Noah Warren

Yale University Press, 2016

In his debut collection, Warren traces the arc of a burgeoning “growth of knowledge.” “At twenty-two I wanted to see purely,” the speaker proclaims, only to undercut this ambition in the following line: “(I knew less and less, even then, what that meant).” At its best, this book interrogates the mysteries of self and other in a quest for empathy, that most elusive of moral values and perhaps the one most reliant on the poet’s powers of imagination.

These poems are as formally various as they are technically adept. The collection’s formal arc tracks its thematic arc, beginning with terse poems often in received forms. In the early sonnet “Thereafter,” the speaker reflects:

To contain so much empathy is hard—
Aristotle knew what practice does to you.
In a flash, you’ve felt what you don’t want to
without considering, or being on your guard.

As they attempt to surpass the borders of the self, these poems are wrapped in (and, at times, rapt in) the coming-of-age dramas typical of the privileged, a position perhaps most clearly embodied by the trope of tourism threaded through the book. Dissolving political and geographic borders, the speaker, the book’s eponymous destroyer, wanders the globe, hounded all the while by ennui, finding relief in alienation from the other tourists and the neo-colonial consumption of the local culture. In Havana, the speaker “had no friends among the émigrés, / loathing our resemblances,” losing himself instead in an affair with a Cuban hotel clerk. In a scene that typifies the mutual estrangement accompanying the many sexual encounters in this book, she asks on the day of his departure, “¿Y ya?” [already?]. The speaker never answers her, instead fixing his attention on a bird on the windowsill, “green, with a blaze of ivory on its throat.” Seeking communion in others, these poems just as often stumble into failures of empathy.

As the collection progresses, the poems push against the banks of fixed form and lyric compression, culminating in the sprawling retrospective meditation “On the Levee,” which anchors the final section, rejecting the past selves of the book’s earlier poems:

I hate that I can’t get past the dreadful
naïveté of those selves, can’t forgive them
their stubborn attempts to distill
the quotidian into meaning.

Yet it is precisely in this inability to forgive his past selves that Warren’s collection begins to earn the wisdom it seeks.