Ahren Warner’s first two collections, Confer and Pretty, may have simple titles but inside the covers you’ll find poems teeming with conceptual and linguistic complexities. Both books demand the reader’s full participation – I found myself conferring not only with Warner’s explanatory endnotes but also with Google to find translations of French and Greek words, and to identify philosophical concepts and mythological characters.
A glance down the contents page of Confer illuminates the territory of the collection, with titles in French, Italian and Greek as well as English. The opening poem takes us to Paris and the “Jardin du Luxembourg” via an exploration of the gendering of French nouns:
Here, all parks are masculine, grammatically so
I mean: le jardin, le parc, never a la.
Flowers in Paris are also masculine, not like London with its,
in powder-pink shirts, strutting their cocks
down the Strand, Bishopsgate, Bank.
This year, Parisian men don’t have to wear pink. They are,
…Just men, reclining in the bronze
of their estomacs; the vague swell of their guts
rising to the heat…
There is so much wrapped in this one poem about gender, cultural differences and responses, but above all it paints a fabulously accurate picture in relatively few words of the parkscape – its flowers, statuary, avenues and sunbathers – on a hot Parisian day. The only coolness is to be found in the “sérénité”,
the gender of which
I’ve had neither the time, nor desire, to look up.
But why use a French word, “estomac” in this poem when there’s a perfectly fine English word available? Well, for me one of the great strengths of Warner’s work is his sensitivity to sound and allusion as well as meaning. In some poems, the French or Italian word conveys something for which there is no English equivalent. Here, however, the use of the French word keeps us in the Parisian park and, to my mind, confronts us with the sunbathers in an abrupt, disjointed and more visceral way than the English equivalent would have allowed.
Many of the poems in this first collection are written to form rectangles of right and left justified text but with lines fractured and broken internally by white space. In “La Carte Postale”, for example,
As we say arboretum here I walk below the arbres
down the Rue Jussieu amongst the mottled ombre
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. The cafés brim.
The heat ensures an ambery slick above the upper lip
part pimento tar and garlic but miscible
with the Beaujolais I’m drinking by the bottle.
Here, the fractured space works almost as a form of additional punctuation as well as creating disjunctures within the rhythm.
I love the rhymes and rhythms of Warner’s work and although I had to research a few words, phrases and classical allusions, I found that process rewarding, revealing further layers to many of the poems. For this reason, I didn’t find myself particularly excluded by Warner’s erudition. But what I could have done without were the several references to staring at women’s breasts and the “gape” of low-cut shirts which became a bit tiresome by repetition.
but mad, Mademoiselle Autre had fashioned
her accordion from a rock des Causses;
a block she’d found and forced from its hole
in the wall of Philippe Auguste;
a stone she’d chipped and chiselled and faceted
with twenty-six keys and pallets;
a boulder she’d bevelled and bound to a bellows,
sewn from the guts of a goat.
The propelling rhythm of this poem makes it ideal for reading aloud but I suspect the density of allusion and layering in many of his other works in this collection makes Warner essentially a “page poet”. A single reading just won’t do his poems justice.
The poems in this second collection, which begins and ends with the sequences, “Lutece, Te Amo” and “Nervometer”, are often very dark and very disconcerting, ugly even. In “Now”, part of the earlier sequence, this ugliness is intensified by humour:
..’See here, this plaque marks a smear of intellectual
discharged around the time he scribbled his Cahiers pour une morale,
– bona fide
philosopher-cum – and yes, we have a few vials left behind the bar
if you’d like
to take one? Every time you open the lid, it hums Que Sera, Sera.’
Ahren Warner is a controversial poet – elitist and sexist or erudite and accomplished, depending on your stance. There’s no doubt that distasteful facets of humanity are exposed here and there’s no doubt that these poems require a lot of the reader. However, both collections are brimming with wit, layered with meaning, and richly reward perseverance.