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…
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—
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.