Book Review

Beyond The Straits by Marine Robert Warden. Presa Press, 2011. $13.95 

Reviewed by Linda Aschbrenner

In 2011, Presa :S: Press of Rockford, Michigan, published this second edition of Beyond The Straits by Marine Robert Warden, a book first published in 1980 by Momentum Press (Santa Monica, CA). Warden’s poems deserve this new life, a new audience. If more poets wrote about military-related deaths, would war still be a solution to conflict? Warden has published 11 volumes of poetry (see below) and his poems have appeared in Bellowing Ark, Presa, Free Verse, and Verse Wisconsin.

The last poem in this book is “Taking Leave” where Warden combines themes of death and love:

    I saw this as a young man
    an endless column of haunted faces
    moving through a trail of mist
    toward our slippery gangplank
    the city behind them had been destroyed
    animals know nothing of this
    the real meaning of flowers or love
    how my ship pulled away from that harbor
    with its cargo of haunted faces
    how we floated outward like slow glass
    over a sea of fire    (67)

Beyond The Straits covers the years following World War II when Warden, born in 1927, was a young man in the military. If you fall into a deep slumber while reading the first section of this book, “excerpts from Sequence After The War,” you will dream in black and white, view late shows set in the post war years. You’ll be on board, feel night fog on a cold night, hear waves slapping against the ship, see the crew, and experience deaths. For sure, you’ll dream about the deaths. Non-combat casualties even after a war.

Warden’s narrative tone poems, written without any punctuation, are often musical, using occasional assonance, alliteration, onomatopoeia, repetition of words, while vividly painting scenes. The first 13 lines in the title poem, “Beyond The Straits, Jan 1946”:

    it was mist before dawn in Seattle
    and the dock beside our ship was full
    of trucks and men and gear the men filed
    up our gangway groaned under heavy loads
    of packs and guns like overloaded mules
    I stood in fog at the head of a gangway
    and checked off names some were missing
    or out of order but most were really there
    they were young like me and stared at my ship
    their mouths dropped open their bodies dropped
    below the decks into holds down the ladders
    where their bunks were stacked five high
    my ship was alive with noise and people   (11)

They leave Seattle, “night falls/ the great sea rises and groans.” Warden hooks his arm around the rail of his bunk so he doesn’t fly into the cold steel decking. Then “our fore deck is smashed” and “man overboard shouts through wet steel walls/ three men over.”  (12)

    later we hear that our own first mate
    roped to his friends was lowered
    over the side toward men in the water
    threw them life rings
    they were all swept away  (13)

“four men lost from two thousand/ not too bad for a big storm like this” says the oldest engineer. (13) An enlarged photo of the storm later reveals that “a pale white hand beckons from the sea to us.”  (14)

In “Yellow Sea, March 1946,” their ship moves slowly up the east China Sea to Korea where they encounter fog and “sail into an old mine field/ only partially cleared months after the war is over.” (15) Warden writes:

    we stand at our own rails and stare
    ghosts of sailors young like us rise from mist
    a line from Tu fu keeps running through my head
    “turned into other beings”
    fog comes
    again hides the old battlefield
    also the islands and rocks ahead   (16)

Warden relates how men must then get off the ship with “cold air ice hands”:

    troops climb down rope ladders to waiting craft
    bob and lurch thump against hull ring of metal
    rise and fall away
    clang one man loses his grip on rope and falls
    solid splash into sea between hull and landing craft
    heavy loaded he sinks without a cry  (19)

And in this very same poem a young woman comes to the same fate:

    the junks move closer and closer
    we dump our garbage and the fight begins
    junks crash into junks shouts and curses
    a young woman is pushed overboard from the bow of one
    cries for help and splashes in the icy water
    strange language drowns before our horrified eyes  (19)

In the poem “Strange Harbor,”  (22) a “carver of ships/ in closed bottles” went “down below” and an explosion in the engine room kills him. Throughout this book you remember the deaths that Warden couldn’t forget. How to witness death and not forget.

Warden also reveals the dark places he’s seen as a medical doctor. In “The Great Ground Swell” he writes about how his past relates to the meeting of his future wife: 

    I have traveled to Asia several times by sea
    and all over this land of ours on detour roads 
    slept half frozen under railroad bridges
    shaved in glacial mountain streams
    all these dusty miles and blown tires
    crests of waves marked by the disappearing
    wakes of ships
    at the time I never knew it
    they were all part of a great ground swell
    out of which you appeared    (34) 

The remaining poems in the books speak of nature, cities, and romantic, passionate love as he meets his future wife and they marry. In these poems, one feels the sweep of time, ghosts, mystery. The book weaves a juxtaposition of war/death with the sanctity and wonder of love.

Other books by Warden include: Love and the Bomb Don’t Mix (Grey Whale Press, 1982), The Illinois Suite (Spoon River Poetry Press, 1983), and five books from Seven Buffaloes Press:Lullabies from Cochiti (1983), Song of the Rose and the Phoenix (1984), The Shadow of Wings (1986),Wounded Geese: New and Selected Poetry (1987), and Any Single Loss (1989). In addition: Heaven and Earth (Misty Hill Press, 1996), plus two recent books from Bellowing Ark Press: Canticle III (2007) and Finding Beauty (2009).

Linda Aschbrenner is the editor/publisher of Marsh River Editions. She edited and published the poetry journal Free Verse from 1998 to 2009 which now continues as Verse Wisconsin