IN DEBORAH WARREN’S fourth collection, Connoisseurs of Worms, the title gives us fair warning that these are poems of our fellow mortal creatures. The book opens with a sonnet to a mole, a “geonaut,” and ends in “Late Mowing,” where all flesh is grass. In between, we often get a sotto in sù view of the universe (the “worm’s-eye view,” as Susan Stewart has put it), that discombobulating perspective from the humble ground up; or else the uncanny effect, as someone approaches a pointillist painting closer and closer, of seeing what had seemed a clear enough image break up into random pixels.
The “Mole,” who is, like the poet perhaps, one of the connoisseurs of worms, puts one in mind briefly of another poem, Andrew Young’s small and perfect “A Dead Mole,” which ends with the titular animal’s body, “stout and square,” “buried beneath the blue vault of the air.” Like Young, Warren sees the mole’s existence as a sort of mirror opposite of ours above ground. He swims “hallways” through the earth — Warren’s usage of the word allows it to be both object and adverb. The sonnet also divides not on the usual octave/sestet landscape setting, but in an even seven/seven, with the view in the upper air physically set below the mole’s world under the ground. If the mole’s métier is dirt, the poet’s is thought, a “windy lair / as invisible as the mole’s.” It’s a topsy-turvy Wonderland arrangement.
Warren’s aesthetic is refreshingly angular and prickly, especially for a poet who would probably be categorized under the rubric of metrically predictable New Formalism. One poem meditates on an ancestress, “Grace Crackbone,” who could also be an alter ego. In another sonnet, “Memento Mori,” the poet contemplates her thinness, and the protrusion of “sternum, sacrum, and my stony spine”; “Seize the day / with metacarpals wide,” she says, with a dry meta-pun on “Carpe” and “carpals.”
As it has become easier and easier to look things up — all human knowledge through the ages is now available on your phone — so poets have seemed to be more at pains to explain things to us, in epigraphs and footnotes, in endnotes, in lengthy introductions at poetry readings. Is it an anxiety about accessibility — a problem that is less applicable to poetry than competition for our attention, I think — or a kind of display? Is it that so many poets make their livings as teachers, and have become used to an audience where no knowledge can be assumed? Whatever the case, Warren will have none of it. The book is without a showy, learned epigraph to open, and eschews endnotes entirely. Very occasionally a poem has a dateline, or perhaps brief explanation, like “an imaginary beast” under the one titled “The Gyascutus” — and here, the note must be tongue-in-cheek, since the poem explains it as an ungulate with two legs shorter on one side. But most of the time Warren assumes that the reader will know her references — rhyming on the Latin “Nolo contendere,” for instance — or can figure them out from the poem itself, or even trusts us, if we want to learn more, to look things up. She pays us the compliment, always flattering, that we know as much as she does.
That said, we do learn a thing or two: about Abul-Abbas, Charlemagne’s elephant, or the Princess Rosamund, who murdered her husband, Alboin, because he used to drink out of her father’s skull. We learn about the nematode, C. elegans, a worm, and its sequenced genome. Science, painting, and theater, biblical stories and medieval history all contribute subjects for Warren to mull over and hold up to the light at different angles.
This always carries the danger that the observation will be too slight a thing to hang a poem on, instead producing a clever epigram or a perspective that is all vanishing point: there are a few poems here of that slightness. But often Warren does get somewhere surprising even in miniature. Something as slight as “Three Snails Argent,” for instance, rises in significance thanks to its inwardly coiled rhyme scheme, “Time” rhyming of course with “slime”:
On the family coat of arms three silver snails
in single file on a sable field
glide in place under the winged crest. Time
stopped them dead. On imaginary slime
the gray whorls move across the shield
leaving behind no glittering silver trails.
The glittering silver trails here are, I suppose, the lines of the poem.
Warren’s poems often end with a sort of dissonant chord or fade-out rather than a mic drop, and even when rhymed, tend not to resolve. The heart in “360°” swings like a weather vane, “and croaks and spins, not getting anywhere.” In “Utilitarian,” a poem about Sun Gods and Sun Kings, she remarks of Apollo, “the laureate of light,” that he is also the “Prince of Mice”:
he routs the pests from herds an granaries.
Do we really need a god to represent
music and poetry? And what’s prophecy
compared to an art like rodent management?
As a stand-alone poem, this might elicit little more than an amused shrug, but we realize of course that, for Warren, “rodent management” is not just utilitarian — vermin can be (like the mole, surely also under Apollo’s purview) unlikely muses.
The lyric “I” here is often self-effacing, blending into the woodwork, but the few poems that are centered on individual emotion achieve a different level of power from the poems of cerebral connections or microscopic observation. Of these, the strongest is “Late Mowing,” which earns its place, I think, in that Platonic anthology of mowing/reaping poems, alongside those of Frost and Larkin and Wordsworth and others.
The poem foregrounds the poet for a change — “me” is right there in the first line:
A clanking took me out in mid-July
to watch the mowing — so delayed
the farmer said, “The good hay’s over;
it’s all fescue now.” I asked him why
he mowed the hay at all if late hay paid
so poorly — June’s alfalfa, clover,
timothy and bluegrass sell for feed,
but this? He was practically throwing his time away.
This has something of Frost’s rhythms in his conversational eclogues (Warren’s poem is arguably an eclogue as well), and yet it doesn’t feel like a pastiche of Frost. It takes a few readings to even realize that the rhymes are patterned, and that in fact the poem is a tour-de-force of a double sonnet, with a lyric music heightened by the occasional shortened lines. There is also attention to Keats’s “vowel music” — “late hay paid.”
The farmer answers:
“Money is money. I could go
to an early grave, with this year’s debt; I need
to live, and — mulch or feed — all hay
is the color of money. That’s why mow.”
The sonnets’ couplets are set apart, so the poem is divided 12/2/12/2 (again, disguising its double-sonnetude), and the couplets have an apothegmatic quality, as the first: “Money is money, green or gold. Pretend / you’re the hay though: Color matters, in the end.” We don’t need to pretend. Mowing and hay, of course, are always about mortality in poems, even when fragrant with real harvest heat, and money is time. “There’s death and death, just as there’s hay and hay,” Warren continues, and in some of the richest and most musical language in the book:
And when he comes I’ll make of him
a scarlet tractor trailing a scythe
like this one, green as June’s blue grass. I’ll say,
Daylight-reaper, don’t be grim.
Mow this hay and lay it dry
with light’s whole spectrum of machinery,
windrows swept with a yellow side-rake
Scarlet, green, blue, yellow — the whole spectrum; and the machinery, both of light and the literal equipment of reaping, “Red tedder, orange baler and wagon,” reflect the poet’s power of naming things by their proper names.
The book is full of poems contemplating mortality — and Warren doesn’t buy Religion’s various stories of afterlives — but this one is richly joyful: “this way,” she concludes, “come like a kind of carnival of hay.” This poem seizes the day in a way in which “Memento Mori” only gestures at.
Connoisseurs of Worms focuses on the humble, the seemingly insignificant, even the reviled — no subject too small or too abstruse to be addressed with Warren’s metaphysical ingenuity — but ends above ground, while the sun still shines and there is still hay to make. It starts small and ends with the panoramic sweep. As this is Warren’s fourth collection, it might be time for a Selected, one which would lean toward the poems that take bigger emotional risks like “Late Mowing,” that display Warren’s mastery, an ease in the tradition, a virtuosic but idiosyncratic music, and a skeleton’s comfort in its own living skin.
A. E. (Alicia) Stallings is an American poet and translator, who studied classics in Athens, Georgia, and now lives in Athens, Greece. She has published four books of poetry: Archaic Smile (1999), which won the Richard Wilbur Award; Hapax (2000); Olives (2012); and Like from FSG, a finalist for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize. Her verse translation of Lucretius, The Nature of Things, appeared from Penguin Classics in 2007, and her translation of The Battle Between the Frogs and the Mice: A Tiny Homeric Epic appeared from Paul Dry Books in 2019.