I read Opus 7 (1931) by Warner mostly as a counterpoint to Lolly Willowes, but it is also interesting on its own account. It's a narrative poem, about fifty pages long, about Rebecca Random - an unsociable woman who lives in an idyllic cottage, 'lives on bread and lives for gin', and has an almost uncanny ability to grow flowers:
Some skill she had, and, more than skill, a touch
that prospered all she set, as though there were
a chemical affinity ‘twixt her
stuff and the stuff of plants.
Indeed, the most obvious connections between Opus 7 and Lolly Willowes are the countryside, and this almost witchlike ability that Rebecca has. Flowers spring up almost overnight, and make Rebecca and her garden something of a spectacle for the villagers.
But the topic is really just a way of exploring the dynamics of village life, especially the darker side. Rebecca starts to sell her flowers - but only because she needs money for drink. The villagers buy her flowers for their mantelpieces, parties, and funerals - but do not accept her; she engages in these exchanges, but does not talk to the people next to her in the pub, nor buy them the drinks they anticipate. In a really interesting aside, Warner leaves the stance of anecdote-reteller and dips into the author's voice - comparing her addiction to writing and rewriting with Rebecca's reliance on alcohol:
And down what leagues of darkness must I yetI rarely read poetry, as you know, so perhaps I am not the best judge of quality. I recently wrote a little bit about Warner's collection Time Importuned, which I didn't really like or dislike. I felt I got a lot more out of Opus 7 - perhaps because it had a sustained narrative, and everything which comes along with that, particularly the foregrounding of character. Once I had that all set in my mind, I could sit back and enjoy Warner's writing. It was occasionally a little forced, and I didn't approve of all her attempts to create end-rhymes. This was rather inexcusable:
trudge, stumble, reel, in the wrought mind's retreat ;
then wake, remember, doubt, and with the day
that work which in the darkness shone survey,
and find it neither better nor much worse
than any other twentieth-century verse.
Oh, must I needs be disillusioned, there's
no need to wait for spring! Each day declares
yesterday's currency a few dead leaves ;
and through all the sly nets poor technique weaves
the wind blows on, whilst I - new nets design,
a sister-soul to my slut heroine,
she to her dram enslaved, and I to mine.
But now Rebecca, wont to chatter ding-
dong with the merriest, and when drunk to sing
But in general I found it rather beautiful - her use of metaphor is quite striking, for instance. This excerpt isn't to do with Rebecca, but concerns the aftermath of village life after the first world war - looking back to the war with quite a chilling, effective image. Even with all the writing about the trenches which I have read (which we have all read, I imagine) this made an impact on me:
I knew a time when Europe feasted well :I can't imagine any publisher willing to publish Opus 7 now, simply because of its form and length. It's not long enough to be considered a novel in verse, but it is obviously too long to be merely a poem. However I am glad that Chatto and Windus decided it was worth issuing back in 1931, in their lovely Dolphin Books series (which I collect when I stumble across them) - it's not my favourite book by Warner, but it is rather powerful and striking. And, for a poetry ignoramus, rather an accessible way to enjoy the form, without forfeiting the qualities which make me primarily a lover of prose.
bodies were munched in thousands, vintage blood
so blithely flowed that even the dull mud
grew greedy, and ate men ; and lest the gust
should flag, quick flesh no daintier taste than dust,
spirit was ransacked for whatever might
sharpen a sauce to drive on appetite.