Ghost in a Red Hat
W.W. Norton &Company Inc., 2011
Perfect Binding, 99 pages
Purchase at wwnorton.com
Reviewed by PQ Contributing Editor Dawn Leas
Reading Rosanna Warren’s Ghost in a Red Hat is like taking a long walk in the woods. There are poems with roots as deep as a hundred-year-old oak. There are lines that stretch through air reaching out to the sky like long branches. There are phrases that are hidden meadows to sit in and wile away an afternoon contemplating. There are ideas that move through the reader’s mind like storm clouds roiling across an expansive blue sky. Uncommon words and references are peaks to climb. Figurative language sprout like wild mushrooms.
Warren invites her readers to look at broader topics and ideas such as life, death, loss, illness, friendship, and competing emotions through a telescopic lens. She then puts various filters on that lens including natural elements, place, art, music, historical figures incorporating the work of the real and the imaginary. “Odyssey” is a series of 19 narratives inspired by a sequence of monotypes by painter James McGarrell and by Homer’s poem. “Le Silence” looks to the work of artist Marie-Claude de Brunhoff. Two poems incorporate the work of imaginary French poet, Anne Verveine. “D Minor” references Schumann. “Water Dream” honors Schumann and John Daverio, a scholar who wrote about Schumann.
Poem after poem in this collection carry and tug the reader from left to right, top to bottom of the page in a dance filled with imagery, lyricism and narrative strength. Its couplets, tercets, quatrains, long lines and open white spaces invite in rather than shutting out. These are poems that are loving and angry; beautiful and ugly; sad and questioning.
In “Tempus Fugit” the reader is pulled along on a questioning journey:
I walked the dirt road along, the road I have taken since childhood,
and I tried to hear, between the words, what the brook might
really be saying.
The lilting beauty of imagery is touchable in “Harbor:”
Early morning, as the plane tilts, slathers a heat haze film
of talcum powder and buttermilk over the sea.
Then, a few lines later:
Another flight, another dawn, the sea smoldered jade.
Departures bank from one season into the next, slicing through cirrus.
The poems I find to be the most powerfully poignant are the six that speak to the illness and death of poet and nonfiction writer, Deborah Tall, a friend of Warren. The want for an outcome other than the inevitable is palpable in each of them.
“Notes” records a phone conversation in which one friend is trying to tell another a reality she does not want to hear and ends with:
to finish your poems. I wanted
us never to finish a conversation
so imperfectly understood.
The beginning and end of life is exquisitely portrayed in “Aftermath.”
The fawn couldn’t stand
but raised its too-large head to gaze at you…
You took each other in.
one of you before, the other beyond fear.
side effects on one another,
headed in opposite directions.
The collection also transports the reader through a vast geographic landscape. An unnamed lake and ocean shore line. Berlin in “Palaces” and Bagdad in “Fire.” In “Porta Portes,” the reader’s eyes are opened to grittier poetic images to describe things sold and bought and seen at Rome’s flea market. Warren captures post-Katrina New Orleans with startling imagery with a sense of resignation and maybe even some subtle anger in “After” which begins with:
The highway straight to the end of the world skims past
a ruined mall, Kmart with roof
acres of parking lots where weeds judder through cracks.
and ends with:
and as the wind stoops to seize hard kisses from the current,
the tunes ride guitar riffs in updrafts over the roofs,
across the delirium tremens river toward the Gulf
where small waves lip the horizon, and sky stays mute.
When my son was in middle school he began using index cards as book marks. He would write down words he encountered that he didn’t know so that he would remember to check the dictionary for their definitions. He would jot down historical or literary references to research. I would suggest that readers do the same while reading Ghost in a Red Hat. Warren’s word choice is varied, interesting and includes many that are not necessarily used in daily conversation. There is also a Notes section at the end of the book, so it’s quick and easy to find more details about Warren’s references while reading the book without having to stop and turn to the Internet.
From the New Orleans-esque cover design through to the last poem, this is a collection brimming with beautiful writing. It soars, dips, trudges and idles while paying homage to life and death, while balancing speaking with listening. It is a gift to all of the senses: the reader sees, hears, touches, smells, tastes the imagery within its pages. Take a walk in the woods, find your own path. Then, dog ear your favorites that you can return to on a lazy afternoon or a night when sleep is elusive.
Dawn Leas’s chapbook, I Know When to Keep Quiet, was released in 2010 by Finishing Line Press. She earned an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Wilkes University. Her work has appeared in goldwakepress.org, Literary Mama, Willows Wept Review, Southern Women’s Review, Interstice, Poetry in Transit, and others. She is the Associate Program Director of the Wilkes University low-residency creative writing MA/MFA programs.