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Ghost in a Red Hat: Poems Hardcover – March 28, 2011
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From Publishers Weekly
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“Arrestingly plainspoken, within the shimmering shapes she devises. . . . The bitter taste of that word ‘expertise’ conjures the sweet experiences and sensations this book often celebrates (or whose absence it laments). . . . This book represents a significant contribution to the national imaginary.” — Dan Chiasson (New York Review of Books)
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The next poem is also a poignant elegy, this time to a friend, presumably dying of cancer:
And may the dark fire, far away, charring my friend's hurt cells,
complete its work, let him grow into his longer story,
the good one, the one in which sunlight runs in the veins with the force of summer,
and children [on the beach] find some new thing, and shout at the sea.
And the yet the poem is equally about finding the words to fit her mood, seemingly weary and tired, back in Mediterranean Europe to "examine the ashes" of long-vanished childhood. Perhaps her dying friend had been with her there, on the shores of childhood and first discoveries. "Maternal" seems to be an elegy to the child she was. This theme of vanished childhood and feeling of temporal dislocation returns later and with perhaps a feeling of greater helplessness in "Liszt, Overheard" and "Acela." (Acela is a word brand-name made up by Amtrak in its attempt to remake its image, hoping to evoke the idea of a swift journey; Warren thinks of the all-too swift journey away from the Northeast landscape of her childhood.) However, it is the book's final poem, "Ghost in a Red Hat," that is the most powerful elegy for the young girl that Rosanna Warren was, funny, eccentric, imperfect, delicate, sad and beautiful. But wholly unsentimental and defiant in the face of time's inevitable catastrophes.
"After" is a powerful elegy to post-Katrina New Orleans, seeming at first to describe a post-apocalyptic landscape, and ending finally in a desperate hope. As cultural life continues in its musical vibrancy in the French Quarter ("the tunes ride guitar riffs in updrafts over the roofs"), the poet envisions that wild, red-lit music riding out over "the delirium tremens river toward the Gulf, where"--closing here with a desperate a hope--"small waves lip the horizon, and sky stays mute."
Perhaps the most powerful lesson of what we think of as the Romantic period, in art, music and poetry, is incisively summed up at the end of her double elegy to Robert Schumann and a recently deceased Schumann scholar:
The mightiest river does not flow on earth
nor the mightiest music in the human ear
The dissonant grace of Warren's elegy does justice to the tortured genius who in the 1830s became the paradigm for the feverishly creative composer of Romanticism, inventing the genre of brief, fragmentary piano sketches. He has since often been seen as the poet's musician, and Warren capitalizes on that potential.
A reminder of how easy it can be to sink into or be defeated by chaos--that arising from day-to-day circumstance, Nature herself and, most dangerously, world-shaking war--is explored in the book's climactic poem, the long elegiac ode to the designer of the largest urban park in America--Central Park. Frank Law Olmstead won the rights to improve the recently opened parkland just before the outbreak of the Civil War, and it took almost two decades to complete. In Warren's ode "Earthworks" Olmstead comes across as beset by circumstance, familial, financial, psychological, physiological and historical. Few Americans think of the man behind the name, while most Americans have no idea someone might actually have had to fight for and create a space for Central Park, for the park they might get to stroll around, for the whole lives or only once on a visit from somewhere else. Warren reminds us of the impulse behind this largest of democratic earthworks:
Democracy is space
in which we flow
Olmstead, inspired by native Emersonian intellect and his own travels across modern Europe, envisioned that vast space free from the rigid grid of the streets of Manhattan too severely marking out class distinctions, but right at the heart of it: "The central idea that all--
ward heelers, dandies, urchins, freed slaves, desperadoes,
gents and ladies, the halt, the swift, the lame--
might come, might be drawn forth in courtesy, might
Warren is haunted by the past, especially lessons to be learned from the past and an understanding of how far fallen historic cities in the present day have become. I can't think she would be naïve enough to be nostalgic, yet she is clearly aware that something key is missing, a kind of dynamism that her classically-steeped education has instilled in her, perhaps making her feel out of step with the modern world. Fortunately, her more intimately personal poems do not become confessionals or suffocate the reader with a sense of shame or guilt, even self-loathing, that Henri Cole, her contemporary, too often verges on. In place of a self-absorbed ego, she most often displays a just but wholly unsentimental ethical awareness, as well as a sense of care for others--natural, even mammalian, or leaning that way, far remote from false sentimentalism. That said, I do wish for a poet of her perceptive power that would live more wholly, more freely and still defiantly in the very unclassical present. For those interested, I believe her only American peer equal in skill, and yet writing that fierce poetry of the present is Susan Wheeler. (Anne Carson, equally strong, is also primarily elegiac, which is perhaps accentuated by her standing as an eminent scholar in that fast-dwindling field, the Classics.)
The four long poems here are perfection. The rest are short and each shows its flash of brilliance and word-cunning. Two or three are maybe a little too obtuse--but are still fearless yet mature in experiment. None are bad.