Neither elegist nor archivist exactly, the late Lewis Warsh (1944–2020) strenuously mulled over the many quotidian and surprising situations and he found himself participating in — or he imagined — with pathos and a comically causal exasperation throughout his long career. In doing so, he commemorated the confusion of trying to make sense of a life, or lives. With a deceptively casual, even whimsical voice, he mulled over social exchanges and various incidents as if they were the most inscrutable, and yet compelling, indices to find your inexact coordinates in the chaos of community. As oblique witness to the range of weird and wacky relationships we may cultivate across a lifespan, as ardent inquirer about mortality in general, he manages in his many books (Elixir is the 24th) to play a game of poetic solitaire and play the role of the chatty town crier. The present-ness in so much of his work makes this posthumous poet so deeply alive.
Warsh cannot be properly placed in any specific field or school … yet. His typical classification as Second Generation New York School Poet, seems too easy, too parochial, too regionally stultifying. True, he was a Bronx-born resident of NYC for most of his life and definitely a genial, prolific habitué of the local literary scene. And, yes, it is difficult to recall how many times I saw him at readings over the years, whether as enthusiastic an audience member or an always entrancing featured poet. Local poets, young and old, affiliates or malcontents of whatever poetry schools, venerated him and let him know he was cherished. As they should have. But give the man some breathing space. He is more than his geography in terms of importance and expression.
Lewis Warsh was a restless troubadour, moving across many tracts, planes, and domains. To relegate him to the NYC poetry playing field is more than just reductive; it is akin to placing him under house arrest. Yes, his house was St. Mark’s Poetry Project, among many other local haunts, but his poetic imagination is not restricted to NYC at all. His many arresting and on-the-move reveries and uncertainties span and sprawl, across the country, sometimes around the world, and many histories besides.
Even young, Warsh was obsessed by death and its irresistible imminence. In “Gout,” from 1968, he notes:
My dream, to have a hearth, and set an example for fleeting youth. The conspicuous peacock, neither turns nor changes, yet suddenly loses his feathers, buckles in the dust and dies. The meaning is as fantastic as any truth. Language invents a painkilling drug for restoring youth—an occasion inviting feelings which jolt and never subside. I mean he is dying again, slowly, as he gains time.
Elixir indeed! Warsh, not yet 24, was already wistful and wondering about final days. Therefore, this handsomely designed posthumous publication, by Ugly Duckling Presse, cannot be considered an endpoint as much as a continuation of careful, constant inquiry, a sequence of a serial poem written over decades (from “Anything You Say”: “I write the same poem again & again without meaning to”). Language’s “painkilling drug” may not stave off the inevitable but its reckoning with it is a memorable preservative.
But Warsh’s take is complex, complicated, and, thus, all the more arresting. He is not content with the (insufficient) memory retrieval prowess his poems represent. The inability to remember fully or memorize precisely haunts the work. After all, circumstances and their sequences can be tricky to follow, memories can be elusive when trying to recollect, disorienting one’s relationship to them. “Something you did/in the past can come back,” he observes in “Weak in the Knees,” yet “[…] I am not talking/about myself necessarily/but someone I used to know,” he writes in “One Drink Minimum.” Uncertainty about the past prompts a combination of bemusement and bewilderment. The past self is in part a stranger and that stranger-self an irreducible aspect of Warsh’s identity.
Perhaps an awareness of his coming death intensifies both the summoning of remembered friends and experiences and the unstable, insubstantial ultimate reckoning that remembrance can occasion. “Elixir” takes place in hospital room five months before the poet’s death (it is dated “Thursday 4am/June 11, 2020”):
What matters most my friends are gone See their faces, hear them speak “I have so many regrets” he said Ice cream, he wanted ice cream The nurse brings me a cup of cold orange sherbet The first thing I’ve eaten in days Schlovsky’s Third Factory and Alice’s For the Ride On my bedside table
Alice is poet Alice Notley, a close contemporary of Warsh’s. The poem’s final lines feature an elegiac inventory of poet-friends recently deceased: Joanne Kyger, Bill Berkson, Bill Corbett, Ted Greenwald, and Bill Kushner. The poem ends with a tender post-operation vision of the poet’s wife, Katt Lissard: “Katt’s face as I step from the shower and she dries my back/and shoulders/My scrawny shoulders.” Here, so rarely in the volume are remembrances and yearnings that establish vividness and solidity; otherwise, it embarks in general on an odyssey through evanescence, a ghostly voyage in which “… no one knows, for/a second,/what’s going on inside anyone” (“Not Far”), a voyage where “you can drop me at the corner/of Forgive & Forget” (“Single Occupancy”). There is a call and response effect to these poems, searching for traces of a life and the language with which to reclaim some vital, escaping essence. These poems speak to each other just as they speak to the reader.
The poet comes across as companionable yet strange, setting himself apart as he deliberates the distance between present and past identities and lives. For Warsh, the provisional nature of being and social exchanges amounts to relentless role playing — a premise that turns the world into a theatrical or film conceit, abounding in characters and actors, scenes rather than scenarios, in which reality becomes fantasy and vice-versa:
so you in the audience and you in the starring role are almost the same good looking clean cut up tight all of the above and none I wouldn’t recognize you on a bus if you paid me to get on and off (“Old Flame”)
Elsewhere: “Don’t get lost in the part, you won’t/meet anyone you know” and, later, “Take me back in time to the person I once was” (“No Tomorrow”). The major sequence “On the Western Front” affirms how “you can never go back/to where you came from.” This frankness about the futility of fully recovering past lives from this frustrated empiricist is refreshing, as it never betrays bleakness or abandons the task of striving to recuperate the losses in time, despite the ultimate failure of the project. The tone is vigorous, the survey providing insights even without conclusiveness. The poet can still make himself a jester rather than mere chronicler of despair. The first poem, “Night Sky,” also prepares us for last things: “Do I hold/on for a moment or do/I slip over the edge?” Lewis Warsh posits that question for us all, and Elixir is pure panacea for the pain of existence. May it bolster his reputation as one of the finest poets of his generation.
Elixir by Lewis Warsh (2022) is published by Ugly Duckling Presse and is available online and in bookstores.