Review by Ryan Nowlin
Ugly Duckling Presse,
In an earlier book of Lewis Warsh’s, Avenue of Escape, in the poem “Entering Night,” he writes “You could hope for an act of generosity that wasn’t someone’s/ idea of a deal, an exchange over a counter for some/ commodity like the elixir of life.” “Elixir,” as it is used in this poem, suggests some kind of flimsy remedy, what we might call “snake oil.”
Warsh’s first book of poems to come after his recent death, Elixir, repetitive motifs or artifacts link otherwise disparate elements.
As a reader of Warsh’s later poetry, one must see the relationship between these disparate bits of imagery and fragments of narration. This requires an intense act of attention because, as Eliot maintains, the poem must adhere not merely to the “logic of concept,” but also to the “logic of imagination.” To that end one might expect an avenue of escape in the poem, “Elixir,” is there is no way of avoiding the nondescript aspect of death so pervasive and powerful in the last poem. Instead, the motif of the elixir introduced early on takes on a more complex meaning near the end of the book.
Lewis Warsh’s elixir retains and highlights what Robin Blaser once called ”the sheen of language.” Blaser was talking about how a poem is visualized on the page should approximate the prose sublime, or as poet Donald Justice writes, “prose which utilizes images or fine language for a transport, a frisson, a thrilled recognition or from Longinus ‘flashing forth at the right moment and scattering everything before it like a thunderbolt.’” Certainly, if one glances at Warsh’s cover collage of art, La Disparition (yes , he did the cover art, too) one is reminded that language (as understood in its use in a community per the late Russian literary critic Viktor Shklovky’s Kugel) is comprised of approximately 10% verbal elements and the rest consists of gesture, atmosphere, the sexy poisonous sheen of billboards and environmental drift, among other elements.
In contrast to the sense of optimism and generative energy concerning the definition and practice of writing the serial poem, which underscores much of the San Francisco Renaissance ethos, Warsh is much more melancholic and circumspect about whether the random and fragmented materials of the poem will eventually reveal their “sublime connections.” If there is an ethos in Warsh’s work as a poet it may be illustrated by the concept of Noblesse Oblige, a phrase derived from the French nobility, which literally translates as the inferred responsibility of privileged people to act with generosity and nobility toward those less privileged. For Lewis, intimacy complicates the way we use language, as though intimacy was the loveliest part of thought.
Even so, people often rely on Hollywood invitations and other empty gestures to convey feelings we tend to express, but which we may not necessarily mean, such as in the following line from the poem Noblesse Oblige: “It’s not a bad/ idea to walk a mile or two every day. Let’s meet for a double espresso/ and a plate of hummus and cheese/ some late afternoon when all the kids/ are in school.” Usually, we
can ascertain the sincerity attached to such statements by the manner that they are spoken, but today it is much harder to interpret given that we communicate through texting, tweeting and so forth.
Still, isn’t it ironic that while Lewis Warsh is generally concerned with his students’ writing they may still get a D in the class if they don’t:
to all the details
Sentence structure, for
the use of commas.
The abyss needs
some attention as
well as the
void, but words
is not permitted
Or in the poem “Don’t
All of it
coming to me like a period
at the end of a
sentence & when you erased
the period the
like guns and
flowers, like madmen with sticks
to divine some
wisdom where before there
were only skid
Perhaps Lewis Warsh is only giving the sentence the choice of whether to go on or come to a full stop, which is signified by using a period, or “the dot,” that artificial border between sentences. Does one have a choice about what one wants to write about? Can we, for example, exert complete conscious control over our subject matter and obsessions? Many poems in elixir contain lines and sentences that lead the reader down loops and dark alleyways like wandering in and out of cellars—sentences or lines that like a lint roller, pick up all sorts of odd and unexpected things, whether it be a reprisal of a lingering love affair in Hiroshima, Mon Amour by French New Wave director Alain Resnais (Warsh loved Duras who wrote the screenplay for the film) in section four of his poem “Intermezzo” or tuning in to an invisible radio (many voices, one dial) in Warsh’s “The Open Air Movie Theater In Doors.”
In his book Elixir, Warsh continues to employ an amorous lyricism with a desire for connection with others, even in the face of the final days of his life. As with his books Alien Abduction (Ugly Duckling Press) and Out of the Question Selected Poems (1963-2003) (Station Hill Press), Elixir binds together all phases of his poetic being with a “hermetic Marxist solitude.” In other words, Warsh is concerned with his connection with others while at the same time he is very much alone as evidenced in section one of the poem “On the Western Front,” also a wonderful tribute to 20th century German novelist Erich Maria Remarque. In the following first section, multiple meanings open up, suggestive of a sudden blow, a military maneuver, or a deceptive turn along a path.
A feint to the left and he was
out in the open court, where
anything was possible, morning
till midnight, and then it was
time to stare at the moon
and stars and think of people
in the past tense only, because
that’s where they are, or
were, the flowers out the bedroom
window, the key on the tray, and
that’s where we want them to stay
no questions asked.
In another section of “On the Western Front,” the poetry affects an elegiac desire to achieve a language fully separated from the self, though certainly informed by the presence of death. As with many other poems in Elixir there is an admission of limits and thresholds even as the dirty dishes in the sink signify other meanings. As a statement of poetics, this poem embraces formal design in the face of the night as seen by one confined to a bed and confronting eminent sickness.
were dirty dishes in the sink
night before and a pink streak
of light in
the sky above the river.
Maybe we’ll look back years from now and blot
it all out or replay the moment in living color,
the way you reached for the phone in the middle
of night and realized it was ringing in your head…
or in section
…Minutes of life
are lost until the air gauge
systems are restored.”
In addition, section 16, the final section of the poem “On the Western Front,” Warsh pays homageto Wordsworth: “Classed dismissed./
Those are my favorite words. I sit in the back/ of the room waiting for class
to end. Then/ I run into the street like an escaped convict,/ like a doe in a
poem by Wordsworth, bounding/ over the hillside.” In contrast to Wordsworth,] who in his poem “The Prelude” maintains that we experience “spots of time” so as to allow the presumed reader to apprehend the structure of the poem, Lewis Warsh’s poetic work provides little, if any, certainty of its virtues or its continuity.
The poem “Elixir,” written five months before Lewis passed away in 2020, is an emotional landscape where death is ever present. The lives of those not facing death are presented like a T.V. show from a different planet, as other people’s lives unravel behind the curtains of a hospital and where one may share a room with famous jazz saxophonist and composer Lee Konitz, whose improvised musical modalities are attenuated by a sense of age and a continuous interweaving of life and death. Still the theatrical structure of an anesthetic seems to mimic sleep, yet all dreams end suddenly, then:
You must sign a consent form, you must sign your life away
Soon I will leave the hospital and walk down the street
like any stranger
Once I arrived without asking at her house in the middle of night
and she let me in
There’s no one around to witness these moments
There’s no one here except Shelley the night nurse
The last time I was in the hospital my roommate was Lee Konitz
class=””].Many poems in elixir contain lines and sentences that lead the reader down loops and dark alleyways lik wandering in and out of cellars—sentences or lines that like a lint roller, pick up all sorts of odd and unexpected things.[/su_pullquote]
As with Lewis Warsh’s poem “What I Learned this Year,” from an early book of his, Dreaming as One, the last poems in elixir are contrapuntal in that the thing said always gets mixed up with some quality of speech, startling the reader in its juxtaposition, often darkened by anxiety and a heretofore kept secret, where the faces of lovers, friends, family often morph into each other. In this phase Warsh tends to be more agnostic in his poetry, even so he tries again and again to get closer to divinity in such poems as “First Communion,” the last poem in the book. “First Communion” signals a U-turn toward reason and faith, as Lewis was convinced that the reality of death exists and was trying to reconcile himself to the ultimate separation between life and death.
A shrewdly paraphrased passage from Robbe-Grillet referenced in section 5 of “Grand Hotel” strikes the reader with a sense of its postlapsarian logic:
Robbe-Grillet had to say about the novel? The measure of it all was that night
and day are not the same. Arbitration might lead to a higher salary, a dead-end
job in a one-horse town. You have to choose between your career and your
marriage, but not tonight.“
Hence, one wonders why are we predisposed to an optimistic view of ourselves, no matter how cynical we claim to be about the world. Even the poem itself, or the assertion of a comma, can be as fictional as a quotation mark, and then maybe our final thoughts will be crossed out, erased or backspaced into nothingness.
RYAN NOWLIN (https://www.myliterarywebsite.com)
received his master’s in creative writing from Temple University in 2004 and
master’s of library sciences from Rutgers University in 2011. His concentrationat Temple was in post-modern American poetry and 20th Modernisms. For the past few years, he has been an active participant in the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery. He lives in New Jersey and teaches as an English adjunct at Hudson County Community College in Jersey City. Recently poems of his have appeared in Sal Mimeo, The Delineator, and the online publications Boog City, Posit, and Across the Margins; as well as the anthology/photography book Like Musical Instruments: 83 Contemporary American Poets,” edited by Larry Fagin and John Sarsgard. He has also published two chapbooks, Banquet Settings and Not Far From Here (both Green Zone Edition). Kugel is his first full-length collection of poetry. Over the summer of 2021, Slacks books published his new chapbook Time with the Season.
LEWIS WARSH (1944-2020) was an American poet, visual artist, professor,
prose writer, editor, and publisher. He was a principal member of the second
generation of the New York School poets, however, he has said that “no two
people write alike, even if they’re associated with a so-called ‘school.’” He
was co-founder, with Bernadette Mayer, of United Artists Magazine and Books, and co-founder and editor, with Anne Waldman, of Angel Hair Books and Magazine. Mimeo Mimeo #7 (Cuneiform Press) was devoted entirely to his poetry, fiction, and collages, and included a bibliography of his work as a publisher and editor (https://wordpress.boogcity.com/2021/03/27/mimeo-mimeo-7-the-lewis-warsh-issue/). Micah Saperstein photo. To visit Boog City’s Lewis Warsh tribute issue, go to https://wordpress.boogcity.com/2021/03/28/inside-boog-city-140-april-2021.