"Stop Name-Dropping, Start Eavesdropping:"
Lewis Warsh’s Inseparable: Poems 1995-2005

Review by Charles Thorne


Lewis Warsh's recently published Inseparable: Poems 1995-2005 (Granary, 2008) is a decade's long collection of poems by one of America's most understudied poets. Formally, the poems in this book are an exploration of the long and sequence poem-a form that poets for the majority of the twentieth-century have been exploring, the long and sequence poem have tackled at one point or another in their careers. I have had many conversations, both with poets and professors, which have taken as their focus, the question of whether or not the 20th century was the century for American poetry and if the long poem was its form. With books such as Ashbery's Flowchart, Merrill's The Changing Light at Sandover, and Olson's Maximus Poems it seems difficult to argue latter point. Warsh does something a little different, however, by packing 35 poems onto 205 pages. While they may not be the epic length of the aforementioned books, they are a testament and record to a commitment to working in longer forms. Take for example the first poem of the collection, "Premonition." In this poem, the speaker reflects upon precisely this question; "in the wet mud, / where one would remain / forever in the age one was." The speaker goes on to observe that we live "by the numbers / that kept enlarging" until "the number / of people, who were older than you grew less." For the speaker, life is moving in two conflicting directions simultaneously, an idea that seems particularly relevant to life in the post-capital media driven United States over the past 50 years. Warsh explores this idea in the "3" section, where the speaker notes "thought moves faster / than my hand can write-" an allusion to technological advancement and the speed of life, which at any moment could burst "like bubbles of water / on the side of a pan." Indeed, there is restlessness and a fear that at any moment everything could collapse in 2nd generation New York School poetry. Warsh's speaker seems to want to be content, but it cannot be because "the customers kept coming in. Every time / I decided it was time to close up shop / someone new walked in the door." Ultimately, the speaker concludes with "you can say you knew me when, / but I haven't changed." On some level, despite whatever efforts the speaker makes to change, it cannot. The scenery may change but the person always remains the same.

Warsh's shifting back and forth in his poems is undoubtedly a result of his dedication to the study of the Donald Allen anthologies (see Warsh's interview with Daniel Kane in What is Poetry: Conversations with the American Avant-Garde or Edward Foster's interview in Poetry and Poetics in a New Millennium: Interviews). His willingness to survey the poetic landscape, rather than focus on a specific poetic or school, allows him to try many different approaches at once, rather than focusing in on a particular school's poetic strategy. Warsh's own Angel Hair Anthology (with Anne Waldman) might be the best evidence of his multi-poetic approach, since it collects much of the diverse avant-garde poetry produced in the United States up to 1978. There are plenty of international influences in Warsh's poetry as well. One does not have to dig deep into Inseparable to find hints of French Symbolism, dada, and a Bretonesque observational kind of surrealism a la Arcanum 17 (and to a lesser extent Mad Love). Also present in Warsh's work is Louis Aragon's Paris Peasant and the ever elusive but often referred to Pierre Reverdy, whose reflectiveness Warsh seems to have picked up (See Reverdy's Roof Slates for some interesting parallels). At times, Warsh enters a dreamlike Desnosian trance, but perhaps with a more civic feel (see "In the Land of the Barbarians"). Warsh wanders about the world in a surrealist like trance but always with a foot (or his heart) on the ground. Perhaps the plurality of Warsh's poetic influences is what has caused him to be overlooked by mainstream anthologies and scholarship. To this end, Daniel Kane's recent work in All Poets Welcome and Don't Ever Get Famous is indispensible in its recognition and exploration of second-generation New York School poetry and poetics.

What is of particular interest in Inseparable is Warsh's exploration of the poetic line. In a poem such as "Delusions," Warsh with plays with fragments of speech-the overheard moments of a city and speaker in motion; "Supper / is ready - all I have to do / is heat it up." Here time and motion are summed up in the convenience of a microwavable dinner. The fragments of dialogue break up the poem and mirror the fragmentation of a life and the "illusion of the experience-" a decidedly postmodern idea. Perhaps it is not an accident that the third section of the poem makes reference to Swedenborg and his mystic experience of transition into life after death. The answers Swedenborg gives will never be enough, however, as the speaker notes in the fourth section; "I was standing in the rain. It was / a different time, another city with the same name." where "the room on the top floor of the castle is known as 'heaven' That's / where we go when we want to stare / into the sun." There is the sense here of repetition, sameness and blindness-a blindness one chooses to have rather than avoid.

In "New Way," Warsh can be seen reworking the poetic line. In these poems, the poet takes the line past its "margin" and extends it. The effect of this approach to line composition is a questioning of limits and an opening up of possibilities. Rather than stopping at each end Warsh asks his reader to continue reading much like they would in prose, but then stop like they may be accustomed to in poetry (See Warsh's The Origin of the World (2001) for more examples of this style). In "New Way," the lines are growing longer and more aphoristic in their tone and content. Sometimes the lines are sequences that act like poems within poems. By placing the lines underneath a title, Warsh forcibly molds them together. The relationship between each line can be thin (almost transparent) at first read, but the poem that is ultimately produced is one that is constantly turning back, through, and beyond itself. Perhaps the intent here is to create disorientation within the reader- a kind of mirror effect that reflects a speaker who is trying to become oriented in a fragmented world. This fragmentation begins with language where "You resist saying what you mean, as if the opposite of what / you want is always true" and moves on to the speaker who uses "the pronoun 'I' but no longer referrer[s] to himself." The problem is solved rather humorously, however, when the speaker notes that the "The divorce between appearance and reality was settled out of court."

The questioning of the line is not something new to the poetics Warsh's generation. Immediately, John Ashbery's Three Poems and "The Skaters," Robin Blaser's "Image-Nation," poems and Jack Spicer's Language (1964) come to mind, as well as Ted Berrigan's Sonnets. However, Warsh's experiments with the long poem and the long line are unique because of the intensity and duration of his commitment to the form. Warsh's book length poem, "Private Agenda," which is collected here, is a prime example of this commitment. In this poem, Warsh keeps the aphoristic lines of "New Way" but compresses the lines together into numbered stanza sections. Rather than leaving a space between lines, Warsh moves the lines next to each other, which creates a poem whose movement is as rapid as the eyes movement across the page. Take these lines from "1" as an example: "What's understandable is the flow of words / beneath the roar of traffic. Get out of the car real slow & put your hands on your head" or "3" "Should we omit a discussion about the differences / between the people or get on with it as if nothing/ else was worth talking about." The lines that make up each section of this poem serve as snapshots that collectively form a picture. The effect is acutely mosaic like. The poem is much like image that one sees from far away but, upon closer inspection, discovers that there are thousands of tiny images that make up the whole. The whole of course is a speaker in fragments who, in "Reported Missing" notes "It was up to me-a single person --/ to stimulate the world where there are no polarities, / and where every object has the same function. / My goal is to be this person, / become this person, if it kills me."

Warsh continues pushing the poetic margin in "Soccer Riot." In this poem, the lines fragment and question the scenes they capture. The poem has a tone that is reminiscent of Joe Brainard's "I Remember" poems, but Warsh substitutes "This is…" for "I remember…" In "Soccer Riot," the lines are pulled apart by an exaggerated space that highlights the experience of living in a world that is coming apart. At the same time, the space holds the lines together simply by the inertia of the moment. About half way through the poem, the lines change in a manner that oddly feels like changing the channels on a television with a remote control as the lines shift from the soccer match to a weather report.

This style of line appears again in the title poem "Inseparable," except the lines are once again pressed together. Here Warsh's speaker deals with the post-capitalist simulated world in "2" when the speaker states, "There's something / to be said for erasing everything." or "someone you haven't met yet is out there / waiting." The stranger is both a source of joy and anxiety for the speaker and the tension is created by not knowing just what will happen-if and when-that person is ever encountered. The most interesting poem contained in "Inseparable" is "3," with its references to Whitman and Dickinson. These references get right to the heart of the poetic matter of the poems included in this collection; "Whitman with his long lines stretching to infinity; / […] Dickinson, her shortness of breath, like a cat / wheezing in the dark." Warsh's lines then are filled with Whitman's tantric democracy and Dickinson's agoraphobia. This is a tension that runs deep in the American poetic psyche and is a real insight into Warsh's method, with its equal parts of sensuality and fear; "I like to look at houses / where people who are dead used / to live & imagine they're / still inside." Perhaps one should simply "remember / to remember how happy you were when you're not" because when they "look at the mirror a few times […] after/ awhile" they "won't see anything."

The irony of all this is that Warsh seems to see and think about everything that is happening in the world around him. A tireless observer and listener, Warsh is a poet that balances humor and melancholy in a way that reflects the times in which he is writing. Inseparable, is a collection of poems that are indispensible if we want to understand where the world has been and where it may be going. The question that needs to be answered may be where the individual (or poet) fits into this new world. In "Consecutive Sentences," Warsh starts out by noting, "The furniture in my head needs dusting once a week // I threw the furniture in my head out the window // You can say that used furniture is like old thoughts in my head // My head is screwed on backwards if you didn't already know." Maybe it's not the poet whose head is screwed on backwards, but the world's.