In his debut poetry collection, The Destroyer in the Glass, Noah Warren displays an uncanny calm in the face of the unknowable. “Empathy” offers a glimpse of how far his mind can be stretched, a hint that there are no limits to his imagination:
I study to live my death well.
Through the chilly forest,
my mind ravens on ahead
of my life
like a silent, monstrous bulldozer
chased by a chariot with bells.
If this mission sounds familiar, perhaps you are reminded of John Keats’s claim that all true artists must be comfortable dwelling in “uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” For Keats, Shakespeare embodied these qualities, which he called “negative capability.” What then would he make of Warren slipping into the tradition with—not arrogance, but that much rarer quality of acceptance? We are flawed and we are mortal, but for a brief time we can ponder the world’s enigmas. Warren lives in ambiguity, as comfortable with silence as with speech.
In his introduction to The Destroyer in the Glass, Carl Phillips explains the title as “the self seen in the mirror, the potential destroyer, equally of others and oneself.” That meaning sharpens the poems, particularly those involving travel, by casting the speakers as possible colonists as well as adventurers. A title like The Destroyer in the Glass also suggests a creature trapped, blunted in any attempts at mastery. The beautiful cover, designed by James J. Johnson, shows the wings of a monarch butterfly, a surprisingly hearty creature that can fly more than two thousand miles and yet is also a staple of pinned displays. And what are its neighbors in the natural-history museum? A whole host of predators stuffed and behind glass. Warren’s poems capture this paradox, standing nose to snout with a lion or a bear and feeling at best a sad fascination and at worst a sense of superiority for the simple fact of being alive. We haven’t yet succumbed to bullet or disease.
Instead of urgency, Warren captures a much more slippery emotion: inevitability. In a poem about (of all wonders of modern technology) a mechanical pool cleaner, he writes, “Kiss my limbs, my lips as I recline away / into this, the prime of my decay.” His rhyme puts the emphasis on decay rather than prime. Even at our best, we’re withering, inching closer toward being the taxidermied animal rather than the one who paid an admission fee. The stakes are high throughout this collection as Warren shows us the whisper-thin gap between life and death.
The Destroyer in the Glass is a book filled with contradictions. A poem about untangling stereo wires appears next to one about Mozart’s Requiem. In another, the baroque and a kitchenette live side by side. The result should feel disorienting, but Warren stands as a tranquil presence in the midst of a vortex. In “Helsingør,” he writes, “I know my loneliness / has been built from others’: is it still mine?” Although the meditation takes place on the grounds of the castle that inspired Hamlet’s Elsinore, Warren is not driven to madness by straddling the known and unknown. At times, there’s almost a preternatural quality to his work. Perhaps he is more ghost than prince. Or, as he explains in “Enduring Pleasures,” “Everyone is here— / at least one guest from each of my lives.”
The paradoxes that fill this collection might challenge readers. These poems are not snacks, as easily consumed as forgotten, but multi-course meals. It is little surprise that The Destroyer in the Glass received the prestigious Yale Series of Younger Poets prize. Warren—the grandson of Robert Penn Warren—joins the ranks of luminaries such as Adrienne Rich, Carolyn Forché, Eduardo C. Corral, and W. S. Merwin. Merwin, a virtuoso of negative capability, recently published a new collection, a few weeks before turning eighty-nine. We can only hope that Warren enjoys an equally long and illustrious career.
Erica Wright is the author of a new crime novel, The Granite Moth, as well as two poetry collections. Now a senior editor at Guernica, she grew up in Wartrace, Tennessee, and received her M.F.A. from Columbia University.