Test Piece by Sheryda Warrener

In the final section of Sheryda Warrener’s Test Piece, she declares: “I appear in the grid for the ekphrasis workshop.” With her focus on a series of artists and paintings, her poetry is certainly ekphrastic, but the grid and workshop are also key elements in her poems.  Not only does she teach and participate in poetry workshops, but the improvisational nature of her poetry turns the poems themselves into workshops testing pieces on the nature of poetry. Immediately following her comment about ekphrasis, a fragment from Brian Teare’s poem appears: “in the drawings I love / she leaves evidence / of process fraying / the grid’s edge.” Warrener loves drawings and leaves evidence of process fraying grids and edges.

            Test Piece is structured among four “Interior Portraits,” each with a bracketed subtitle: “hear the artist,” “a transfer of energy,” “a haptic experience,” and “what it feels like.” These sensory experiences get to the heart of the poems and interiors of portraits. These interior portraits are collages, woven together with images and words that extend in different directions. Underlining the first portrait are the words, “a test piece is an experimentation.” Each poem is experimental and experiential. Running up the left side of the portrait are the words “crushed velvet,” which refers to the poem “Crushed Velvet” that immediately precedes the portrait. “Three women come toward me now up the city / block in matching citrus tones, crushed velvet.” We hear the speaker capture the women walking through enjambment that carries city to citrus, tones doubling as colour and sound. Velvet is crushed because of crushes that get crushed, even as “block” implies an obstacle in the urban (mis)-encounter.

“Warrener adjusts her voice and vision in all of her spoken pictures. She mirrors and multiplies the distances and frames between subjects and objects.”

            The hard c of crushed resumes in the second stanza’s “catching,” the rhyme with “matching” emphasizing both a match and a mismatch. “On the chance of catching a wayward spark, / I swerve into their path.” Deliberate and accidental, the poem combines composition and spontaneity, the spark and swerve of inspiration, touching, and hearing. “Lacking fluency, I fail to register.” The speaker’s fluid rhythms are captured in the f and l consonants that are halted by the harsher end-line register. Single lines in the poem are separated from the couplets to mark the separation of the speaker from her surroundings. “Desire a material time turns outside in.” Just as crushed velvet turns outside in, so time reverses order, and the specified mismatch belongs to other patterns of encounters: “This is not the first-time this trend has cycled / through my lifetime.” The fabric of life becomes a dominant motif, whether in “material” or “sheets through dryer portals.” Poem and poet are laundered from first time to lifetime.

            In her city walk, “I drift in and out of propped shop doors,” to find other materials of self and poem. She enters the changeroom and pulls the fine mesh bag over her face to safeguard the garment from the makeup she’s not wearing. This changeroom is a chamber of transformation with burlap and gauzey layer fabrics. In the mirror, “I’ve doubled in age and it’s spring again.” Paradox and metamorphosis carry through “Crushed Velvet”: “At the apothecary, I let the consultant test samples.” This is the first test piece or experiment in Test Piece. “Day’s touchlessness reversed.” A test piece reverses and restores the sense of touch that had been denied at the poem’s outset. A haptic experience in the final couplet reconnects the poet: “After rinsing me under water, she makes a tidy / package with the towel, unwraps the gift of my own hand.”

            The warm rinse contrasts with the earlier “wintry backdrop,” the tidy towel gathers crushed velvet, “unwrapped” resolves the “sapling wrapped in burlap,” and the gift of the poet’s hand is released to catch a wayward spark of poetry. Lines, folds, and fabrics in “Crushed Velvet” introduce the sounds and feelings of Test Piece, where collage, synaesthesia, and synecdoche go hand in hand.

            The two epigraphs for this volume further indicate the interwovenness of an artistic community. The first from American sculptor, Anne Truitt: “The line marks, with infinite tenderness, the experience of a body – a separate unknowable experience inside the line, space outside it.” Warrener’s poems sculpt line marks and the experience of a body. The second epigraph belongs to textile artist, Anni Albers: “Most of our lives we live closed up in ourselves …. To make [life] visible and tangible, we need light and material, any material.” Warrener’s poetry provides that light and material to make life visible and tangible, as her lines interweave the lives of other artists.

            The first long poem, “A Fixed Point,” responds initially to Walker Evans’s famous photograph, Alabama Tenant Farmer Wife (1936). The sequence of three-line stanzas begins: “Stand in the colourless / plane face-to face with the portrait, taken by the unflinching features.” The point of the poems is to fix, to repair, and to improve, by bringing to life or unfixing the dead gaze drained of colour. Language doubles: plane is both unadorned and the visual horizontal plane of the face-to-face encounter. The speaker is taken emotionally, while the portrait is taken by the photographer. A “spirit settled behind the eyes” refers to the farmer’s wife, the photographer, and the viewer in the gallery. “Mirror mechanism in the camera increases / the distance.”

            Warrener adjusts her voice and vision in all of her spoken pictures. She mirrors and multiplies the distances and frames between subjects and objects. “I resist the brisk gallery pace” to retard the vision of the nameless face. The sequence of her stanzas is a collage, “part of the assemblage,” “experimental florals,” female tears, and faces in mirrors.

            In her second sequence, “A Blue Filter,” she travels in a train through a landscape of irises, and the shapes of her lines imitate the train’s motion. Her third sequence, “On a Clear Day,” borrows from Agnes Martin’s rectangular grids, and uses masks, doubleness, counter-clockwise turns, domestic space, confluence of threads, fragments, unfinished elegies, new cadences, and incongruent lines. Its ending, “the open form assembles line by line,” attests to Warrener’s bricolage and postmodern pastiche that places her words alongside the images of other women artists.

            These palimpsests culminate in the final sequence, “Test Piece,” based on Eva Hesse’s sculptures, and including a host of other artists. Experimental forms spread across the page, which becomes a white canvas for black words. At the top of the page: “high up the gallery wall / a gold silk iridesces” – the colour standing out because of rustling sibilants. Sound, colour, and experience pierce the viewer: “gets me in the chest like        gah! / blindsided.” Her breath is taken away by the spacing, exclamation, and blindsiding of peripheral vision. That epiphany unfolds in loops, grids, multiple perspectives, released contours, choreography in and out of sync, and the weaver’s double logic: “which side do you want to / hide, and which side do you want to face out.” She ends all of these double patterns of revelation and concealment with: “absurdity / is the key word.” Absurdity derives from deafness, yet we hear the artist, transfer her energy, grasp experience, and learn what it feels like. Test Piece crushes velvet, finds fixed points, and filters blue on a clear day. Warrener measures twice, cuts once, and stitches it all together.

Sheryda Warrener is the author of the poetry collections Hard Feelings (Snare, 2010) and Floating is Everything (Nightwood, 2015). Her work can be found in Event, The Fiddlehead, Grain, Hazlitt, and The Believer, among other literary journals. She is a recipient of The Puritan’s Thomas Morton Memorial Prize for poetry, and recent poems have been selected for Best Canadian Poetry, The Next Wave: An Anthology of 21st Century Canadian Poetry, and the 2020 CBC Poetry Prize longlist. Sheryda lives in Vancouver BC with her son and partner, and teaches poetry and interdisciplinary forms in the School of Creative Writing at UBC.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Coach House Books (Sept. 13 2022)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 80 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1552454495
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1552454497

Poetry Editor

Michael Greenstein is a retired professor of English at the Université de Sherbrooke. He is the author of Third Solitudes: Tradition and Discontinuity in Jewish-Canadian Literature and has published widely on Victorian, Canadian, and American-Jewish literature.