“Romanesque,” The New Yorker October 6, 2008
What I find interesting about “Romanesque” is its pairing of food with religion, particularly the Pentecost. There’s slight Apocalyptic reference in it, too, which could be a bearer of bad tidings. But, in Warren’s poem, it seems almost wonderful, an irresistible, melt-in-your-mouth revelation.
The first hint—foreshadowing, really, since at this point religious grandeur hasn’t entered the poem—of this culinary apocalypse occurs in line two: “Onions give up the ghost, flesh sizzles . . .” This is very much reminiscent of a Raiders of the Lost Ark moment: ghost-like apparitions fly out of the Ark of the Convenant shortly after it’s opened, killing any and all whose eyes witness the Ark’s holy contents (there’s Biblical precedence for this Hollywood version . . .). If your eyes were closed, you lived. If they were open, God’s forces closed them for you, eternally. And, so, though Warren is writing about food and never takes her imagery to such cinematic melodrama, the line is not without its religious connotation, albeit in hindsight. She subtly emphasizes this by accumulating S sounds in those words—“. . . ghost, flesh sizzles . . .”—most important in this regard. The entire line is lush with S, as are those above and below it, which snaps the ear to attention, but the acoustic climax is smack dab in the center of the poem:
Morning: smells of serious cooking float in the street.
Onions give up the ghost, flesh sizzles, a metal spoon
clinks on a dish.
The next apocalyptic moment is prolonged and, therefore, becomes much more obvious. Warren writes, “You saw light leak from my eyes . . . . Christ barely balances / in his almond chafing dish, Pentecostal fire / hurls out to the Apostles left and right, / they’re microwaved.” You can feel God’s judgment in these lines, the utter destruction of the world, no exceptions, as both speaker and Apostles are effectively nuked. Pentecostal fire does, obviously, reference the Pentecost, too. This is the moment when the Holy Spirit zapped the Apostles—in a good way—filling them with well-deserved holiness after Christ’s post-Resurrection return to Heaven. So, when the Apostles are microwaved in “Romanesque,” they are simultaneously reaching the end of their days and being rewarded by the commanding power of God (bear in mind, this is all coming about at a (farmers?) market, which must be one hell of a place).
After recounting this gastronomical version of the Pentecost, Warren plainly writes, “In the market, I bought lettuces as frilled, / scalloped, unfurled, and rainbow-hued . . .” The opening of the sentence echoes “On the tympanum, Christ barely balances,” two sentences previous, in that it is the only other to begin with a prepositional phrase. However, the loaded language of the former is now removed. Instead of talking about Christ, we’re talking about lettuce. And we’re doing it in plain language that’s slowed down first by the prepositional phrase and second by the short list of lettuce descriptors frilled, scalloped, unfurled, and rainbow-hued. This little juxtaposition of charged language with plain language runs throughout the poem, in effect keeping readers grounded in the market, not in the Apocalypse (or Pentecost), and thus in the revelatory grandeur of the market’s odors and tastes. The metaphor enhances the immediate experience of the speaker—and reader—but never takes over. We never actually enter Revelations; we never truly witness the Holy Spirit or Christ. When Warren writes, “On the tympanum Christ barely balances / in his almond chafing dish,” which is a warming pan, Christ remains basically figurative. True, he may physically be present in the sculpted scene of the tympanum, but he’s only literally an object here, a sculpted representation of Christ, not the Christ. As Warren imposes that scene onto the chafing dish, he becomes figurative, still not really the Jesus Christ. This allows Warren some spiritual energy without having to make the poem a religious poem, that is to say a Christian poem. It uses Christian imagery but primarily to enhance our experience of this fantabulous cooking and produce at the market. This is a spiritual experience for the speaker, but it is not a religious one.
The poem ends with an interesting moment in that the lettuces, not the speaker, receive the glory of the Holy Spirit. It seems to me the obvious, usual way to end this poem is to have the speaker receive the glory of God, but in “Romanesque,” it’s the lettuces who find themselves so lucky. Warren writes, “the sun touched each sweet leaf / till it trembled and spoke in tongues.” What I like about this ending is that it uses the Pentecost to generate some quality imagery—it’s weird for anyone, much less lettuce, to speak in tongues—but it’s preempted with the sun that did the touching, not the Holy Spirit. This single image keeps the poem and its readers in the market. We can witness the sun rising over a nearby awning or EZ-up and slamming into the lettuce leaves, turning their colors vibrant. It would quite a bit too much if God really reached out and touched lettuce leaves, especially you believe you’re one of the Chosen.
What this has to do with “Romanesque”? Aside from the imagery of the church—from the demons to Christ to the Pentecost—very little. The poem ain’t about architecture, but about spiritual glory. The speaker bears witness to the hallelujah of the market similar to the way those Apostles received the hallelujah of the Holy Spirit. It’s an amazing morning for her wherever she is, whatever farmer’s market she’s wandering through, dazed.