A second book of poems isn’t exactly like the under-photographed second child, the salutatorian, the beauty pageant runner-up, the bridesmaid, the vice-president, the associate chair, the jumped-the-shark television sitcom or movie sequel, the silver medalist, or the second largest car rental company with corporate motto “We try Harder.” But accompanying the writing, publication, notice, and shelf-life of second books of poems are a flock of anxieties, expectations, and other social, cultural, economic, and circumstantial forces that can often lead to their being overlooked and under-reviewed. Given, as David Wojahn once wrote, that publishing a book of poetry in America at all is “akin to dropping a rose petal in the Grand Canyon,” what is it about authors’ second poetry books that warrants our special attention?
First books of poems tend to be repositories of material that has been written and circulated among readers in various forms and venues for a while, sometimes for decades, but more often, in the case of first books published by graduates of MFA and PhD programs, over several semesters’ and post-degree-years’ worth of workshops, writing, and revision. These debut collections are often flawed, but in interesting ways; in many cases, they owe rather clearly to their authors’ teachers and literary influences. […] A collection that has garnered a first-book award or that is being published as the result of winning a judged competition is more likely than other poetry books to receive notice and reviews. Perhaps this owes, in part, to our cultural preoccupation with winning. We often betray an impatience with what may seem to have lost its hotness or luster, its sense of embodying the moment. Could this be an especially American phenomenon? Obsessed as we are with competition, no realm of experience would appear to be safe from the possibility of being voted off the island (think of all those cupcake wars, storage locker battles, top model catfights, and my favorite, The Biggest Loser, not to mention the atmosphere of top-down metrics of quantifiable merit and value infecting even the lofty halls of academia). Our society is addicted, with a velocity aided by quicksilver technologies, to rankings, to polls, to who wins, to what’s top shelf, to who makes and sells the most, to who comes in first, and with whatever is trending and embodying the latest thing.
Second books are precarious but crucial, both for the poet and for the reader interested in a poet’s oeuvre. They suggest, for one thing, that the poet won’t be a one-hit wonder. They are often more intentional and gestate more quickly than first books. […] In second collections, we see poets more consciously acknowledging and wielding their obsessions, experimenting with their style, extending their range. Instead of being about “where have I come from,” these books often concern themselves with “where are my texts taking me? will I / can I keep writing? do I have the capacity to evolve and continue to refresh my practice?”
I wanted to reiterate some of this initial justification for the Second Acts project because, at a time when technology-driven, second-by-second updates can make last week’s real or “fake” news (let alone a book written 20 years ago) seem like ancient history, we have all the more reason to restore and defend our senses of scale and context.
Many poets today avail themselves of the real-time velocity of social media to post, promote, and tweet their every draft, publication, reading, and award. This instantaneousness is exciting, of course — and no doubt at least fleetingly gratifying — but it can create a kind of ultra-present-tense static (and an attendant competitive anxiety) that can distract us from reading deeply as well as widely, slowly as well as quickly, and from engaging with work that, as Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, aims at “excellences higher than clearness at a first reading.”
Needless to say, no one can read all the poets of the past, but anyone serious about poetry, and especially about writing it, should want to explore poetic family trees. Who had to break ground in order for, say, Rowan Ricardo Phillips, Natalie Diaz, or Maggie Nelson to do the beautiful work they are doing today? And it isn’t just a matter of who (poets, artists, philosophers) or of what (subject matter); it is also a matter of how (formal, confessional, conceptual) and, perhaps, more importantly, of why.
The ways that poems are shared is always changing — for the good. Poems can now be “published” for free, for example, reaching a simultaneous global readership, or they can be “dropped” to fans à la Beyoncé, Lemonade-style, prior to print publication. But these exciting new methods of dissemination should not overshadow the treasures that sit on the shelf, between covers, awaiting a second look.
American poet, translator, and scholar Rosanna Warren has been publishing poems of riveting, compassionate darkness and social conscience for nearly 40 years. Currently the Hanna Holborn Gray Distinguished Service Professor in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, she is also the author of an important book of essays about the art of translation, as well as of Fables of the Self: Studies in Lyric Poetry. Her major awards include prizes from the Academy of American Poets, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Lila Wallace Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the American Council of Learned Societies. Her most recent books of poems are Departure (2003) and Ghost in a Red Hat (2011).
Warren’s second collection of poems, Stained Glass, won the Lamont Poetry Prize of the Academy of American Poets when it appeared in 1993, nearly 10 years after her first full-length book, Each Leaf Shines Separate (1984). Of her first book, The New York Times wrote: “In the best poems […] her lavish technique is disciplined by her austere moral intelligence. But when the moral faculty fails to chasten the technique, her poems tend toward convoluted syntax and a perverse ingenuity of image.” If one subscribes to what W. H. Auden said about the promise of a young poet — that it is not the writers with ideas but the ones with the jones for language who are the real deal — then the reviewer was paying Warren a compliment. Her innate gifts for gorgeous sonic texture and fresh, original image-making are the bedrock of poetry — they cannot be faked.
Still, by the time Warren brought out her second book, after nearly a decade’s hiatus, she had mastered the language of ideas. Stained Glass draws on her prodigious range of interests — classical literature and history, ekphrasis (Warren is a painter and for a while considered pursuing visual art as a career), translation (part three of Stained Glass consists of translations from Alcman, Pierre Reverdy, and Max Jacob), personal relationships, and the idea of “home.” The poems look unflinchingly, often in received forms (rhyming couplets, sonnets, a sestina), at disturbing subjects such as necrophilia, pornography, filicide, and the cruelties of illness and old age. Among the book’s most moving pieces are elegies for the poet’s father, Robert Penn Warren, and poems dedicated to her mother, Eleanor Clark, also a writer. In “His Long Home,” a long elegy for her father, Warren writes:
Two days before
you died, we saw your death
funneling in at the eye, your pupil fixed,
tiny, waking neither
to light nor to shade
so that your wisdom drained
inward where only
reverberations of our
yet you held us still
kindly, having foreknown
the sere flame tasseling
the roof beam, the palace wall
sinking but invisible
to the chorus; and in the teeth
of our denial
had already greeted
the strange man you alone
saw loitering by the porch,
had wrenched up your
emaciated smile: “Come in! Come in!”
The poem features an impressive, intricate web of metaphysical imagery, in which, for instance, the contraction of a dying man’s pupil becomes a portal to an inward wisdom that “only reverberations of our / voices fathomed.” Warren gives us allusions to mythic omens (“the sere flame tasseling / the roof beam”) and the stagecraft of classical tragedy (“the palace wall // sinking but invisible to the chorus”), as well as the vestiges of a hardwired Southern hospitality, as the poem’s stricken subject (with his “wrenched up […] / emaciated smile”) invites his own death inside (“Come in! Come in!”). All of this could read as Gothic, even maudlin, if it weren’t for the tender, intelligent precision Warren brings to every line. In other poems, her compassion extends to historical and literary personae — an Inuit woman who must drown her girl child because she is useless to her community, Hagar, or Achilles, who, in “The Twelfth Day,” is depicted with Hector’s corpse:
The hero has
no other life
He has taken
to heart a body
whose face vaulting
through gravel and blood
with the features
of that other
one: the Beloved
for this is
mortis in the
and never to let
This is Ancient
Poetry. It’s supposed
The living mangle the dead
after they mangle the living
That’s how we love It’s called
compulsion Poetry can’t
help itself […]
In the preface to Fables of the Self, Warren writes, “We might describe literature as the symbolic space in which we make formal, imaginative verbal experiments in consciousness and conscience (both contained in the rich French word conscience).” Stained Glass is an embodiment of that idea, paving the way for the even more socially conscious work in Departure and Ghost in a Red Hat, which both contain poems of righteous outrage on the American invasion and occupation of Iraq. “Butchery / is life,” Warren writes in “Le Ventre de Paris: A Marriage Poem,” from which the book takes its title:
The little we know
of St. Eustache
becomes him: how
this Roman (third
century A.D.) general
while hunting beheld
in a stag’s antlers
in an iron bull, his cries
to music; how, trans-
lated, he blesses
this butchers’ cathedral,
its stained glass, its clochards,
its organ recitals,
whistling with market blood.
Here is a perspicacious vision that relentlessly seeks truth not despite but through the “stain” of the full range of humanity. How can one speak of love without also acknowledging the ordure of the world’s bloody marketplaces? How can one speak of peace without also speaking of strife? As Warren put it in a 2011 interview with Jennifer Kilgore-Caradec:
Usually when poets try to be poet-citizens, let alone unacknowledged legislators, the poetry stinks. […] Probably the most civic role for an American poet these days is to act as private conscience and critic […] Clarity of vision seems to me the gift to be sought. And an alert, self-skeptical language. And a perspective longer than the feverish op-ed pronouncement or talking head blabber. Imagination can be a political force. How can we have a good politics without it? How else can we imagine justice?
For these and myriad other reasons, Rosanna Warren’s poems in Stained Glass are as — or more — necessary now than they were when they first appeared over two decades ago.
When Melissa Range published her first book Horse and Rider, winner of the Texas Tech first book prize, in 2010, she was already at work on the poems that would become her second and most recent book, Scriptorium (2016), chosen by Tracy K. Smith as a 2015 winner in the National Poetry Series. Recipient of numerous prizes for her poetry, including a Rona Jaffe Award for Emerging Women Writers and an NEA fellowship, Range — who holds advanced degrees in English and theology and is a professor at Lawrence University in Wisconsin — is well and deservedly “on her way” as a poet.
Whatever that means, of course.
One senses that Range’s ambition is directed less toward “success” and recognition in the po-biz than on the creation of poems of extraordinary formal deftness and aesthetic and emotional authenticity. The evidence is that these poems are not quite in fashion — that is, not the kind of poems one might expect to find a popular audience and more the poems that Range needs to, must, write. They are neither painstakingly confessional nor fueled by oversimplified raw political outrage, nor are they “conceptually” driven by “gaming” techniques or pop-cultural reference. Instead, they are sonically enchanting, surprisingly formal (sonnets, villanelles, rhyming couplets, cento, anagram), and deeply intelligent explorations of the relationships between materiality, text, origins, and belief.
A scriptorium is, as Tracy K. Smith tells us in her introduction to the book, “a room where monks sat copying manuscripts. The word calls to the sense of what is precious, what must be made and remade, what one could give one’s entire life to preserving.” Range, the writer and “illuminator” of this second book — which is itself a psaltery that moves agilely among Old English and medieval modes, the Appalachian landscape, and all manner of “vernacular theology” — evokes rogue monks like Brother Rufillus, who, in the 12th century, drew himself, pen in hand, into the capital letter “R” of an illuminated manuscript now housed at the Bibliotheca Bodmeriana in Geneva. Like Brother Rufillus, Range is an antic meta-presence in Scriptorium.
The title poem explores the praxis and faith of a monk named Eadfrith, thought to be the illuminator of the Lindisfarne Gospels, who is shown, “before the letters knot / into the Word,” gathering the dirt, woad, and lichens necessary for his craft: “The earth, not the cell, / is his scriptorium, where he might see / the interlace of branch and twig and leaf.” Range’s book includes a series of sonnets about the various ink and paint pigments used to illuminate ancient manuscripts — “Verdigris,” “Kermes Red,” “Tyrian Purple,” and “Lampblack.” Each is a trove of historical details, but also an exploration of what it takes to create a text that might be found “glorious to the Lord.” We see that lofty impulse throughout the book, and especially in the Donne-haunted, metaphysical God-wrestling of “Shell White”:
The monk grinds bleach from mollusk-carapace,
pestles his basket of beach-combed sea-crumbs
so limed hides might beam brighter for the Lamb.
Before he paints incipit, interlace,
he blenches before the page as if it were the face
that he might hope to glimpse in prayer, numb
within the blizzard of love that strikes dumb
the heart, shell-shocked before the story’s grace.
Eyefull of Snow, Dazzling Blank —
I believed you once the union of all light
and pled the searing of my eyes. Then I blinked.
My wool-puller, my white-hot blind spot,
I’m washed up, shelled out, your thankless monk,
or else the page you’d scour, whitewash, illuminate.
Essential to Range’s “vernacular theology” are experiences drawn not just from medieval figures like Hildegard of Bingen and Mechthild of Magdeburg, but from her own childhood among the rural, ravaged areas of Appalachia — strafed by coal mining, rich in paradoxes, and home to a testimonial vernacular all its own. With a sense of what Ben Folds called his “redneck past nipping at [his] heels,” Range explores these origins with characteristic forthrightness, intelligence, and a healthy dose of irony, as in the villanelle “Regionalism”:
People mock the South wherever I pass through.
It’s so racist, so backward, so NASCAR.
I don’t hate it, but they all do.
As if they themselves marched out in blue,
they’re still us-themming it about the Civil War,
mocking the South, wherever it is (they’ve never passed through).
It’s a formless humid place with bad food (except for BBQ) —
the grits, slick boiled peanuts, sweet tea thick as tar.
I don’t hate it, but they all do,
though they love Otis Redding, Johnny Cash, the B-52s.
The rest of it can go ahead and char.
People mock my Southern mouth wherever I pass through,
my every “might could have” and “fixin’ to,”
my flattened vowels that make “fire” into “far.”
I don’t hate how I talk, where I’m from, but they all do
their best to make me. It’s their last yahoo
in a yahooing world of smear, slur, and mar.
People mock the South, its past. They’re never through.
I’m damned if I don’t hate it, and damned if I do.
The second books of both Rosanna Warren and Melissa Range enact Warren’s speculation that “imagination can be a political force.” Whether exploring the ways in which historical and personal griefs illuminate, through “stained glass,” the “market blood” of our present moment, or plundering the connections between the meth-addled, dynamited landscape of one’s mountain home and the ancient and eternal need to seek and illuminate, Stained Glass and Scriptorium are, finally, about the role of the poet, and the poem, in the world. “Must one sing of this?” Range asks in “Fortunes of Men.” Yes, she answers, “One must.”
Lisa Russ Spaar is a poet, essayist, and professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Virginia. She has published numerous books of poetry, and her latest collection, Orexia, will be published in 2017.