Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1886
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...
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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 separable, since the speaker is partly composed of what she has learned of the German invasion of Crete and of invasions that preceded it:
That was the first invasionconducted wholly from the sky.The Germans stayed four years. The people tookto the rock.But long ago, falling thick as centuries,stone Turkish cannonballs had stunnedthe land, and longbefore that, the Mycenean spearheads droveMinoans deep into their island’s granite mind.
By the end of the poem, the speaker has arisen and watered the potted gardenia. “It’s morning. I begin.// I begin my life.” The first section’s remaining fifteen poems lay out some of the journeys and destinations of a varied life. Most of the book’s central concerns are expressed here, though one is saved for the third section, and the second section contains several poems which are more self-consciously literary than anything else in the collection.
Most first collections of poems have predictable shortcomings arising from the poet’s various attempts to find a voice, a way of doing things; the various attempts often lead to dead ends but result in a few good poems along the way. So the usual first book may contain several poems which are quite acceptable, but which are noticeably at odds with the main impulse of the book—if the book is fortunate enough to have a main impulse. If anything such as this has gone into the making of Each Leaf Shines Separate, then the dead-end poems are far better than most; one cannot pick them out and say that this or that direction is one which the poet is likely not to explore further. The matter of form makes an excellent example here: In first books characterized by a variety of traditional and open forms, it is usually easy to tell on what sort of form the poet will gradually come to rely most heavily. In the first third of this book, however, Warren introduces not only the subjects and themes—place, art, love, time—that most concern her but also gives notice that she is perfectly free to let every poem become the form it deserves. She writes few poems which would go into a textbook as examples of traditional forms, but the value of the tradition is keenly and intelligently felt here.
“Alps,” for example, begins with an off-rhymed couplet in octosyllabics: The mountains taught us speechlessness./ A snowshoe hare loped to its place. The remaining twelve lines are arranged in quatrains ranging between six and fourteen syllables; the rhyme scheme of each quatrain is abba, though there are as many slant rhymes as perfect ones. Thus the poem is suggestive of a sonnet, though its couplet comes first. The technical problem with a poem such as this is easy to describe and difficult to overcome: If the formal expectations aroused by the poem are not fulfilled—in other words, if the poem is far from being a traditional sonnet—how can the formal departure be made pleasing instead of disappointing? There are no rules of thumb. The lines themselves must strike the reader as right and inevitable despite their uneven meters. The poem goes on to describe the way the mountainous silence kept the resorters from speaking, except in the village below, where they confined their talk to human matters, as when one of their number becomes ill and has to leave,
or when we had to conclude affairsthat had not been love, or even,often, affairs—conclude them inhaste, with our hats on, there by the stairs:for whatever they’d been, they hadat least composed the bleakness.And hard enough it had been to speakof those un-mountainous matters, in few words, without fraud.
The shift in position of the slant rhymes, lending additional symmetry, and the obtrusive hyphenated word, calling attention to the requirements of form, contribute to the effect of finality created primarily by what the words themselves mean. Directness and strength of this order are rare in contemporary poetry.
The second section of the book includes several monologues, characterizations, and translations, demanding flexibility of voice within a distinctive style. There are two poems evoking the poet and painter Max Jacob; two superb translations from Catullus; a mysterious monologue called “Drowned Son,” in which the speaker explains why he chose to walk into the sea; and a spectacular monologue “Interior at Petworth,” spoken by Lord Egremont, who reacts with a wonderful mixture of admiration, impatience, and fear to the extravagant interiors devised for the house by Joseph Turner. In these poems, Warren displays a fine willingness to veer sharply away from the sameness and subjectivity of much of the work of her contemporaries. Her sense of the relative importance or triviality of things is hard to find in writers twice her age.
The final section of the book continues some of the trends so far identified and adds an important subject: the growth of a young family, a theme that gives rise to some of the wisest and wittiest poems in Each Leaf Shines Separate. “Jigsaw Puzzle in the Suburbs” weaves strands which might become too tidily and predictably braided in hands less sure than Warren’s: A young couple, the speaker pregnant, are in a room, the husband putting together a puzzle, as fragments of the life around them—neighbors, quarrels, peace—fall into place, and the day pulls itself together “in spite of us all.” Here, as in “Child’s Room in Autumn,” the exquisite certainty with which Warren selects details gives the poem the exactly right proportions of the general and the specific, and statement finds its way out of images to give the lines not only rightness of sound but also the sense of having been worth saying.
It may be intrusive to bring up a fact which is not mentioned anywhere in the biographical information printed on the jacket of this book, but the connections between the fact and these poems are worth noting. Doubtless desiring to stand on her own merits, Warren does not refer to her parents, Eleanor Clark and Robert Penn Warren. A very small number of lines and phrases in this collection evoke some of the sounds characteristic of her father’s poetry. “Pastorale,” first published in a collection of essays called Homage to Robert Penn Warren (1981), contains a few of the noun-adjective inversions that Warren sometimes favors, and “Daylights,” an account of having stood alarmingly close to a petty crime in the city, blends the colloquial and the formal with the same witty balance to be found in poems such as “Folly on Royal Street Before the Raw Face of God.” “Daylights,” in fact, prompts the half-serious speculation that here, for once, Rosanna Warren decided to demonstrate that she can sound like her father if she so desires. It is not hard, however, to think of several other poets in whose work stylistic indebtedness to Robert Penn Warren is far more pervasive than it is here. Rosanna Warren’s voice is among the soundest and surest to be heard today; Each Leaf Shines Separate is gratifying for what it is, and exciting for what it portends.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10
Library Journal. CIX, November 15, 1984, p. 2153.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXVI, September 7, 1984, p. 69.