Donut Press, 2011 £5.00
Reviewed by George Simmers, Nikolai Duffy and Fiona Moore
The biographical note reveals Ahren Warner is a doctoral student, but really the poems had already told us as much. They are lavishly sprinkled with the Big Names of intellectual history: Eliot, Nietzsche, Wagner, Hesiod.
The endnotes refer us to to even heavier hitters: Foucault, Badiou, Heidegger, Derrida. Some poems are even laid out in an odd way that is supposed to enact Derrida’s concept of la brisure, the space between words.
In this neatly presented collection, experience rarely comes to us direct, but seems always to be checked against a cultural reference: when the poet sees a girl slap her carefree boyfriend, he thinks of Dionysus, and even the blue of the sky has to be compared with the shade named after Yves Klein. Two poems are constructed entirely out of quotations from other people.
Ahren Warner manages his poems well. The sounds are handled with expertise, and the endings are neat without sounding contrived. At least one poem—about how some painters have failed and some succeeded in the depiction of breasts—shows what he is capable of when the cultural references do not intrude on the poem, but are legitimately part of its subject-matter:
For breasts, you want Rochegrosse, his Chevalier
surrounded by breasts real enough to have men
gripping their gallery plans discreetly; or Picabia
at his most garish: his naked, peroxided blonde
stretching to coddle her slavering mutt. Her breasts
impress their tender weight upon us
As a doctoral student, though, Ahren Warner really ought to check his references. He re-tells the old story that when millionaire Robert P. McCulloch bought London Bridge and transported it to Arizona, it was under the misguided impression he was purchasing the more picturesque Tower Bridge. It’s a good story, and how one wishes it were true—but alas, it’s just an urban legend.
Ever since the mid 1990s when I first read a City Lights publication and Penguin introduced their Pocket Classics at the grand old price of 60p, I have liked pocket books. I like their size, their shape, the way they fit neatly and conveniently into your pockets. I like taking them on public transport and leaving my bag at home. But most of all I like their brevity. I enjoy the experience of reading a book in one sitting but I also really like the way a pocket book accommodates my day. (It’s the same for me with pamphlets: there’s something beautiful about little books like this. I like their range, their scope, their production quality, the way they work well as a publishing format for sequences and encourage movement beyond a collection of stand-alone poems. It's an under-valued form today, I think, which is a shame because it would seem an ideal length and cost for a daily commute, a quiet afternoon, a reading . . .)
Time moves on and even in a period of economic recession, prices rise. Ahren Warner’s Re: doesn’t cost 60p. To be honest, at £5 for 24 pages you could argue it doesn’t come anywhere near that pocket saving price. But then again Re: isn’t meant to save your pocket but find a home there, and besides it’s more than just a little bit better produced than those old Penguin Classics I remember so fondly.
Donut Press have done a lovely job and Re: is a fine book. It is also a rather witty book, which is a very good thing for a pocket book to be, especially if it makes you laugh or smile on public transport on a cold, unseasonal morning on your way to work, or wherever.
And reading these poems it’s not hard to see why Warner’s writing has already met with some highly favourable reviews. With its concision, its deft ability to move between the learned and the lived, its sophisticated irony, and its first-person bathos, these are poems which very much chime in the moment.
So perhaps the faintly coarse weave I feel is simply because I need to buy some bigger trousers, but for all their considerable assurance and control, there’s also an occasional over-tightening to some of these poems which leaves little room for movement. Perhaps it’s the use of brand names as detail and description, or perhaps it’s all the references and the Greek titles and the notes explaining them at the end, or perhaps it’s just that my pockets are used to being rather more spare—but sometimes I want to stretch my legs and not know what I’m touching, and sometimes I just want a chance to see the way the unspoken or the unassumed hangs in day-to-day wear.
For all that, though, this is a very accomplished little book by an accomplished and sophisticated writer. It might not always be tailor-made but I do recommend trying it on for size. Take it around with you. Get to know its folds and creases. Let it line your pockets and let your pockets line theirs.
This nicely pocketable booklet raises interesting questions. Most of the best poems are in a particular form, right- and left-justified with gaps in the middle, like ‘la brisure’—‘the hinge’, used by Derrida, we’re told, to denote the spaces between words:
each toll sustains itself as if expecting
its own next sounding or another’s
to which it will defer by default falling
to its own lack its spacing from the other
each space comes tactile as a relief
or as the rough joint-lines of a bronze
To varying degrees, depending on the spacing, one is invited to read the poems down as well as across. This is the beginning of ‘Works and Days’:
As rubble forms its rough cartography of our fall
but tells little or nothing of much but beauty.
As such rubble is nothing but symptoms or sultry
reminders we’re flesh that we ache above all.
Here the rhythm and end-rhymes pull the lines together horizontally . . . or do they? I like both these two poems a lot, for the thoughtful tone that’s both challenged and enhanced by the disjointed form, for the careful language and syntax, and the bell-like zinging in the gaps.
Elsewhere, we find the poet-as-flâneur: observing the world, from French parks to Arizona to breasts in art; full of ideas, references and philosophy, both showing and telling us he’s clever, and sometimes pulling it off—eclectic, quirkily entertaining, and stylish. This is from the first poem, ‘La carte postale’:
The books shrink on their stalls the shop walls crack
to craquelure. The Seine might be the Acheron
if Eliot had got his langue on.
Now, the questions. Is it arrogant to use foreign languages and obscure references? Emphatically not, if it works. Sometimes, as above, I find the cleverness takes over. Titling two excellent poems in untransliterated Greek does nothing for them. The footnotes are inconsistent, undermining the learnedness: guessable French words are explained but harder things aren’t (for example, the German ‘Stämme’, in a concentration camp poem, which means both tree-trunks and tribes).
Does one expect depth from a poet who’s clever and well-read? In the best of Re: the depth is there and the other stuff goes underground. Such poems seem be written from a point of stillness, rather than restlessness. They are enough to make me look forward to reading Warner’s first collection, Confer, already out from Bloodaxe.