James Bourey reviews Lindsey Warren's Unfinished Child
Spuyten Duyvil Publishing
Sometimes we read collections of poems and we find a linear approach, almost an arc of a story, one poem leading definitively to the next. We think about it and then decide yep, this is what the poet intended. At other times we find a haphazard scattering of seemingly unrelated pieces shuffled into a pile, bound between covers and given an introduction or a few notes. After we read this type of collection, we may think about it a little longer, wonder if the poet is being inscrutable or was just concerned about putting something together. At that point, we make some sort of judgment call on whether the poems fit together to our liking, or if we feel that the poems are fine and thoughtful and don’t require anything more. And once again, in our moment of omniscience, we decide that we know her intentions. Those approaches won’t work with this mysterious, and at turns, somber or delightful, or both simultaneously, collection by Lindsey Warren.
This book must have been a challenge to assemble for the editors and publishers. We are offered forty-six numbered poems in a table of contents without the numbers, only a listing of first lines or fragments of first lines. Opening to the first poem we notice it has the number 1, it’s a prose poem and it is full of wild, striking images and fine sounds:
I want to return my mother’s cake tin, but she disappeared. I try to
remember how to find her house…maybe, in the eavesdropping rain.
The poem ends:
Dusk’s solutes stutter light in/ the gray world.
We notice, down in the right-hand corner of the page, just above the page number, an instruction; GO TO PAGE 2. We go to page 2 – another prose poem in two sections which begins:
I ask the door to open, one moonish leaf breaks night at my feet.
An unusual image. Another line in the second part of the poem is appealingly strange:
The house’s chicken legs tremble, all the dead leaves in me drop.
GO TO PAGE 3 we are told. On page three we find another prose piece. It ends with
I smell like light
And then, at the bottom of the page –
I SEE AN OBJECT, GO TO PAGE 4
I SEE A REFLECTION, GO TO PAGE 8
Choices. Reflection seemed to fit how I felt about this poem. So, I turn to page 8, find another mystical sounding two-section prose poem. The instruction following this poem sends me to page 21. And on it goes. Another poem, more choices or just a single direction. Some of the directions lead us to poems written in verse, the font italicized. The choices also bring us to variations in mood, different degrees of accessibility and slight changes in language usage.
A reread, going from the first page to the last without following the guided path all around the book is still satisfying in a different way. But part of the enjoyment in this collection is the surprise we find when we follow the poet’s suggestions or opt for a choice and head off into our own poetic adventure. And when we see no choice or directive on the bottom of the page, as with poems 16, 21, 38, 41, 43, 45, and 46 we are stopped for a moment, feeling a little bit cheated, wondering what to do next.
Ms. Warren writes in an incredibly rich voice, full of beautifully unusual and sense filled imagery. She is not tied to narrative or to lyricism in any typical way. She has a knack for using both as she thinks about her mother, her life, her surroundings and appearance in the world, and her childhood memories. Throughout there is a sense of fantasy that is still loosely grounded in reality. Her use of sound and (should I say this?) odd imagery is very engaging but sometimes disconcerting.
Certain details appear and reappear as we chase the poems around, constructing our own version of the collection: a doll that the narrator carries around, a house – perhaps a childhood home, a cake tin, the moon, and others. The doll is particularly interesting – animated and then still, aggressive and then passive.
Now for some full disclosure. Years ago, I heard this author read some poems at a pub in Delaware. She read quietly and quickly. I recall a haunting piece, reminiscent of a litany to the Virgin Mary. The poem, while sounding like a prayer, was heavy with intimacy, startling language, and strong images. When I picked up Unfinished Child I was hoping for more of that kind of poetry. I wasn’t at all disappointed. This is a book worth buying.
Jim Bourey is an old poet who divides his time between the northern Adirondack Mountains and Dover, DE. His chapbook “Silence, Interrupted” was published in 2015 by the Broadkill River Press and won first place for poetry chapbook in the Delaware Press Association writing competition. His work has appeared in Mojave River Review, Stillwater Review, Blue Nib, Paddock Review, Broadkill Review, and other journals and anthologies. He is also a regular contributor of book reviews for The Broadkill Review. He has been an adjudicator for Delaware Poetry Out Loud and can often be found reading aloud in dark rooms.