A review of Unfinished Child by Lindsey Warren

Reviewed by Mary Ellen Talley

Unfinished Child
by Lindsey Warren
Spuyten Duyvil
ISBN 9781949966602, 49 pgs, 2019

Put the idea of reading this book of poetry cover to cover to bed. For the reader to have control over direction but not the journey’s destination makes Lindsey Warren’s inventive debut collection, Unfinished Child, read like real life. But moving through the poems also parallels a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book. Likewise, a review of Warren’s collection needn’t proceed linearly. Please read the first three paragraphs of this review, then proceed in any order to discover the myriad of recurring delights found in Lindsey Warren’s book.

Even the table of contents, without page numbers, reads like disjointed and quirky free verse listing the initial phrase of each poem. The poems themselves are numbered rather than given traditional titles.

Let the reader begin reading poems. Start with those on pages 1, 2 and 3. Instructions at the bottom of a page directs a choice, such as “I SEE AN OBJECT, GO TO PAGE 4” or “I SEE A REFLECTION, GO TO PAGE 8.” The book consists mainly of prose poems full of unique imagery, interspersed with a dozen poems in lyrical free verse. In one sense, with the forward and back page turning, the reader never actually finishes the book. Throughout this collection, Warren weaves together botany, astronomy, mythology and medicine as well as the nostalgia of a childhood home and mother.

It is fascinating culling through these poems that explore containers for memory and sustenance. Poem #1 introduces a “mother’s cake tin,” that, in poem #2, the speaker would like to return as “I enter / the kitchen and place the cake tin on the bare counter.” Poem #1 also introduces “the doll in my pocket.” Both images occur throughout the book regarding grief over loss of a mother as well as a speaker dealing with an ever-present inner child, a theme fairly common in popular psychology. From this construct, that we retain aspects of our youth throughout our lives, emerges notions of protection and memory that come through in Warren’s poems.

Images of anthropomorphism crop up throughout the poems to delight the reader. In poem #1, the rain is “eavesdropping,” in poem #3, a full paint can has a “pulse,” in poem #6, “the lilies are voices,” and in poem #32, “I am the thing the dark was looking for under the couch.”

The grief in these poems is over the death of the speaker’s mother. We read in poem #6 that the mother’s cake tin “is still empty and cold, will always be, it is a ruin, it will / never be touched again.” The speaker’s grief is about a “death I am living.” It remains a metaphorical sadness, as in poem #24, “I am a bird in the treetops watching the colors play through / time, or I am the snow on the trees, or I am the painter who is / making all of this happen.” These snippets of options dovetail with the page turning choices in the collection. The paragraph concludes in gentle sadness, with “my wings a perfect teardrop.”

Various transformations are inferred and directly stated in this collection. In poem #6, “The tile floor catches me as / I become another state of matter.” In poem #9, “The flower becomes my hand, and it touches me.” In poem #11, there is “a woman who morphed into a tree in the night and then became / a woman again in the morning.”

Images of nature strengthen this collection to signal growth and rebirth. In poem #1, we see light and a falling leaf, and then in poem #4 “the leaf flickers in the film of its life. Suddenly it erupts / in a flash of what looks like hot white light and throws small bits in all / directions throughout the room. I pick one up. It is a seed.” In poem #4, “this night has been, a blackbird of silence.”

Light and color appear and reappear throughout these pages. In poem #11, “Despite the phosphorescence of these newborn plants,” the speaker glimpses “green beating a cadence beneath each crimson / leaf edge and violet stem.” There is growth despite loss. In poem #25, the speaker steps into moonlight. The images of light and color are made stronger when Warren juxtaposes light with the dark night as in poem #5, “In the dim blue dark I feel the seeds jostle. One by one, they light up / from within their bodies, like pre-stars, or post-stars, or the glows / that strive and replace each resentment.”

In addition to deft use of metaphor, the frequent delight of synesthesia stands out throughout the collection. In poem #3, “Its pulse is the color of / a fissure in the twilight sky” and “I smell like light.” In poem #9, “The scent / of the petals is of an illuminated something revolving forever in a / forgiving night.” In poem #25, while introducing werewolves roaming periwinkle, “I / see myself as a vibration.”

With loss comes empathy. In poem #22, a lyric poem we read, “Each bruise a gratitude / for bumping into your Earth.”

It is always a pleasure to happen upon the poem from which a book’s title originates and that adds to the emotional arc of the collection. In poem #17, the poet asks, “Am I an / unfinished child.” The speaker gives a nod to the doll in the pocket, “I feel love in / its shadow, night’s shadow, and in my coat pocket I stroke the doll’s / hair as she rests. I, too, abandon thought, stretch out on the inviting / leaf, and fall asleep.”

Warren’s poems leap with new associations and perceptions that play with magical realism. In poem #19, we read that “through it a door full of wings, / through it a door that is a rooftop fixed by god.” And on a personal note , “through it a door that is all I wanted to say to my mother.” Does loss of a mother and the doll in the pocket signal the end of childhood? Poem #20 follows with endearing language and a reminder of choices:

The weather of me could be any person’s heart and the camera in me
seeks its silver salt silence. I could leave the cake tin on the kitchen counter
and be a face turned forever, or I could eat through the moonlight and follow
the night as it undoes its bloodstone braids. I am given and grabbed back.
The sky drops its crystal limb.

Even more beauty if only in a kitchen: In poem #28, “Each molecule of night acts silver in front of this mirror, the / one mounted over the sink and its sea.” Later, in the same poem, “When I was younger / I would wish for my mother to bake a cake by moonlight. / I regret never asking.” Loss is often layered with regret.

Although dealing with nostalgia and grief, the trajectory is positive. In poem #30, the speaker writes of the mother, “I / have asked her to still live. I have asked her to still need her cake tin so / that I might come to her house and find light here.” Listen to the wisdom in poem #29, where Warren writes:

I am a decision to go forward. The floor of the green
is an ocean of ice, the ice swirls like the wind when it touches the grass,
it is the beginning of all things. I am a seed-small and alone but correct.
Between the whorls of ice is a black, a clarity, a first that knows me. What
if I am could yes if it continues. I am not I. Edgeless thunder in the above.

This fine collection by Lindsey Warren ends with poem #47, “I rise to find the house empty again. The doll that was in my coat / pocket lies on the floor, her eyes again open.” The speaker protectively returns the doll to her pocket and will “open the door to the day.” With the Choose Your Own Adventure format, the reader might prefer to go back to poem #45, “I came into the house inside the story of looking for my / mother but I knew she was gone, her blue eyes closed somewhere like / cold planets, and I am a stranger. There is no more of time to tell.” Or the reader might circle back to poem #41, “The doll in my coat pocket kisses my / finger. It is time to go.” Or the reader might want to return to poem #35 agreeing with the poet “I do not want to be at / the finish of my words.”

About the reviewer: Mary Ellen Talley’s reviews have been published in Colorado Review and Compulsive Reader as well as forthcoming in Sugar House Review and Crab Creek Review. Widely published in journals such as Raven Chronicles, U City Review and Ekphrastic Review as well as in several anthologies, her poems have received two Pushcart nominations.