / us the brute in the blood that never really died/ but sticks in our heads like dry dung on a hide."
A frequent and favorite motif of Warren is the elegy; the subject sometimes treated in a surprising manner. Four in The Size of Happiness are understated yet pointedly questioning meditations: "Thirty Seconds Wide," " Thrift Shop,", "Memorial". The fourth "Ann Died Small," opens: "Ann died small, gone scanty as to bones; / her flesh was muslin-thinner every year." The poem's strengths become more complex on rereading, as we puzzle over Ann and why she is no longer nourished by food. Is it stress, an eating disorder, cancer? Other aspects of Warren's poems become apparent; her scrupulous attention to punctuation makes every detail clear and if the reader doesn't understand her meaning in "Night Air" it is not the poet's fault.
Maria always dreads the slink of twilight
across the room; she hates the way the stuff
crawls across the sill and down, along the floor--
a wall--another wall; all appetite--
stalks the ceiling, looks around for more:
But what is Maria worrying about?
Basic poetry writing classes often include a common exercise "the list poem." In Warren's poetry, "the list poem" becomes instruction itself. The sonnet "A Hill," (ZM, 17) contains her usual acute observations about our relationship with the earth and lists within lists: The net of stars that holds the night in place, / with Cassiopeia and Berenice's Hair / as fixed as a cage across the dome of space; / with Cygnus, the Lion and the Little Bear. In another list poem "Catalogue Raisonné," (a monograph of an artist's works, including images, dimensions, media, conditions and commentary) Warren spins off the definition by measuring, not a canvas, but a room where the media are vehicles as diverse as: milk in hot tea, the smoke of fires, the smell of fur on a cat and images as vivid as if they were painted: a new coat, the jewel tones in a carpet, a velvet sofa. Here, one sees the possibilities of lists.
Frost said of a poem, "It has dénouement. It has an outcome that though unforeseen was predestined from the first image of the original mood . . ." There are many instances in Warren's poems where the reader cannot imagine--or may be mistaken--in her expectation of the ending. Whether the set-up is a killer first line or a tranquil beginning, unforeseeable resolutions are unexpected and delightful. "Tea" for example, begins with a modest description of an interactive display in a museum:
At the Cassatt exhibit a machine
After speculating on the options one could have if rearranging a life, the speaker concludes:
allows museumgoers to repaint
the pictures on a small computer screen.
So many options! Hardly a constraint--
they're terrifying, all the roads not taken
but that could be. Spare us so much voice,
and spare the ones so easily forsaken
under the tyranny of so much choice.
Warren's first person poems are not usually autobiographical but adopt intriguing personas that propel the reader into the poem: "Anna, Emma, I turn to you--as experts / on adultery . . .," "I may not have a degree from college but ..." Some, however, like "My Friends in Fiction" seem definitely personal as Warren reads substantive novels for recreation while other people wind surf, ski or bungee jump. In "Third Person" the speaker admits, "Sometimes I turn myself from flesh to fiction," perhaps the wish of an avid reader but also an example of Warren's exploration of imagined dimension.
Warren appears familiar with the science of speaking, choosing as a subject, the unlikely messenger of anyone's words, Moses. Dream with Flowers and Bowl of Fruit includes "Stutterer," (DWF, 39) the word itself a challenge in normal speech. Consider that the vocal folds open and close many times during each second of speech; in stuttering that opening and closing becomes dysfluent, consonants and vowels elongated and repetitive. Unlike "Silent Reading" in which we hear with our eyes, "Stutterer" must be read aloud with the consonants clattering around your palate. Warren begins: Moses was slow of speech, the stiff words locked / against his teeth and what he was assigned--. The poet has tied the reality of the stutterer's physical difficulty to the subject.
After reading modern poetry in which the content may be unfathomable, a reader may feel a failure of intelligence. Deborah Warren's grasp of imagined dimension has the security of a rock climber, refreshing for the appreciative reader who asks, "Why can't I think like this?" Warren's worlds of dimension examine: reflection in a spoon, a mirror, the sky, a glass blower's bubble, destination, even the galaxy. The speaker in "Swimmer," (DWF, 21) stops beside a puddle, watching the reflected trees:
. . . and, diving down into the two dimensions, swims
down, deeper, toward whatever breeze
stirs the branches and ruffles the buried sky,
flutter-kicking his way among the limbs . . .
As one rereads the poems of Deborah Warren, one finds deeper levels of appreciation in the manner of photographs and music. As John Harbison has set the poems of Elizabeth Bishop and Yoko Nakatani the words of Shizuyo Le Nestour, music could well be the future of Deborah Warren's poems. A poet whose blood is O positive, the universal donor of this poetry, and whose petite body contains an enormous mind--her work should enter the dimension of sound and its notation, the imagined future: A nocturne that I've never heard before--
and the world comes pouring through the air, expressed
in such bright filaments of liquid sound
that now I wonder: what about the rest?
"Nocturne for Flute" (ZM, 79):
Contributed by Patricia Callan
Warren, Deborah. The Size of Happiness. The Waywiser Press. 2003.
---, Zero Meridian. Ivan R. Dee. 2004.
---, The Powow River Anthology. Ed., Alfred Nicol. Ocean Publishing. 2006
---, Dream with Flowers and Bowl of Fruit. University of Evansville Press. 2008
Mother Goose. Illustrated by Tasha Tudor. Henry Z. Walck, Inc. 1972
Stevenson, Robert Louis. A Child's Garden of Verses. Harry W. Abrams, Inc. 1972.