Reviewed by Phil Brown
November 3, 2011
and yes / I’m trying to show you how well read I am
There is a very serious and far-reaching discussion that is often had about the practice of writing and reading poetry in the age of the search engine, and I feel that Ahren Warner’s debut collection, Confer, can not escape being dragged into it.
In his review of James Brookes’ English Sweats, Jon Stone wrote that ‘it just doesn’t seem right that one should always have Google on hand’ when engaging with a poem. It is a complaint that many make when faced with something difficult, elusory or seemingly esoteric.
The accessibility spectrum between Pam Ayres and Geoffrey Hill (the latter’s latest reference-laden offering being dismissed as ‘the sheerest twaddle’ by Lachlan Mackinnon) is a starting point for an infinite cycle of workshop barneys that have only been exacerbated by the internet. In a world where almost all recorded knowledge is available to all people with a few keystrokes, have allusions just become glorified hyperlinks? Does this cheapen the life’s study of the scholar? It certainly makes us more sceptical when approaching work as referential as Warner’s – we ask ourselves if Wikipedia has started making writers give too much of the hard work to their readers.
In a world where the gap between knowledge and intelligence has never been so distinct, writers need to work even harder to prove that they have earned their ambitious intertextuality.
Warner’s is a book steeped in allusion, unabashedly erudite and seamlessly multilingual and, as such, will have the modern reader reaching for their web browser before they have got past the title-page, an exert from Baudelaire’s Á une passante in its original French.
For this reason, before we look at the specifics of how this book works, I am going to give you my heartfelt advice for how to read it, and you should definitely read it. I want you to turn off your mobile phone, take the book to your nearest café (mine was in my local supermarket) and read it cover to cover without a single reference point to hand. Let the search engines sit this one out – amongst all the French and Greek, the references to Nietzsche, Eliot, Lacan and Petrarch, there is enough craft, cohesion and accessibility present in this collection to satisfy those who have not spent their lives in university libraries.
The collection opens with the poet wandering alone through a public space in a foreign land; ‘Jardin du Luxembourg’. The speaker is unable to engage with the experience without interrogating the quirks of language used to denote his surroundings:
Here, all parks are masculine, grammatically so
I mean: le jardin, le parc, never a la.
This state of engaging with the unfamiliar environment through intellectual scrutiny is emblematic of the mood permeating Confer. We get the sense of a speaker who annoys himself in his inability to process any element of human experience without the framework of critical thinking:
I doubt even your authenticity – tree
Amongst this boom of tinted glass, landscaped grass
And men whose Windsor-knotted ties shout phallus.
- ‘Near St. Mary Woolnoth’
This sustained voice of the academic unable to escape his wider reading sometimes plays out into a self-effacing dark comedy as the speaker finds himself in situations that can only be endured as throw-away moments of fleeting id:
Take a second for a double take –
not at this crowd
but at that blonde, her breasts on show
And if academic critical thinking form the framework for the speaker’s ideas, it is this sense of corporeal lust and yearning for a deeper understanding of the world and people around him that provide its fuel.
I do not mark this world with pale cottons
and the hues of birthing girls bastards who’ll grow
to their own actions and sadness coaxing warm tears
from other’s eyes blurred before books*
There are times when Warner’s cleverness, or at least his erudition, seem almost too much for the reader to bear:
As soup made Eliot think of Spinoza
and she made Donne think of compasses,
drummers drumming bring to mind άγήθεια
But the poet masterfully circumnavigates any ill feeling we may have towards such flourishes with the sort of endearing candour we find in a poem such as ‘Legare’:
I’m in the habit of switching
Languages to see who will blanch, and
- in Fitzgerald’s vein – consider elitism.
This self-awareness, and second-guessing of his audience pulls into focus beautifully in the poem ‘Opus’:
[I] have nothing,
But an art I’ve been learning
Warner himself has written of the collection’s title that he is toying with the three meanings of the Latin root, ‘conferre’ which can mean ‘to compile, to bestow and to compare’. The idea of comparison seems to be the most resonant with my reading of the poems – the speaker in this collection is in a state of constant comparison. He compares his life-experiences with those of his literary heroes, his lover with the nameless girls he briefly encounters in public places, his way of seeing the world with the people who inhabit the European cities he finds himself in and he compares the effectiveness of various languages to give lucid shape to his thoughts.
The word ‘ambitious’ is often used when any debut collection is released from a young poet – let alone one who titles their poems ‘Dactylogram’ (Nietzsche) and ‘Διόνυσος’. But then ambition seems to imply an uneasy relationship between reach and grasp, an implication which I think would not be fair to make of Confer. We are living in a world where, more than ever, intertextuality needs to be earned and Warner does this effortlessly. His words are saturated with his bookishness, but there is more than just a heap of broken images to be found here – Warner’s debut does that rare thing of throwing its cleverness in your face without sacrificing its soul.
*Apologies go to the author, whose tabulated style of writing I do not have the technical skill to reproduce online.
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