The first poem in Rebecca Wolff's Warden, "Admit No Impediment", introduces us to a speaker of such calculated menace that I wasn't entirely sure I wanted to turn the next page:
I'm going to get up from the table
and go to the bathroom.
When I get back,
if your napkin has moved
from the left side of your plate
to the right, I'll
know you want to.
There will be no need to speak.
Or, wait a minute,
maybe it should be if your napkin
I want to make this
as easy for you
as I can.
The last stanza is one of the most beautiful lies a speaker in a poem has told me in a long time. It is the voice of both the torturer and the beloved and as a reader we know we will be loved and injured by Wolff from this point forward.
By what logic in "Admit No Impediment" does the speaker apprehend her surroundings? Apparently through an elaborate series of signs whose meanings only she is able to access, for why else state: "maybe it should be if your napkin/hasn't moved." That "maybe" tells us all we need to know as to what extent the "you" is aware of the speaker's matrix of logic.
Warden is one of the most painful volumes of poetry I've read in some time. The book's very next poem is a minimalist ball-peen hammer to the reader's skull in which we learn, among other things, that the speaker uses her "pussy/correctly", and then addressing the Other, writes "your cock/in my throat/finger/up your ass//put pressure inside there//midwifing/the shit out of/this morning". Wolff's candor in this poem, like most of the poems in Warden, are alarming to encounter, almost offensive, but it's difficult for your heart to harden when in the middle of this corporeal bluntness this line appears between "face down" and "no pressure" - "all by myself I have to feel". Considering the way Wolff addresses the reader, and after seeing that the next poem is titled "Poor Mr Rochester", one starts to wonder if the personas stalking this book aren't Jane Eyre and Bertha Mason.
There's a scene in Wes Anderson's film Rushmore where Miss Cross confronts Max Fischer, a student whose various attachments are always fierce and serve as substitutes for unexpressed grief he has for his mother who died when he was a child. In this scene, Max's obsessions have turned from his beloved school - Rushmore (in fact, he's been kicked out) - to Miss Cross herself, one of the school's teachers he's been courting ever since they met, yet she's unable to reciprocate Max's affections. In this dialogue, Miss Cross is forced to establish a boundary between them - via anger - and she does so by making him locate his desire for her within the language of her body. As a result, she moves Max closer to the fact his attraction is really another shelter for his unacknowledged grief:
Rushmore was my life. Now you are!
What do you really think is going to happen between us? You think we're going to have sex?
Max looks shocked.
That's kind of a cheap way to put it, don't you think?
Not if you've never fucked before, it isn't.
Oh, my God.
How would you put it to your friends? Do you want to finger me? Or maybe I could give you a hand job in the back of a Jaguar. Would that put an end to all of this?
Miss Cross moves towards Max with her hand outstretched. Max retreats backwards, banging into desks and chairs. Miss Cross stops.
Please. Get out of my room.
I'll tell you exactly.
When I could no longer have you with me
or beside me,
I was beside myself.
and when severed
all my heart's blood ran out. I died. But I was
walking around dead and with your ghosted head
beside me all the time, on excursions
to get groceries, seated
on the train, where
had never ridden
but we were
going places, you and I. I had to keep
you with me
so my eyes
inside your head
through your eyes. Mania of
seeing through your eyes. At the molecular level, I
and even now the only happiness
that I know
is in those instances when I am mad again
your love for me
again. Know it.
("How Could I Have Gone So Batshit Crazy")
The vulnerability on display here is remarkable and oddly we've been prepared for it by Wolff who in earlier poems showed us how vulgarity is dependent on clarity, while later showing us how clarity is dependent on tenderness. But lurking in the poem - as revealed in the title - is a reminder that women, when articulating their deepest wounds and passions so openly, still face the ridiculous charge of something akin to insanity. But Wolff brilliantly refuses to look over her shoulder as she writes and the pain that generated Warden is on full display, showing her injuries with greater ease and depth as the book nears its end and with devastating accuracy. Her poems remind us that no matter what, we must love, and the greatest pain is when that love fails. The book ends on a long poem titled "Saving It All For The Morning" and in it the speaker's tone is conversational and intimate, as if the point of artifice has been lost on her:
sure I can go on with life; i.e., NOT DIE
but that doesn't mean it's "all good" or that life is what you
make it or ect.
That was true love
we were made for each other
This is how Warden ends and when we finish we realize that love is a rebellion against time. If the principal experience of being is estrangement, then love confirms why Wolff describes her hope (earlier in the poem) as "terrifying" because love is central to the reconciliation of separation. She doesn't write at the end of Warden we were "meant" for each other, but that "they were made for each other". The conundrum of love is that love is most active in a state of separateness. One can always tell which books are born out of necessity and Warden is one of them because to fail at love is to have that love profoundly reactivated. The demands the book puts upon the reader are uncanny for that reason and why Warden exist. That we find it in our hands is remarkable and yet it could be no other way and for this we should be thankful.