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Véhicule Press - December 19, 2006 - 34 Comments

There, There

There, There by Patrick Warner

Reviewed by Shane Neilson

Patrick Warner is in the manner of an old poet, a poet of reflection. He thinks about things; he shares his thoughts. I know, I know, any poem that’s not borne of thought isn’t worth a damn. But it’s the way these thoughts are written down, it’s the way they are brought up. Consider the anti-consumerism and a mild railing against the state of our suburban communities in “Gumshoe”:

…pumpkins, shamrocks, hearts, and bunnies
signal the year-long consumer obsession,

in this neighborhood where nobody walks,
where in places there are no sidewalks,
where no one seems to notice what I notice
when I walk, and there’s no one to ask…
(11)

Consider also the opening movement of “Mormon”:

How will a Mormon boy get a wife, I wondered,
if he declines his mission to wander the world,
spreading the Mormon word as he goes:
no wife for a Mormon boy who refuses.

So I was kind to two young Mormon men
who came to my door last Saturday morning—
the point man in short-sleeved shirt and blue tie,
his back-up in short-sleeved shirt and blue tie—
(13)

The poem goes on in this friendly manner; it is as if Warner is at the fireside, chatting, spinning his yarns. It’s a very accommodating style, unimposing too. It’s a populist poetry, at least initially, a poetry for people who don’t otherwise read poetry. There are funny moments; there are tender moments; there are comfy moments meant to be spent around the hearth:

Mashed potatoes, fried onions, and gravy,
Brussels sprouts, turnips, sweet carrots,
and a generous helping of Parton’s Butterball turkey.
Shortly after this, my 6000th dinner with you.
I lie down on the grey velour couch…

Let the sameness be the surprise we foist
upon the world, let us share 6000 more dinners,
let the lonely who wish to know our secret,
who peer through the yellow square of our
livingroom window, find us fast asleep.
(“Hot Turkey” 15)

Yet there are also dead serious moments, moments when the poet lets go of all his disarming tendencies and gets sincere about what it is he is trying to do, which is write poems. And these poems come later on in the book, and I will come back to them.

One of the deficiencies of this book is that it’s first half is a little too comfortable, a little too unconcerned, too benignly observational. Many of the poems could be thought of as kindly benedictions, quaint sketches. There is no dangerousness, no whip and crack of language used smartly, no difficult subjects. Warner is capable of more, for he later proves he’s able to muckrake the surface of things, but in the early going he doesn’t do it often enough. Sometimes the poetry is all about narrative, about the story, and not enough about poetry. In the poems quoted above, a man walks about his neighborhood, a man answers the door and watches tv, a man relaxes with his wife. Warner isn’t in opposition to enough. Perhaps that’s it: there’s no enlivening fire to the first half of this book. It’s an easy read, an enjoyable read, a leisurely read. You get the idea when you read the following opening lines:

I lean on the handrail and look down
(“Mud Trout” 22)

I saw a tortoise at the Toronto Zoo
(“Tortoise at Toronto Zoo” 24)

Never having seen one except
in a picture, I felt a timourous wonder
(“The Possum” 26)

They’re Hallmark-inviting and safe like slow-pitch. They welcome you into the poem without also frisking you. They open into a primarily descriptive poetry, a poetry of cataloguing the physical.  Consider, for example, the aforementioned “Tortoise at Toronto Zoo”:

The door, too, had buckled at its base,
blond wood splinters sprayed the earth floor
where the steel finger of the latch
had torn through the pit-prop post.

The bare earth floor beneath its legs
was not so much scooped out as flattened
into a depression from its pushing,
pestled down to a compact powder.

A lot of effort is spent in description. The set-piece is set just so; but what point is there in setting the scene without having it come to life, without creating stakes, without drama? The poem ends with the equivalent of the poet throwing his hands up, unable to say anything particularly perceptive:

It heaved and heaved. Patient beyond my
comprehension, with something
of the mountain and the ocean in its shell,
something that immense, that unknowable.

Well. Such an animal should not be beyond the poet’s comprehension; the poet should inhabit it, should know it. Lawrence would be appalled. Furthermore, there’s too many imprecise “somethings’ in the stanza for my liking. Instead of concluding with ‘something’ that’s really ‘something’, he admits he hasn’t really captured the animal at all. Which says ‘something.’

All of this lingers with the content of the book’s first half, where, as can be gleaned from the poems excerpted, Warner doesn’t distinguish himself on the plane of language. He often takes too long to say what he’s saying; he’s not economical. But this is not exclusively true, thankfully.

Now there is the matter of the book’s second half, where he is capable of quite interesting effects:

Ramps, double-decked trucks, stink, lights,
shouts, kicks, electric prods, coconuts,
the workmen’s high calypso as pigs run,
speed croquet over piss-shellacked,
shit-plastered floors, gully and drain scored.
(“The Bacon Company of Ireland” 30)

Now that’s more like it! Here is a poet who literally and figuratively gets his hands dirty. Admittedly, he’s cheating a little, for the beginning is a list. Nevertheless, there’s a fecund life to this stanza, a willingness for words to elbow one another, for words to jockey with one another for supremacy. “Croquet” and “calypso” and “coconuts” slip on “shit” and “piss.” This effect is duplicated over and over again in the latter half, especially in the poems “Hike” and “Rip” and “Near Faffle, Near Faff” and several others.

No doubt about it, the latter half of There, there has much more of this charged language than the more prosaic first half. Usually books peter out in the back mile, Warner’s just gets going. Therefore I would have reversed the order of the three sections, if only to accentuate what Warner’s good at – lyric — and bury what he’s not good at – homily. Both halves, though, are not long on perception, and are weak in terms of metaphor (some poems don’t have a single one); this is really a critical area that Warner will, I’m sure, address in his next book.

Taken as a whole, then, this really is a book of considerable talent, but ass-backwards. Perhaps it has something for everyone: for those who want their poetry to be inoffensive little stories, and also for us slavering word-freaks.

Shane Neilson is a writer from New Brunswick.

Comments

On January 03, 2007, Loretta Grimes said:

Lordie! Another piece of bizarre book reviewing from Shane Neilson. Neilson’s comments indicate a surface reading of Warner’s “There, there, a very fine book. Neilson seems put off by the accessibility of many of these poems. Why for the love of God would anyone want to be “frisked at the door” by every poem that he or she reads? Not all readers are potential terrorists. And some readers do actually read for more than the kind of pseudo-explosive effect that Neilson admires. Neilson does not seem to understand the subject matter of some of the poems he dismisses. He gives no thought to the relationship between content and form. If he did, he might have understood how both the syntax and rhythm of Warner’s “Tortoise at Toronto Zoo” beautifully underscore the subject of the poem. Lastly, saying that Warner is weak in term of metaphor is like saying that Northern Dancer ran like a dray horse. Blame it on the pre-Christmas rush, I guess.

On January 03, 2007, Rodney Puddicombe said:

I agree with Loretta. I’m all for poetry that is accesible. Regarding the reviewer’s expectation that every poem frisk the reader, how tiresome that would be in effect. Think about it, dude!  The imposition of such a standard would inevitably lead to an escalation. How long would it take before the reader who consented to being frisked would be forced to endure a thorough buggering?by stanza two or stanza three!

On January 04, 2007, Shane Neilson said:

I’ll deal with these comments simultaneously.

  I don’t think I read and reread Warner’s book suspended by surface tension. I “muckraked,” to reuse a word I used in the review, and I found the first half of the book ITSELF to be superficial. Now, I’m all for these kinds of poems when they’re insightful- Alden Nowlan is a master of this genre. But when they’re mere description, like “Tortoise at Toronto Zoo,” which Grimes “bizarrely” champions, I’m understandably left looking for more. I’ve explained my reasons- if Grimes and Puddicombe think that these reasons themselves are only concerned with surface, that I’ve somehow missed something- well, I disagree. And as for “Tortoise,” Grimes makes the case that a bad poem is made better by its badness. I urge everyone out there to buy this book and make up their own minds about this poem, for language is the engine of poetry. To write “accessibly” is to sometimes sacrifice the poetry altogether. Writing popular poetry is the toughest job of all, and I don’t think Warner’s strength lies here. Let me know if you agree.

  When I used the “frisk” analogy, which both correspondents object to, I merely posited the idea that a poem should be somewhat dangerous- in style or message. One must be surprised, awed. The poem should challenge in some way. Much of the first half of Warner’s book was intellectually geriatric and boring. If I seemed to tussle with the surface of these poems, it’s because they were all surface. As for Mr. Puddicombe individually- his point is silly. A poem can’t really frisk a reader, my god. It should assault the senses, however. Or does he want poetry to put him to sleep? I know a few prescriptions in this regard.

  It’s a common tactic to dismiss a reviewer’s ability to “understand” that which he does not praise. Are these two correspondents really maintaining that Warner is incapable of a bad poem ? I’m not the first reviewer to notice that the first half of the book is prosaic. And just what is it that I don’t understand? Please tell me. Neither of you make a case for a single one of Warner’s poems. (Grimes does handwave a little.) I’m willing to be educated. But I really must maintain that that which you find edifying in the first half of the book I’d consign to the same dustbin containing Stuart Mclean.

  Lastly, I find it interesting that Grimes’ point about metaphor is itself a simile. What irony. And I take it as a compliment from Grimes that I write “bizarre” reviews. Better “bizarre” than the kind of muddled objections that she writes.

  It’s strange that I actually ENDORSED the book. I think half of it quite good, and it’s sometimes superb. These objections- are they because I didn’t praise the book to high heaven? It’s not perfect- and I’ve stated why I think so. Time for Grimes and Puddicombe to explain why Warner -again, only in the book’s first half- is more than skin deep. But why not focus instead on what Warner does well, and for which I do praise him? I think our correspondents are distracted by a little honest criticism.

On January 04, 2007, Eric Barstad said:

Thanks for the comments. This is a generic reminder to keep the gloves above the belt?

On January 04, 2007, Loretta Grimes said:

It is a rare poetry book indeed that does not contain some weaker poems. I am not suggesting that Warner’s book is perfect?far from it?but I am suggesting that it has range. Mr. Neilson seems interested only in one kind of poem. He dismissed the poems in the first half of Warner’s book, saying that they are prosaic and lack insight. He goes on to say that poems must be dangerous in style or message. It seems to have escaped Mr. Neilson’s attention that the very first poem in “There, there,” Gumshoe, addresses this very subject. Gumshoe looks at the kinds of threats and dangers that are woven into our society and that are visible at any given moment to a careful observer. I suggest Mr. Neilson read this the poem again. To paraphrase the Russian-American poet, Joseph Brodsky, people expect tyranny to arrive in big hob-nailed boots and kick down the front door (some even expect poetry to behave this way); they do not realize that it is creeps slowly into our lives, that it may even be present all the time. I think Warner’s poem does an admirable job of pointing out some of the threats that surround us every day. It is an insightful poem. Lastly, on the subject of muddled thinking, Mr. Neilson makes a common mistake in reasoning when he equates his taste in poetry with good poetry. This is, if I remember my philosophy, a circular argument.

On January 04, 2007, Shane Neilson said:

Well, I guess Grimes can join me on the circumference. Of course I’m arguing that my taste militates against bad poety- why bother reading at all, if one can’t distinguish? My review was an assertion of taste. Too much reviewing nowadays is descriptive rather than evaluative; I’m firmly in the latter camp. But to say that I’m only endorsing what I think is good is, well, obvious; are we to expect any different from Grimes, who’s endorsing what she finds fine as well? Yet I do temper this with an admission that, yes, it’s all just “in my opinion.” But to have to say that seems infantile. I have my opinion; Grimes has hers. Circle squared.

  With regards to tyranny- I reject this point entirely. Does Grimes mean to say that my review was an act of tyranny, that my view of poetry is totalitarian? Else why mention it. I just wrote a simple review, dammit, not a politburo memo. We’re talking about poetry here, not terror, and I don’t think I blew anything up. Nor do I think that Warner’s poems need have concerned themselves with more overt threats to our security, physical or psychological. (They might have; if he wrote about them in the same way he wrote about his more pedestrian subjects, I still wouldn’t have been satisfied.) The poems just had to be the ingenious devices that are good poems- and, for me, the first half of the book was prosaic.

  But to concern myself with Grimes’ tangent for a moment, Brodsky was right on both counts- he knew that boots at the door were an effective tyrranical tool that made possible the subtleties of tyranny. But I do believe we’re getting sidetracked; who actually thinks I want poems in jackboots? I made an analogy; I didn’t mean for it to become a sideshow attraction. How about another one: Warner’s initial poems lack an energy, an electrical charge, that the latter poems have. Can we all agree that this is in the bounds of fair comment, or do I have to get a lecture on electricity?

  I’ve reread the first half of the book as Grimes suggested. I still find it, perhaps, “subtle”, but to the point of tepid.

On January 04, 2007, Loretta Grimes said:

Excitable boy! Nobody is accusing you of being a tyrant; I’m just taking the language of your review and pushing it to the logical extreme. The poetry I admire is not divorced from life. It is not just a game played by slavering word-freaks. And it is cowardly to say when pressed that you are only talking about a poem, that nothing got “blown up.”  By the way, first-rate critics are tyrants. And one final, final point, you’ve missed entirely the oral character of Gumshoe, Moromon, etc. Try reading them one last time, but aloud this time.

On January 04, 2007, Zach Wells said:

I agree with Loretta Grimes about the merits of “Gumshoe” and “Mormon” and disagree with Shane about the badness of the tortoise poem. For what it’s worth, I think There, there is one of the best poetry collections published in Canada this decade. Front and back. I don’t have my copy handy to talk about the poems in question in detail, but I’ll post below a review I published in a recent issue of Arc, since it’s not available online:

Patrick Warner’s outstanding 2001 debut collection, All Manner of Misunderstanding, set his personal bar high. There, there, his new book, answers that challenge smartly. Still present are the musical cadences, formal vigour and metaphorical panache of AMoM, but in There, there, Warner’s pole-vaulting imagination often takes even more audacious leaps. A recurring motif of this collection is vision. In the opening poem, in which the poet fuses myth with banal reality, Warner’s speaker says that in his “mature suburban neighbourhood ? no one seems to notice what I notice/when I walk.” Throughout the collection Warner displays a gift for metaphor rivalled by very few of his contemporaries. A giant tortoise resembles “Mother Theresa without her tea-towel veil” and “the carapaces of horseshoe crabs/like Halloween masks/litter the landwash.” This sort of descriptive flair is no mere ornament. As Seamus Heaney has said of Elizabeth Bishop, Warner’s manner of observation “rais[es] the actual to a new linguistic power” and through his vivid descriptions of the surface of things, we gain glimpses of the mysteries that lie beneath and hard-won insights into our own inner selves (another leitmotif in the book, related to vision, is the mirror). Indeed, much in Warner’s wary blend of detachment and engagement, his simultaneously inward and outward gaze, reminds me of Bishop, just as his visceral evocations (“pigs run,/speed croquet over piss-shellacked,/shit-plastered floors”) call to mind Ted Hughes (particularly such Hughes poems as “View of a Pig” and “Dehorning”); his quirky wordplay recalls Muldoon; his occasional morbidity, his Irish near-contemporary Matthew Sweeney. There are also occasional glimmers of Frost (Warner’s poem “Crib,” in which the speaker looks down into a well, seems to be in dialogue with Frost’s “For Once, then, Something”), Dickinsonian metaphysical quest (particularly in “Reunion,” which subtly echoes Dickinson’s ballad rhythms) and allusions to Auden and Plath. Though Warner says he “cling[s] to old ideas disguised as new”?itself a paraphrase of Shakespeare’s “So all my best is dressing old words new”?he is not a Frankenstein’s monster composed of parts of other poets, but a balanced blend. What a reader encounters in Warner’s work is a thoughtful, often confused, sensibility gamely making what sense it can of its complex environment, a milieu composed not only of objects, animals and people, but also of other poetry. What is authentic about Warner’s work is the brazen humility of his combinatorial mind, his capacity for being gobstruck and eloquent, bold and subtle, allusive and original, at once. Not all of the poems are successful, which isn’t surprising for a poet who ventures as much as Warner does. Occasionally, description serves no formal purpose and some of his more parabolic poems feel pat. But the good poems are so many and of such a high order (“The Bacon Company of Ireland” is one of the best poems I’ve read in recent books) that any reservations I have are trifling. Predicting the future’s a mug’s game, but I bet that Warner’s a poet we’ll be reading decades hence.

On January 10, 2007, Mike Lecky said:

Does anyone else find it bizarre that you can’t search through the reviews BY BOOK or AUTHOR?

On January 10, 2007, Eric Barstad said:

Hi Mike,

Added search to the sidebar. Thanks for the comment.

On January 28, 2007, Alex said:

I love to hear people arguing over poetry. I feel like I should read this book now.

On January 28, 2007, Zach Wells said:

At the risk of redundancy, Alex, I think you should, too. I have to think that if Patrick Warner’d published his first book with a press other than Killick, he’d be much more talked about than he is. Newfoundland poets published by Newfoundland presses tend to elude notice. Which is a shame because the very isolation that causes such things seems also to be in part responsible for some very interesting poetic developments. Both of Mary Dalton’s last two books are exceptionally good, too, for instance.

On January 29, 2007, Alex said:

I think it’s easy for most poets to elude notice! Though I wonder if this book is even available in any local bookstores, including the independents that carry some poetry. But I will try to hunt down a copy. Then I’ll have to see which of the mean boys from the Maritimes I agree with . . .

On January 29, 2007, Zach Wells said:

There, there shouldn’t be too hard to dig up, being a recent publication from Vehicule Press’s Signal Editions imprint. His first book, All Manner of Misunderstanding, you’re not likely to find anywhere without a special order and much waiting, I expect.

Eluding notice is relative, eh. Most people on the street probably haven’t heard of Lorna Crozier, but she’s famous in that parallel dimension known as Poetry World. Dalton and Warner’s move to a mainland publisher can only do good things for their exposure and, hopefully, readership. Because they have much to say to people off-Rock as well as to natives of their province.

And I’m not mean, Alex, merely insensitive. Sniff.

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