Rosanna Warren was the featured poet on Thursday night at the Luce Program in Scripture and Literary Arts at Boston University. Well known as a much-loved teacher and award-winning writer and translator (and the daughter of Robert Penn Warren), Rosanna cast a spell on me. Her work is carefully incised, with richly drawn streaks of imaginal flight.
She cycles in and out of many of the same themes that attract me as well. I wasn’t surprised to learn that she began her early adulthood as a painter rather than a poet. Her proclivities draw her to transcendence, to the earth, to the power of art and language to alter everything.
I was particularly moved by some of her most recent pieces. Three poems from a series called “Mistral” felt like a significant departure from her previous work and abandon the armature of a classical, more structured poetic approach. These poems have a mysterious and unnamed force coursing through a haunted hallowing of the past, so they are well named.
She also read several poems that were written about the recent death of her dear friend Deborah Tall, author of From Where We Stand and A Family of Strangers. This poem, dedicated to her friend, appeared in The New Yorker earlier this month.
You lay in your last sleep, not-sleep,
head tilted stiffly to the right on the pillow
at a sharper angle than when you bent over poems,
year after year, and we plucked at each other’s lines,
as if now you considered some even starker question.
Your I.V. tubes were gone. Your arms were bruised.
A blue cloth cap enfolded your pale, bald head.
It was too late to give you the lavender shawl I’d imagined
more for my sake than for yours.
Your mouth was suddenly tender, the mouth of a girl.
You had come very far, to come here.
Never one not to look at things squarely,
now you looked inward. Who knows what you saw.
And when, weeks later, we gathered
again at the house to say those formal farewells,
I went up to your study looking for “Leaves of Grass”
and found, instead, your orderly desk, unused,
your manuscripts neatly stacked, the framed
photographs of your girls, and, like a private message
from Whitman, who saw things whole, the small
dried body of a mouse. A kosmos, he, too. He, too, luckier.
Publications by Rosanna Warren: Verse translation, Euripides, Suppliant Women (with Stephen Scully) (1995); poetry: Departure (2003), Stained Glass (1993), Each Leaf Shines Separate (1984), Snow Day (1981); ed., The Art of Translation: Voices from the Field (1989); “Sappho: Translation as Elegy,” in The Art of Translation; “La fontana e la pietra: Petrarca contemporaneo,” Studi e problemi di critica testuale (2006); “The Contradictory Classicist: the Poetry of Frank Bidart,” The Threepenny Review (2002); “Orpheus the Painter: Apollinaire and Robert Delaunay,” Criticism (1988); “Selected Prose of Gérard de Nerval” (Transl. with commentary), Georgia Review (1983).