Each Leaf Shines Separate
Each Leaf Shines Separate is not a particularly memorable or euphonious title for a book of poems; when someone who cares deeply about the sound of language decides to take a phrase such as that for a book title, one needs to consider what the author wants with it. This is a first collection, but Rosanna Warren has strengths that are rarely found in third or fourth collections: deftness with technique, breadth of range and tone, usable familiarity with the past.
The title is taken from the longest poem in the book. “Through the East Door” is dedicated to Theora Hamblett, a painter who lived in Oxford, Mississippi, from 1895 to 1977. The poem has two voices, the narrator’s in Roman type, the painter’s in italics; as they alternate, there emerges a complex portrait of a primitive painter, driven by forces she nearly understands and almost fears, and devoted to a life of getting her dreams and recollections down on canvas:
Haywagon crosses a ford:river vertical,trees a smoked olivey greenThe hay with the children slides off, old Danstands up on the single-tree, wavers, falls,white head smacking river rock whilethe mules strain forward.He saidhe just knew we were hurt. We were not.About three weeks later he diedIn the picture, old Danseems to perch on his head as a trick, feet tangledin reins, as Hubert stands by him, the little girls sitin the fallen hay, and the riverruns past, ashen blue, as softas the sky, and the straight-legged muleskeep walking.
The two passages spoken by the painter in this excerpt are characteristic of her voice throughout the poem: a tense vacillation between language that would plausibly be spoken by a rural Southerner, and language that is not implausible, but oddly sophisticated, as the painter veers from recollection of events to her interpretation of them. Early in the poem, saying how she paints trees, she says, “red over yellow, two coats/ so each leaf shines separate.” The dedication and the typographical arrangement of the poem strongly suggest that the painter’s words have been recalled, rather than invented, by the poet. One can never know the extent to which they have been shaped and revised; what is clear is that they are totally convincing and that they carry a heavy ambivalence toward the choices the painter made, staying home, painting, storing up images of the past and of visions. The last of these is the appearance of her brother Hubert at the east door of her room; he has been terminally ill, and when he appears, his sister knows what that means:
I knewand I cried. Hubert had becomea part of the whole worldI was painting all my life longand I knew I would painthim too, at the east door of the workroom,with those eyes,though I was so old already, my handswould shake.
The phrase which gives the book its title, then, is chosen from one of the central poems, yet it is also chosen to keep the reader from thinking too much of the connection between the details of the poem and the rest of the book. “Each leaf shines separate” is a metaphor, and a principle, by which the poet has been guided in her work.
The principle holds. Warren has a very observant eye and the skill to make selections among all the details that seem to leap out at her, so that she can write often of somewhat exotic locations—Crete, Florence—without producing what Robert Bly has called the “Guggenheim to Italy poem.” Also, as the leaves of a tree “shine separate,” so the individual poems in this collection are arranged to form something with a structure of their own.
The book is arranged in three sections. The first opens with “Garden,” a poem that establishes the ways in which one may be pulled in various directions at once, by love and recollection and responsibility. The flowers of Crete and a flower on a New York windowsill superimpose themselves over each other as the speaker wakes—in New York, as it happens—and sharpens consciousness toward separating past and present. They are not entirely...
(The entire section is 1,896 words.)