The opening lines of Ahren Warner’s new collection, Pretty, give a good idea of what follows: “Between the apocrypha / of Einstein defining madness // as the same thing done over, / expecting, in effect, causation to acquiesce // and Freud, in Das Unbehagen in der Kultur…”.
Several elements of Warner’s trademark style are evident here: the precise use of a rich vocabulary (“apocrypha”, “causation”, “acquiesce”); foreign words and phrases; unapologetic high-cultural references; great writing.
If you found yourself shrinking from the dense language in these lines or scenting pretentiousness in the references, go back and read them again (preferably aloud). The vowel-music of “expecting, in effect, causation to acquiesce” is perfectly-judged; the rhymes shift around the disputed border between closure and dissonance (apocrypha/over/Kultur, madness/acquiesce). This is skilful, beautiful stuff.
It also forces us to confront the issue of “difficulty” head-on. Nobody likes a vocab poser or a namedropper, but Warner is neither of these things. The long words, foreign words and dizzying cultural references in these poems are neither afterthought nor ornament, but integral to their (powerful) effect. Put simply, there is no better way of saying what they say.
The book contains two longish sequences and two shorter ones. There’s a lot of patterning, and a lot of care has gone into the balance and contrast between individual poems and across the collection. “Lutèce, te amo” is a sequence of twenty numbered poems corresponding to Paris’s numbered arrondissements (in explicit homage to the film Paris, Je t’aime) and playing on multiple etymological connections between the French word for “casual” and the Latin for “to envelop”. It is also a poignant, funny and unnerving portrait of a city seen through the eyes of a detached étranger.
In an engaging podcast interview with POEM magazine, Warner has explained that he wrote the sequence as he was about to leave Paris after living there for two years. A sense of belonging and not belonging, of immersion and exile, is central not only to “Lutèce, te amo” but to the whole book. The next poem, “Hello London”, has us back on this side of the channel but suffering from that strange alienation and reverse culture-shock that often touches those returning home after living abroad. French words continue to bleed into the English text in London just as they did in Paris; London is somehow defined in opposition to the Paris we’ve been immersed in for the previous twenty pages. The effect is wonderfully unsettling.
These poems can be visceral and dark, but never to the extent of losing their essential beauty. “Metousiosis” (being the Eastern Orthodox close-synonym for transubstantiation) is a meditation on flesh and the body in seven thirteen-line poems (a kind of amputated sonnet that recurs in the book’s closing sequence “Nervometer”), each of them riffing on a different painting, sequentially running from Cézanne’s 1866 L’avocat to a 1999 John Currin. The sequence resists anything metaphysical: “There is only flesh and shadow, / a hush of bone, wilting skin and gristle.” Word is made flesh but “there is no logos here“; the flesh is “unhomely” (with the ghost of the German unheimlich hovering behind the English word). It also contains the best version of Baudelaire’s “Une Charogne” I have ever read. Then, in its closing lines, the sequence reveals itself to be a love poem: “your balmy skin improves my own; // there is this, our sweat-glazed metousiosis.”
If you’ve spent any time exploring the pseudo-science of behavioural control, you’ll have come across the importance of congruence. The difference between the teacher who can control a class and the one who can’t doesn’t lie in the fact that only one can issue commands, but that only one can do it congruently. All of the non-verbal cues around the edges – posture, tone of voice, micro-expressions – send us unconscious instructions about whether or not we should listen to this person, and no amount of conscious effort can fake that or negate it.
Something similar applies to difficulty in poetry, be that density of language or breadth of reference or use of foreign languages. The reason Warner can weave wonderful poetry out of allusion and complexity, where some other poets fail, is because he does it congruently. His poems are not accessorized with allusions but built from them. Their occasional difficulty is justified because they couldn’t exist without it, and because they more than pay back any effort the reader has to make.
These poems do not give up all their secrets on a first or a fifth reading; I happily doubt they will on a fifteenth or a fiftieth. But each discovery of a new layer or nuance is a joy, and the beauty and poignancy are there from the very first encounter.
This is a book I look forward to spending a lot more time with.
Pretty, Ahren Warner, Bloodaxe, 2013