rev. of Stained Glass by Rosanna Warren

Issue #62
Winter 1993-94

Stained Glass 
Poems by Rosanna Warren. W.W. Norton, $17.95 cloth. Reviewed by Jonathan Aaron.

In “Tide Pickers,” one of the tough-minded, beautifully crafted meditations in Rosanna Warren’s third collection of poems, the speaker sees the figures of people digging for shellfish on the Brittany coast as “Question marks at the tide line.” She wonders of the ocean,
“will it feed us?,” a question that leads, with the disturbing logic that characterizes many of the poems in this book, to
“how will we / die?” Her pondering ends with the onset of dusk “as Venus rises” and as, “framed in the window, a man and a woman bend /

down into each other, carving that question / the sea won’t answer though human hand grasp hand.” Even at its most benign, Nature is both indifferent and inscrutable, prompting questions about our relation to it our role in it-that are unanswerable. The lovers’ embrace suggests one way people try to brace themselves against the knowledge the poem’s speaker seems to be contending with. But “framed” here offers ironically disparate meanings-to build, to put into words, but also to incriminate falsely. The word’s shiftiness subtly undercuts the solace that might be inferred from the image of the lovers. Bending “into” each other, they seem unaware of what the poem gently but somberly insists on that a sense of life’s meaning is momentary, that even love can offer little to offset whatever “evening” in this case will darken into.

Stained Glass is a book about endings. It starts with “Season Due,” a terse yet richly visual contemplation of September’s “chrysanthemums, brash / marigolds, fat sultan dahlias a-nod // in rain.” The season’s last, they “brazen out this chill / which has felled already gentler flowers and herbs // and now probes / these veins for a last / mortal volley of // cadmium orange, magenta, a last acrid flood / of perfume that will drift in the air here once more, / yet once more, when these stubborn flowers have died.” In the poems that follow, Warren goes on to explore other kinds of endings, or limits that point to endings. One begins, “Once you have described the barn, erase the page” and ends as “Mist deletes the horizon” (“Farm”). A deft translation of Reverdy sounds a similar note: “The wind rises / The world slips away / The other side” (“Verso”). An electrifying rendering of Max Jacob’s comic, finally visionary monologue “Christ at the Movies” momentarily suggests that endings sometimes lead to
spiritual renewal: “Then why? Why this grace / If you know my life in all its ugliness? / If you know my faults and my weaknesses too? / What in me, oh Lord, could interest you?” The power of “grace,” however, seems undermined by the sense of unworthiness and doubt revealed in the closing question.

Some of the book’s starkest, boldest moments occur in poems on the death of Warren’s father, on her mother’s consequent solitude, and on the near loss of her own daughter. These poems are also among Warren’s loveliest, as when, addressing her dying father, she sees “Your skin / as fragile, pale, and infinitesimally moist / as erasable bond; your look, a startled bound / of apprehension, subsiding / into its lair” and then wonders “What intersections can we appoint / between your knowledge / and ours?” (“His Long Home”). In these instances, her language honed to a sometimes eerie purity of image and diction, Warren’s consciousness seems stripped down (or raised) to the point where she’s capable of perceiving only essentials. Her concluding poem, “The Twelfth Day,” breaks out of elegy and away from the personal by suddenly, shockingly recalling Achilles’s treatment of Hector’s corpse in
The Iliad, 22: “. . . Achilles hoards and defiles the dead / So what if heaven // and earth reverberate /
release . . . // . . . // So what if everything / echoes the Father
  let go let / go   This is Ancient // Poetry   It’s supposed / to repeat / . . . / It’s formulaic / That’s how we love   It’s called // compulsion. . . .” This daring stroke of self-deflation throws into a different kind of question all of the book’s preceding poems. It’s a grimly sardonic, finally almost unbearable gesture of refusal.

In Warren’s view, the consolation of either elegy
or philosophy is insufficient, and she’s not going to let either herself or her reader forget it.
Stained Glass is a work of acute, uncompromising vision.

Jonathan Aaron’s most recent book of poetry is Corridor (Wesleyan-New England). He teaches at Emerson College.