Ahren Warner – Pretty
Statement of Prejudice: Read a few of his poems in anthologies, they were okay. This book is a Poetry Book Society Recommendation, so bar is accordingly raised.
Reality: [Trigger warning. Pretty involves sexual violence, which this review discusses in the second paragraph.] It’s difficult to know where to start with Pretty. The actual writing is often comically overwrought, melodramatic and aggressively self-worshipping. This coincides with the tired, constantly-reiterated trope of powerful, named male poet in a fictionalised, glamourised world of sexual violence which oppresses and silences the few, nameless female figures (those who are not prostitutes are physically or psychologically abused). The hyperreality explored in Pretty is that of the surrealists of the 1920s, primarily Antonin Artaud (of Theatre of Cruelty fame), in which gender binaries abound – there’s even a poem in which Mademoiselle These (‘the syrup/of her accent, the diphthongs that seem mined/from some/wet depth, some soft and syrupy inside’) has sex with Monsieur Antithese (‘[he] knows [she] is wrapped/in his anecdotes, his wit, the perfect angle/of his jaw’) – and all narrative is produced to prop up the assumption that whatever the poet says is necessarily important, because poetry. If you look beyond the violent surface, there’s precious little criticism of his artistic predecessors, few questions asked, a mythology obediently consecrated.
The surrealists got away with this stuff (and are still hero-worshipped almost a hundred years on) partly because at first they spoke only to an initiated few, partly because what they attempted really had little artistic precedent. This scarcity of artistic or social responsibility, no wider community to nurture or educate, the simple opposition of traditionalist past and revolutionary present, at least partly informs the more positive elements of the movement, the often comic freedom, the ability to take up skewed perspectives to talk about the staid elements of life. That Warner has reconstructed 1920s Paris (in its 20 arrondisements, like in Paris je t’aime) not informed by the movement’s creative ingenuity but by its more problematic social constructions is pretty much inexcusable for a grown up in 2013. For a flavour of Pretty’s complex ancestry, there are poems dedicated to C.K.W[illiams], and S[ean?] O’B[rien?], passing references to (among others) Hemingway, Picasso, Brueghel, Louis Vuitton, Chistian Dior, Jackson Pollock, Jacques de Molay, Louis MacNeice, Colin Bateman, Paul Muldoon (twice, once gratingly referred to as ‘Mael Dúin’; Warner often uses circumlocution to hide a dull or repeated thought), Kurt Cobain, Oedipus, Laius, Icarus, Dedalus, Kant, Hegel, James Wright, Apollinaire and Voltaire; there are four named women: Jocasta, the Princess de Lamballe (who is ‘gang-raped/and lynched’), Paquette (‘a young putain//her first night on the game’) and Mademoiselle Autre, who stars in the title poem: Pretty//but mad, Mademoiselle Autre had fashioned/her accordion from a rock des Causses’. This is a Poetry Book Society Recommendation.
It’s worth pointing out that the form and the content of Pretty are not in any way discrete entities; they are interwoven at the roots. The poems are cold, imperative, angry pieces of work, their rhythms constantly broken by individual words of French dropped in for flavour, their units of philosophy sitting unabsorbed on the surface, namely that if one rejects the validity of the shared world outwith the individual consciousness, what use being considerate of others? Warner’s poems relish the implications. The book’s violence and condescension are authority-giving, Self reinforced at the expense of Other, the constant citing of historic authority a sop to joined-up thinking about the absent present. Pretty is kind of fascinating in the extent to which the reader is not required, possibly not even welcome; the narrative voice is less a dramatization of a private thought and more the private thought itself; it is a fatal error to assume that what looks like interior monologue in other poets is merely that. Which brings us to the next paragraph.
I’ve so far been discussing solely the book’s first two sections, because the last, titled ‘NERVOMETER’ is some of the best bad poetry I’ve ever read. It is poetry’s answer to The Room. It is Keanu Reeves doing an English accent. It is Fifty Shades of Kant. It is a Poetry Book Society Recommendation. It has to be read to be believed.
‘I have always been struck by the obduracy/of mind’ (I)
‘I’ve aimed no further than the soul’s automata,/transcribed no more than the sorrow of adjustment//aborted. I am a complete abyss.’ (II)
‘My marrow/flirts, sometimes, with these furtive abductions,//amused.’ (IV)
‘Under my crust of bone and skin (skull),/there is angst, constant; not moral, not the absolute//end of deduction, of dim finickiness, or/the inhabiting of angst rising to its height, its meaning,//but a decanting at my core, the self-deprivation/of substance, vital, the physical loss, essential// – I mean the essential loss – of meaning’ (V)
‘If one could only taste the abyss, the nothingness,/could lie down in it; if this nothingness was not//a certain living; if it was not, not completely, death./It is so hard to be, to not be within… True//sorrow is feeling the self and, within it,/this displacement of thought, though, at a point,//thought is not suffering.’ (VIII)
Oh my god, I’m sorry. I can’t. That last one. Phew. So this is the book in a nutshell, the simultaneous denunciation and apotheosis of the self, two sides of the same coin. And in Pretty things like empathy, imagination, the difficult questions of human interaction and the earned moments of happiness (beauty?) in an obstructive and controlling society have little currency. To so thoroughly reject the outside world requires a seriously privileged position within it.
Tl;dr: I’d be much more inclined to dismiss this as one more example of a poetry scene that acts as if feminism is a splendid little pastime if it didn’t already occupy such a privileged position within that scene (Warner is editor of Poetry London(!) and has been PBS-recommended for his first collection, itself nominated for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection). As such, this needs saying: Warner’s thinking has no place in a mature and inclusive artistic community.