I want to elaborate three points about Rosanna Warren’s 2020 volume of poetry, So Forth. First, there is no better painterly contemporary poet, or perhaps no better North American poet, at transferring a painterly sensibility into language. After all, probably no one among her peers trained so intensely as a painter, and certainly no one has written so carefully and so thoroughly on a painter of Max Jacob’s originality and depth as Warren did in her biography of Jacob, also published in 2020. And, more important to me, no other contemporary can both continue and modify how Modernist poets have articulated affinities with constructivist modes of painting, primarily by treating syntax as having a central role in developing how the formulations of the poem modify our experience of the world. For Warren’s use of the painterly, however, we have to proceed somewhat differently. I see her also attuning herself to Cézanne’s ideal of realization that stresses how the artist’s manifest labor can intensify our states of awareness so that we can look at the world more accurately and with more satisfaction. But realization for her is less a matter of structural intensity than of handling sonic features as paralleling the ways that brushstrokes and the contouring of sentences might establish modes of feeling for what we see. Passion and precision nourish each other as active conditions at every level of the work. Hence the title So Forth, an apparent commitment to logical sequence crossed with an aesthetic concern for how we can will engagements with time and with change so that we accept processes that we cannot control or reason about. This ideal of acceptance is also contained in how the title suggests the notion of obvious continuity, as in the expression “et cetera.”
Second, Warren in many of her poems retains the basic principles of what Marjorie Perloff has called “scenic poetry,” which elaborates an observed scene so that the closing lines can bring what lies outside the psyche into surprising communion with an asserted inner life. But because of Warren’s liveliness of language, there is spirit there from the start. And that spirit enables richer and more complex realizations of affective life that modulate from affirmation to despair or anger at the ways history also blocks our capacities to align with the rhythms and structures this life offers. Her scenes take on a visual and aural complexity that cannot be satisfied by the transformative final image typical of scenic poetry. And the poems rarely close with states of ecstasy. The mind in the poem has to find conditions of satisfaction while acknowledging the constant presence of a natural order that cares nothing for our needs for moments of ecstasy.
Finally, because Warren can render the world in such intensely sensual terms, she is sharply and painfully aware of the difference between what the world demands and what the artist can produce, especially in the way that she can transform narrative time into retrospective contemplative spaces that provide an ability to grasp, if not to transform, what Wallace Stevens presented as “the pressure of reality.” So Forth invites us to participate in a personal drama through various stages of adapting emotionally to a world that seems other to Warren’s most basic desires. The story of this reconciliation of desires of the self and demands on the self is both distinctive and powerful.
The uses of Warren’s painterly craft are nowhere more evident than in the volume’s marvelous introductory poem “Cotillion Photo”:
These young women will last forever, posed like greyhounds,
trapped in the silver crust of the frame.
You can’t tell one from another, the breed is so pure.
They will never run. Each one aloft
on a frozen wave of white cotillion lace—
to resemble marriage, to resemble fate.
Initially I cite only the opening lines in order to honor their function of cueing what will be primary in the remainder of this text, and of the volume as a whole. Notice first the brilliant blend of the colloquial, putting the poem in the social world, with the various modes of attention to artifice that provide the sense of timeless framing. Notice also the subtle play of verb tenses, from future to past participles to an imperative followed by a present tense explanation for the imperative, to a return to the future that is completed by two infinitives. (And the infinitives seem to move from a statement of function for the photo to a statement of function for the statement of function.) This flexibility of tense will turn out to be central in comparing time experienced in ordinary life and time experienced in art, or by means of art.
I save to last the most striking feature of these lines, the intricate play of sounds established by the interrelation of vowel and consonant. This is no ordinary description. Indeed this is almost no description at all, because of the presence of a second musical level of the rendering. The opening line is dominated by five o sounds with various levels of purity. This might be too much, too Swinburnian, were there not the modulating repetition of l sounds that liquify this sonority. Then the second line renounces sonority for the flattening contrast between clipped consonants and a variety of forceful nouns buttressed by contrasting syllabic patterns. The same contrasts occur in lines 3 and 4, followed by a simply wonderful blend in line 5 of the long a’s of “wave” and “lace” with how “white” modulates the “w” into what “cotillion” does with l’s, preparing for “lace.”
Impressive as these aural effects are, we should not let them outweigh attention to how her powers of mind are exemplified as a second level of this poem. It is typical of Warren’s work to impose sharp shifts in her attention that by the conclusion of the poem all come together. This is the rest of the poem as it provides analogues interpreting why what is within its frame serves “to resemble marriage, to resemble fate”:
I remember July sun pouring down
in a prickly meadow, and a garter-snake skin
Laid out like fairy lingerie on a stone wall.
This was Connecticut, there would be a stone wall.
Crickets were scraping marrow from the day.
I was young; I ’d been alone for weeks.
I painted the meadow morning and afternoon
trying to capture the crackling sound with my brush.
I was reading “Oedipus Rex.”
I understood neither the snake skin nor the play.
“Your life is one long night,” said Oedipus
to the prophet, Oedipus, who saw nothing.
Oak trees rustled in drought. In saffron grass
small creatures skittered. There came a day
when I said to myself, “I should prefer to sleep.”
Small planets tasted dry and bitter on my tongue.
And two days later I woke. Alone in the creaking barn
at dusk, not knowing what day, what month, what year,
but feeling the haul of earth rolling on its way.
“It is not your fate that I should be your ruin,”
the prophet said. I moved my arms,
my legs, I unclenched my hands,
and stood up dizzy from the cot. What was to come
would come in its own good time
outside the frame. The moon was rising
above the hill, a shy wind gathered force,
and trees, in their black silhouettes, linked arms.
For Warren it takes insisting on a personal dimension outside the frame of art in order fully to appreciate what these resemblances can embody. Then there may be a larger frame within art produced by the labor to include the personal as a condition for sharpening our sense of how the artifact achieves a complex state of realization of a physical world permeated by both thought and desire. The resemblance to marriage involves a contrast to her near-suicidal loneliness. And the resemblance to fate provides a possible corrective to how Oedipus Rex teaches her to read “the haul of the earth rolling on its way” while giving even that echo of fatality a luscious texture of o sounds. By engaging the fate of Oedipus, Warren finds a role for Teiresias in her own situation: he can tell her that he is not responsible for her fate. That responsibility requires looking beyond the frame. She finds there nature providing what can count as an image defining a close parallel between the picture and her own situation. But this chillingly comforting image is the opposite of any kind of ecstatic state, because this image is in no way transcendental. Its power depends on its simplicity in echoing the photograph and establishing internal relationships among three simple facts that encourage endurance, without any promise of the visionary. There is no escaping a kind of darkness when thinking about fatality. But there is the possibility of developing something like a sense of shared existence that can be beautiful in itself and so provide at least sustenance in one’s seeking one’s own necessities.
Warren is not content to utter these images simply as thoughts. The linking runs much deeper than that, because it is embodied in the mode of statement. I am moved especially by how the verbs in the last two and one-half lines support the linking. The first two verbs—a past progressive and a simple past—flow directly from their subjects, while the final simple past tense verb is itself framed by the qualifying mention of the black silhouettes whose darkness resists, tempers, and greatly expands the emergence of the metaphor of linked arms. This use of metaphor deserves attention, because it expands the role of the trees by penetrating, and so realizing their actual appearance, rather than displacing it. But the darkness reminds us that this linkage is not exactly a dance. It is closer to a moderately grim determination in the face of the power of the moon to supplant human agency.
That struggle with the elements itself cannot be separated from how framing occurs in the final lines of the poem. The patterning is more subtle and quiet than in the beginning. And it produces a greater sense of intimate linkage, deeper than what the will might produce without poetry. The language is structured as simple indicatives. But each successive clause adds a modifier while keeping up a dance of o, a, and i sounds that further naturalize and extend what linking the arms might establish.
This poem synthesizes two projects that I think prove basic to the imaginative intensities staged by the remainder of the volume. First there is a struggle to remake and define new roles for the scenic mode basic to North American poetry from, say, 1950 (with Roethke), despite the sharp critiques of it by more experimentally inclined writers. Warren has deep affinities with what she calls “contemporary pastoral” in her essay on Mark Strand, chapter five of her Fables of the Self (2008). But the level of artifice and the sense of encountering pain as basic to the affirmation of what artifice can accomplish also renders her work quite distinctive. In effect she domesticates the experimental spirit while using the delicacies of painterly poetics in order to avoid the rather easy, or at least uncomplicated, emotional gestures basic to the dominant examples of this mode. Then, second, the volume puts on the pastoral an intense personal and self-reflexive demand to find ways to handle how time and the often cruel innocence of nature can be reconciled to human desires to find feasible paths for satisfaction.
Let us now consider what we might treat without being too reductive as a standard example of why the scenic or pastoral modes seem so attractive to poets. Then we can contrast what Warren does with roughly the same setting. There is no more typical poem stressing pastoral values by dramatizing particular scenes, redeemed from mere description by the concluding lines, than James Wright’s “A Blessing.” The poem begins with the speaker and a friend being welcomed to a pasture by two Indian ponies that “have come gladly out of the willows / To welcome my friend and me.” Their loneliness seems inseparable from both their loving each other and their eager welcome to their visitors. There is no fear and no dangerous otherness in the nature that the poem presents. Instead, the poem concludes in this way:
At home once more,
They begin munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness.
I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms,
For she has walked over to me
And nuzzled my left hand.
She is black and white,
Her mane falls wild on her forehead,
And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear
That is delicate as the skin over a girl’s wrist.
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Wright is brilliant in intensifying the level of attention as he projects himself becoming at home with his desire to hold the slenderer pony, especially in his aligning with the light breeze that moves him to caress the ear whose delicacy becomes irresistible. But while the setting is pastoral, the emotional intensity selects from any sense of nature as a whole, or even the psyche as a whole, since there are only positive sharings in this scene that warrant the ecstatic ending. This poem lacks, or, better, refuses the sense of what Warren calls the “sacrifice” she considers basic to contemplating human relationships in relation to the otherness of nature. Here that sense of otherness is dramatically subsumed by two powerful concluding gestures. “The light breeze” motivating his caress of the horse situates that gesture as a response to more general natural forces. Then “suddenly” proves basic to continuing the force of the light breeze by reversing it. It is by the end he who will align himself completely with the natural scene by devoting his imagination to a state of breaking into blossom.
The simple diction of this poem is crucial to realizing its affective charge, because it positions the speaker as giving his all to how a relationship with what is typically the otherness of nature can produce this sense of sheer identification. Pastoral becomes entirely a mode of ecstatic identification with nature. And by subsuming thought into sensation, that vision of nature deliberately loses any continuity with the ways time and action govern the actual world. Hence the poem’s delicacy and beauty also become its limitations by reducing life to the momentary and by evading any kind of thinking that might complicate what might be involved in fully blossoming.
Perhaps it is not necessary to remark on how this sense of linking the imagination to what blossoms in nature would prove so attractive to poets who must dwell in the modern world, where such states are not exactly common currency. But our awareness of the need for such a relationship should make us suspicious of any easy assertions of it. For Warren especially, with her background in classical pastoral, it is impossible to honor the scenic mode. Simplifications of nature that seem to justify visionary states seem evasions of how pastoral can use nature as a means of reflecting on how humans can supplement it and make it the foundation of a natural philosophy capable of tying the psyche not to the exceptional moment but to modes of accepting necessity and at times reveling in it.
The ending of Warren’s “Scenic View” superbly defines the power and the danger of directly celebrating selected views of landscape. Everything depends on what “here” can mean as the poem turns from fears that cancer may be discovered to the likely possibility that God will grant the speaker “a few more years.” Then imagination celebrates the news by turning to memories that sustain hope for the future and recast the banalities of nature as portrayed in a poster at the doctor’s office:
and I walk with you again along the lake
where dim waves jitter at the breakwater
and soiled, piled-up chunks of ice begin to melt
and the crumbling masonry of the balustrade
retains its air of raffish gentility.
We call this safety. Here we may stroll,
Here we may pause and look out over the deep.
Once her renewed faith in having a future can recover a “you” for company, the landscape can move from threat to a kind of charm. Yet the charm is as fragile as the highly qualified language. Calling this safety is comforting, but hardly provides any assurance. And there is an even richer mode of qualification. Does “here” refer primarily to the space of observation or to the space provided by “calling this safety” or to the intricate psychology of the cautious writing—so cautious that it allows only two-syllable words that vary from the rush of monosyllabic utterance in the final two lines? I think the delicacy of the assertion fits perfectly. The scenic details can be satisfying, but also can remind one of the otherness of all scenic detail when considered in relation to the intricacy of human desires. This wary clarity, on the other hand, entirely embodies in its multiple levels of meaning what interpretation tries to piece out. One looks out over the deep; one does not offer conclusions about it. One needs to compose a space for one’s sense of relief that there are imaginative constructs that match the needs of the psyche for the possibility of treasuring how a quasi-pastoral scene can be an object for attunement. Art allows an expressive creativity and establishes a time and a space not driven by the machinery governing our encounters with the real.
This caution and this need for art as an alternative site for imaginative investments countering the world’s being other to human sensibilities is a constant motif in the volume. But the situation is not static. I think each of the volume’s five sections plays a part in elaborating what it might take to accept the emotional burdens of the specific encounters so that the speaker can eventually carve out a path where certain stances allow at least provisional satisfactions. The first section is rife with a sense of threat inseparable from living in a world that cannot share the poet’s priorities but allows or even encourages pain and fear. Then Part II of So Forth is insistently bleak, with an emphasis on a sense of personal powerlessness and a need for something capable of redirecting passion away from hopes for happiness. One poem ends with “As if, you idiot, you could ever be free,” and another uses a list of quite diverse predicates to capture the pathos of isolation: “We were drenched, dark, alone, and small.”
This emotional turmoil has two basic functions in relation to the structure of the volume as a whole. It sets out what can happen when one tries to find in landscape what probably depends on changes in attitude and perspective. And it prepares for how Part III develops one of Warren’s more delightful inventions. Part III is the only part with a title, here offering the rich historical possibilities of “Legende of Good Women” by exploring the possibility that women artists through the centuries have grappled with much the same causes for despair that she encounters. But they coped, and the recovery of the force of their coping turns the volume to a focus on how art can help engage life. Yet such heroics are not quite satisfying in relation to the contemporary needs established by the rest of the volume. So Part IV offers another kind of historical perspective. It is devoted largely to what cannot be assimilated as personal example but requires a scrupulous resistance to imaginative states seeking to shape phenomena in accord with human desire. Attention turns to versions of “the face we / cannot, do not / want to see.” In fact, the enjambments in these lines may indicate all we need to see about the gulf between what the eye has to recognize and what the mind wants to make of that recognition.
For examples of what I claim about each section I propose “July,” “Chanel,” and “Anatomy Museum,” the last of which also provides a dramatic context for how the final section of the book will return to matters of pastoral by concentrating on the imaginative labor of intensifying what we see by what the poems enable us to think and to feel about that thinking. This poem offers a striking contrast between an art museum possessing a painting that Napoleon III “snapped up” and an anatomy museum in the same city that
displayed in case after case
full-scale wax models of the effects of syphilis:
penises wine-dark and bloated, ragged vulvas . . .
buttocks blooming in pustules. The art
to repair these nineteenth-century marvels
has been lost.
These “buttocks blooming in pustules” are a far cry from Wright’s fantasy “That if I stepped out of my body I would break / Into blossom.” Now a satisfying poetry depends on another kind of art than the one that has been lost, because it must face more complex horrors plaguing the psyche.
The final section, the longest in the book, continues this sense of having the speaking voice engage what history forces it to confront. Probably the central problem now involves the limits of pastoral, because for Warren poetry must define what a twenty-first-century woman can become as a willing and knowing agent, given what she has experienced. Her life is decidedly alien to how pastoral stages psychic life, as indicated most clearly by her presenting early in this section a series of projects in “natural philosophy” by characters like Thales and Anaximander. Natural philosophy here becomes a philosophy not yet engaged in an academy but attempting directly to clarify the ways Necessity seems to resist possibilities for emotional satisfaction. In effect, the philosopher’s sense of precarity becomes a demand on the poet to establish different but comparable modes of engaging experience.
Let us take as our first example “The Line,” because it grapples to align the speaker’s consciousness now with the girl she was when she could revel in the woods while innocently trying to learn what a boy’s kiss might be like by kissing a girl. The result is a strange attachment to the primal as surrounding creatures get “loosened back into the ground”:
It [the kiss] tasted of fear:
moist, tremulous, hovering on a brink
of territory imagined but unmarked
whose wind came muttering through branches, smelling
of balsam and leaf-mould, of creatures loosened back into
I cannot do justice to the variety of modes of otherness that the poet has to engage in this section. Instead I will just point out how the volume becomes increasingly domestic in its quest to find imaginative satisfaction in an honest confrontation with initially alienating features of experience. This increasing domesticity is not a cause for comfort or delight, or anything that pastoral can address. Rather, the poems establish various theaters of crisis that test the capacity of lyric imagination to provide the levels of generalization carried in concrete images that might provide states comparable to the work of natural philosophy. I will explore two quite different versions of what we might call the reflective capacity of contextualized images—each painfully aware that contemporary pastoral just does not put enough pressure on what those images have to accomplish.
Warren’s version of natural philosophy may almost be summed up in her use of the figure of “passing.” Everything passes in the inexorable movement of time. But it is possible—rarely possible—to find an attitude toward passing which itself passes muster as inviting states of imagination that are capable of resisting this passing or finding ways to accept it. Look at the work the concluding images must perform in “In Passing”:
Birdsong. Juicings in the air, decanted summer.
The small child burbles the reinvention of language
as filaments of the spider’s web
trap morning in a corner of the veranda.
We’ve flipped through the spectrum: in early May
each daffodil lit its small oil lamp.
In mid-June wild irises translated water
up long stems into purple and creamy fire.
Now, late July, it’s tiny roses,
magenta coals strewn in a thicket of brambles.
We know it will all come to white.
I have touched each mole, each mosquito bite
on your pale skin. Morning breaks
across the meadow, between branches of white pine,
and the catbird pours himself out
in disconnected trills, warbles and cries.
Perhaps the best way of getting at the rich subtlety and power of this poem is to ask why there is a shift to a personal relation and why it occurs in less than two lines. Notice first how those lines break the established pattern of sentences in the poem and require a more capacious syntax if the poem is to provide any satisfying resolution to the pains of time passing. The opening concern for the child quietly introduces a scene that elicits a demand for language because the sights rendered cannot satisfy the child’s awakening self-consciousness. The poet can provide the scene. But even this capacious scene cannot suffice to characterize the demands on language. Language must first address passing time—in this case by providing a catalog registering a sequence of effects proper to each season, strikingly rendered in parallel two-line sentences.
Then language is given a more perplexing problem. How can it deal with personal memories of an intimacy that seems to endure in the past-perfect tense, despite their delicacy and openness to constant re-definition? Now the poem requires a three-and-a half-line effort to produce a parallel to what can pass as a figure for accepting the passing of time and of personal investments. And now there is no separation into seasons. What matters is the interconnection of elements. On one level, sight gives way to sound. On another level, light unifies the scene both spatially and temporally, because the catbird’s song greets what the sun does to meadow and branches of white pine.
Finally, it matters a great deal that the description of the catbird’s disconnected trills ends with “cries.” I think the disconnection plays against the overall coherence of the scene, organized visually by the branches of white pine and orally by the capacity of the scene to hold the sounds despite their apparent fragmentation. These cries cannot be separated from the past tense of the speaker touching her companion’s skin: even if there is no direct crisis, there is a sense that these touches are so vulnerable in time that memory requires a figure for its own needs and active powers. That figure becomes the capacity of the sunlight to organize scenes of related presences even if the presences change. There is no escaping change and loss. But there are ways a reliance on nature can take on philosophical resonance if one seeks not transcendence but modes of mind capable of accepting change and perhaps even embracing it for its capacity to remind us of what we can value, because its passing will leave enduring states of mind.
“Toward High Point” is asked to perform similar tasks, but in an overtly narrative mode that elaborates dialogical intimacy and so raises the stakes of how a philosophical relation to nature can flesh out the limited satisfactions available in registering the increasing darkness at the conclusion. Here the encounter with how time and space are presented makes clear the burden of finding a way to reconcile the self with a felt inadequacy pervading the speaker’s relation to nature. The poem begins as if it could celebrate the couple’s alignment with nature as “I” follows in the steps of “You” along a steep ridge trail “toward High Point.” But this “toward” becomes an emblem of our habits of projection that greatly complicate our relations to the present tense.
The sharply realized scene leads to memory of their returns to this place and their mutual connection to it. But one question remains: “How to cram / a mountain in a pad or photo album?” How can one remember the feelings accompanying the scene in order to preserve what “I” and “you” have together? The penultimate stanza casually mentions taking off her watch as one gesture for blessing “this peace” after the dinner when they return from the walk. But the watch leads to focusing for a moment on the alarm clock that exists in effect to break up peaceful unity by reminding them of chores, and, more generally, of a passing time that inevitably produces both reassuring memories and reminders of how fragile are such moments of satisfying peace. Then the last stanza makes present how this sense of time passing ultimately affects their connection to each other:
For now, we stride on an ancient seafloor thrust
to the sky, we swing along pressing old damage down
under our tread, leaves crackle, and we trust
the mountain to hold us. But how dark you’ve grown
heading into the sunset, a silhouette
rimmed in snow-light, gilt-edged, and violet.
The pressure of time as the narrative returns to their walk is built into the way every line is enjambed. It is as if each line were incomplete in itself and hungry for the satisfaction it seeks even as the desire involved recalls old damage that threatens disrupting their unity.
There is no confessional melodrama, because the poem is interested much less in the details of the present than in the need to accommodate old damage. This accommodation in turn depends on how fully the poet can carry the implications of the scene over into the details given to perception. On the one hand, the sense of presence dominates over memory because the details are so sharp visually and aurally. But the detail also proves haunting, because the present tense is so framed by the darkness visible as they head into the sunset. I think the poem accepts this growing darkness as another natural stage of their love that they have to work through. But the poem also recognizes that this will not be an easy task, even with the power to construct such an encompassing frame. It is this recognition without any claims to transformation that makes this poem worthy of being treated as natural philosophy.
“Toward High Point” is remarkable especially for how it makes no explicit judgments. The poetry, the humanity, is all in the play of consciousness over the details of their situation and the discomforts they evoke against a background of committed love. So it provides a powerful context for the final two poems, especially for “Shabbat Candles,” the concluding poem, which is even more insistently concrete and resistant to transforming sight into any resolving idea. There is only the meditative internalizing of what is seen, even to the point of accepting the demands of time:
They finger the darkness long after the plates are cleared
and because they’re lonely, multiply themselves
in the black window, bowing to company,
and exchange signals with the rising moon.
We’re asleep. God will put out the lights.
I do not know why this poem is so fascinating to me. Somehow the concise delicacy of how the candles multiply in reflections to alleviate loneliness and align themselves with the rising moon affords a psychology for this God. And the simple direct brevity affords an ideal model for how we might relate to this situation. He/she will put out the lights, in large part because God is bound to the procedures built into what has been created. For humans having to live within these conditions, putting out the lights is never only a cause for comfort: loss is built into the process, even if one treasures what night can become. But in this poem, putting out the lights is also a way that God cares for his creation, without perhaps caring much for the human part of that creation, because it always wants more than what the rules of nature provide.
The poem offers a reassurance to those who can sleep, and eventually must sleep forever, because there are larger forces than the human we can grow reconciled to. God’s assurances are more about God’s way of being than any kind of charity. But the tone of the poem suggests that there is no alternative to accepting how sleep comes, despite our understanding of the lonely pathos that this involves. After all, we might find in God’s actions a substantial analogy with how artists make a world providing a kind of satisfaction for those who are willing to take responsibility for fitting themselves into the frame, generating this possibility for psychological peace.
So Forth. By Rosanna Warren. New York: W. W. Norton, 2020. 96 pp. $25.95.