ROBERT PENN WARREN has done it again: in the face of advancing years, he has produced another collection of poetry that is at least as good as any of its predecessors and that manifests continued growth and change. His progress is a joy to contemplate and an inspiration to us all. We have not had such a prolonged late flowering since Hardy's, which lasted until his 88th year; may Warren's last at least that long!
In this collection, Warren's second since the Selected Poems of 1975, he is still experimenting with different kinds of structure, playing off thematic arrangements against a "shadowy autobiography," and trying new meters and new kinds of poems. Of all Warren's volumes, this one is the most open and accessible to the reader: not only are the poems given descriptive titles and arranged in sequences so that they provide contexts for each other, both thematic and autobiographical, but even the dedication and the epigraphs are functional, and there is an "Afterthought" as further guide. The epigraphs indicate the central theme of the volume -- the nature and meaning of Time -- and the dedication, to Warren's maternal grandfather Gabriel Penn evokes the memory and situation that lies behind many poems.
"OLD MAN: You get old and you can't do anybody any good any more.
"BOY: You do me some good, Grandpa. You tell me things."
As Warren has frequently remarked in interviews (recently collected in Robert Penn Warren Talking, [Random House, $12.95] reviewed in Book World, April 13, 1980), he spent many boyhood summers on his grandfather's farm and was tremendously impressed by the old man, who, though opposed to slavery, became a captain in Forrest's cavalry when the war came and was all his life a great reader of history and poetry. Some of the best poems vividly recall such boyhood scenes, but now with roles sometimes reversed, as the poet identifies with the grandfather rather than the boy; in a sense, the poems are substitutes for such colloquies, for in them the poet attempts to tell somebody things that may do him good.
Though this tableau characterizes the volume accurately, since most of the poems deal with boyhood memories interpreted in age, Warren rarely speaks as a self-consciously old man. (There are, for instance, no poems like Hardy's "An Ancient to Ancients" or "Afterwards.") Instead, he stresses the essential humanity that is common to youth and age, boy and grandfather. His attitude is realistic, unsentimental, hard-bitten, without self-pity or easy consolations. He preaches no doctrine; but he affirms, on the basis of his own experience, that joy and love are possible; and he yearns for significance. Lack of meaning, blankness, whiteness -- most often imaged as snow -- is the ulitmate horror in the poems; and it is a possibility never dismissed. Thematically, each of the five sequences expressed a tension between this vision of despair and the search for meaning; poems like "Empty White Blotch on Map of Universe: A Possible View" and "Ballard of Your Puzzlement" are, in Warren's unpretentious metaphor, like backboards against which the other poems in thier sequences are bounced.
To single out individual poems is misleading, since an important part of their meaning derives from their context. Nevertheless, a few of the most outstanding must be noticed. "Speleology" develops early memories of cave exploration into an image of death; "Recollection in Upper Ontario, from Long Before" describes an incident witnessed in boyhood when a female hobo was killed by a train; possibly she had been pushed by her husband. These are wonderfully vivid poems. "When Life Begins" presents the tableau of boy and grandfather, the boy wondering when life would begin, while "Time crouched, like a great cat, motionless/ But for tail's twitch. Night comes. Eyes glare." "Function of Blizzard" is an ironic effort to accept even snow, "coverings-over, forgettings": Bless snow! Bless God, Who must work under the hand of Fate, who has no name. God does the best He can. . . . And bless me, even with no glass in my hand, and far from New York, as I rise From bed, feet bare, heart freezing, to stare out at The whitening fields and forest, and wonder what Item of the past I've most like God to let Snow fall on, keep falling on, and never Melt, for I, like you, am only a man, after all.
"Cocktail Party" is a powerful and funny meditation, with beautifully controlled tone, on the dangers of truth. "Auto-Da-Fe" is a meditation on the boy and its destruction by flame; "The Cross" a wistful and compassionate description of burying a monkey drowned in a storm at sea. But these are only a sampling; there are others equally good.
In general, the images in this volume are sharper and more powerful than ever. There is a particularly vivid one of the future as suction: the man with a passion for Truth: Looks down the sickening distance On the crowd-swarm like ants, far below, And he sways, high on the fated And human high-wire of lies. Does he fell the pililess suction Their eyes on him? Does he know they wait the orgasmic Gasp of relief as he falls?" Another poem images it as tornado: "That all-devouring, funnel-shaped, mad and high-spiraling,/Dark suction that/ We have, as the Future, named," and another speaks of the "suction of years yet to come."
Perhaps the most powerful repeated image and situation, however, is that of night walking, whether "Snowshoeing Back to Camp in Gloaming" or "Why Have I Wandered the Asphalt of Midnight?" with its vision of the stars in the inhuman vastness of space. The last poem, "Passers-By on Snowy Night," is perhaps the most beautiful version. A daringly regular poem for these times, it is a kind of envoy to the reader, making its limited affirmation of human good will in the indifferent universe of snow and "mocking moonlight": Black the coniferous darkness, White the snow track between, And the moon, skull-white in its starkness, Watches upper ledges lean, And regards with the same distant stare, And equal indifference, How your breath goes white in steel air As you trudge to whither from whence, . . . . . . . Alone I wish you well in your night As I pass you in my own. We each hear the distant friction, Then crack of bough burdened with snow, And each takes the owl's benediction, And each goes the way he will go.
The "owl's benediction," though a lovely musical phrase, is in Warren's poems not soothing or reassuring, but ominous: the owl asks his question "to make your conscience ask if it's you who -- who-who --/ Did whatever it was"; it is the owl's mystic question that follows his glut." The effect is somewhat like that Frost produces in poems like "Stopping by Woods" or "Acquainted with the Night," of a beautiful, rather bland surface masking depths of bleakness within. But in Warren the emphasis is on the good will, the common humanity despite all limitations and barriers.