All Manner of Misunderstandings

by Patrick Warner
64 pages,
ISBN: 1894294327

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Mixing Loss with Grandeur and Beauty
by Noel Rieder

In All Manner of Misunderstandings (which was nominated for the Atlantic Poetry Prize in 2002 and recently short listed, alongside John Steffler's, Helix, for the Newfoundland and Labrador Book Awards) Patrick Warner's subjects¨memory, time, love, the frailty of life and nature's cycle of death and rebirth¨are those we usually associate with poetry. What distinguishes Warner's book, and that of any good poet, is the way he approaches them.
Or, rather, the way he doesn't approach them. Poets tend to either be passive or active in their relationship to these perennial obsessions, and Warner is clearly passive: the world is something that happens to him. In his poetry he is an observer, a spectator on the outskirts of life. He interprets the world not by assertively seeking meaning in what he is shown, but by accepting all he sees. The end result is a slow kaleidoscope of "misunderstood" images and thoughts¨misunderstandings that teach us.
A poem in the collection that illustrates this quite well is "Leviathan". Here, the string of causality that links all things is followed, beginning with a mere grain of sand:
A grain of sand
has made the oyster.
This irritant
has set in motion
an inward rhythm,
a worrying S & M
in the ocean's vast ear.

The event carries on in the second stanza, echoing out until it reaches a boatman up on the surface of the sea:
When she answers
silver fishes thread
the rising waves,
sending the boatman's
heart a fluttering,
giving rise to all manner
of misunderstanding.

The boatman will misunderstand, since he will be unaware that the grain of sand is responsible for the flutter in his heart. Warner himself has also misunderstood, of course. These linked events are of his own creation, and, while there is conceivably a relationship between them, Warner is not pretending that he has discovered what that is.
The second section of "Ironies" deals with the problem of knowing as it relates to memory. Among other things, "Ironies" is a poem about the inability of memory to firmly grasp and hold the past¨the troubling tension between what we remember and what actually was. Here we join the narrator in a train station (which we might assume is meant to symbolize the circuit of time). As he waits for his train, his mind drifts back to his childhood, but the memories which return to him, he knows, have very little to do with his past.

I now find myself in a place that was never there,
and in the same way that a child drawing
with a ball-point on a single sheet of paper
achieves not a dog but the dog panting.

And yet, ironically, a fictional memory of his pregnant mother is so convincingly detailed, so tangibly true, that it nearly moves him to tears:

ÓI am rocked by a vision of my mother
standing by a window, her fingertips tracing
the contours of her nearly nine-month belly.

Warner has read more than his share of Romantic poetry. Like Wordsworth, he often combines images of nature with his speaker's faded memories, creating a sense of loss while evoking a grand and poignant beauty (the beauty of something that must inevitably fade and die). In "The Tree-House", Warner uses one thing to lend metaphorical strength to the other. The poem binds memory and nature together in the form of an old tree where the narrator once played. It has the remains of a child's fort hammered into its branches. And like the narrator's memories of his youth, the dying tree has also undergone considerable decay:

Massive gray columns of elephant hide.
Wise kind eyes where branches once grew
and were broken off by our climbing.
Strange goiters where bark has sagged
like stockings around an old lady's ankles.

Like the tree, memory is organic. Like the tree, his memory now only houses pieces of his childhood in the form of bent nails and battered planks of wood. "Bent-back rusty nails / that held in place our ladder rungs / are all that remain of the tree house."
Warner is an accomplished poet, even if his tone might sometimes be criticized for its lack of passion. There is plenty of emotion here, but it is gentle, self-contained. To best illustrate this point, it might help to think of Irving Layton as his poetic opposite. In Layton's poetry, the world is something to be subdued with Nietzschean vigour, crushed and rebuilt, molded into the image of its poet-creator. For this to be possible, of course, Layton must successfully work himself into a righteous frenzy. In Warner's poems, however, the world shapes and (occasionally) crushes the poet who sighs in dizzy resignation.
This doesn't mean that Warner's poems are unaffecting. His tone of heavy resignation works perfectly in "Pellucid", a poem about parent/child relationships. Here, the narrator considers telling his wife about a memorable walk he once took with his father: "Darling: how do I tell you the why / of that evening I walked with my father / and a yellow light such as this / wound about us a spell / both placental and wise." The word "placental" does double-duty here, both conveying a sheltered atmosphere and conjuring thoughts of a relentless and unforgiving life cycle. "Why did his words seem to tug/ ever so slightly at the leash of doctrine / that has led him, and will lead him / until the day he dies." The "leash of doctrine," his father's old prejudices (like those of Warner with his own child one day) will prevent him from ever understanding his son. Though clearly loving, father and son (like husband and wife) will never truly know each other.
Like "Leviathan" and "Ironies", "Pellucid", deals with another aspect of existence that we are doomed to forever misinterpret. Like our impressions of ourselves (though memory) and the physical world (through our senses), our knowledge is built on an intricate mesh of misunderstandings. This book celebrates them. ˛

Noel Rieder is a Montreal Freelance writer who sometimes has nightmares that he is giving a poetry reading.

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