JULY 7, 2021
EARLY IN HIS long narrative poem entitled Audubon: A Vision, the American poet Robert Penn Warren describes his eponymous protagonist as he watches a bear eating a blueberry. The section ends:
Bemused, above the fume of ruined blueberries,
The last bee hums.
The wings, like mica, glint
In the sunlight.
He leans on his gun. Thinks
How thin is the membrane between himself and the world.
This idea — that a “membrane” separates the self from the world — becomes, in these lines, a sort of paradox. By its very nature, the thin membrane both creates and traverses the distance between the self and the world — just as a bridge both separates and holds together the two sides it spans.
But what is this thin membrane? And how does one cross it?
These questions also emerge from Noah Warren’s new collection of poems, The Complete Stories. Like his grandfather (more on that later), Warren catalogs the many ways we negotiate the distance between ourselves and the world while simultaneously interrogating the uneasy line between narrative and lyric.
Despite its ambitious scope, the book’s title — The Complete Stories — is, like the collection as a whole, pitched at exactly the ironic key of sincerity-in-jest that we might expect from someone as talented and well read as its author. The Complete Stories seems to both wink slyly and blink naïvely — the poetic equivalent of saying, “I’m just kidding but seriously.”
However, any generic confusion that the unsuspecting, Pale Fire devotee might face in the title is dissolved almost instantly by the excellent opening poem, the title of which — “Preface to the Second Edition” — functions as both a postmodern joke about paratext and a playful acknowledgment that the collection follows Warren’s (Yale Younger–winning) debut.
“Get up, Brian says, / from the mud of your life.” That a collection propelled by the lyric-I would cede its opening words to another suggests, immediately, one answer to the opening question of how to navigate the distance between ourselves and others. If, as the speaker avers a few lines later, “Love is a hole / I lie in,” then how are we to “get up,” as it were, from both the “mud” and the “hole”?
The poem’s final lines shed light not only on this question but also on the book’s enigmatic title:
I was renting a yellow cottage in my birth town.
I could hear my blood when the air was still.
In the mornings I drank too much coffee and stared
at my friends’ lives on the internet. After sunset I drank
and wrote the fiction I would end up abandoning.
The novel had two prologues
four characters, fifteen chapters.
These lines — spoken, again, somewhere between amusement and bemusement, between sorrow and good-natured self-deprecation — gesture back to the collection’s title. Despite the “abandoned” novel (the “two prologues” of which suggest that an inability to begin may not be so different from an inability to end) this poem manages to piece together its very incompleteness into something whole.
Viewed from this vantage, the book’s title does not promise us some totality of narrative vision but rather something humbler: whatever else these poems are, they are complete — they are finished.
In “Nous,” one of the collection’s best poems, the speaker meditates on his father’s work: his work as a mechanic; how he “helped the boy to build” a toy boat; his decade-long work on a house. Here, as in so many of the poems, lyric and story intersect: “He lifts the yellow backhoe / with the hoist he’s rigged / to the I-beams of his studio,” read the opening lines, “it hangs in its chains like a bee.”
In the poem’s fifth section, Warren offers us a scene that both reflects and refracts Robert Hayden’s famous poem, “Those Winter Sundays.” The section is worth quoting in full:
In the basement, under the red Bilco doors
two ricks are tucked, side by side:
one for the dried, one for the drying wood.
Depleted, filled, each few weeks their roles
reverse — so there will come a moment
when, uncurling from his battered chair
then creaking down the stairs,
sensation having faded from my toes
as the heat sank deeper in the stove,
I’ll crouch squinting in that fusty dark
not knowing how to know which stack
I have to take from, when the sticks all feel the same.
As in Hayden’s poem, we find a domestic scene marked by a chill that must be worked away. But the poem fools us: after the sixth line’s possessive — “his battered chair” — we assume that the person “creaking down the stairs” is the gruff father we’ve already met. But, like the piles of wood, in this poem the “roles // reverse”: the young boy must fill the role of his absent father, without whom he does not even know “how to know.”
This careful investigation of memory stands, for Warren, as one way to bridge the gap between the self and the world. But The Complete Stories offers others: specifically, others. Friends and lovers populate these pages in ways that, according to Warren’s elegy for the late poet Max Ritvo, make it — whatever it is — “worth it.”
In the third section of “Novel,” Warren offers a dramatis personae that far exceeds the “four” who made up the cast of his unfinished novel. “Tom,” we are told, “was everybody’s ex.” The poem catalogs names voraciously until, in the final line, syntax breaks down: “Gabriella and Chen, Ioanna and Bill, Tom and himself, too much Shane, Clara, Annette.”
Though the italics aren’t explained, there’s a tenderness behind the names that elevates the people from caricatures to characters. A similar principle guides the first of two poems entitled “Calendar,” which recounts a quiet day spent in Norderney, where “at the end of the long pier, the shallow-bottomed tjalk / that Tomas had restored, good at hauling, bad at sailing, knocked against the pilings.” The poem closes quietly:
We helped ourselves to brown bread and cheese and the least strange-looking of the meats
she had rolled neatly on the tray. We ate quickly, gazing out the small window
at the blue and purple sky, the path down to the water, the long pier.
Confident enough to end without a moral claim or histrionic image, the poem, simply, ends. For this speaker, in this moment, it is enough to have been a part of a “we” — to have escaped, if only for a moment, the tyranny of the “I.”
Indeed, the next poem details precisely the way that a composite “we” can shatter into its discordant parts of “you” and “I.” As “snow / slides from the green bough to break / on another bough, then another,” Warren writes of
thirty-four degrees Fahrenheit,
the tone, raw nostalgia,
the dialogue, a wood: Look at you,
I said to you, and me —
you were looking
expressionless at me.
With this moment of deflected address, the poem ends at a kind of impasse. Something unspoken has failed between the “I” and the “you” — something, indeed, that has turned the “dialogue” into the “wood” they stand in. In a tone of either “raw nostalgia” or, indeed, something harsher, the speaker addresses both the “you” and himself — only to find himself caught off guard by the “expressionless” look of the “you” who he has, it seems, wounded.
Characteristically, this moment of relational fissure — of intimate distance — implicates the speaker just as much as, if not more than, the “you.” Throughout The Complete Stories, the lyric-“I” refuses to excuse his own behavior — as in “Buildings,” when he recounts a lover’s “new, raging sorrow / which I surprised you by returning, but more viciously.”
Nowhere is this honest assessment of the self’s impurities clearer than in “On Value,” the long penultimate poem that addresses, explicitly, Warren’s relationship with his grandfather, the poet Robert Penn Warren. In this poem, we find the final — even, perhaps, the ultimate — motivation behind the book’s title. In the final lines of Audubon: A Vision, the elder Warren writes directly and with authority:
Tell me a story.
In this century, and moment, of mania,
Tell me a story.
Make it a story of great distances, and starlight.
The name of the story will be Time,
But you must not pronounce its name.
Tell me a story of deep delight.
In light of the familial connection, these lines read as the call to which The Complete Stories responds. However, as “On Value” makes clear, Robert Penn Warren’s legacy makes any simple story of “deep delight” impossible. A prominent member of the Southern Agrarians — a literary movement whose 1930 manifesto, I’ll Take My Stand, argued (per Noah Warren’s notes) “for a racially segregated agrarian economy” — Robert Penn Warren’s association with this group cannot be erased by the fact that he later turned his back on these racist positions.
This biographical background in place, we can understand “On Value” as an attempt to both accept and reject Audubon’s final lines: yes, the younger Warren will tell his grandfather a story; however, he must “pronounce” Time’s name, no matter how difficult or ugly it sounds.
As elsewhere in the book, this dedication to honest assessment catches its speaker up in a web of implication. In a remarkable passage, Warren writes of learning to read while sitting on his grandfather’s “brittle lap”:
he pinched my wrist hard
when the accent was wrong, I
stopped, he whispered what I had to say
slowly into my ear and I said it
These lines offer an image of both familial and poetic inheritance — it’s no accident that the chosen anecdote is one in which the younger Warren learns to read. But this reading transmutes into lyric address as Warren repeats his grandfather’s whispered words. This has, of course, already happened in an earlier section of “On Value”: for when the younger Warren quotes explicitly from Audubon — “‘Tell me a story’” — he finds himself back on that “brittle lap.”
But the poem does not end with passive repetition. For while we do not choose our family, neither are we identical to them. The final section affirms this, leaving behind any reference to Robert Penn Warren and ending instead with lines that belong, distinctively, to Noah Warren:
The river rises. Less than a block
away a long dove-feather gown is being sewn.
It has taken months; it will not sell.
While this might seem a curious ending to a poem about what we do and do not inherit, it contains exactly the blend of sorrow and joy that characterize both “On Value” and The Complete Stories as a whole.
Though the extravagant dress “will not sell” — a wry meta-observation about the poetry “market” — the fact that this act of sewing, this act of poesis, “has taken months” of careful attention is, somehow, its own good. And though it is still “being sewn,” the final shift to the future tense promises that the dress will, one day, be finished. In the world of The Complete Stories, that is enough.