Warren, Rosanna

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WARREN, Rosanna

Nationality: American. Born: Fairfield, Connecticut, 27 July 1953. Education: Accademia delle Belle Arti, Rome, 1971–72; Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, 1974; New York Studio School, 1975; Yale University, B.A. (summa cum laude) 1976; Johns Hopkins University, M.A. 1980. Family: Married Stephen Scully in 1981; two daughters and one stepson. Career: Private art teacher, 1977–78; clerical worker, St. Martin's Press, New York, 1977–78; assistant professor of English, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, 1981–82. Visiting assistant professor, 1982–88, and since 1989 assistant professor of English and modern foreign languages, Boston University. Poet-in-residence, Robert Frost Farm, 1990. Awards: Yaddo fellowship, 1980; Nation Discovery Award in Poetry, 92nd Street YMHA-YWCA, New York, 1980; Newton Arts Council award, 1983; Ingram Merrill grant for poetry, 1983, 1993; Guggenheim fellowship, 1985–86; grant, American Council of Learned Societies, 1989–90; Lavan Younger Poets prize, Academy of American Poets, 1992; Lamont Poetry prize, Academy of American Poets, 1993; Lila Wallace Writers' Fund award, 1994; Witter Bynner prize, Academy of Arts and Letters, 1994. Address: University Professors Program, Boston University, 745 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, Massachusetts 02215, U.S.A.



Snow Day. Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Palaemon Press, 1981.

Each Leaf Shines Separate. New York, Norton, 1984.

Stained Glass. New York, Norton, 1993.


The Joey Story. New York, Random House, 1963.


Editor, The Art of Translation: Voices from the Field. Boston, Northeastern University Press, 1989.

Editor, with William Arrowsmith, Cuttlefish Bones, by Eugenio Montale. New York, Norton, 1993.

Editor, with Stephen Scully, Suppliant Women, by Euripides. New York, Oxford University Press, 1995.

Editor, with William Arrowsmith, Satura: 1962–1970, by Eugenio Montale. New York, Norton, 1998.


Critical Studies: By Andre Lefevere, in Comparative Literature Studies, 28(1), 1991; by Larry Moffi, in Poet Lore, 89(1), spring 1994.

*  *  *

Rosanna Warren's poetry is essentially personal. She is an elegiac poet. Her poems are often described as somber and austere, with an air of resignation, although they are not at all passive. Warren's primary theme, with variations, is death and mourning, and she uses literature, historical and current events, photographs, and the fine arts as inspiration for her work. Her preoccupation with death is a means of revealing how utterly fragile, yet resilient life is.

In "Song" readers find themselves encased in the quiet and solemn beauty of a graveyard:

Let bland sky
be your canopy. Fringe the bedspread with the wall of
  lapsing stones.
Here faith has cut
in upright granite "Meet me in Heaven" at the grave of
  each child lost the same year,
three, buried here a century ago …
I turn away. I shall meet you nowhere, in no transfig
  ured hour.
On soft matted soil
blueberries crawl, each separate berry a small, not globe of
  tinctured sun
Crushed on the tongue
it releases a pang of flesh. Tender flesh, slipped from its
  skin preserves its blue hear
down my throat.

Some of Warren's poems are simple elegies. "The Broken Pot," one of her more uplifting works, is a tribute to her mother, Eleanor Clark, author of Rome and a Villa. The poem ends,

receding colonnades scooped out of solitude
the internal city a habitable beauty subsisting on
monument to which I turn now with my tribute of broken
  shards, my symbolon
from the original vessel in whose clay we share.

Other poems are genuinely sorrowful yet not at all mournful. Instead, they convey a feeling of vague sadness. For example, the poem "Noon" is filled with the activities and sounds of a summer day yet leaves readers feeling hollow and melancholic:

Someone's hammer raps the air,
duet with its own knocked echo. Here is the precise
dead heart of the living day, the hollow core, the pit
around which light thickens, and we eat.

It may be that the subject of many of Warren's mournful poems is her father, the novelist and poet Robert Penn Warren. Thus, in the elegy "From New Hampshire," published in the collection Stained Glass, Warren is clearly mourning someone she loves. Yet the sadness associated with her mourning seems light and bearable:

I think you have taken a long late evening walk
Your heavy shoes glisten with dew
I hear your footsteps pause on the dirt road
and I know you are picking out
the dark mass of the sleeping mountain from the dark
mass of night and testing the heaviness of each.

In certain poems, however, her experience of death is expressed in stark, almost physical, terms. Thus, "Elegist" reads,

More marrow to suck, more elegies to whistle through the digestive tract. So help me God to another dollop of death, come on strong with the gravy and black eyed peas … preserve the drool in ink: Death since you nourish me, I'll flatter you inordinately. Consumers both, with claws cocked and molars prompt at the fresh-dug grave, reaper and elegist, my throat an open sepulchre, my tongue forever groping forever young.

Warren has also found subjects for her poems in the tragedies of the news. "The Cost," for example, is about a baby found in a trash can at the city zoo, and "Child Model" describes the mother of a young Eskimo boy. Following the depiction of a sealskin grave—crèche, the poet concludes by speaking directly to the deceased child:

We clutch you, ancient child: we need to think you're saved as if one face unmarred in Kodachrome rescued all others who have died ugly, bruised, disqualified.

Warren's haunting "Departure" reminds us of past terrors:

"I can only speak to people who-"
Unspeaking, unspoken, the full-breasted woman tied to a
  dead man upside down
stands center stage with a lamp in her hand, shed
  kerosene glow
on the marching band.
That's Cupid, the dark swarf who tightens her rope; this is
  art, this is love, that's the classical shape
of proscenium arch. This is Germany, May '32 "can only
  speak to people who
already carry, consciously or unconsciously, within them-"

In a review of Stained Glass the critic Robert Shaw observed that he was so accustomed to gritting his teeth at unwarranted cheerfulness in poems that he was actually searching Warren's poems for a "silver lining." Indeed, her poems may exude a tragic conception of life, but they are by no means fundamentally nihilistic or pessimistic. As a poet of death and mourning, Warren is nevertheless fully aware of the magnificent richness of life.

—Christine Miner Minderovic