Poet Warren Slesinger turns words into sculpture in "The Evening Light"

lisa@beaufortcountyarts.orgMay 16, 2013 

We live alone, our children grown

beyond the range of our foreboding

in a house that overlooks the ocean

-- From "Fog," by Warren Slesinger

When Warren Slesinger dropped off a copy of his new book, "The Evening Light," published by Ninety-Six Press at Furman University, I decided to read it in the breezes of Waterfront Park in downtown Beaufort. And although the leaf blower brigade was out in force, I read the 37 poems straight through, hearing all the tones of the poetry and the strengths of that art form. The book is an award (Beaufort is having quite the winning streak, have you noticed?) because Warren's manuscript was chosen for the 2012 South Carolina Poetry Archives Book Prize.

"The most telling quality of 'The Evening Light' is the excellence of its individual poems," wrote editor Gilbert Allen in the introduction. Many were previously published by a list of literary magazines. In collection, these poems represent "a lifetime of work and a significant contribution to American literature." Allen summarizes the plot: "Personal meditations, images of Beaufort, South Carolina, and the warnings implicit in such words as 'Lifeboat' and 'Scrapescape' to provide readers with a tapestry of moral insight and artistic achievement."

I agree, because it's good to remember that awards and recognition come after the hard work -- if at all -- and because I like the morals and artistry laid out on these pages, from "Ashes" to "Our Bedroom in the Fields" to "Heartache, Heartbeat, Heartbreak." Slesinger's poems have much, including sophisticated near-rhymes, such as the grown-forboding-ocean quote above, and an expertly applied touch of storytelling. The book is a good read.

Warren is part of the Otram Slabess group, which recently had its fourth annual, and well-attended, poetry reading at The Charles Street Gallery in downtown Beaufort. Their slogan is "Poetry is our evolutionary beacon," and their blog is at otramslabess.wordpress.com.

"He's the reason I joined Otram Slabess," explained Teresa Bruce, whose own book "The Other Mother," a "rememoir" about dancer Byrne Miller, will be out in September.

"Warren's poems are more like sculpture," Teresa said. "He starts with a heavy idea, a monolith, and then carves away all the sentimentality and excess of it. The poem that's left is so beautiful and rare it could almost take flight. Because I'm lucky enough to be in a writer's group with him, I'd seen many of his 'definition' poems. I love how he plays with the dictionary form and pulls the reader away from literal meanings and into the gut truth. I also love some of his long form poems, like 'The Ring of Dancers' because he's such a gifted storyteller. But if I had to pick a favorite it'd be 'Wednesday.' To me that's like looking at a painting of Warren's heart. He's so warm and melancholy at the same time. 'I drank like a thrust stem' is probably the best ending of a poem ever."

"I drank like a thrust stem" caught my attention too. That phrase ends the 48-word poem that begins, "The flowers in the glass/were dear and decent to me."

Dear and decent poetry is meant to be shared; when you get your copy, sign it or add your Ex Libris, and then pass it on, after you've read all the pages, including the book's meta-info in the front, because Warren included no biography, but simply a thank you for grants he was awarded in 1971 and 2002, which I found incredibly gracious of him.

There's also a credit to his wife, Betty Ann Slesinger, for the delicate cover art; but in the following pages she is included much more. Muses and poets and artists and poetry-readers have muscle, the "compulsion of the heart to outperform itself," as Warren redefined in one of his dictionary entries, "Heartache, Heartbeat, Heartbreak."

Lisa Annelouise Rentz is the transmedia publicity leader for ARTworks, the arts council of Beaufort, Port Royal and the Sea Islands.

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