The cheap seats

Rachel Warriner's lament

Rachel Warriner’s Fine Lament (Critical Documents, 2013) doesn't place its faith in language, or in a correspondence between word and world. The words are instruments for setting forth something that exceeds them. To this end, the words that do appear are fungible, inessential, rearranged. There's an idea that, in lyric especially, each word is the product of a careful process of selection from many alternatives, and that reading the poem is to perceive, above all, this honed skill or craft. But here there’s the feeling instead that the word has been unpinned from its designated place in the sentence, even as it takes its place in the line.

down insisting
our hands
repeat but mournfully
you comfort her burst surprise
you are lacking stand
& dot ascension (21)

Fine Lament, as Warriner explains, comes from "the weird and powdered world of amateur operatics" and "that strange bourgeois desire to play at the tragic and extreme in church halls in Chorleywood." Individual poems in the book, which is split into three parts and bookended by a "Prelude" and a sestina titled "Coda," are interrupted or complemented by VHS screenshots of an opera, intertitles from the poems, figures that perhaps recall Noh drama, and outlined drawings that resemble John Flaxman's illustrations of Dante. 

The "you" drifts in and out of the poems. Its intimacy frays, is seen through its blurring:

middlebrow we lick it
in black & white
quality too hard
& prices too high
you, looked away for an hour
you looked it
scared us pretty
ripped stomach sub screen
faltered scowl
on whitened face
kiss cursed (24)

Hand in hand with Warriner's avoidance of the obssesion with language and place that dogs a more traditional Irish poetics, there is an exquisite control over the short lines of the poems in Fine Lament: "that idyllic season / of shuffle down / calm conviction" (21). And at the same time, a gorgeous post-punk modernism:

my love is turncoat
all my love and faith
kicking plastic flowers
violets and roses
that yearning (23)

Raised to the pitch of threnody, the book is a wail, but a wail that has nothing to do with warning: it's too late for that. Fine Lament is to its sources—the arias "Dido's Lament" from Purcell's Dido and Aeneas and "One Fine Day" from Puccini's Madame Butterfly—as Virgil's own text is to its mining of Homer: brutally late, melodramatic, and full of a tone or affect, however thrifted and "amateur," that has been missing in some of the more maximalist wings of contemporary poetry: sadness.