Pick up a copy of most any poetry collection these days, flip to the back, and you’ll note the weighty thematic encapsulated in a bumpf so precise (yet paradoxically vague) you’d think you were about to dig into an epic novel were it not for the thin spine. There are several reasons for this: it makes for a more coherent outline in order to gain grant money from our government overlords; it presents as serious content, most often allied with current hot button topics and with others in the poetry community (in which the ‘transgressive’ poet always seems to join the winning team); and it’s easier to get away with individual poems that are mediocre since each is meant to be taken as a small piece in a narrative whose sum is (supposedly) much greater than its constituents.
Patrick Warner is a throwback in that he writes poems meant to be enjoyed and assessed within the parameters of each offering, attuned to the desires of present-day consumers of songs, who enjoy and assess them as singles, not oases in DVD deserts. Octopus, from 2016, is his fifth collection, and though themes and obsessions can be observed, volume to volume (as they inevitably will in any poet, good or bad), his focus is much more on intricate rhythms, sound patterns, dynamics, narrative surprise, vocal idiosyncrasy, apt and piquant diction, subtle irony, moral dilemmas, and a rare humour that combines the black with the compassionate.
Warner enjoys going for walks and looking at the earth, foregrounding his observations, rather than using them, as is usual in ‘nature’ poets, as metaphorical standbys for the spiritual malaise of the speaker (or author, let’s not be coy). In that, he’s aligned with Bly, Kinnell, and, closer to home, Peter Norman. But, unlike the aforementioned poets, Warner isn’t averse to including disparate comparisons within a poem. Take “Cold July” (dedicated to the late Elise Partridge), the first stanza of part one of which is recorded below:
I have seen it a beaver-dammed
lukewarm dribble, but this summer the brook’s a river,
deep and cold, running steeped tea
and a skim of froth around lichened rocks,
roaring like an air-conditioner.
The next poem, “Downpour”, is even better on the same front: out of a cistern, “oblong doilies;/crocheted antimacassars; gobs of/cuckoo spit; and here where two stones/make a whirlpool, a round lace pastie/ringed by seven clear bubbles – a rotary phone’s finger holes.”
Fun in contemporary poetry has been attempted through sheer will of personality, whether made up or natural. Blame Purdy, sure. But his followers are ultimately culpable. Flat or mild jokes – OK for stand-up comics, dire for repeated poetry readings – dominate the mode. Warner is having none of that. In “Guerilla”, the fun is one-hundred percent language driven : “Adios to my pueblo, my adobe abode, my white-washed hacienda of the mind”. It continues, through eight sestets, in the gathered and regrafted tropes of a scion of a Spanish conquistador, his revolution one of spiritual, not military or political, movement.
Painstaking observation, care in expression, emotional heft and complexity. Those attributes don’t have a chance next to the various popular social positions most are shouldering within to get positive ink and communal support. That is, until time, the ultimate judge, immune to hype, has its say.