Ritual, Rothko, and poetic form
We in the West, Lou Reed once complained, are denied our ritual, a complaint which is itself a kind of ritual, within art culture and perhaps more broadly, that has been practiced with dramatic results throughout the recent history of poetry and art in the West. Admittedly, the ritual Reed mourned the lack of was a particular one, that of hari-kari, so spectacularly performed, in what was then recent memory, by the Japanese novelist Yukio Mishima, having just addressed members of his private army from a banner-draped balustrade. But Reed’s was only a late adumbration of a lament that is at the heart of many of the enduring monuments of modernism: we in the West are denied our ritual. This could be the founding myth of more than one twentieth-century art culture: there was a ritual world, it no longer is, or if it is, it is in bits, alive among the mad and the preliterate, and could be reimagined, and this is what art could do, what art culture could be: a fully operative symbolic system for an elite if not the full cast of social life. And at the heart of this ritual world, its words, practices, and shiny objects, was magical thinking. There is of course an immense range of analysis and speculation attending the word “ritual,” a word crucial to twentieth-century critical thought. Here, beginning my approach to the entrance of Taggart chapel, I can only attempt to work with the simplest sense I can find, the notion that highly organized repeated symbolic actions can effect events.
For poetry written in the emerging world of the modern, the analysis of ritual, of the beliefs that make ritual possible, of the form by which rituals make themselves felt, of what that feeling might be, and most especially of the transformation within the participants that ritual practice could provoke, could not help but be of deep interest, crucial concern, really, for practitioners of an art form with tradition running deep into the pre-Copernican world of cosmic correspondences, not to mention the renewed authority granted by anthropology, psychology, and occultism to word-magic. Moreover, with the restructuring of daily life accompanying the rise of urban secular life, with the shaping of selfhood that has been said to attend the birth of the modern, where else so much as in a sophisticated grasp of what a ritually informed artistic practice might mean, could one see, and dramatize, the full arc of incarnation, from birth to death and whatever might once have been or still be beyond? Behind romantic, symbolist, and modern poetry’s interest in the theory and practice of ritual, spurred by the discoveries of archeology, lay the tantalizing possibilities of the full force of ancient drama, recovered, including the choral poetry Nietzsche describes in The Birth of Tragedy: “The virgins who proceed solemnly to the temple of Apollo, laurel branches in their hands, singing a processional hymn, remain what they are and retain their civic names: the dithyrambic chorus is a chorus of transformed characters whose civic past and social status have been totally forgotten: they have become timeless servants of their god …”
1. The temple
While much might be said about the presumed power of poetic cadence in this quotation, about the radical schism between the everyday and the divine which incantation might be seen as able to momentarily overcome, even more might be said about the promise of inner transformation of those who chant dithyrambically as one, a promise fervently reiterated in the twentieth century across a range of arts. For now I simply want to note the fact that a temple is mentioned, a temple towards which the celebrants proceed. The columns, the open, geometric spaces, perhaps like what might still be seen in Turkey, at the temple of Apollo in Dydima, once the prophecy vortex of the ancient world, mark a socially sanctioned space for acts of ritual magic. The temple orders earth and sky to reflect meaning on a human scale. In a temple, pillars and squares are all heights and all horizons. At a key moment in modernity’s pondering of the repurposing of outmoded forms of ritual the link between ritual thought and shape became a matter of artistic abstraction. Matisse knew his Mallarme; Mondrian, Kandinsky, and Malevich developed an idiom of pure shape and color through which abstraction could show the presence and power of the unseen world. In the middle of the last century Abstract Expressionism brought this ambition into the art culture of New York. The paintings of Mark Rothko, a lifelong devotee of The Birth of Tragedy, illustrate the path from the mythic to the abstract, from Surrealism’s deep interest in the worlds of classical ruins and modern fetish dolls, to an art free of all vulgar mimesis, where might finally be brought to reside “the Spirit of Myth which is generic to all myths of all times.”
Rothko explicitly presented his work within the conventions of the evolving literary aesthetics of the thirties and forties as spiritual, as if his basic materials, canvas and paint, could be the exact meeting place of the finite with the infinite. Recalling his debt to Arshile Gorky, we can imagine this meeting as suffused with the glamour of immense suffering. “I have been painting Greek temples all this time and didn’t know it,” Rothko remarked on a tour of Pompei in Italy. And we might add, given the dark tone his painting would take in later years, he has been imagining Greek theater, and the dramas performed there, all that time, though he was too prone to dread and despair to say he didn’t know it. The opportunity came to Rothko, late in his career, to design a Catholic chapel. It was a challenge artistically and architecturally, but also spiritually. The murals for the Rothko chapel would become a massive theological undertaking, done exclusively in shape and color and architecture, aiming to do nothing less than shift the spiritual orientation of Houston, Texas, from Rome, to Basel, and to points beyond. Through his warring with the architect Philip Johnson, he reshaped the walls and roof and floor into a structure that could be a place for secular, or should we say post-secular, ritual. Rothko forced Johnson off the project, and the chapel, no longer on the grounds of a Catholic college, in its final version more closely resembled a structure in Israel that holds the Dead Sea scrolls. It would be filled with panels that Michel Butor likened to the Ka’ba. Though the result is hardly an interfaith center. The Rothko chapel was to be first and foremost an omphalos for midcentury existentially minded art cultures, set, almost perversely, in Houston, a city of oil and space technology, and opened, with the chapel’s completion, to a current of thanatos pouring down from an artist’s studio on the upper east side of Manhattan. Rothko’s true commission was to make palpable in line and color what a devotional space might look like for a belief system built upon fundamental colors, red and black, colors recalling for one critic “the blood and fire purification of old ritual.” The series of panels inside, distinctive within the span of all Rothko’s work for their sharp clean delineation of his squares and for their monochrome color scheme, were designed to transform the inner world of the art pilgrim who had fled the Babylon of 57th Street in a craving for tragic exaltation.
But the modern pilgrim will not find the Rothko chapel paintings arranged to reflect any meditative progress like stations in a traditional pilgrimage, though some have read them, in that there are fourteen panels, as reminiscent of the Catholic stations of the cross, as if Rothko were nodding towards his fellow abstractionist, rival, and Jew, Barnett Newman. John Taggart, a poet I take to be exceedingly mindful of the vast project of reinventing devotional practice in the bright world of nihilism that follows Nietzsche, finds in the Rothko chapel a perpetual but imperceptible crucifixion, one with no lash, crown, cape, ridicule, hammer, nail, or bereft mother, no overt sign of the death of God, except, we might suppose, in looking at the paintings, the red blood streaming from the wounds of Christ and the black, the sky at the moment of his expiration. No cross is seen in the Rothko chapel, though Taggart finds them in the gaps between canvasses. The icon persists within its own absence. Perhaps simply so we can feel without mediation how we are, in Merleau Ponti’s phrase, “grafted to the universal by that which is most our own.”
Taggart’s evocations of Rothko, both poetic and critical, are a liturgical drama for a world where Christianity is over (though perhaps Nathaniel Mackey’s phrase “liturgical ambush” might be more accurate). The texts in his “The Rothko Chapel Poem” are scripts for a total artwork built on the story of the dissolution of the needy, quotidian self in an exceedingly dark ecstasy. Both the poem and the chapel itself are a highly ordered art experience that connive with fanatical focus and bring about to all who enter what Dore Ashton would call, in her book on Rothko, the “psychological conditions for religiousness.” That is what the magical practice of art might bring about. This art experience offered to us in the Rothko chapel is not undifferentiated intensity (for visitors who might experience their own unworthiness as boredom) but comes to us in stages, or in Taggart’s term from the poem, movements. For Sheldon Nodelman, in a work that could stand as a visionary exegesis of the entirety of the chapel, every blueprint, every work order, every pour of concrete argues that the viewer is led through three stages of aesthetic perception where, to crudely summarize here, the play of verticals and horizontals between the black figure paintings on the four directional walls of the chapel and the monochromes on the angle walls, and the complex progress of perception of red and black (and the undisclosed blue, the traditional color of the eternal, added to the red for the shades of violet in the monochromes), of seeing both vertically and rotationally, constitute a fully coherent meditation on fundamental axes of existence, the eternal and the temporal. While I will not be entering the full text of Taggart’s “The Rothko Chapel Poem” today, I can’t help but think the play of scale, direction, and the intense mirroring of Taggart’s stanzas draw not simply on the chapel and its paintings, but also on an exactly worked-out ritual practice Rothko devised for his own vernacular religiousness. Certainly the final text of “The Rothko Chapel Poem,” with its vision of leaving the chapel and seeing earth and sky suffused with fiery blood, lends credence to the suggestion that Taggart, too, is rethinking the possibility of ritual experience, and that the process of reading the poem is meant to initiate us into a world of Dionysian anguish and ecstasy.
2. Slow song
In reading Taggart’s Rothko texts one could disavow all notions of fate and yet feel driven to ask, could such a poet as John Taggart ever not answer the call to sound out the hollows of the Rothko chapel? In Taggart’s account of the birth of his own style, he is careful to tell us that Rothko looms not as a formal exemplar, or as the iconographer of purest angst, but as a figure who appears almost haphazardly, naively beckoned as the result of the poet’s concern with the properties of stained glass. A telling remark that locates Taggart at the intersection of craft and devotional cultures, and of course the difficult relation of modern art cultures to the aestheticized Medievalism of the symbolists and the pre-Copernican cosmology embedded in European, Arabic, and Persian poetic traditions. The glass is “a mystery, it glows without fire or heat, it proves the power of light as embodied spirit.” Rothko, according to Taggart, manages to create the effect of a “hidden light source,” and here we sense Taggart’s own allegiance to the light mysticism embedded in the English Metaphysical tradition. A statement of Rothko’s will provides something of an essential dogma for the poet to shape into song: “it is really a matter of ending this silence and solitude, of breathing and stretching one’s arms again.” With this line Taggart fashions perhaps the earliest and the fullest first achievement of his signature reiterative method. In “A Slow Song for Mark Rothko” Taggart strikes a decidedly ritual and devotional stance towards reality, and as we are momentarily here in the neighborhood of projective verse, it’s worth noting how Rothko’s statement embeds and revises, through contextualization, projectivist poetics. (Or am I alone in hearing the quick breaths of Olsonian recitation in the phrase “it is really a matter … of breathing and stretching one’s arms” in which Taggart has noticed crisis “ending this silence and solitude” and repetition: “again”?)
In “A Preface” collected in Songs of Degrees (where he discusses the writing of “A Slow Song for Mark Rothko”), Rothko steps into the evolving world of Taggart’s poetics as the avatar not just of embodied light, or even of music (Messiaen and Grosseteste are soon mentioned), but of ritual itself. Famously adverse in later years to theorizing his art, Rothko falls silent here, and Stephen Reich speaks. For both Taggart and Reich, working in the postmodern moment, transformation is nonetheless still the goal of art. For Reich, as it will for Taggart throughout all his reiterative works, that transformation begins with the slow shifting of attention. Note in Reich’s statement the emphasis on the power of a slow song to rearrange the mental universe: “Listening to a gradual musical process,” Reich says, “one can participate in a particularly liberating and impersonal kind of ritual. Focusing in on the musical process makes possible the shift of attention away from he and she and you and me outwards (or inwards) towards it.”
That “he or she” Reich imagines is most likely not a couple that has decided to get married in the Rothko chapel, though the method of Taggart’s poem might suggest exactly that. And the wedding waltz Taggart stages in the Rothko chapel could hardly be the music Reich imagines, which works like a form of tantric practice, to purify and elevate the attention of an isolated listener. A wedding waltz is to move a group of unfocused celebrants into a dance, but of course it is a part of the intense, dare one say Kierkegaardian, irony at work — that the true music to be heard in the Taggart chapel, which through the magic of ritual form comes to exist within the Rothko chapel, is that of blackest solitude and wandering, exile, death, and anguished rebirth. For Reich, whose notion of a slow song here could stand as a gloss for Taggart’s poetic ambition in his reiterative structures, the musical process occurs simultaneously within and without. The goal of the ritual is, for Reich, the contemplation of its own process, its own organized, symbolically rich path which offers the listener liberation. For Taggart, such a liberation, as it occurs within “The Rothko Chapel Poem” as nowhere else in his work, comes as a perpetual Calgary, a Passion, a hymn of divine suffering. But as readers only just climbing the steps of the textual temple, we might be forgiven for not noticing that the multiple reiterative epigrams for the poem are taken from Fear and Trembling, from an author, that is, dear to both Rothko and Taggart, and for having no real clue that the agonized coming to be is the ritual process the poem has in store for us, for who among us would willingly take up an agony? After all, we are welcomed guests, guests at a wedding.
3. Wedding guests
The opening three sections of Taggart’s poem set before us the most traditional of functions to be performed in a chapel: a wedding. While the origin of this wedding tableaux may be an overheard remark rich beyond measure in suggestion about wedding pictures taken in the Rothko chapel where the paintings all appear black, Taggart’s foregrounding of nuptials is an immediate comment on a space that seems designed for the single contemplative. (The model for the chapel’s interior, it has been argued, is the artist’s studio.) Taggart’s choice to stage a wedding speaks specifically as well to the poet’s own interest in forms of ritual, as is evident to anyone familiar with his poems about gospel music, soul, and jazz. Taggart needs to write at some proximity to actual communal practice.
Taggart’s remarks on “A Slow Song for Mark Rothko” reveal his early concern with ritual. In “Were You: Notes & A Poem for Michael Palmer” Taggart pursues his thinking on this issue, moving beyond the matter of the effect upon consciousness of ritual practice, to the matter of ritual communities, in this instance, to American Protestant ceremonial culture. He frets about the nature of the group, and the place of dissenting individuals within it. Taggart finds in the example of gospel music severe polarities that recall Nietzsche’s opposition of the Apollonian lyric with the Dionysian dithyramb. An irresolvable conflict lies at the heart of Taggart’s musings about gospel music, about the relation of the many to the one, and about what conditions of belief must be present for the choral singer to enter into the song without doubt. Those familiar with Taggart’s other works may suspect that this conflict goes beyond this particular subject, that Taggart is an agonist, drawn to imagining and overcoming fundamental oppositions. “You can’t doubt and sing with abandon,” the poet tells us. And what kind of musical structure must exist that can accommodate a “diversified assembly”? There is a severity in Taggart’s distinctions between the individual and the group that resolve themselves in his notion of the gap. This gap is both, it would seem, a part of musical structure and a way to contain multiplicity within unity. In various descriptions of his poetic method in regard to his reiterative poems Taggart has noted what must be a fraught moment in his compositional practice: the appearance of a gap, and the addition of an anomalous word within the gap, within the tightly controlled repetitions. Taggart clearly, at least at the time of the composition of the poems in Loop, invested considerable hope in the possibility of a structural relation between poetic form and ritual efficacy.
In the Rothko chapel poem, however, Taggart pursues the severity at the heart of his either/or conception of ceremonial culture. As the wedding triptych itself demonstrates, Taggart is in the grip of an immense drama that compels him to examine the fate of those disinvited from the wedding, a disinvitation which retains all the allegorical implications that might be expected, though it goes on to tell a tale of death and rebirth.
4. The welcome
Ultimately, Taggart draws our attention not so much to the bride or groom, but foremost to the greeting, the welcoming. It is within the logic of minimalist reduction that both Rothko and Taggart share the single moment of human contact, of human warmth, connectivity, and evocation of living ritual form. Humanity enters to the touch of welcome. Given Rothko’s early and possibly playful statement that the relation between painting and viewer should be nuptial as well, citing nothing less than Shakespeare’s “Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments,” we might almost be in the world of color and mystery of Rothko’s pre-chapel work. One can sense in those earlier paintings an erotics embedded in perception itself, but the poem is careful, in keeping both with the formality of the place and the severity of the idiom Rothko devised in planning out his chapel, to distance us from the loving embrace of bride and groom. We are not ever one embraced by the other, but touched by them both, taken in hand. One might almost say that this welcoming is the very protagonist of the poem as it proceeds down the via dolorosa of the contemporary post-secular moment. We are cordially taken into a communal gathering, though we will soon feel ourselves become merely the occasion of the greeting, an occasion that calls up an immense nostalgia in the depths of the poem proper, a moment of a union not of bride and groom with each other but of bride and groom with us. We are implicitly threefold, for as long as the welcome lasts.
7. Sheldon Nodelman, The Rothko Chapel Paintings: Origin, Structure, Meaning (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1997). Chapter 3, “The Meaning of the Chapel Instillation,” is especially helpful for thinking about Taggart’s poem. In particular, see Nodelman’s description of the “phenomenal structure of the installation,” 324–331.
With special reference to Theodor Adorno
“How to stay alive” or, repetition
“To become aware of tones // beginner’s problem in the mind of a beginner.” The opening to John Taggart’s 2008 homage to Louis Zukofsky, “Grey Scale/Zukofsky,” reaffirms the abiding concern of Taggart’s poetics from first to last: how to think with and in sound. This concern manifests itself throughout his work, but is perhaps most notable in such major jazz- and R&B-inspired poems like “Drum Thing” (1969), “Giant Steps” and “Peace on Earth” (1981), “Marvin Gaye Suite” (1991), and 2004’s “Rhythm and Blues Singer,” his elegy for R&B singer James Carr, where he writes:
Language before writing
before the alphabet
a river of sound
The acoustic river runs throughout Taggart’s work and one of its most important tributaries is jazz.
When Taggart recalls that he “came to jazz just as I was,” he is describing a beginner’s state of mind: that fragile, requisite naïveté which makes poetic listening possible. In jazz, he notes, “what is to be asked for is how to stay alive.” The problem of jazz, then, is the problem of life. As Jennifer Ryan puts it: “jazz poetry accounts for the complexities and contradictions of both artistic innovation and social inequities.” Taggart’s moral imperative to stay alive, that is, to live free of social coercion, takes its cue from the music of John Coltrane, whose restless drive to push past boundaries alienated some listeners even as it signaled to others the beginning of a musical revolution whose implications were felt socially as well. What he was after in jazz, Taggart writes, was “the rhythmic character of the music … not a jazz poem … [it] would have to start from and go away from jazz.” The beginning of faith always entails a little heresy. Though jazz was his “informing source,” his place of worshipful attention (“Composition,” he declares, echoing Malebranche, “is attention”), Taggart realizes he must move past mere emulation into what he calls “the animal power of voice.” Paradoxically, this reveals the powerlessness of his own voice through a realization of the necessity to submit to the voice of the poem, “the voice which eats the face away,” as he puts it in an unexpectedly violent trope. What jazz comes to mean for Taggart, finally, is “learning and leaning in more intently in listening to be able to write.”
The question driving my inquiry has to do with how Taggart’s poem “Giant Steps” fuses the modalities of Coltrane’s late modernist jazz with an Objectivist emphasis on sound to create a poetry of radical repetition that is also deeply messianic, a poetry committed to the problem of “how to stay alive” which is the problem of how to intervene in the dehumanizing forces of history, how to rescue the person caught within the riptide of history. By radical repetition I mean a form of writing whose excessive use of refrain and reiteration creates a musical ex-scription, a poetry that writes outside the traditional methods of meaning production through its disruptive use of sound. Radical repetition undoes the usual aim of language as a conveyor of semantic stability by pushing against the grain of transparent meaning toward a semiotic music. Repetition is not simply repeating; rather, it’s what makes the poem stay alive.
Taggart’s poetry is at once utterly transparent and deeply thing-like. It is highly accessible in the sense that it does not exhibit aggressive syntactical torque; neither is it marked by patterns of complex allusion commonly associated with difficulty. Taggart’s difficulty is different. Irresistibly rhythmic, it’s almost childlike in its compulsive insistence on repetition, yet at the same time virtually opaque. Here is the first stanza of “Giant Steps”:
To want to be a saint to want to be a saint to want to
to want to be a saint to be the snake-tailed one to want to
be snake-tailed with wings to be a snake-tailed saint with wings to
want to be a saint to want to awaken men from nightmare.
The first section of Taggart’s poem is divided into two stanzas, the first consisting of four lines, the second of five (this pattern holds for the other three sections as well). Taggart’s diction is severely limited here. The first stanza contains a total of fifty-eight words, with “saint” occurring five times; “want” seven times; and, in the spirit of the Objectivists, “to” sixteen times. These three words account for twenty-eight of the fifty-eight words in the first four lines, or roughly half of all the words in the stanza. Likewise, in the second stanza, “dance” and “go” are each used eight times; “down” six times; “steps” five times; and “to” eighteen times, for a total of forty-five occurrences of five words out of seventy-three, or over two-thirds of the overall word count. Taggart leverages a maximal degree of poetic energy from an amazingly minimal means. What significance is there, though, to working in such a vein, other than the yield of dramatic power it grants the poem? And can we be sure that such repetition does in fact yield the power I argue for it here? Or does it merely succumb to a numbing monotony?
Taggart’s innovative use of repetition derives from a heuristic set of principles. “Not to reproduce a sound but to use it as a general principle to make another sound,” he writes, noting Augustine’s stress on repetition as a pedagogical device: “a mode of assuring the seeker that he is on his way, and is not merely wandering blindly through the chaos from which all forms arises.” Gilles Deleuze provides a resonant echo to these observations when he writes that:
To repeat is to behave in a certain manner, but in relation to something unique or singular which has no equal or equivalent. And perhaps this repetition at the level of external conduct echoes, for its own part, a more secret vibration which animates it, a more profound internal repetition within the singular.
What is crucial for Taggart’s sense of repetition is that it produces difference, not identity. To repeat a phrase, a word, a line is not to collapse or narrow distinctions between the terms of repetition and the rest of the poem. On the contrary, it is to open up a space of difference, which is, simply, figured as space itself, as a caesura, an intervention into the poem’s temporal scheme, the way it measures time and generates duration. The messianic splice of repetition, in other words, distends the poem. Elastic with tension, it drives an arc of sound along the narrow wire of song. What significance is there, though, to such dynamic constriction? The goal of repetition in Taggart is immersion into lived time. Felt time. Time as actual, tangible, passing. In his interview with Ornette Coleman, Jacques Derrida makes the case that the act of music, like the act of writing, is a unique, unreproducable event which is:
Nevertheless repeated in its very structure. Thus there is a repetition, in the work, that is intrinsic to the initial creation — that which compromises or complicates the concept of improvisation. Repetition is already in improvisation: thus when people want to trap you between improvisation and the pre-written, they are wrong.
To which Coleman eloquently responds: “Repetition is as natural as the fact that the earth rotates.” The impulse to repeat also drives the work of John Coltrane.
Along a line of melody: Coltrane’s sound
In a fit of pique once after a recording session, Miles Davis demanded of Coltrane: “why did you go on so long?” “It took me that long to get it all in,” replied Coltrane. This well-known anecdote gets to the heart of Coltrane’s core aesthetic. As he himself expressed it to Nat Hentoff, “You just keep going … you keep trying to get right down to the crux.” This is Taggart’s method, too: a desire to keep the thing aloft, continuous, in a restless quest for breakthrough. The goal may be transcendent, but the means are material. Archie Schepp, who played in Coltrane’s late avant-garde groups, observes that Trane’s method was predicated on a kind of music possessing a hitherto unthinkable range of expansion; solos would run for thirty, forty minutes; it would be uninterrupted music, continually evolving, continually seeking out the terms of its logic.
In his chapter on the thriving subgenre of jazz poetry devoted to Coltrane’s music, Sascha Feinstein mentions Taggart only by noting the issue of his journal, Maps (1969), which was devoted to poems for Coltrane. In a footnote, however, he does see fit to cite Taggart’s unease about the potential for such a tribute issue becoming “a collection of aesthetic and sterile games.” Taggart concludes that “it’s a risk worth taking: you could even say it’s demanded from this liberty to hear, to make what we can from it, as evidence that John Coltrane’s music is still very much with us.” Maps no. 3 appeared only two years after Coltrane’s death, at the age of forty, from liver failure. By 2002, jazz scholar David Ake can write with perfect confidence that Coltrane “has become a remarkably powerful figure,” one whose name has assumed an auratic status, signifying “a variety of musical, ethical, and spiritual attributes,” many of which are only loosely connected to Coltrane the person. As Ake, Ben Ratliff, and others have pointed out, “Giant Steps,” which signaled Trane’s major breakthrough, has become ensconced in jazz pedagogy to the degree that mastering its rapid chord changes signifies every apprentice sax player’s rite of passage.
It’s important to understand Coltrane’s accomplishment in relation to the modal jazz pioneered by Davis, which emphasized improvisation within a framework of austerity. As Ted Gioia puts it, “it was a minimalist response to the maximalist tendencies of postwar jazz.” But while Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” (released in 1959, the same year as Davis’s Kind of Blue) develops within a tight chord progression and Taggart’s poem adheres to the same sense of constraint, using and reusing the same set of keywords, there is nothing minimalist, in the usual sense, about either composition. Rather, minimalist constraints become the springboard for explorations of excess. Both works are overflowing, rich with a “too-muchness,” an abundance that pushes the listener/reader past the limits of the well-made object into an unmapped region of aesthetic experience, the place where snake-tailed saint, a messianic Quetzcoatl, dances.
As Gary Giddins and Scott DeVeaux explain, “Giant Steps” “is a sixteen-bar composition in which almost every note of the melody is signaled by a new chord — playing the chord changes is practically the same thing as playing the melody. The harmony extends the chord progression between equally distant tonal centers (the giant steps of the title). The aim of its aggressively fast-paced movement is “to trigger a sheets-of-sound jolt.” Around the time Coltrane recorded “Giant Steps,” Wayne Shorter came to know him. Shorter speaks of Coltrane’s desire “to speak the English language backwards, and not really in a playful way. It was, like, to speak backwards, to get at something else. To break patterns.”
Unlike Coltrane’s later elegy “Alabama,” for the 1963 bombing of a Birmingham church that killed five black girls, nothing about “Giant Steps” per se suggests it was ever intended as an anthem of civil rights. Yet its bold innovation, which marks it as a milestone in the history of jazz, has invited other writers besides Taggart to see it as more than a musical watershed. Kevin Young, who named his 2000 anthology of African-American writers “Giant Steps,” declares that his title “pays homage to John Coltrane’s Giant Steps — which … changed the way we hear and see.” Michael S. Harper, Amiri Baraka, and Nathaniel Mackey are perhaps the most prominent among a large number of chiefly African American poets who have paid similar homage to Coltrane’s influence. “Giant Steps” (both the composition and the album) announces an inaugural moment for a new form of music, the articulation of a new set of possibilities for expression. Chord progression signals social activism. As Eric Nisenson puts it: “Giant Steps is, in a sense, a manifesto. Modern jazz had hit a dead end … but with the title tune, the bop technique of playing melodically over complex harmonic structures … was taken to its final extreme.” In her brilliant and far-ranging discussion of the Coltrane poem genre, Meta DuEwa Jones affirms the tenor’s significance for poets: “Music frees the soul, is soul. Poetic forms that are influenced by music, like the Coltrane poem, seek to transcend the boundaries of speech and music to inhabit the intangible realms of the spiritual, the emotional, and the soulful.” John Taggart’s “Giant Steps” attempts a similar transcendence of ordinary speech. Like Coltrane, he wants to break patterns, triggering his own sheets of sound effect, through the rhythmic jolts of the poem’s oceanic repetitions.
This repetition can come across not merely as mesmerizing, but exhausting; it makes extreme demands of its reader. The severity of this demand takes its cue not only from Coltrane’s desire to “break patterns” by pushing the music to the limit of what it can bear, but from Zukofsky’s intricate and disciplined attention to the play of sound in the poem. Zukofsky’s famous injunction for rendering the poem as an object required the rejection of any predatory intent, any coercion of language by sentiment. Sincerity, a slippery, often misleading, term in this context, meant that the poem must be a record, in part, of the encounter with phenomenon, achieved, Zukofsky writes, by “thinking with the things as they exist … directing them along a line of melody.” In his essay on Zukofsky’s “Songs of Degrees,” Taggart elaborates:
A melody is a continuous movement that is always on its way. It is not the sum of its component sound details but is the progress of the moving line passing through the successive sounds. In Zukofsky’s usage, however, melody is both the continuously moving line as it grows and defines itself in the concatenation of word sound detail, and it is the completed structure or form that is the culmination and the memory of that motion. It is both noun and verb … above all it has to be understood that meaning, like its melody, exists in the words, and that the two are inextricable.
Zukofsky puts it more succinctly in A Test of Poetry: “cadence plus definite language equal the full meaning.” In “Song of Degrees” the cadence is powerful: “Hear, her / Clear mirror, / Care / His error. / In her / Care / Is clear.” What Taggart concludes in this important statement on poetics is highly characteristic of him: the animating principle of Zukofsky’s poetry is “care,” a word that denotes the technical nuances of attention as much as the ethical imperatives of compassion. “Care, then use, are the lessons to be learned. Otherwise, reading serves only to distract us from perception.”. The Objectivist emphasis on immediacy here means cultivating a sensitivity to perception, not so much in the hope of erasing the medium of transmission, which in any case would be impossible, but out of a disciplined approach to its impact on the senses, the intellect, and language, conceived of melodically, that is, in its semiotic rather than semantic register.
Toward a poetics of the standing wave or, messianic jazz
Taggart insists that “the history of poetry in our century is only superficially the history of the struggle to make it new. More enduring is the struggle to regain the definition of poetry as spiritual ascesis.” To accomplish this, poets can either immerse themselves in spiritual literature, he suggests, or immerse themselves in language. The latter method has been Taggart’s primary one. As Marjorie Perloff, writing on Rosmarie Waldrop, notes: “the language pool” has become “the new Spiritus Mundi.” In her introduction to Taggart’s essays, Perloff describes Taggart’s poetry as one of rapture, achieved not through visionary trance, but with “an intricate incantation produced by permutating sounds and silences.” This effect is on full display in Taggart’s “Giant Steps.”
“Giant Steps” is a poem that dreams of — and urges — a breakthrough. This breakthrough is induced by rhetorical means — through internal anaphora.
To want to be a saint to want to be a saint to want to
be a snake-tailed saint with wings to leap upon the horse-headed the
blue-eyed woman with the little moon the woman with nine shadows
who chokes the throat to want to be a saint to wake men from nightmare.
To speak of breakthrough, that elusive and rhetorically abused state of rupture and metanoia, means, in Taggart’s case, to speak of a formal methodology that draws from the materiality of repeated words and phrases. The effect induces a kind of lucid vertigo. The poem becomes an elaborate echo chamber where speech regains its vibrant immediacy, its saying of the now, through call and response, song and countersong.
This emphasis on the instant of song makes it interruptive rather than reflective. Taggart’s poem forces us to rethink what we thought we knew about the relationship between the materiality — or acoustic properties — of the word, and the effects it generates, which we tend to call spiritual but in fact have more to with an experience of embodiment. This acoustic power takes on a messianic charge, in the sense defined by Walter Benjamin. It blasts apart conventional modes of listening. Conceived of as a kind of punctum or caesura, messianic poetics aims to produce an experience of what Benjamin calls “now-time” through a sharp intervention that destroys the illusion of continuity fostered by historicism’s efforts to fold the past seamlessly into the present.
A historical materialist approaches a historical subject only where he encounters it as a monad. In this structure he recognizes the sign of a Messianic cessation of happening, or, put differently, a revolutionary chance in the fight for the oppressed past. He takes a cognizance of it in order to blast a specific era out of the homogenous course of history.
Cessation and blasting are classic expressions of the modernist call to revolution and belong to what Peter Osborne calls “a form of avant-garde experience.” As he explains it, delineating Benjamin’s notion of “now-time,” “the avant-garde is that which, in the flash of the dialectical image, disrupts the linear time-consciousness of progress in such a way as to enable us, like the child, to discover the new anew and along with it, the possibility of a better future.” For Benjamin, the messianic is not so much a practical political strategy for devising ideal forms of national statehood, as it is a drastic incursion into the amnesia of historical reification. To free history from the myths the present constructs around it is the key task of messianic poetics, as Benjamin envisions it. This is what it means “to raise men with a horn / a tenor horn to go to go down to raise men from nightmare.”
A messianic poetics stakes its claim for intervening in historical consciousness on the power of song to rescue experience. The experience, as Taggart might say, is the song.
To go down to raise to go down to raise to go to go down the
ladder to go down as taught as dance steps taught by the master as
taught to dance to step-dance to dance with giant steps to go to dance to
step-dance to dance with giant steps as taught by the master to
dance to go down the ladder to go down to raise men from nightmare
In his study of the fold, Deleuze says that “the problem is not how to finish a fold, but how to continue it, to have it go through the ceiling, how to bring it to infinity.” The task of the fold is self-perpetuation ad infinitum, but within a finite space. This kind of folding, this iterative poetics of repetition and intervention, is what both Coltrane and Taggart are striving for. The song, the poem, both fold over on themselves, turning inside out, rushing with a headlong momentum into a process of endless self-resembling replication. Ira Gitler’s now talismanic phrase “sheets of sound,” first used in his liner notes to 1958’s Soultrane to describe Coltrane’s “Russian Lullaby,” the album’s final track, answers to this idea of the fold. Later, Gitler expanded on this phrase, describing Coltrane’s sheets of sound as “a density of texture [in which the] multi-note improvisations were so thick and complex [that they produced] a continuous flow of ideas without stopping.” Folding, sheeting — these actions are key to Taggart’s poetics which might, after the title of one of his more taxing works, be called a poetics of the standing wave.
A standing wave occurs when a wave remains in a constant, or stationary, position, usually as a result of an oppositional flow to the medium it is traveling through. Picture an oscillating wave of water in a small pool where the energy of the wave does not dissipate, but remains constant. Or the two ends of a jump rope being spun or twirled in such a way that the rope appears stationary. This kind of vibration can only occur at specific harmonic frequencies. It is a powerful metaphor for Taggart — the idea of a deeper stillness or stasis generated within an energetic motion.
For Peter O’Leary, one of Taggart’s most perceptive readers (and the editor of his selected poems, Is Music) this deeper stillness of the standing wave is mystical. In his provocative reading of “Peace on Earth,” another Coltrane-based composition dating from the same period as “Giant Steps,” he calls Taggart’s poetics a form of “language mysticism, something akin to the via negativa or apophasis of Christian mystics.” Taggart, writes O’Leary, “uses the sound of words to erode or undermine their meaning, allowing the words to transcend into a hypostatic realm of Word, capitalized.”
O’Leary identifies the goal of Taggart’s poetics as one in which “the discovery of voice … is also the generation of a new spiritual knowledge, a new theology of the Word of God, centered on the sound rather than the lexical meaning of the word.” Zukofsky himself gestures toward this in his tantalizingly elliptical remarks in “An Objective”: “A poem. A poem as object … Perfect rest — Or nature as creator, existing perfect, experience perfecting activity of existence, making it — theologically perhaps — like the Ineffable.” The trouble with an overdetermined term like hypostasis, however, is that it substantiates its claim to authority on an extra-linguistic “something” — the Word of God — a word that is not a word at all, since it is entirely unmarked by the sound of language as such. To emphasize sound over lexicality does not, ipso facto, move the poem into the realm of hypostasis. For what can be under song? The most obvious answer is: the body; the human voice. To hypostasize the poem is to reify logos, the very charge Theodor Adorno levels at Martin Heidegger, accusing him of trafficking in a “jargon of authenticity” in which “that which is empty becomes an arcanum: the mystery of being permanently in ecstasy over some numinous thing which is preserved in silence.” Moreover, it’s not clear how Taggart’s poetry is negational. Unlike, say, a contemporary such as Michael Palmer, who has made tropes of silence and erasure central to his poetics, Taggart’s poetry is boldly and unequivocally affirmative: cataphatic rather than apophatic. That said, Taggart clearly writes against the grain of semantic transmission in order to break through conventional signifying.
To say that “it is language which speaks, not the author,” as Barthes does (echoing Heidegger), may be merely to shift logos from a theological to an a-theological register, but it’s nevertheless an important move since it frees the spiritual poem from the idol of transcendence and returns it to the material world and the body, to the site of actual, rather than imagined, experience, cognition and struggle. My reading of Taggart is perhaps not significantly different from O’Leary’s and may be no more than a quibble, just another instance in the poetry world of the narcissism of small differences. But if Taggart is a spiritual poet (and he is) his spirituality, as I read it, is messianic — on the way to God, waiting in the hope of a God who may be and who may come, as Richard Kearney puts it. For Kearney, the eschatological God replaces the onto-theological God. The former, he writes, “possibilizes our world from out of the future, from the hoped-for eschaton.” This messianic god is defined by desire rather than presence. “To want to be a saint” is more important than actually being a saint (whatever that may be). Taggart’s posture here calls to mind Tarrou’s eloquent ambition in Camus’s The Plague: “Can one be a saint without God? — that’s the problem, in fact the only problem I’m up against today.” To quest for a God who comes after God, a post-metaphysical God, a weak God whose potential for redemption manifests itself more as possibility than an actuality, is more powerful than a God who merely is, static and inert, absolute and sovereign.
O’Leary’s reading may over-rely on its appeal to hypostasis, but it also goes far beyond that, seeing in Taggart’s work a compelling instance of breath movement drawn from Pseudo-Dionysius’s tract on negative theology, The Divines Names, and Coltrane’s practice of circular breathing, “a technique of playing the saxophone … in which the player maintains a steady impulse of air moving through the horn,” even on the in-breath, so that the horn is continually issuing sound. This kind of circular breathing finds a parallel in the yogic breath cycling practiced by the Eastern Orthodox sect of hesychasts, the most well-known example of which is the Jesus Prayer. The Jesus Prayer, familiar to readers of Salinger’s Franny and Zooey (and indeed, to readers of O’Leary’s own incandescent poetry, which draws from The Philokalia), and elaborated on in the anonymously authored Russian text, The Way of a Pilgrim, derives from Paul’s command to the Thessalonians: “pray without ceasing.” The prayer itself is quite simple: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” As the spiritual advisor of the unnamed narrator explains: “The continuous interior Prayer of Jesus is a constant uninterrupted calling upon the divine Name of Jesus with the lips, in the spirit, in the heart.”
“With the lips.” The practice of prayer may eventually take internal root, but first it must start with the lips, in the body, not the spirit, as an uninterrupted form of speech. It’s spoken, sung, chanted — played.
To go down to raise to go down to raise to go to down the
ladder to go down as taught as dance steps taught by the master
run lines from “Giant Steps,” while in “Peace on Earth” one quatrain follows a similar pattern:
To lift up to go singing
to hold hands with men and women
to sing and hold hands with the children
to go forward as a chorus without burden
What links the Jesus Prayer to Coltrane’s sheets of sound to Taggart’s artful cycle of repetitions is not mystical as such. It is sound waves. “All sounding bodies,” the German physicist Hermann von Helmholtz states, “are in a state of vibration … any series of impulses which produces a vibration of air will, if repeated with sufficient rapidity, generate sound. This sound becomes a musical tone when such rapid impulses recur with perfect regularity and in precisely equal times.” It’s worth noting, in this context, that Helmholtz’s theory of the conservation of energy was the first serious attempt to contest the widely held view that the animating source of muscle tissue was some immaterial spirit. Like the Jesus Prayer, “Giant Steps” cannot occur in the soundless realm of the hypostatic; it is an event of the body and its singular power derives from this.
A poetics of the standing wave is intensely vibratory. It is marked by a devotion to the sound of the poem as it gradually unravels the semantic, sense-making mechanics of language into the semiotic musicality of language’s body, as these lines from Standing Wave attest to:
it is a poem about singing about reasons for singing
reasons one of the reasons for singing
the reason was to light the most quiet light
the reason was to light the light that was radiantia
radiantia that was a singing light in darkness
“Giant Steps,” then, offers something like a poetic model combining the uninterrupted prayer of the hesychasts and Coltrane’s shimmering sheets of sound. Taggart’s use of repetition, his control of cadence, generates Gitler’s “density of texture,” its thickness and complexity, its sense of continuous flow. Such comparisons, of course, only carry so far. As Mark Scroggins reminds us, a poem cannot make words do the work of notes; it cannot produce pitch or the harmony that results from multiple notes simultaneously laid over one another. But like music, it takes place as a singular event in the speaking of it, carrying the power to waken men from nightmare. Taggart’s deep affiliation with Zukofsky anchors his spiritual yearning to a materialist, or immanentist, poetics of sound. Yet while Taggart is not, strictly speaking, a sound poet, ala Kurt Schwitters, he does, as Burt Kimmelman observes, use a staggered syntax of “overlapping waves of clauses … to direct our attention toward the sheer materiality of the words themselves.” Taggart’s emphasis on sound, derived from Zukofsky and Coltrane, is just as motivated by a desire for social justice as it is the sacred. “Giant Steps,” at any rate, is a poem that wants to interrupt the tyranny of homogeneity that is historical consciousness by signaling another mode of relation language.
It may seem perverse to cite Theodor Adorno in this context, for whom jazz was only part of the phantasmagoria of modernity, the lulling background music of the culture industry’s manufacture of a “perennial sameness” in which “fashion enthrones itself as something lasting.” But as J. Bradley Robinson has illuminatingly argued, the reactions to Adorno’s attacks on jazz are based on two misconceptions: “first, that it referred to what we regard today as jazz, and second, that the music it referred to was American.” Adorno’s poor reception of jazz was based on Weimar republic dance hall bands of the 1920s and never really moved beyond that, even after he was exiled in America. This alone is not quite sufficient to counter his hostility toward such an aesthetically vibrant form.
Nevertheless, it’s worth considering some other remarks he made on music since they offer another way to understand Taggart’s jazz poetics. In his beguiling fragment on music and language, Adorno notes that:
Music resembles a language … [but] is not identical with language … anyone who takes it literally will be seriously misled … music resembles language in the sense that it is a temporal sequence of articulated sounds which are more than just sounds. They say something, often something human.
And yet, he advises:
The language of music is quite different from the language of intentionality. It contains a theological dimension. What it has to say is simultaneously revealed and concealed. Its Idea is the divine Name which has been given shape. It is demythologized prayer, rid of efficacious magic. It is the human attempt, doomed as ever, to name the Name, not to communicate meanings.
This naming of the Name as such, a concept Adorno borrows from Benjamin’s early essay “On the Language of Men and Language as Such,” is only an idea of the divine, a yearning gesture made toward an absent, impossible, and necessary grace. As Benjamin notes, “naming is that by which nothing beyond it is communicated, and in which language itself communicates itself absolutely. In naming the mental entity that communicates itself is language.” This naming by which naming names its own condition is semiotic and material. Yet it also leads to or opens up an experience of language that is outside of language; neither nonsense nor mysticism, it is something else altogether.
Taggart’s messianic poetics works the seam between two antithetical positions, forcing us to think the aporia of their relationship, the necessity of reconciling them and the impossibility of doing so. “To want to be a saint … to go down to raise”: this shuttling motion between dream and nightmare, song and history, drives the poem’s urgent momentum toward a resolution that is hoped for rather than achieved. “To raise men from nightmare” with a horn, or a song, is the project still to come, always to come — the continual task of the poem, which takes place in an arena mapped, on the one side, by Adorno’s grim assessment that, “No universal history leads from savagery to humanitarianism, but there is one leading from the slingshot to the megaton bomb,” and the other by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s utopian insistence that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but that it bends toward justice.” For Taggart, writing two decades after Coltrane and well after the crest of the civil rights movement, the challenge of taking giant steps toward peace on earth begins with the small assertions the poem can make. Or as he puts it in “In True Night”:
Of the constant song I keep some of the words
Some of the basic words of the song in the air
To dance lily-flower dance and forget the steps
To sing the song beyond all songs on the radio.
26. If melody must be attended to in a way that asks the poet to think with things, through a devotional process of perception, just how far can we ask it to carry us along? Tracing it on from Pound’s principle of melopoeia, Mark Scroggins points to a fundamental confusion among poets who apply the seductive analogical rhetoric of melody to the spoken word of the poem. Poets have long been fond of mapping musical forms onto the lyric. Bunting claims it began with Spenser. But as Scroggins, a musician himself notes, “melopoeia is not identical to music” (Louis Zukofsky and the Poetry of Knowledge [Tuscaloosa: Alabama University Press, 1998], 172). Because words must entrain themselves, occurring in a poem in discrete time units, “the harmonization of simultaneous notes” available to musical composers, is simply not possible in a poem. Yet this metaphorical connection persists and retains its power because of the potentiality contained within the idea of simultaneity and multiplicity. This yearning of the poem to be transformed into pure music is messianic inasmuch as it interrupts language’s common function of communication.
40. In book 5 of The Enneads, Plotinus explains that the One is comprised of three hypostases, consisting of the self-causing and absolute One itself, the Intellectual Principle, and the Soul. The latter two emanate or radiate from the One. This structure lent itself to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity: that God was Three Persons-in-One. This awkward scheme tries to answer to the gap between the world of embodied experience, where motion and decay exist, and a fetishized Absolute of eternal non-motion. See Plotinus, The Enneads, trans. Stephen MacKenna (New York: Penguin Books, 1991), 359.
43. Richard Kearny, The God Who May Be: A Hermeneutics of Religion (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 2001), 1. Kearney does not go so far as to reject the hypostatic nature of Christ’s divinity. Rather he looks to Merleau-Ponty’s model of the body-subject as “chiasmic crossing-over of visible carnality and invisible transcendence: as double but indivisible … the two natures are in one person (hypostasis)” (135). This seems to me a very willful misreading of Merleau-Ponty.
45. John Caputo explores this idea in The Weakness of God: A Theology of the Event (Indiana University Press, 2006). For Caputo, event theology replaces the theology of the word, which is what I take hypostasis to subscribe to. Building on Derrida’s notion of God as a promise of the still-to-come and on Benjamin’s weak messianic force as an intervention into the past, rather than the future, Caputo articulates a post-metaphysical conception of God that answers to the suffering of history and the other rather than the empty triumphalism of the vindicated spirit.
53. Burt Kimmelman, “Quantum Syntax: John Taggart’s Discrete Serialism,” Flashpoint no. 5 (2002).
56. Robinson provides a thorough examination of how Adorno came to understand jazz as the popular music of fascism. For one thing, Adorno insisted that jazz did not originate with American blacks “in the very lowest rungs of society,” but somehow precipitated downwards from the German upper classes (19). More tellingly, Joseph Lewandowski observes that, contrary to Adorno’s call for art forms that would answer to the failure of modernity and its hopes for utopia through a strict negativity (think Beckett and Celan), “jazz is a promise of happiness that refuses to be broken … jazz is not demythologized prayer but secularized social composition” (“Adorno on Jazz and Society,” Philosophy and Social Criticism 22, no. 5 : 117). Likewise, Nick Nesbitt, in his essay “Deleuze, Adorno, and the Composition of Musical Multiplicity,” in Deleuze and Music, ed. Ian Buchanan and Marcel Swiboda (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004), describes Coltrane’s modal jazz as “music [that] instantiates productive, radically constituent musical subjectivity as a critique of the alienation and violence of what Toni Negri, following Spinoza, calls potestas or ‘constituted Power.’ For Coltrane, this transcendental Power lay not only in the reigning violence of Jim Crow America, but in the sedimented forms of musical expression itself” (71).
That Taggart pursues meditative stamina in words approximating a drone for the verbal field is well known. That he has made sacramental use of the performed word is also acknowledged. There Are Birds does something else, however, even as it again realizes Taggart’s Objectivist scruple.
Gradual variation is characteristic of beauty in the art of the suspended meditative state by which we know Taggart’s poetics, but if beauty be indicated through gradually varied loveliness, There Are Birds is manifestly unlovely in this sense. Exaggerating the difference between line and word, in orchestrated rough and leggy gait, poems in There Are Birds also elect to mess with Taggart’s preferred commonplace type and symbol for a lexical particularity not readily assimilated into smoothness, let alone beauty. Instead, prosodic oddness and lexical particularity here work against the commonplace and undermine the generic type that Taggart does not typically allow, if measured against the writing we have come to expect from him. Rather, this book emphasizes diversity of vocabulary and extremes in line length, in an assemblage eccentric and singular in its linguistic deposit. As for the scoring, most marked is the absence of supersaturation of phrase shifts in incremental steps to establish field dynamics within a drone. In a swerve from the implications of repetition and ready homogeneity, heterogeneity is played out, in linguistic difference not reconciled in equilibrium let alone consistency: and this is striking, given that Taggart usually takes pains to articulate a plane of repetition highly consistent within its terms. For here accidental associations put the spare short sections off-kilter: in the realm of notes, remarks, lines written a few miles above, not Tintern Abbey, but his equivalent to favorite and familiar spots of time.
There Are Birds pays homage to ancestors. Objectivist poets are named directly and acknowledged. As the poem “Grey Scale/Zukofsky” demonstrates, the ancestors are named directly, and within the poem as well, directly acknowledged. Meanwhile the poetic object composed by Taggart jumps around, from attention paid to photographs to the mentions wherein tutelary spirits of the moderns are invoked. Ultimately, the putative object, the gray scale as optical series, surrenders to the grey scale wherein verbal indications embed descriptors and contend with each other in the descriptive/contextual debates concerning language in use. So it is of interest to focus on “Grey Scale/Zukofsky” and the contrastive difference between the visual gray scale and the linguistic grey scale presented in this poem.
The gray scale is a term for the conventional photographer’s card, the tonal standard by which reproductive analogue images may be matched for accuracy in reproduction. Typically, a few uniformly calibrated increments can be said to objectify the continuum of tonal shift from white to black, and so establish a gauge for seeing and printing an image in its particularity. So the gray scale is a visual BASIC, and performs its reductive syntax with alacrity, helpful in controlling for the “semantic” tonal distortion under certain conditions of transmitting visual messages. Grey scale is the same in an alternative English spelling. This, Taggart tells me, is the spelling he prefers, owing to its subjective coloration for him, not to any cultural encryption. But as the choice of the American Taggart, the lexical “grey scale” might well induce a shift to a context of literary rather than visual considerations, or even as a prompt to the linguistic status of color in language philosophy on the other side of the pond.
As against the uniform gamut of visual gray, the grey scale of “Grey Scale/Zukofsky” arrays itself in sentences, so that each of the initial three sections of this spare poem announces a differing order of gray: “whiteness”; “silver maple”; “middle grey.” Incommensurate here are the ideas to which the words refer: “whiteness,” as from an order of being, “silver maple” as referring to a tree known through several common names and a scientific one, and “middle grey,” a general condition of the average. None of these are facts. Although by no means systematically driven, the poem is highly deliberate in indicating that difference is of a conceptual heft for which strata cannot be reconciled or comprehended.
The fourth section begins with “Three tones + other tones,” a pun on sound and sight attuned to the visible to the scale of snow: “glaring” in full light, “in full shade,” and “no snow.” These together form a spectrum of sorts, through which to refer to a rough gamut of light to dark (with the third term, however, incommensurate, and pertaining to another scale: full to empty). A resourceful poet, Taggart finds a way of inducing a spectrum without naming “snow in full shade” by calling it “gray,” which would have language prompt the picture’s academic convention prior to the Impressionist way of seeing the world firsthand. Even so, we are reading about snow as a literary experience: knowledge by description occurs in the very act of describing weather in some language. (The verbal condition we ascribe to experience informs this poem: teasing out knowledge as conventional through language that makes us describe snow gray in shade when it is not, as later Wittgenstein, in his lecture notes compiled in Remarks on Colour, indicates.) Other tones are added to these three tones, through sentences that mention a cat, a dolphin’s shadow, and Bach, where visual and aural experiences could be said to compound the “logical” spectrum with contingent scales of all sorts.
In the following section, the mention of Pound specifies an image of him as fixed through the photograph taken by Richard Avedon in 1958 — this a fact, but a fact subsumed now as souvenir, by way of a postcard serving as a bookmark. Souvenir in its calibrations here comprises “three tones + other tones + two tones.” Approaches vary from section to section, to interpolate factual, cognitive, and affective present recollections in the spectrum. All eleven short spare sections issue in linguistic deposits from particular to general, collected from differing linguistic and literary strata. Overall, the range Taggart generates is deliberate yet also unsystematic, not fixed, fluidly a sequence improvised for this purpose: and it opens onto the possibilities wherein any number of other grays would satisfy the concept. Photographs of Pound, a postcard of Williams, and then of Zukofsky, are mentioned, scanned or scrutinized — this last dwelt on.
Louis Zukofsky by Ralph Eugene Meatyard, 1968.
Identifying Zukofsky might well range over the following descriptive possibilities: Objectivist poet, author of A, guy in Ralph Eugene Meatyard’s photograph. Not all so singular as to fix an identity, nonetheless these descriptions stand in for Zukofsky. Section 8 introduces the poet:
And so I come
to the one/only photograph on my wall
and I am not one of those travelers a willful one or merely a stubborn one
still stubborn still
home to Ralph Eugene Meatyard’s 1968 photograph of Zukofsky
on my wall.
Shades — as in of the deceased. Represented through their linguistic signatures are shades of Stein, as well as the shadow of Creeley’s Oppen, wherein lines by Taggart recall Creeley’s serial syntax ceding to Steinian predicates in parallel. Not to mention echoes of Zukofsky’s Shakespeare: “Come shadow come.” And while we’re at it, shades of Charles Ives whose music often ended with the ringing silence in the aftermath of a din. (Or think of Albert Ayler’s hymnal purge.) As in most of his poetry, Taggart adheres to common vocabulary neutral enough to pass for plain speech in commonplaces that shun the “gaudy” (says Wordsworth) poetical for the dull, all the better to demonstrate what can “be brought to light” in the clustering and sequencing of tones. How illumination comes and goes through neutral diction is central to Taggart’s poetics.
Referring to a specific image of Zukofsky presents itself as a fact, with Taggart’s own knowledge of those generative circumstances unavailable. The reader may have knowledge concerning the empirical evidence, through familiarity with Zukofsky’s poetry, but not with the photography of Meatyard, or the other way around — or of neither. Does it matter? Certain post-analytical philosophies would argue that the point of the way language works is not to prompt a comparison between empiricism, logic, and grammar and to find grammar a deficient empiricism or inadequate logic but to take sentences as their own object. So from this point of view, the verifiable status of information and reference in the poem is irrelevant, except insofar as it represents an informational sentence as such. Even so, to the Objectivist Taggart, precision in reference does matter; approximating the reference is not an option for the writer of this sentence, for beyond the contrastive linguistic status of specific to general statements whereby differing linguistic orders are thrown into relief, indeterminacy of language in its range of contents also requires a vigilant attention to differing sorts of things. So, with the contextual framing allowed us through Taggart’s affiliation with Objectivism, it may be important to note that the grey scale of sense for the Objectivist must include a semantic concreteness that could be investigated and checked, even though the nature of language is such that it does not promise to picture anything named.
In the next section of “Grey Scale/Zukofsky,” a descriptive physiognomy of the poet does appear, but split from previous section’s mention of the name, for here appears no proper name, at any rate. The verbal description of a face that constitutes this passage is characteristic, plausible, and yet no resemblance that could not also derive from a number of other images of distributed darks and lights. So that date of 1968 mentioned in the previous section serves to limit that which floats an indeterminate range of physiognomic Zukofsky.
But as a photographic medium mediates Zukofsky’s identity and further complicates the discussion, we wonder how knowledge of Meatyard’s practice affects the reading of visual gray scale deployed as verbal grey scale. In his experimental photographic practice, Meatyard, an optician by trade, let the technique deviate from the optical clear and distinct norm, by exaggerating light/dark extremes or obscuring figure/ground relations, and otherwise interposing indistinctness between the human subject and the camera, both to give privilege to the medium and to make composition the priority. To this end, the figure was a prop, an element with compositional potential, a subordinate, not a dominant, subject. Meanwhile, along with these stylistic devices were exploited the blur of moving subjects, and, along with montage, Meatyard’s style derived formalist invention from surrealistic yet also abstract-expressionist tendencies toward chance or indeterminate outcomes. And so his images of Louis and Celia Zukofsky, to be incorporated in a special issue of Maps, the journal edited by Taggart, range over obscure to clear-and-distinct optical knowledge; in some, rendered indistinctly even as Meatyard has increased the contrast, the background is glaringly light and obscurely dark, while the human profile is dark and dim. Black and white photography is evidently being used to undermine portraiture in the conventional sense. The particular image referred to by Taggart, however, issues from the same batch of photographs but is one unpublished and retained for his own home. This image from Taggart’s private collection happens to be in extremely sharp focus. So knowing only that Meatyard’s photography induces tones to be measured against a gray scale as all black-and-white photography does provides mere given knowledge, but knowing the contextual field of inquiry through which a given scale becomes a singular tonal compositional style helps to fix style and cultural rhetoric, especially considering that the nature of his formalist experimentation (downplayed in Taggart’s verbal rendering) ups the ante on the image through the garbling of likeness. Furthermore, to say now that Meatyard’s Zukofsky undermines likeness in producing indistinctness is only one way of putting it; another way would be that all exposures are clear and distinct points allowed for by the apparatus of the camera, and manipulating the exposure and focal length is as decisive at one position as at another.
For the test of visual gray, the lexical test of grey creates a poetic object of considerable interest. For the sake of comparison, consider other poets’ use of the poetic object written to display the category of one color. As noted by Keats, in his “Written in Answer to a Sonnet Ending Thus:” in which the concept of blue or blueness not exhaustively calibrated but suggestively evoked in singular and singularly elusive hues, blue becomes a variegated name. No wonder that Oscar Wilde loved this poem and lectured on it when visiting American positivist soil, treating the naturalists to an antidote of protosymbolist spectral chromaticism. Closer to our contemporary moment, for some of us the gray-scale card becomes a prompt for thinking about linguistic versus empirical or logical orders. If one were to consider that tone, scale, and modes locate subjective mentality; and were one to find these transposed to the condition of the individual in society, as does Norma Cole, one would find the essay hospitable for accommodating the particular individuality of others. Ruminating on the poetry of Robin Blaser, Cole writes that “In ‘The Medium’ the relationship between its musicality and the tempering of others’ scales, as well as the narrative of the timing, is perceptible here in or as ‘a darkness,’ a rhythm reflecting its ‘reluctance.’” Then not just modulating the category as concept but articulating singularly inflected subject positions other than oneself becomes a test of the grey scale as a standard given term of coexistence.
But to the point. Indeterminacy for a man who went by the designation L. W. did consider the logical positivist view that language is not logic, and extended this to mean that grammar is not an inadequate state of affairs with which we make do until we grasp the reality of some underlying concept. Rather as it had been established in the pragmatic scheme of things, grammar accommodates a congeries of differing descriptions and interpretations with a syntactic ingenuity that enlists different orders for the words in use. So, the title of Taggart’s poem, as being set apart, establishes the “key” in which a (as well as key to which) grey as a category is not neutral: but through specificity, through clustered indications that establish semantic relations, and through the contextual cultural knowledge that any word — let alone Taggart’s “Zukofsky” — presupposes, the greys to be found in linguistic use in the poem strongly indicate the subjectivity, not objectivity, of practiced linguistic terms and their pragmatic zones. Drawing upon the experience of his own knowledge and immediate habitat, John Taggart has composed “Grey Scale/Zukofsky,” a poetic object that constructs not a holism but an all of another sort: an assemblage of greys construed as tones from the strata of possible descriptions — that much richer for being measured against a sequence of fixed positions.
In Pastorelles, John Taggart built an imaginary woodland garden for his poetry from features of the actual landscape around his house outside of Newburg, Pennsylvania. He made the imaginary landscape into a field of activity and information where he speculated about music, art, and poetry as song. The whole volume makes up a long serial poem of diverse meditations on the processes of poetry. The poems in There Are Birds expand the poetic territories surveyed in Pastorelles. The woodland garden, intertextual and external references from the previous volumes, mainly Peace on Earth and Loop, and ideas of the serial poem expand into a book-length serial structure composed of poems which are themselves serial poems. There Are Birds is an extended, carefully designed volume which supports an endless meditation on the garden, “song,” “visualization of white of whiteness,” figures and avatars of the poet, and the muse of the poem. The series of poems enacts a poetics of vision and composition that Taggart has been unfolding since the poems of Loop — with Peace on Earth as guide — through the poems of Pastorelles.
In a review of Stravinsky’s The Poetics of Music, Robert Duncan wrote:
Poetics is the contemplation of the meaning of form: it is what is common to painting, music, sculpture and poetry. Poiein, Stravinsky reminds us, means to make.
The poems of There Are Birds contain references to all kinds of subjects — other poems, events of history, problems of aesthetics and philosophy, music of various kinds, literature, works of art — but the references do not constitute a poetics. The often-cited phrase “the subject matter of poetry” does not define a poetics, but does give indications of a reference system for a poem. An impulse to articulation comes before the references, so the ways the references inform and so enforce the form of the poem contribute to a poetics. As Charles Olson wrote in Call Me Ishmael, “what lies under,” what is underneath the language structure of the poem that moves it toward statement and literary form, makes a poetics. A poetics also contains the rudiments of structures like metrics, cadences, stanzas, rhyme patterns, line lengths, capitalization, and units of composition. In There Are Birds Taggart draws out the enactment of form through a variety of information and points of structure. He is working out a poetics built on serial form, so the information under the poems, or in the ambience of the poems, needs to be brought forward to discuss the processes of visionary poetics the poems enact.
Views inside the Rothko Chapel.
Taggart has compounded and refined his concept of serial form since Peace on Earth and the poems in Loop, mainly“The Rothko Chapel Poem” and “Not Quite Parallel Lines.” “The Rothko Chapel Poem” combines meditation on Mark Rothko’s paintings with frequent repetitions of phrases and colors of the paintings as the poems move to comprehend the spiritual presences in the paintings. “Not Quite Parallel Lines” combines repetition as an inherent structural principle with meditations on conceits of parallelism. Complex intertextual and external references made it possible to sustain a series of meditations without the luxury of a sustaining narrative or a linear plot built on cause and effect relationships. In Remaining in Light: Ant Meditations on a Painting by Edward Hopper Taggart developed the use of “Supplements,” layers of reference used to analyze a single painting by Hopper, which he found in Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology, to expand the possible readings of the painting. Taggartreads Edward Hopper’s painting “A Woman in the Sun” against four sets of “Supplements,” surrounding texts by Jacques Derrida, Meister Eckhart, Edmond Jabès, Simone Weil, and others; when each set has been discussed against the painting, the possible meanings of the painting accumulate and intensify. He adds:
This is an argument for the accuracy or applicability of the moebius strip as a model for reading and criticism. The strip is made up of a presumed primary text to which are added, interwoven, braided other texts which are called supplements.
Changing the context of reading changes the possibilities for reading. The reading “constantly increases in complexity.” Taggart adds, “The act of reading is akin to the ceaseless motion of an ant on a moebius strip.” But in Pastorelles Taggart changes the terms of his field of poetry from information to geography (without forgetting the information) and proposes a freedom of imaginative activity. As he moved through the poems of Pastorelles and then There Are Birds, he modified the “presumed primary text” into a multiplicity of themes and images which compose the environment or the ambience of the poem. While the concept of the serial poem has been expanded and made more inclusive, some parts of its form have remained unchanged. An individual poem can be considered a fragment, grammatical or conceptual. The individual poems are parts of the whole poem, but individually or collectively they are not necessarily obligated to the unity of a beginning, a middle, and an end. There is no continuous plot or sustained narrative in which the parts are held together in causal relationships. The beginning of the series does not preordain its conclusion, so it begins as an open system without a prescribed termination. The serial poem becomes a series open to endless variation, or rehearsals of thought and perception. The poems enact in the contemplation of the emergence of form in language the unending processes of thinking and seeing, precluding, therefore, a final, teleological account.
“Unveiling/Marianne Moore” is the long and dominating poem of There Are Birds. Two poems precede it — “Refrains for Robert Quine” and “Grey Scale/Zukofsky” — which contain some of the points of meditation that will appear throughout the volume. First among these: “There are birds there is birdsong” (1). There are formulations from previous volumes — the “extraction of a new song from what is in memory” and “the object is a song.” For Taggart, “song” is the clear articulation of the presence of a spiritual force which usually appears in a natural setting. “Songs mean / freshness / that meaning so sweetly and freely as a gardener weaves flowers in her hair” (Birds, 2). He also refers to songs by many singers and composers, all of whom exemplify his sense of the power of words to contain a spiritual presence. “Refrains” begins with a reference to an earlier poem, “Head in hands in tears,” which is expanded into:
And goes is gone
cause for mourning head
in hands in tears gonna be a long wait for the resurrection
of the dead. (Birds, 1)
Crying with head in hands will not bring resurrection of the dead, and in contrast to that proposal the birdsongs, and the garden, “jardin de plaisir” (1), offer alternatives of freshness, beauty, and meditation. There is a submerged reference here. In section 43 of the poem “Unveiling/Marianne Moore,” Taggart quotes from William Carlos Williams’s essay “Marianne Moore,” first published in 1932: “white ‘of a clarity beyond / the facts’” (43). The essay praises Moore for integrity of her process of seeing and writing, especially “where pure craftsmanship joins hard surfaces skillfully,” but it also mentions her garden and her concept of “white”; the essay on Moore’s poetics introduces her as a central feature of the ambience of the whole book of poems. In that same essay Williams writes: “It is the mystical, indestructible garden of pleasure, perhaps greatly pressed for space today, but there and intact, nevertheless”. In Pastorelles, Taggart built his personal garden made out of the walls of a mill along an old millrace near his house, but in There Are Birds the actual garden is transformed into a “jardin de plaisir” complete with “a gardener la belle jardinière” (1), who is the volume’s first appearance of a female or muse figure, and who becomes an object of speculation and exploration. Right at the start, Taggart expands his personal garden into an idea of a garden of pleasure, and a female gardener with a link to Marianne Moore, and proposes it as the counter to
a time of hunger and danger of young men and older men
in tears our time a time
of terror and counterterror (2)
The poem’s fourth section tries to move beyond bad times with the idea that hurt is a very destructive part of being human:
hurt breaks you up like dolls get broken the visible human
the visibly spastic plastic. (3)
Lines from Wallace Stevens’s “Le Monocle de Mon Oncle” come through here:
If sex were all, then every trembling hand
Could make us squeak, like dolls, the wished-for words.
The equivocation of hurt and sex draws Stevens into the ambience of the poem. His voice will intrude in later poems. In stopping the poem, Taggart returns to an earlier poem from Pastorelles:
this is an action movie in a woods a man and a woman
in a woods walking and enchanting sonata or song
in a woods. (90)
This garden is well-designed and cared for, “dream designed”:
where men and women are in contemplation in conversation in
one another’s eyes
there is a gardener holding her bouquets and holding her skirts like the light like
so sweetly woven song like love never for sale. (Birds, 3)
This poem of four refrains, or four meditations on Robert Quine, stops its serial movement with an assertion of the place of the garden as an imaginary place, a territory of poetic thinking where love flourishes watched over by a female gardener. In its progress, the poem has introduced the compelling themes of the book — song, the muse, the garden — and indicated that an ambience exists around the poem that appears from time to time in acknowledged or unacknowledged references.
The second poem of There Are Birds, “Grey Scale/Zukofsky,” an eleven-section rumination on William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, and Louis Zukofsky, photography, and other matters, adds crucial elements in the spreading out of the elaborate form of the volume. The first section contains the lines “visualization of white of whiteness / which is impossible” (4). This is the first reference to “white” in the volume. Williams’s essay on Moore was an inherent part of the first poem’s ambience, and although the essay is quoted in sections 43 and 46 of “Unveiling/Marianne Moore,” the introduction of “white” leads to a series of references to white and clarity and an associative link with Moore. Here the poem asserts that it is impossible to create a material image of white, the perception of spiritual presence, but it is nonetheless the obligation of this poem and the ones to follow to try to find a visual image: the effort toward clarity and articulation permeates all the themes of the collection. Williams’s essay is referred to but not cited here, but Williams reappears in section 7. The lines “Williams / said the only human value = intense” (8) are quoted from Williams’s poem “The Descent of Winter”: “The only human value of anything, writing included, is intense vision of the facts, add to that by saying the truth and action upon them, — clear into the machine of absurdity to a core that is covered.”
Louis Zukofsky by Ralph Eugene Meatyard, 1968.
The third section quotes from Pound’s “Canto LXXIV,” and so brings wind and rain into the process of clearing the ground for Taggart’s own woodland garden, “bow saw to cut down weedy box elders” (5). Section 4 insists on “Three tones + two tones” (6): these three tones — “Melopoeia, Phanopoeia, and Logopoeia” — are part of the foundation of Pound’s poetics, and Taggart brings the ideas in here as part of the process of deriving his own poetics toward elucidating the “white.” White is one of the other two tones, and dark or black is the other: “a or the or neither and darker than / dark” (Birds, 5). That is, neither Zukofsky’s “A” nor The now supports Taggart’s current poetics, and the same statement repeats for emphasis at the end of section 11. This is a major shift in Taggart’s views about his antecedents. The darkness of Zukofsky’s effort contrasts with “white it’s a white world” (Birds, 6) in the garden, and natural appearances, “white with delicate textures” (6). The grey scale of the poem’s title comes in with photographs: Richard Avedon’s of Pound, one of Ralph Eugene Meatyard’s hung on Taggart’s wall (and on the cover of this book), and those of three famous American photographers — Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, and Alfred Stieglitz. Taggart brings back another major theme, “only song matters” (10); song, as section 11 states it, “Call it a cadenza / some traveling music / off the scale” (11), and the presence of white are inherent in the garden, not merely part of photographic or literary contention. “Cadenza” appears later as the title of the final sequence in this volume. The intertextual and external references appear and reappear in the poems and their accumulated meaning in different contexts builds the ambient environment surrounding each poem and the entire volume. In addition, the ambience replaces the reliance on a logical narrative structure. After the first two poems the serial structure has been initiated and the major themes set in motion.
“Unveiling/Marianne Moore” sustains itself as a contemplative, serial poem in eighty-nine numbered sections with repetitions of theme and image and no linear plot or narrative. Each section is a meditation which relates to the whole poem first by the process of meditation and second by recurring themes. The insertion of information into the poem amplifies the poem’s frame of reference with associative and metaphoric links. The central mission and process of the poem is the attempt to find an image, a metaphoric representation, a usable avatar, or a direct statement of the “visualization of white of whiteness / which is impossible” (4), as “Grey Scale/Zukofsky” puts it. The poem attempts to reveal the meaning of objects and ideas by discarding, undressing, unveiling them, by deconstructing them. The tearing apart of the veil of the Temple at the time of Christ’s death as told in Matthew 27:51 removed the barrier between the Holy presence and the ordinary believer. In like manner the “unveiling” of Marianne Moore should remove any barrier around Moore so that she can stand forth as the uncontested presence of white. If “white” contains the perception of a spiritual presence and “song” means the unveiling of the perception, then the larger exploration seeks to penetrate and uncover the formative processes of poetry.
The poem begins its meditative course in Taggart’s woodland garden with mention of a “skinny tree,” “Acer tegmentosum,” “snake-barked maple” (12). The story of the tree’s classification and its significance lies under the entire poem:
its story what’s under
her story what’s crimson what’s white
From the understory, the poem then moves out into the valley, “the / space between north and south mountain” (13) which includes Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where Marianne Moore grew up at “343 North Hanover” (14). “Her story” (13), including the environment of the whole valley, operates as the field of imaginative action for the poem, and Moore becomes part of that territorial action because she lived there, was part of the surroundings: “local girl grew / up around here in this valley”:
the environment this valley between two blue mountains
the environment house in a row of houses a church continuous operation
what’s around here (45)
In enlarging the meditative discussion of her story, and his story, Taggart brings in a series of botanists and naturalists he calls “nature boys,” in recurring discussions of naming and classification, which then leads off to discussions of metaphor and grammar, and still engages the expanding frame of reference with recurring discussions of snakes and trees. Taggart also brings in a series of detectives to match the naturalists, along with female figures, including Marianne Moore and others from the volume’s first poem: Indian maidens, avatars, and nymphs of the muse of poetry. The poem continues with themes of whiteness and “naked truth.”
In “Refrains for Robert Quine,” Taggart refers, obliquely no doubt, to Williams’s “Marianne Moore.” In “Unveiling/Marianne Moore,” he quotes the essay directly, and it now combines with the story of the tree as a compelling mission of this poem. Williams’s line “It is the white of a clarity beyond the facts” becomes
white “of a clarity beyond
the facts” (Birds, 43)
as shadows bring out the clarity of
the clarity of white (45)
a most profound although not the only motive white as clarity after
the facts this is the modern motive (61)
Marianne Moore was born in Kirkwood, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis; sections 2–4 begin Moore’s story and describe the house at “343 North Hanover” in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. She comes into the poem because “Surroundings answer questions” (14). Moore’s talk of her early life appears in section 12 (21–22), as do her letters to Bryher and Elizabeth Bishop — “Her story in her own words” (21); “a mysterious constant perseverance” (66). References to Moore’s translations of La Fontaine appear in sections 14–15 (22–23) and then again with the fable of “The Mouse Metamorphosed into a Man” in sections 59–64, where the fable presents a problem for the poem’s quest, especially when:
there’s a problem with the fable with that fast
old black magic that now you see/now you don’t magic a problem
with not seeing after the magic (54)
Especially, that is, when lines from Harold Arlen’s song “That Old Black Magic,” “That old black magic has me in its spell / That old black magic that you weave so well,” enlarge the ambient meaning of the connections between popular and church music. After the prose passage in section 19 about reading, concentration, and the awareness of “the interior self” (Birds, 25), which Taggart has identified as from Anne Carson, Eros the Bittersweet (90), more of Moore’s story comes into the poem. She learns how to hum her own tunes when the hymns are played in church:
how to think for herself/all by herself an individual she self
how to hum along and be thinking about the classics the news that stays news
about the news of an animal fable the human
animal news (26)
This practice is like humming a popular tune in another language, “une jeune fillette,” or listening to the hymn “Teach me, my God and King” and humming Dinah Washington’s version of her song “Teach Me Tonight” or listening to hymn “In all things thee I see” and humming the Flamingos version of “I Only Have Eyes For You” (Birds, 27). The passage from reading into “individual personality” in Carson’s statement then leads to a picture by Picabia of a nude woman “on her side reading / on a red blanket” (28) and then the point that:
a sound coming from the interior
of the body as the sound of a violin comes from the interior/the
andantino cantabile. (29)
The movement to relate music and the process of poetry proceeds forward slowly, a process, section 27 says, one “Gradually learns=one day at a time” (29). Section 77 contains “some deductions” (61) about the choices Moore made in her life (61–64), including the assurance in a line from the W. C. Handy song “St. Louis Blues”: “St Louis woman with her diamond ring,” that she “wasn’t a St. Louis woman with her diamond ring,” that she wasn’t a lady from “a bordello” (61). References to white skin, “white body” (48), and “freckled bosom” (66) appear throughout the poem. In section 54 the reference to “a white body” is amplified in the following lines, “going through and through you causing you to / tremble” (48) to the African-American spiritual “Were You There,” also known as “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord,” in the line “Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.” Meditations on white, the perception of an active spirituality, appear and reappear about her; and she is associated with the search for the female muse, the nymph within the tree that likewise appears throughout the series of poems. She is a figure in the geography and mediations of the poem, but the “nature boys” are also part of the field of mediation.
The mission of the “nature boys” in section 50 is also the impetus of the entire poem:
the motive of nature boys however shadowed by rejection by failure and flight
their motive the desire motive
desire to penetrate the no less profound need to penetrate
all that is veiled. (47)
The poem discusses naming and classifying on a practical and a theoretical level. In the poem’s epigraphy the citation of Hsieh Ho’s “Six Principles,”which has the subtitle “Classified Record of Painters of Former Times,” places the idea of classification, established here in the sixth century, inside the ambience of the poem, and then predates the first mention of “Acer tegmentosum” which gives a specific example of modern classification by one of the nature boys. “Acer tegmentosum,” is a name produced from Carl Linnaeus’s binomial nomenclature, or in common language, “snake-barked maple” (12), which could be understood as a process of making a metaphor, by combining features of two objects, and in the combination revealing, or unveiling, a third factor. The discussion of naming and grammar turns back to a discussion of a “spiritual process.” This discussion occupies sections 5–7, and instigates a series of images about snakes: William Bartram was “stopped by a rattlesnake” (17) “another snaked-barked maple” (30), and the poem acknowledges that “there are snakes and snakes around here” (34) in the valley. The process of naming and classifying becomes part of the understory of the poem, and then in places leads to a consideration of grammar as in the “combination of noun and adjective” (15) because “naming and classifying” is also a process of “bringing things into relations with other things” (16). In other cases, classifying leads to a consideration of “metonymy, identification / of the whole body by a part of the body” (37). Even with quotations from Walter J. Ong’s book The Presence of the Word in section 36 supporting the idea that sound is a visceral response of the whole body, Marianne Moore “wouldn’t be commanded” (38) to hold this view of sound and metonymy. In still other cases classification brings in the term “naked name” (48), and later talking about one thing in terms of another comes up as a false way of dealing with a fable that does not tell the truth of nature. Talking in metaphors veils not unveils an object or idea by creating another frame of reference around it, so the course of the poem’s reliance on metaphor to express the white presence fades and is replaced by the direct, “undressed” naming. Presumably quoting Leonardo the poet/speaker realizes “metaphors may no longer be useful” (55).
William Bartram is also mentioned as a nature boy whose system of classification “helped people to understand the orders of the natural world”:
one of the rules
apparently saying one and another=the same
which gets your attention which
is another rule
as a snake gets your attention (17)
The poem notes, “he found Franklinia alatamaha / the Franklin tree” with “small white flowers gold dazzled centers never to be found in the wild again” (46). The poem gives the assurance that methods of classification result in “a system an effort to tell the truth” (16). From its initial lines, the poem establishes classification as a means of comprehension and here both the process of classification and the place of China in the views of the botanists get emphasized by the work of Tao-chi (or Shi Tao, 1642–1707) in categorizing Chinese arts into “the northern and the southern” (17). Another botanist the French missionary to China Jean Pierre Armand David, found “the dove tree Davidia involucrata” (30), which is named after him. The poem also introduces Asa Gray (1810–1888), another American botanist who argued for a distinction between native plants and those introduced from outside a territory, while Taggart argues (with a gardener’s voice in the poem) that “native is what grows where it’s planted however it was planted” (34). The poem quotes directly from Ernest Henry Wilson’s A Naturalist in Western China with Vasculum, Camera, and Gun:
Wilson somewhere in western China
a storm brewing and the light rapidly failing impossible
to take a photograph
“though no photograph … would give an adequate idea of the grandeur of
the … scene” (70)
These naturalists are all admirable men “in their pursuit motivated / by white,” “in their pursuit of identification of understanding of new / life/living forms” (71). Graham Stuart Thomas, the English horticulturalist called by the poem “the world’s greatest gardener” (56), is quoted directly from his book Trees in the Landscape:
It is not until one has watched natural growth year by year that
one begins to understand
the meaning of patience and all the good it brings. If we learn
this we shall find ourselves
looking with equanimity on the apparent slowness of trees. (56, quoting Trees, 73)
Naturalists strove to tell the truth about nature, while detectives are obligated to find the truth in criminal investigations. When the story of the poet/speaker enters the poem, he is a botanist, a namer, and a detective:
bringing oneself to the tree
oneself/myself to her and a mystery
oneself/myself a detective in a mystery story (21)
Now and then the poet/speaker appears as “I,” but not as an egotistical intrusion. “I” is a participant in the field of action he is describing, like any attentive student of Charles Olson and Claude Levi-Strauss. He tells the stories about learning to read other books, at times comic books, during the sermons in church and to hum other songs while hymns are being sung. That is Taggart’s story, although in sections 21–25 the poem attributes the experiences to Marianne Moore. His mission is direct enough in section 11. He behaves like a detective:
asks questions was she the pale pale blond with anemia of some not-fatal but
incurable type was she in the know about snakes. (21)
Even as “the junior detective accidental nature boy having / bad eyes and less than wise” (42), he must assume the roles of characters in the poem, confront the tree as a metaphoric entity leading to the female spirit of the environment and in the poem personified by Marianne Moore, and then penetrate the mystery to the clarity of white. By the end of the poem, the poet/speaker mocks his own participation: “what could be more ridiculous / than exploring one’s own woods the prosaic the familiar” (71).
The poem returns to the woodland garden, with the idea that going deeper into it is the same as penetrating “memory” (69), but the poet/speaker acknowledges that being “without a nymph” would lead to tears of loneliness. The poem asserts with confidence:
nymph with/within the tree not
end or final aim
not the end of my story but an effort to tell the truth of what’s
further/beyond far into the woods. (69–70)
His original mission changes from finding the female spirit to finding the natural appearance of the holy presence deep in the physical and psychic woods in the environment of the valley. Solving other mysteries remains the work of serious detectives in the poem.
“Bill Slider the detective / inspector” (36) was created by Cynthia Harrold-Eagles, while Jules Maigret “on a case in Holland” (36) was created by George Simenon, and his cases leads off to a discussion of “Metonymy” and Linnaeus’s classification system (37). Grammar is as much a part of these investigations as it was for the naturalists. Inspector Chen Cao, Chief Inspector Chen of the Shanghai Police Bureau in the detective novels of Qix Xiaolong, and Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe round out the reference series. T. S. Eliot appears in the poem as a detective looking for the “white” center of vision, as he did in the strenuous spiritual investigations of “Four Quartets”:
An investigation = following the tracks the lipstick traces
link = white and T. S. Eliot. (49)
But here a line from a song that Nat King Cole sang, “These Foolish Things Remind Me of You,” “A cigarette that bears a lipstick’s traces,” makes a foolish, or ironic, link between the song and the detective work of the poem. Even the popular television program, “Dragnet,”starring Jack Webb comes into the poem: “Just the facts, mam” (38), and “… only the names have been changed to protect the innocent” (39). At points like this — and there are others — Taggart looks like a small boy at the edge of a Hogarth painting who is rolling a hoop or otherwise seeming not to care at all about the other people in a polite and proper painting.
Marianne Moore and Emily Dickinson have already appeared as examples of the female muse, but older stories, like those told by Ovid in The Metamorphoses and Heroides of Daphne’s metamorphosis into a laurel tree and how an almond tree at Phyllis’s burial site blooms when her husband, Demophon, returns from war, amplify the figure. The female figure appears in a painting by Rousseau — “La Charmeuse de serpents,” “The Snake Charmer” — with “a snake in her hair and hanging down over her shoulders” (43); in “Nude,” a painting by Francis Picabia in section 26 “to illustrate this gradual picture of reading” (28–9); and in a painting by Magritte, “La Connaissance naturelle”(44). Marilyn Monroe was “too blond too late / to be a nymph” (60). “A single/singular nymph with/within” (69) is a recurrent theme. John Bartram observed “Indian nymphs” (46), and his observation leads to a discussion of Marianne Moore and Emily Dickinson, who chose “to become not wives but nymphs those / who live with/within / trees” (47). Bartram’s son the naturalist William Bartram subsequently observes a group of “Cherokee virgins” which he calls “a gay assembly of hamadryades” (59). A definition follows in section 73:
Hama = with drus
a hamadryad a nymph living with/within a tree. (60)
Despite the attention given to the subject, the poem announces that the nymph and her avatars are not the main concern of the explorations — “nymph with/within the tree not / end or final aim” (69) — in the return to the natural setting of the woodland garden. The poet as detective goes back to investigate.
Like the repetitive appearance of nature boys, snakes, detectives, Marianne Moore’s story, and nymphs, references to white go out from and return to the passage from Williams’s essay on Moore:
white “of a clarity beyond
the facts” (43)
In the poem, white becomes spirituality, “White / the motive” (46) the perception of spirit in the natural surroundings: “shadows bring out the clarity of / the clarity of white” (45). References to white are associated with Moore — “the object it / could be a white body” (48) — and Dickinson’s poem #411 on “white election” (45) and poem #271 on “Over the fence,” “berries are nice” (55). Perceiving white is part of the process of “unveiling” to find the naked truth — “The truth is naked” (20) freed from metaphor with a clarity of its own. The motive toward white drives the necessity of the poem: “desire to penetrate the no less profound need to penetrate / all that is veiled” (47). In sections 51–54 the poem quotes Simone Weil’s instructions about attention and desire, and the need to penetrate to a center as spiritual obligation. “[A]ttention animated by desire is the whole foundation” (47) or the motive is “to receive in its naked truth the / object that / is to penetrate it” (48). And in an earlier section Tao-chi’s classified discussions of Chinese painting lead to the announcement: “Tao-chi said vision should/must be penetrating” (25). Chinese painting joins the commands to penetrate and also concurs with Williams’s essay on Marianne Moore. Williams wrote: “The difficult thing to realize is that the thrust must go through to the white, at least somewhere,” which comes through in Taggart’s poem as “the difficult/the thrust that must go through to the white” (48). Williams’s “thrust” joins Weil’s instructions “to penetrate” the spiritual imperative of the entire poem, the entire volume of poems. Achieving the original desire for the “visualization of white” (4) was “impossible”:
a most profound although not the only motive white as clarity after
the facts this is the modern motive
a profound need to be addressed without a dress (61)
And here the poem demands the statement of clarity “without a dress,” with neither a metaphor, nor corroborating fable or story, the thing itself without a dressing up in modifications.
Section 82 includes a quotation from an essay by Kierkegaard (identified along with references to Simone Weil by Taggart in “A Note and Acknowledgements” ) on unhappy childhood experiences and spirituality. Happy childhoods don’t lead to the spiritual life, “but the unhappy childhood and youth of the exceptions are transformed into spirit” (67). An unhappy childhood overcomes the resistance to happiness, and allows spiritual peace to emerge. The progress goes on to section 83, where a reminder of “spirit of place”
Into spirit a
spirit of the place what’s around here a spirit
of romance a nymph (67)
comes back into the series. Section 84 brings in qualifications for the nymph: she can be “but not finally/at last a siren” (67), and as section 85 states, “Neither the eiresione nor the daphnephoria” (67), the Greek rituals both involving olive branches from section 1 (12), now have immediate importance. She is not the “Raylettes” (68) — Ray Charles’s female backing singers — “but no siren not one of Bessie’s girls not one of Tullio Lombardo’s girls” (68), i.e. not prostitutes. After the process of negating possible visions of the nymph, the multiple versions of the female spirit transformed by renderings of Dickinson and Moore, section 87 rehearses or collects parts of the serial meditation as a way of penetrating the persistent questions of spirituality in the poem. Bartram’s description of “an assembly of gay hamadryads” (68) leads to the second quotation from Graham Stuart Thomas’s book Trees in the Landscape:“single trees and small clumps should lead to greater clumps and to the spinneys and woods.” In the poem this becomes:
“single trees … should lead to
the spinneys and woods”
a single tree
a single/singular nymph with/within. (69)
The poet/speaker acknowledges that being “without a nymph” would lead to tears of loneliness, but the poem asserts with confidence:
nymph with/within the tree not
end or final aim
not the end of my story but an effort to tell the truth of what’s
further/beyond far into the woods. (69–70)
With this rejection and the third rejection of “Zhiliao” (67, 68, 70), a Chinese way of understanding, section 87 functions as a preliminary meditation in anticipation of the fulfilled meditation of section 89.
Section 89 begins with a citation from Wilson’s A Naturalist in Western China:
Wilson somewhere in western China
a storm brewing and the light rapidly failing impossible
to take a photograph (70)
The photograph would not “give an adequate idea of the grandeur of // the … scene” (70), just as the poem’s attempts to articulate the spiritual value of “white,” to penetrate to the “naked truth,” have been incomplete. Wilson, Bartram, the explorers, classifiers, and detectives in the poem are all “admirable” (70) “in their pursuit motivated / by white” (71), but at this point the negations of external modes of modification fall away and the poet/speaker returns to the woodland garden:
what could be more ridiculous
than exploring one’s own woods the prosaic the familiar
* * *
what more dangerous than memory
the prosaic the familiar the wholly lacking in scenes of grandeur (71)
Neither the nature boys, nor detectives, nor nymphs ancient or modern matter now in the immediate, unadorned, undressed, and unmodified reality of the garden itself:
what has been long prepared for what
cannot be prepared for
the sudden the moment subitane moment
shallow pools of water dull
leaves caught in the water bare brambles/multiflora on
no photograph would (72)
“Far into the woods further/far into memory” (50) or deep in the brambles of memory the poet/speaker knows the presence of the holy, what Wordsworth called one of the “spots of time” or Stevens called “flicks” of feeling, or Robert Duncan called “where trembling leaf among a slumbering mass light.” Such moments have neither form, nor morphology, lexical or visual, so what he sees then comes into the poem removed into Chaucer’s language: “I saw a body ‘al hoolly her [hir] figure’ … I see a face ‘of sorwe so grete woon.’” He sees a female figure, “withdrawn,” an imperfect image and the face of a sorrowing man, or an indirect way of saying that joy and sorrow are both part of the process of finding the “subitane moment” (Birds, 72); yet that moment “far into the woods” is “liberation” (73), in this case a full awareness of the holiness of the moment and a full awareness of the process of creativity. Somewhere behind this “subitane moment” lurk Wallace Stevens’s lines from “Credences of Summer,” not as a source but as an indication that Stevens and Taggart claim similar paths of poetic thinking:
Trace the gold sun about the whitened sky
Without evasion by a single metaphor.
Look at it in its essential barrenness
And say this, this is the centre that I see.
Fix it in eternal foliage
And fill the foliage with arrested peace,
Joy of such permanence, right ignorance
Of change still possible.
Taggart has gone through an elaborate process in creating an imaginary environment for the penetration to the “naked” truth of “white,” but like Stevens he discards the old myths and stories, dresses (61), and evasions of metaphor and then uncovers the central spot of the holy, the numinous presence, within a natural setting. In the search to possess the “white,” the poet/speaker entertains and rejects versions of the naturalists, detectives, painters, philosophers, and craftsmen, as well as various faces of the female spirit, all coming back to a basic notion that if the experience of the interior woods is expressed in the theories and terms of other people, then the experience is taken over by their vocabulary and ways of thinking and seeing. But with the veils removed, that particular human experience can come forward as vital spiritual energy. In his essay on Moore, Williams claimed that handling of “thought, the word, the rhythm — all in the style” makes possible a new effect. “The effect is in the penetration of the light itself, how much, how little; the appearance of the luminous background.” Williams cites no example from Moore’s poetry; he trusts fully the luminous without an image. The process of arriving at the point of vision then becomes an essential aspect of the contemplations, and so the poetics of the entire poem. The arrangements of objects in the woods provides a medium for unveiling the holy, but no material representation, no image of the holy; and that conclusive in-conclusion drives the search back to the rehearsals of the processes of thought and vision that prepared for the “subitane moment” (72). Such moments are stunning achievements. The serial mediation stops here momentarily before moving on to more speculation.
Taggart returns to the woodland garden, both actual and imagined, to generate still another means of envisioning the ambience of the poem. “Odor of Quince” is another meditative, serial poem; it has three numbered sections, each one dealing with the processes of seeing and knowing. While “Unveiling/Marianne Moore” proposed the appearance and reappearance of themes and images in extended contemplation of “white” and the persistence of song, “Odor of Quince” rests on a grid of references based on the number three. In “Chicago Breakdown” Taggart comments:
I think highly of grids. Grids make space, and space causes provocation, i.e., the search for the next word. The grid promotes provocation and provides a frame for the resonance of the words so that the word may have weight/depth, an agent for the transmission of tone, a tone agent. … But it don’t mean a thing unless the artist swings/goes “off-grid,” forsakes and somehow goes off the power line of the grid, which otherwise captures & indeed becomes a prison house. Power house & prison house.
By “grid,” Taggart does not mean a rigid structure of horizontal and vertical lines (though he does refer to Agnes Martin’s “shy/grossamer graph paper pencil lines”  in “Odor of Quince”), but any structure, geometric or lexical, that supplies a foundation for beginning a poem. As he says in the statement about the grid, the artist must get out of the provided structure to make his own statement, so the grid becomes “Power house & prison house,” or another way of asserting the process of making a poem as one of creation and destruction, destruction and creation — the same negative and positive factors within the vision of “liberation” in the previous poem.
“Odor of Quince” rests on a grid of threes. Three numbered sections each with its own subject: the odor of quince 1. “As sound,” 2. “As color,” and 3. “As sign.” “Three notes which fall away in / their own curve” (76). Section 1 gives three examples: “a stern Pompeian matron’s mantle,” “Judith Jamison’s slow fan skirt,” and “the peacock / display/flourishment of Johnny Hodges” (75). Section 2 mentions three painters of women, Renoir, Matisse, and de Kooning (78); also in section 2, Matisse’s painting “Nymph in the Forest / La Verdure” contains three female figures. In section 3 there are three men — “old Schimmel,” a man with an aesthetical beard,” and “a noble scholar” (80). Each of the sections is amplified by emerging patterns of correspondences. Charles Baudelaire’s famous poem “Correspondences” begins with things and then expands meanings by adding correspondences of perfume, sounds, and colors. Taggart’s poem, on the other hand, begins with the odor or perfume — the ambience of the quince — as the subject, and then finds correspondence in sound, color, and sign which have visual and conceptual images capable of invoking by association the odor of quince, its ambience of potential meaning.
The first section begins its correspondence of sound with the tenor saxophone music of Lester Young, who played with the Count Basie Band 1936–1940. Young had a gentle touch, allowing the notes to slide together in an easy rhythm unconstrained, as if the curve of an arm were “unwinding and / unbending a sigh” (74). The French word “désinvolture” contains this sophistication of sound and movement (as the poem says) and also the “long opening sigh note of a French tune” (74); Taggart has identified the tune as Claude Debussy’s “The Afternoon of a Faun.” Furthermore, the lines of the grid paintings of Agnes Martin extend past the grid into a spiritual space to invoke the “vowels” of the note, “gently warmly tenderly” (75) of Young’s vision as a musician. Three examples of people whose art does not extend beyond the notes of Lester Young still enlarge the poem’s frame of reference: neither the aristocratic matter of a stern “Pompeian matron’s mantle” (75) nor the choreography of the American dancer “Judith Jamison,” nor the flashy “display/flourishment of Johnny Hodges,” an alto saxophone player with Duke Ellington’s band. Debussy’s one note, a “long opening sigh” (75), breaks into a “triplet” of Lester Young’s notes and falls away as if
leaves from a tree in
late October/November (75)
and then changes into one note or leaf “seen three ways” (75), just before that one note moves into Lester Young, “Prez,” and Billie Holiday, “Lady Day,” playing and singing together, as they did in the late 1930s and 1940s, this time the song “Fine and Mellow” (76). The singing is “belle / et moelleuse” (76), velvety, mellow, but the notes ride with the “harp-tone vibrations glissandos / up and down the horn” (76) playing of Young, and lead through the rather dense construction of “a scattered florilège of inflorescences/flowers” (76), or an anthology of floral forms in an arabesque design, and in its musical “repeat and no-repeats of a Moroccan rhythm” (76) inspires in its extending design.
If this first section rests on a grid of threes, then under the grid hide references to things French that begin as a support for the grid and then emerge to join the poem’s meaning. Baudelaire’s poem “Correspondences” provides a method of composition by amplified associations, while Debussy’s “Afternoon of the Faun” extends the theme of notes into a pattern of notes and leaves in threes. “Désinvolture” describes Debussy’s tone but also Young’s “rapport and ardemment” (75). Young and Holiday perform “singing belle et moelleuse” (76). In the second section Taggart cites Renoir and Matisse as two of three painters of women, and that citation helps to clarify a group of inherent and perhaps hiding references in the first section. Taggart describes Lester Young’s music “in layers and layers chains of frills in the sashay of goldfish tails a loose/déshabillé / fabric” (76), and so the poem moves from music to a woman’s loose dressing gown, perhaps a gown of delicate fabric, “loose/déshabillé / fabric” (76). An invocation to Matisse’s designs for fabrics emerges in the poem, a design in which “is scattered a scattered florilège of inflorescences/flowers” (76), a visual anthology of designs corresponding to the patterns of “repeat/no-repeat Moroccan rhythm” (81). Another association which becomes explicit in the second section is “some arabesque/Arabian motility” (79). The “sashay of goldfish tails” is an arabesque design, repeating endlessly without noticeable change or development. One of Matisse’s critics, Rémi Labrusse, writes about arabesque decoration: “The rhythmical repetition of pattern is the founding principle of an abolition of boundaries.” The arabesque, repetitive patterns, then, reinforce the processes of verbal repetition that have been so much a feature of Taggart’s poetry from Peace on Earth onward, but now the correspondence with Matisse and arabesque design impel the poems past boundaries into open forms capable of expanding themselves with intricate associations.
Without a logical, or a narrative transition, the second section begins its correspondence of odor as color with stripping down and then painting a car, a “pink Cadillac,” from “the luxe calme and volupté junkyard”; the work will be done in “Rothko’s body shop” (77). (Another touch of Hogarth.) The pink Cadillac is an icon of popular culture — the 1956 Eldorado Seville or the 1958 Fleetwood with its rear fins for example. But “pink Cadillac” extends even further into iconic music with Bruce Springsteen’s song “Pink Cadillac” to Aretha Franklin’s album “Pink Cadillac” (1985) and her song “Freeway of Love,” which contains the lines “Ain’t we ridin’ on the freeway of love / In my pink Cadillac?”
But there is more to the correspondence of the color pink than popular culture. While “Luxe, calme and volupté” (1904–05) appears in the poem as a “junkyard,” it is also the title of a painting by Matisse, and the reference leads to Matisse’s painting “Nymph in the Forest (La Verdure)” toward the end of this section. The car in the Rothko paint shop has been deconstructed, “taken apart/stripped down to the essential torse/torso” (77), and the work to reconstruct it takes care and attention. Even though the reconstruction of the pink Cadillac will make a “new vehicle of transport and delight” (78), it will not be like paintings of women by Pierre Auguste Renoir, nor one by either Henri Matisse or the most contemporary of the three, Willem de Kooning. It will be a “new vehicle” (78), “a new vehicle no chrome” (78).
Taggart has identified Rothko’s painting “No 14” (1960) as an underlying presence in the poem, and the painting with its block of bright red on a black background exemplifies “the emergent impingement of pink light itself” (78). The red block in “No 14” seems to have its own inherent light source. In an essay Taggart talks of Rothko’s habit of adding layers of paint in the same way that the body shop adds layers of pink:
By applying thin washes of paint, one over another, and often allowing some of the colors in the bottom layers to appear through the top coat of pigment, Rothko achieves the effect of a hidden light source. … Rothko creates a quality of inner light which seems to emanate from the very core of the work.
Even as the car painted and sanded with twenty-three coats of paint, “sanded/hand rubbed” (Birds, 78), emits light, in “the chemistry of paint” (78) it is risky, the poems says,
to ignore to take leave of/walk away from
all that’s been loved and to leave pink light all by itself (79)
The pink needs blue. In the poem, blue sustains the emerging presence of Matisse and brings back the presence of Rothko. Mixing pink and blue produces purple. The pink needs blue “to help give some arabesque/Arabian motility to the motility // which needs a fresco a whole wall of purple” (79).
The “female form” of the car becomes a set of three female images through the “chemistry of paint,” the addition of “some blue” to the mix. Matisse’s painting “Nymph in the Forest (La Verdure)” focuses the variations from the grid of three, and then leads the poem forward to a celebration of a “woman empurpled / on a / nonornamental ground” (79) whose sensuality and spiritual presence impinges on the actual scene. Also, the references recall the series of images of females and nymphs in “Unveiling/Marianne Moore,” indicating Taggart’s persistent interest in the figure. In Matisse’s painting, the trees appear as white shafts, and a purple path leads from the bottom right into the green forest and white trees. There are three figures: an incomplete figure in the green background, another more complete drawing further down the left side, and then the purple figure on a yellow ground at the bottom of the painting. The process moves as the poem does from incomplete figures and statements to the full presentation of the image, a perception of sensual spirituality, “the ripeness slumbering purple body” (79):
the trees are porches/portals a parade approaching a parenthetical moon
there’s a body
undecorative body of a woman empurpled on a
a nonornamental ground
that is the ripeness of all that is ripeness slumbering purple body
key to the dream and to the
whole adamant mood of a fresco a wall
which makes the impingement more than an impingement
giving it drama ballets and divertissements depths and subtleties sensual
In the allegory of the painting and the colors of correspondence, the blue path leads into the forest and then to the perception of the purple female form as a sensual awareness of a numinous presence. The poem calls this emergence “impingement,” the invasion of the ordinary by the spiritual.
Section 3 of the poem begins its searching out the correspondence of odor as “sign” with “a new sign carved / by a tramp” (80). Here Taggart stays close to a familiar definition of “sign” as an object or event standing for the existence of some other object or event; he does not rush off for modifications from French or German philosophers. He remains fixed with the basic sign in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania, but after the tramp, which turns out to be a reference to Taggart himself earlier in his life, the poem again picks up the strand of things French with a reference to René Char’s poem “Sommeil aux Lupercales”:
Éclats de notre jeunesse, éclats pareils à des lézards chatoyants tirés de leur sommeil anfractueux ; dès lors pressés d’atteindre le voyageur fondamental dont ils demeurent solidaires.
In Pastorelles Taggart used the figure of the searcher, the outsider — “Trakl’s wanderer” as “my wandering self” in “Pastorelles 4,” and in “Car Museum” as “where I grew up runaway tramp and young rebel gentleman from Indiana.” This figure comes into section 3 of Birds as first a tramp and then as
a tramp a person recognizable from childhood a childhood snapshot
blanket over his shoulder tie with binder twine among taller
than him dusty hollyhocks (80)
The tramp is on “le voyageur fondamental,” a spiritual quest. This tramp is not a “thief of / chickens” (80) nor an abductor of children. Instead he is more like “Old Schimmel,” Wilhelm Schimmel, a nineteenth-century German-born folk artist who traveled around Cumberland County (where Taggart now lives). He traded his carvings in pine — animals and birds, mainly eagles, were his favorite subjects — for food and/or lodging. The poem then lists two more people he is not like. Nor is he like “an aesthetical beard communing with nature” (80), which Taggart identified with a reproduction in James Cahill’s book Chinese Painting, nor a man with “an heroical beard” (80) in a painting by the German painter Caspar David Friedrich (1774–1840). Taggart as a tramp in his poem has “an animal alertness to signs” (81); he is attuned to the geography of place and attentive to “a new sign in the air” (81), or attentive to the appearance of new spiritual presences. The poem rehearses its own proposals for making “new signs,” and it turns out that the “harp-tone/vibraphone glissandos,” the “pink needing some blue,” and the purple figure all fill the same process that the carver, the tramp as carver/maker fulfills:
one and only long opening sigh
harp-tone/vibraphone glissandos chains of frills inflorescences
stars in a repeat/no-repeat Moroccan rhythm
pink needing some blue
not some little girl blue on a fresco a whole wall of purple an oasis an orchard dream
slumbering empurpled body a dream a mood
a structure of mood
depths and subtleties summonings
emerging from that structure from a more-than-emergent pink impingement
what a carver does (81)
If these examples are not enough, then consider “Mr. Johnson” the pipemaker” who in his pipe-making also makes signs. Examples appear without announcement:
a given for what was given a new sign in the air immediate and intimate and
no thief or shepherd either and must be/is moving on. (82)
Ripe quinces give off a strong fragrance, and the invitation in this poem is to expose what is in the air with the fragrance, what factors of perception and vision allow meaning to emerge from a complex of associations in an ambient environment. It is one thing to begin with lists of modifiers of sight as Taggart does in the “Meditations” of Remaining in Light, producing multiple layers of perspectives for examining Edward Hopper’s painting “A Woman in the Sun,” but quite another to allow explicit references, e.g. Agnes Martin, Rothko, and Lester Young, and implicit references to French music, aesthetics, and painting, to emerge as the formative energy of “a new sign” (82). In “Odor of Quince,” arabesque design, an endless repeating geometric pattern without a beginning and without an ending, provides a visual image for Taggart’s open universe. He “is moving on” (82) to other experiences out of the ambience of the quince. The poem stops without a formal conclusion, so the serial form projects the open forms of contemplation and the seemingly endless possibilities of perceiving and articulating new signs. The articulation of a poetics of vision in the garden continues as a meditative rehearsal.
The autobiographical poem “Show and Tell/Robert Creeley” reviews Taggart’s meeting Robert Creeley in the 1960s at the Aspen Institute near the Roaring Fork River in Colorado. Taggart
having spent the years in the song in the song/life business
paid dues (84)
reaffirms that “a poet’s thinking” (86) involves working with words as well as learning the positive/negative complex of the blues, “the meaning of the blues” (86). He also reaffirms the bonds between poetry and song, as well as the necessity of the female muse figure and other versions of the nymph: “a song requires a girl so bright/in bloom who rejoices the heart” (85). The poem ends with a tribute to Robert Creeley’s life as a poet, using words and rhythms very familiar to Creeley’s own poetry:
this poem is a song an
a work of love. (87)
After entering the imaginary garden in “Refrains for Robert Quine,” the reexamination of poetic antecedents in “Grey Scale/Zukofsky,” the imperative of the search for an image or expression of “white” and “naked truth” in “Unveiling/Marianne Moore” joined to the elaborated demonstration of a poem’s ambience in “Order of Quince,” the volume comes to its stopping place first with a reinsertion of the personal into the discussions with the tribute to Robert Creeley, “Show and Tell/Robert Creeley,” and then with the initiation of a new series of poems. The series “Cadenza” indicates that the process of meditation and the searching after the points of perception of a holy presence has not stopped, that it will continue beyond these poems into future poems.
There Are Birds, cover photo by Ralph Eugene Meatyard.
Weaving together stories and information from multiple sources informs the poetics of There Are Birds. The poems take place in a field of ideas about art, spirituality, literary matters, philosophy, intellectual history, and other subjects as well. Taggart wove the ideas and images together to constitute an ambience or an environment, an odor, as it were, surrounding the poems. No event, no perception of reality or of the holy, takes place alone; other corresponding events exist and the poem’s environment brings them together to articulate the process of thinking poetically. Finding the “white” is the major motif in the poems. This theme appears early in the volume’s second poem, “Grey Scale/Zukofsky,” as the “visualization of white of whiteness” (4), while the volume’s first poem, “Refrains for Robert Quine,” recites the process of finding the visual image:
there is free song
a free weaving of many songs
song against song and other songs clustered/spun out in a blending of wavy
doucement the phrase means what the songs mean
that meaning so sweetly and freely as a gardener weaves flowers in her hair. (2)
“Cadenza 2” repeats, with some variations, passages from “Refrains for Robert Quine,” including the passage cited above, which appears as:
free song a free weaving of many songs
song against song and other song in a blending of wavy pitches (88)
Far from fixing a unified whole with the penultimate poem referring to the first poem of the volume, the repetition here gives the assurance of having survived the passage through all the mediations of the poems in the volume, to emerge surrounded with the ambient meanings of the various contexts within which the lines and/or ideas appear. The process thrusts forward, not backward, forward to ongoing meditations:
There are birds there is birdsong
unmourning and unmournful in the white light (88)
Song, the articulation of the holy in language, existed at the start of this adventure and it still exists, now modified by the negative and positive factors “unmourning and unmournful in the white light,” typified by sorrow and joy, fear and awe. These two lines are then repeated from the earlier poem, along with a condensation of the early poem’s lines “like the light like / so sweetly woven song like lover never for sale” (3):
there are birds there is birdsong
unmourning and unmournful having come through
like the light like
like love never for sale. (88)
The permeating themes of song and light have “come through” to this final rehearsal, just before the tri-part repetition of the line “There are birds” in “Cadenza 3.”
These two poems, if they are a cadenza, are then the author’s improvised and technically innovative addition after the main body of the music (words) have been performed. Innovation comes in revisions after the long labor of the previous poems, and the brilliance comes in the rehearsal of “there are birds” in different spatial contexts. As Taggart points out, the spaces between words and lines “provide time for rest, for an image to assume depth and definition, for reflection. They are not so much ‘holes’ as cadenced parts of the whole that is each poem” (90). Intertextual repetitions have appeared throughout the volume; together with the complex of external reference they sustained the poetics of meditation without a linear plot. The processes of thinking, perceiving, and meditating reveal “what’s under all the pictures and all the tones what gives depth and what gives / definition” (57); they induce and invoke an environment of interacting meaning surrounding central themes. It is one process of thought to review the struggles of other nature boys, detectives, philosophers, spiritualists, but quite another process to set aside their achievements and their modes of representation to preserve the uniqueness of the single moment of vision. Other representations cloud the unveiling in estranged vocabularies and rhetorical systems. Without grasping and making an image of the spiritual presence, the effort is thrust back into enacting the process of thought and vision in language. Through repetition and renaming in different contexts the volume projects poems in an open series extending out beyond the triple affirmation of “There are birds” (89).
1. In part, this essay draws on materials presented in my two previous essays on John Taggart: “In Loop, John Taggart’s Poem ‘Not Quite Parallel Lines’ and Questions of Serial Form,” Talisman: A Journal of Contemporary Poetry and Poetics 35 (Summer/Fall 2007): 56–81, and “John Taggart, The Poems of Pastorelles: The Forest Park to the Plinth of Poetics,” Northwest Review 46, no. 1 (2008): 132–149. This essay expands the discussions of the previous essays and begins a consideration of Taggart’s ideas of poetics.
3. Robert Duncan, “The Poetics of Music: Stravinsky,” Occident, Spring 1948, 53–54. See Igor Stravinsky, Poetics of Music in the Form of Six Lessons, trans. Arthur Knode and Ignolf Dahl (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970).
upon those notes tant
ducement the phrase means what the notes mean
layer/interwoven in the white light
which in There Are Birds were revised as
song against song and other songs clustered/spun out in a blending of wavy
doucement the phrase means what the songs mean
“Refrains for Robert Quine,” along with “Yellow Line” and “After the Party,” appeared first in Conjunctions (2005). “White” appears for the first time in the volume in “Grey Scale/Zukofsky.”
17. See Ezra Pound, The Cantos (New York: New Directions, 1970). Melopoeia, Phanopoeia, and Logopoeia appear in Pound, “How to Read,” in Literary Essays, ed. T. S. Eliot (New York: New Directions, 1968), 25.
18. Taggart was much influenced by the poetry and poetics of Louis Zukofsky. He wrote a dissertation at Syracuse University on Zukofsky’s work: “Intending a Solid Object: A Study of Objectivist Poetics” (1974). He includes, for example, these essays in his collection Songs of Degrees: “Zukofsky’s Mantis,” “Louis Zukofsky: Songs of Degrees,” and “Come Shadow Come and Pick this Shadow.” See also Mark Scroggins, Louis Zukofsky and the Poetry of Knowledge (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1998), especially the chapter “Zukofsky and After: Post-Objectivist Poetics on John Taggart and Ronald Johnson,” 285–310.
19. Sections 1–27 and 73–87 were first published in Unveiling/Marianne Moore (Buffalo: Atticus/Finch Chapbooks, 2007); “Unveiling/Marianne Moore (sections 31–41)” appeared in Origin, Spring 2007. Like other poems which appeared in journals and magazines before There Are Birds, the poem “Unveiling/Marianne Moore,” especially the late sections, was revised for book publication. Some revision will be mentioned in this essay, but sorting through Taggart’s process of revising will remain a subject of another essay.
20. While the poem is built up in part by the repetition and variation of key ideas, figures, and images, this essay will follow the emergence of the principles of perception not by explicating through all the sections one after the other but by following the movement of themes such as the geography of the woodland garden, classification, Marianne Moore, botanists, detectives, the female figure and white. References and inserted information have been identified as part of a means to explain the movements of the themes.
24. Ezra Pound’s line “Literature is news that stays news” appears in this quotation. The source of the line, Pound’s The ABC of Reading (New York: New Directions, 1960), 29, appears in section 23 in the line “thinking not of course of the ABC/XYZ of it but the / A=B of it the veiled to be unveiled / of it a/the fabulous young girl” (27), along with another reference first to Dinah Washington’s version of “Teach Me Tonight”:
Let’s start with the ABC of it,
Roll right down to the XYZ of it
Help me solve the mystery of it,
Teach me tonight!
and the metaphorical nature of classification in “the A=B of it,” as well as a detective’s sense of “the mystery of it.”
26. To avoid over-explication, I’ve identified the principal names of the “nature boys” (Birds, 47) and given in parentheses the sections by numbers where they appear in the poem below. Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778), a Swedish botanist, created a uniform “system for naming and classifying” (16) every species and created a uniform system for naming them called the bionomial nomenclature (sections 5, 16). John Bartram (1699–1777), from Darby, Pennsylvania, was an early American botanist and horticulturalist. As the poem notes, “he found Franklinia alatamaha / the Franklin tree,” which was “never to be found in the wild again.” The tree had “small white flowers” (Birds, 46). His Diary of a Journey through the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida,a trip taken from July 1, 1765, to April 10, 1766, is quoted in section 48 on “the Indian nymphs” (46). William Bartram (1739–1823), son of John Bartram and an American naturalist, devoted “his entire life to the study of nature” (17). He compiled the most comprehensive list of American birds of his time. He appears in sections 29, 30, and 48, and his book Travels Through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida is quoted in sections 6, 72, and 87. In section 30, “William Bartram said ‘planting promises a more lasting pleasure’” (32). The quotation probably comes through Bartram from William Shenstone (1714–1763), a British poet and landscape gardener: “The works of a person that builds, begin immediately to decay; while those of him who plants begin directly to improve. In this, planting promises a more lasting pleasure, than building; which, were it to remain in equal perfection, would at best begin to moulder and want repairs in imagination” (“Unconnected Thoughts on Gardening,” 1764). Père Armand David (1826–1900) was a French priest and missionary to China who became a great collector of seeds and plants (section 29). Asa Gray (1810–1888), “the father of American botany” (32), was the most important American botanist of the nineteenth century (section 31). Graham Stuart Thomas (1909–2003), a British writer, “the world’s greatest / gardener” (56); his book Trees in the Landscape is quoted (sections 68, 87). Jane Colden (1724–1766) was an American botanist who made descriptions of New York State’s plants using Linnaeus’s procedures (section 79). Ernest Henry Wilson (1876–1930) in the poem “E. H. China Wilson,” better known as E. H. Wilson, was a British botanist and notable plant collector who introduced a large variety of Asian plant species to the West. He travelled and collected specimens in China, Japan, Korea, and other Asian countries. His book A Naturalist in Western China with Vasculum, Camera, and Gun (New York: Doubleday & Co., 1914), 1:60, is quoted (section 89). He also found “acre davidii another snake-barked maple” (section 29, page 30).
27. See Patrick Morrissey’s review of There Are Birds, “One Thing, a Thousand Things: Reading John Taggart,” Harp & Altar, 2008, especially for the discussion of metaphors.
29. In a colophon dated 1686, Shi Tao said: “In painting, there are the Southern and the Northern schools, and in calligraphy, the methods of the Two Wangs (Wang Xizhi and Wang Xianzhi) … if someone asks whether I follow the Southern or the Northern School, or whether either school follows me, I hold my belly and laugh, replying, ‘I always use my own method!’” Shi Tao also “painted the handscroll ‘10,000 Crazy Dots’” (24), also called “Ten Thousand Ugly Ink Dots” (China Culture).
31. I’ve identified the detectives and given in parentheses the sections by numbers where they appear in the poem. Cynthia Harrold-Eagles (1948–? ) has published seventeen novels about the Bill Slider, a British detective inspector working in the Shepherd’s Bush section of London, from Orchestrated Death to Dear Departed and Game Over (section 35). Georges Simenon (1903–1989), a Belgian writer, published seventy-five novels, 1931–1975, about Commissaire Jules Maigret, from Piere-le Letton to Maigret et M. Charles (sections 35, 79). Qiu Xiaolong, a Chinese writer now living in St. Louis, published four novels about Chief Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai Police Bureau; two appeared with the English titles When Red Is Black and Loyal Character Dancer (section 55). Raymond Chandler (1888–1959), an Anglo-American novelist, created Philip Marlowe, a tireless private detective, in such well-known novels as The Big Sleep, Farewell, My Lovely,and The Long Goodbye (section 56). The TV detective show featuring Sergeant Joe Friday is quoted in the poem: “Just the facts, mam” (section 37) and “… only the names have been changed to protect the innocent” (section 38).
44. Taggart cites Pierre Schneider, Matisse, trans. Michael Taylor and Bridget Strevens Romer (New York: Rizzoli, 1984); more recent volumes resulting from exhibitions areJohn Elderfield, Henrí Matisse: A Retrospective (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1992), and Hilary Spurling et al., Matisse, His Art and His Textiles: The Fabric of Dreams (London/New York: Royal Academy of Arts/Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2005).
Experimental pastoralisms in O’Brien and Taggart
At the beginning of William Empson’s 1935 landmark study Some Versions of Pastoral, he declares: “It is hard for an Englishman to talk definitely about proletarian art, because in England it has never been a genre with settled principles, and such as there is of it, that I have seen, is bad … my suspicion, as I shall try to make clear, is that it is liable to a false limitation.” Three things are interesting to me in this passage: first, that the pastoral is suggested as an historically unsettled term, a term potential of contingency and resistance; second, that the pastoral is identified as, or can be seen to have evolved into a proletarian literature, or vice versa — “I think good proletarian art is usually Covert Pastoral,” says Empson (6) — and third, that this evolution is prone to a “false limit” that can be used well or poorly. Empson’s provisional formulation attempts the extension of the pastoral mode fully into modernity — to see its commentary on class and as economics, and to see it as a drama of place. In this way the pastoral’s “false limit” — variously, its praise of simplicity, meditation on ease, the ideal state, a rural setting and the catalogue of its particulars, a city dweller’s/shepherd’s point of view, songs of shepherds, travels, etc. — is shown to be unusually flexible, working effectively a two-thousand-year critique of civilization that is also a class allegory strengthened by the bracketing “simplicity” of its ideal. Empson’s destabilization offers up a surprising range of takes — Celine, Milton, Brecht, Faulkner, Louis Carroll, etc. — generating a profitable lens through which to view the narrative of modernity, but it has to look back to get there. Radical pastoral, then, a translation practice of simultaneities, the complex in the simple, and vice versa, a dialectic that keeps the contradiction sufficiently tensed to arouse strong feelings around race, war, the factory, homeland, revolution.
In a more or less subsequent manner this is more or less the argument Leo Marx offered over fifty years ago in The Machine in the Garden. That volume transplants the pastoral narrative to America, deftly plumbing the contradictions of our rural desires in this “last best place” while managing to largely disable the class critique. More false limit, or the false limit revised for the historical situation of a nineteenth-century new world. Evoking at once nostalgia and futurity, Marx’s formulation of America hangs on the uniquely “open” character of its horizon. A limitless landscape “devoid” of people, how is dominion not inevitable? But then there’s a steamboat bearing down on Huck and Jim, something faustian in our bargain with freedom. Marx’s complex pastorality both admits and critiques technology’s American demos; how, in short, the vastness of the continent magnifies the train. While this paradox is not the ostensible subject of this essay it’s important to note how legibly it is written upon the American landscape; everything from the whiteness of the whale to white flight to the suburbs inscribes the false limit of our abundance. In succession horse, train, car, and plane give projective size to what is manifest in our destiny. But there’s a commensurate shadow. Given America’s still-imagined plenitude, it seems clear that a Keystone pipeline or a new BP Gulf rig will configure an unsettlingly green narrative for the foreseeable future.
For better or worse, this is equally true of our current literatures. Into the Wild was a huge hit; big-ticket westerns are making a movie comeback; Survivor: wherever is a TV staple. Philip Roth, Cormac McCarthy, Louise Erdrich, Denis Johnson, Don DeLillo, Toni Morrison, etc., these leading authors all make various use of the pastoral’s bracketing “simplicity.” The situation in poetry is not much different. Laureate poetry, or what Charles Altieri described way back in the mid-’80s as “scenic poetry” and “its concern for modest, highly crafted narrative structures producing moments of sudden illumination” in a natural setting, still holds sway in the Academy. We want our garden and we want nostalgia for our lost garden, an epiphany experienced in the garden. Just click on Safari to the latest episode of Revolution. Some versions of the apocalypse. However deadly the paradoxes of our errand, we continue to take them. This is troubling and hopeful both. But what to do? How to manage the excess of our rueful idyll?
Two poets — Geoffrey G. O’Brien, early career, and John Taggart, late — both engage pastoral practices in radically transformative ways that offer fresh and unsettling versions for a new century’s green thirst. Specifically, O’Brien, in his second book, Green and Gray, and Taggart, in his twelfth, Pastorelles, variously interrogate the pastoral tradition as a viable means of not only writing poems, but engaging contemporary reality and its emerging environmental crisis. While admiring of the pastoral tradition’s mode of instruction and lyric agency, both poets question the inherent idealism attendant to it, and attempt, like Virgil, to politicize what is simultaneously a tradition, a genre, and a mode to “make it new,” or, failing that, leave it post. Both O’Brien and Taggart operate in a curiously dialogical manner that moves in space and time, reveals class paradigms, and erodes boundaries of here/now, utopian/arcadian, rural/urban, upper/lower, local/global, nature/culture, apart from/a part of nature, the pastoral, etc. Vibrant in their deterritorializing of the pastoral, their differences are dramatic, and their shared sympathies striking; what makes the comparison interesting is that each might be considered “necessary” to a sharp accounting of contemporary American avant-garde poetry. As such, O’Brien and Taggart offer an experimental pastoralism that is at once charged with a theoretically sophisticated — and American — language and recognizable as a lyric trace. Their relative disclosures of earth, the local, country, polis, city, literary tradition, etc. emanate from direct sensory experience while employing a larger allegory of pastoralism in ethically constructive ways. Yet they live on opposite sides of America, come from different generations, and have decidedly urban (Bay Area, O’Brien) and rural (Pennsylvania, Taggart) locales. Might the future survival of American poetics lie at its experimentally green edges? How is it that both Geoffrey G. O’Brien and John Taggart pursue the ethical case? And why do they turn to the pastoral tradition to source this sustainable futurity?
One cannot imagine now except as all parts,
as inventory, case, self-explanation.
It was to be entire days and is
the time of writing, impossible enterprise
whose crimson cloth has been removed. (O’Brien, “Realia,” 26)
I turn to Geoffrey G. O’Brien first because to me he is the most surprising. A young, urban poet, whose first book was called The Guns and Flags Project, you might not expect him to be of a green mind. As I hear it, the work rises out of Stevens, reaches towards Ashbery by way of Zizek; it is meditative, elegiac, imbued with the thrill and hangover of theory. Yet certainly, too, there is the ethical seed of a resistant lyric that works very hard to reclaim the behavior of both our metaphoric and literal “fields” of being. This, the opening lines of the first poem, “The Premiere of Reappearance”: “It is passionately in our lives, the smell of rain, / radiation of an oil through the middle of the day, / the taste abides, old fruit on a plate / but after so long the rind is clear” (3). In Green and Gray O’Brien makes more explicit the dependencies of nature and culture while maintaining an openness of address that makes this book seem, at first glance, poetry about American belatedness, exhaustion. This crisis rises as the wreck of late-Bush modernity, “Signs of effort on the face of the air / There are those who wait in longing to hear / and those around whom dead waves flow / It’s like twilight to be alive now” (“To Classes,” 90). O’Brien’s twilight accounting marks this effort as a species of Postmodern ennui. Yet it is the insufficiency of that response that marks the real ‘turn’ of Green and Gray. For out of boredom comes invention, and out of invention comes the discovery of a necessary subject.
How long to sit and how long be faithful
to the shapes taken by the future, live
in the renewable source of that certainty —
lemons in water, waiter’s sleeves, slates
the birds rise from to be together
above the square, flights in formation
simple hypnotic returns (“The Bulletin of Lyon,” 16)
That subject — the world and our inevitable sensory engagement with it — is there in the hypnotic return of birds, always already present as a renewable source of certainty. The poet is sitting “in a chair at the table in a corner of the square.” And it is both “the gray of the stone and the green of the trees” that reveals the interdependencies of each. Nature and culture, city and country, poet and the birds, these binaries blend and quiver “in the imperial flower of a partial answer” that is the state of our locus amenis. The answer is not forthcoming, or rather is partial in the refusal of a belatedness that would admit a prior utopia. The imperial flower continues to flower; “the idea, long in coming, is itself / simple as a flower opening, / too simple to be heard but still opening.”
Throughout Green and Gray this temporal suspension is a willful negotiation with the arcadian-utopian fantasy of the pastoral. As a kind of no-place, its simplicity enables an eternal present that alternately ironizes and eulogizes an unfinished and troubling contemporaneity:
it was summer, very strong,
which never finished anything
and ended in making
all this, cold coals
of wildflowers, wars
at the centers, they go on for years
burning near the front
and from below. (“Three Seasons,” 11)
Nature, the summer, exists as an overwhelming inevitability which is nonetheless ephemeral; nonetheless ephemeral as the “cold coals of wildflowers, wars / at the centers.” Time and space are conflated through a geologic imagining that spatializes vertically as well as horizontally. Things spread out; all “deposition” is a politically charged activity. What is unfinished still “makes all this” and it burns up “from below” just as equally as across. And if everything is passing — both fleeting and acceptable — then everything is disturbingly new.
Such is the case in the appropriately named “The New,” where “From that time onwards / one day it happened / during that time / for so long/ after the departure” (12). We are marked by local time but unable to refuse its extension. It is Dante’s Vita Nova coming forward, and Benjamin’s endless archive spreading out; it’s an omnidirectional dream syntax and a political imagination recalibrating Virgilian allegory for war-sick late capitalism:
Money is the sun at night, spirit
is a parrot. What is the thing?
A public assembly on a hill,
a hill the color of sage and money.
The assembly sounds like birds
and what it says is that
in another world we will not matter. (“On the Phantom Estate,” 37)
The hill is “the color of sage and money,” a dangerous conflation, a “public assembly” that pervades our dreams and our poetries. We are haunted, therefore, by the dead who have yet to be born, their endless play in the skirmishes of capital: “They are deported into space as spirit / and reassemble under the hills. The sun returns, and the birds.”
Geoffrey G. O’Brien’s insistence is that utopia is the present case, however troubled, such that we must till this field, that poem, for specific instruction on existence. This is a canny way of disabling nostalgia and making the pastoral possibility reify labor — in the city as much as in the country, in war as much as peace, in writing as much as factories. It’s scary, this no escape/no place, a thousand plateaus of becoming bombs. Or, as he says in the ruthlessly anaphoric “Some Versions Of,” “There is no reason a poem would begin / with reference to the territory,” and later: “No reason a poem would start / by censoring my shame or yours / at having a country or of the others,” and later still:
As snow or fire no unreal season
poem would begin by stating
by steadily flashing as utopia
Transmits its coordinates utopiates
headed in all directions no reason
the mean of a life and a moment is (3–5)
Here, Empson’s “false limit” is temporal; there is no past from which to sing, only the present song “headed in all directions no reason.” That it is headed somewhere, that it is momentous, is undeniable, and the vortexual sweep of this poem (and many of the poems in Green and Gray that employ anaphora, repetend, chiasmus, word sets, and ideolects) sweeps us along in “the remorse of the senses subtracted from experience” (“Logic of Confession”). I take O’Brien’s bewilderment as a genuine cri de coeur, elegiac, lamentative, but for our present utopia which seems so morally lost to us. I take this also as a preservational poetics that would economize its speech acts, the ecology of the poem seeking to preserve our sense record by repetition, insistence. This is important in the “proletarian” suggestiveness of class struggle, its alignment to environmental ethics, and how this might play as the particular challenge that “progress” imposes on our senses.
Deterritorializing the ideal as either a past or future conception, the poem “Realia” addresses our sensory survival as the possibility of the real in our simulated reality: “My people, provided I have one, are like women and men,” which is to say human, corporeal, short on cash. “Their dreams are like dreams filled with things: / citizens, coins, their faces, flames and signs, snow, air, earth, sighs, sun” (26). We are contingent upon things. Wheelbarrows, sighs, suns. And the place of our senses discloses the scene. Notice how the impulse to list draws an apposite relationship in the environment, something of scale, but not exactly metaphoric, “All morning each emphasis of field / reveals its portion of the unpredicted”; “one comes before, one after, / passing like expressions on a face”; and “in countless local ways it’s not to be / looked at directly, is sunlight falling up streets, / letters fading for want of explanation.” O’Brien’s similes literalize the comparisons. “[His] people are like men and women.” The pitiless play of the senses equilibrates the field, temporally and spatially. Invoking one of the muses of the book, he declares “This is the prediction of Beatrice:”
are simple and subtle, material and unpredicted,
helpless, divided, idyllic, claims and flares,
soldiers, children, anarchy, time unapproachable.
This is the other prediction of Beatrice:
Each night evening emerges.
Exactly this exuberance
brought us together with those we used to know. (“Realia,” 27)
To be so out of touch with those we used to know. To be instructed on the “simple and subtle, material and unpredicted” fate of our senses. The pastoral gesture of the poem to catalogue the real is driven by a contingency — our senses — those people you might belong to, your need to address them. The poem rises in the lyric apostrophizing, creating a utopia of the liberated present. We return, at the end of the poem, to the world where “each night evening emerges.”
What’s astonishing to me about this poem — and many poems in the book — is the way art rises to artifact. The world is contingent upon the poem, too; this one’s called “Realia,” and its textual pleasure, both lyric and semiotic, produces another sensory experience — an apposite poem, even a metaphor, dear god — that could easily appear in one of O’Brien’s lists. I think of this as O’Brien’s lyric joy, his resistant metapoetics (virtually all of the poems are ars poetica), and the “working” possibility of song in a late-capitalist marketplace. There’s an economics to this writing. A poet makes things; ideas materialize the poem. And one thing resembles another, or is it replaces? “After noticing a change in the meaning of the word / “ironic,” she sat at home making the air / flow around her exactly as before.” The pleasures of this poem, “Ajar” — its use of Stevens and its collapse of the metaphor of art to personhood (O’Brien makes a ‘she’ making “the air flow around her”) — lie in their endless game of replacement. The poem is so extensive as to be an opening (ajar) and something awry (ajar).
Geoffrey G. O’Brien.
A more immediate example might be the poem “Fountain.” Here, the poem is the fountain, a free space where similitude proliferates rhizomatically, line after line, poem after poem: “There is no such thing as the abrupt / Doubleness is the first plural / The abrupt comes in many forms.” An endless stream of replacements, “Again the bottom predicts a top / Fresh sources resemble each other / Goods are exchanged throughout the day” (34). That the poem is exchanged, is the pure product of language and of labor, is confirmatory, patriotic, and echoes — in many of the poems of Green and Gray — a committed (and various) American poetics from Emerson to Frost to Stein to Williams to Stevens to Ashbery. In this regard I like O’Brien for an Americanness that both positively and negatively utilizes American spaces. He is certainly an urban poet, but his sophisticated handling of lyric agency sings the café into the garden. And it is not simply an American impulse, or a postmodern impulse, to destabilize the binary scheme. Humanity’s course has always been green and gray. Utopia is everywhere. O’Brien’s innovation is precisely this erosion of the pastoral.
What is perhaps more surprising — and here we find a principal difference between O’Brien and Taggart — is that the poems in Green and Gray rarely describe external reality. Or rather rarely describe an actual place from which ideas might be locally situated. Or rather rarely describe at all. O’Brien uses a phenomenological engagement with senses real and imagined, present and remembered, to produce a meditative stream of relations that rise to a disturbingly recognizable “supreme fiction.” These are often circulated through an idea (the troubadour, simulacra, psychoanalysis, excursus), a text (The Inferno, the Patriot Act, Gravity’s Rainbow, Aristotle’s Poetics), a person (Stevens, Lacan, Charles Fourier, Nietzsche, Celan, Gertrude Stein), or a procedure (accentual verse, anaphora, replacement, erasure). Always, to my mind, the pastoral ideal hovers behind the work, a ghost form that engages the “speakingness” of the poems. This echo is particularly striking in O’Brien, and is large part of my sense of its “instruction.” There is much commentary about weather, and a lot of calendrical notation (“Three Seasons,” “Spring Struggle,” “A Calendar,” “In Re Others”); there is a general querying of the garden (“Deer Isle,” “In Gardens Where Saints Meet,” “Sent Past Exhibits,” “At the Changing Villa”). And O’Brien plays pastoral’s paradoxical complexity as simultaneously a tradition, a subject, and a mode. Indeed, the first poem of the book, “Some Versions Of,” seems to even echo Empson’s famous book, and his sense of the pastoral’s endless proliferation. This sophisticated poetics variously enacts an erasure of the binary codes to which we are so addicted, and to which the pastoral tradition has relied. Not green or gray but green and gray. Yet we would never mistake O’Brien for A. R. Ammons or Pattiann Rogers. It is the surprisingly urbane means by which O’Brien dialogizes the pastoral that makes it so exciting and new.
One of the more effective reconfigurations of the pastoral in Green and Gray involves lyric agency, or more directly, the shepherd’s song. Two poems tackle this rather directly. Here’s the opening quatrain of “Paraphrase of Aragon”: “I hear I hear the world is there / It passes from people on the road / More than my heart I listen to them / The world is badly made my tired heart” (6). Maintaining the quatrain patterning, O’Brien charges his song with a generally four-beat accentual pulse that generates a particularly insistent music. This is partly due to the address — found throughout Green and Gray — to the “men and women” of his time, and to his invocation of song itself as an ethical agent: “If not to sing then to hum with the sun / so that the shade is made more human”; and “I believe in it sometimes I acknowledge it to you / While not believing my ears / I am truly your similar / I am quite similar to you” (8). This strum of the lyre also gathers focus by a kind of aping of troubadour song. There’s something archaic in this accentual verse. And the poem is called, after all, “Paraphrase of Aragon,” such that the conflated echoes of feudal Spain, Catherine of Aragon, the private language of Argonese, the Dadaist play of the poet Louis Aragon, even the character Aragorn from Lord of the Rings, all gather to produce a unique and affecting music.
Another, perhaps more antic example of O’Brien’s singingness is the poem “Man of Joy.” Here the sense of the ars poetica is explicit in its description of the poet at his joyous avocation. The poem arises out of a declamatory first person that is hard to ignore:
Unless I am much mistaken everything
is music, but that’s not really right.
What can one say of a desire
for new connections other than that it swells
up out of feeling happy, wanting
to play, not knowing how to (30)
I take “the companion in the dark” to be the poem, or the poem’s addressee, or the poem addressing the world. The poem swells on its pronouncements of necessity, and on the speech act that crank its joy. Say, “To be happy I think of as / new editions of the same world / swelling or rising from a fur-lined machine”; and “I hear the nothing / I have to say until I begin … I am not / at a loss for examples”; and “it’s a parable of isolation to remember / the name of a painting while traveling /and a parable of sound to say it” (32).
Ultimately, in this assured and startling second book, Geoffrey G. O’Brien evokes the possibility of an experimental poetics to unsettle our current thinking. Whether it be utopia, or a dream of a distant arcadia; whether it be a neopastoralism, or a post-pastoral urban mash-up of the wreckage of modernity, we are struck by the lyric urgency of these poems; they are parables of sound that reawaken our actual senses. These are crucially the source of any ethical application to the world, for they substantiate the body subject and activate its means of knowledge. As Raymond Williams sorted out, our country needs our city, and the city knows itself by the echoes of our country inheritance. O’Brien is urban, but he goes to the beach; he’s the city limit by which we remember our country song. As such, the urban present is the “false limit” from which to intuit the history of the pastoral. Green and Gray uses the absorptive capacities of capitalism and English to recalibrate our senses, and expose the ethical conundrums of the present tense. It is an exuberant speaker in these poems; it is speech acts and shimmering metaphors of a supreme unsettlement. O’Brien’s meditative present gives me an odd sense of hope.
This seems equally true in his next book, Metropole, which I will mention simply for the quality of its extension. Much of the same poetics are at work in this book — the urban setting, (faux) sylvan groves, mortality, an emphasis on saying and singing, the passing of seasons, catalogues of plants and flowers — though formally the book operates quite differently. The most notable emblem of this can be found in the long title poem, which manages through a more or less iambic cantillation of sentences to augur material recognitions of cosmic facts: “The beaches overturn without a proper break” how “The sun revolves around the earth revolves around the sun.” Commuting, noting the passage of time, the faces of strangers, a public concern for the fragility of existence emerges from a collective sense of collapse. It may be the city, but it reveals our relationship to nature: “Funding now requires private lives embrace catastrophe … And yet the edge possessions cut in air provokes a thought of more can be relied upon. 8th Ave is blocked but yes, whole neighborhoods can be revisited” (97). O’Brien himself has noted the book as kind of fall into prose, with the title poem operating as a kind of ars poetica of how detached and belated the garden feels. Is this the fate of arcadia/utopia? Ghostly iambs haunting the train station of sentences? Geoffrey G. O’Brien’s radical taxonomy of American values is a trenchant perch from which to question our edenic inheritances.
For dizzily above the world the blinking lights, collective life in flight, abstractedly survive commemoration. Then the season turns and current flows into the picture. A muddy coat of brown gives way, revealing brilliant greens and blues about the earth there’s little more to say unless you stop and listen to its roaring unawares (95)
A very different but no less experimental attempt at a new American pastoralism can be found in John Taggart’s Pastorelles. Published in 2004, this book, Taggart’s twelfth, finds him plumbing his local scene for the material real. If O’Brien is the City Dweller singing to the shepherd, Taggart is the Wandering Alto riffing country (or more likely jazz) at the cafe. A longtime rural Pennsylvania dweller, Taggart taught for many years at Shippensburg State. Yet he’s a seminal figure in postwar American avant-garde poetry — its generally urban ethos — and an inheritor and articulator of Objectivist poetics, particularly Zukofsky and George Oppen. So too, his work is deeply informed by music — his interest in post-bop jazz, Gregorian chant and Minimalism — and how these iterate as a serial poetics. Filled with these dichotomous rhythms, Taggart in Pastorelles destabilizes the sonic architecture of the poem while variously interrogating the pastoral tradition. He, too, makes a cultural artifact (art for art for Art Tatum). But it’s in the rural-actual moment more than any recollected tranquility. In this regard his work is decidedly nonmetaphoric, and might be characterized as post-pastoral for its a priori rejection of the ideal. Rather, Taggart seeks to resist, on the one hand, the mainstream imagistic tradition of American poetry (Altieri’s “scenic poetry”), and on the other, the text-privileged, highly theorized poetry of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writing. Neither apotheosis seems acceptable to Taggart, and indeed apotheosis is the problem. The poem should disclose its subject in the manner of its material without any prior claims upon it. And it should do so from an explicit or implicit place. Indeed, it is the density with which it authentically thinks through place that allows it vision, but it is a vision of this moment, that object, without teleological claim. As he says of his beloved Oppen, “[he] does not propose to entertain or to amaze by playing upon ideas already at hand, but to think, ‘naked’ in the poem to some purpose.”
That purpose, both in Pastorelles and throughout Taggart’s oeuvre, is to ground the poem’s thinking, its language, in the material world and as a material fact. He suggests this early on in the poem “Thales the Milesian/In a Time of Drought.” By invoking Thales of Milesia, the “first philosopher of the first philosophers,” Taggart makes clear his impulses are to demythologize poetry. He reaches back to the origins of pre-Socratic philosophy and focuses the poem’s attention on matter:
first of the first philosophers of material substance
the source of all existing things
that from which a thing first comes into being
and into which it is finally destroyed
the substance persisting (10)
“The substance persisting” — the physical world — is given solidity by its animating principle, water. Our blue planet breathes, however threatened, with this material fact. But we know water not by its global character but by its local manifestation. The poem evolves across its slash (across time?) to this “time of drought.” Juxtaposed to that ancient master, drought dramatizes the tenuous endurance of “the substance persisting.” Taken at this far end of the telescope, we are left presently with a feeling that the “element and first principle” of our survival is fleeting. Without much reaching, I feel some address towards that condition we call global warming. But this is not an idea presented so much as an experience had:
In a time of drought
the time in the morning in a time
already too dry and too warm
and without rain
all day the time remaining too dry and too warm
day after day
in a time remaining too dry and too warm
too dry and too warm
and without rain (11)
The repetition of too (seven times), time (five), dry (five), warm (four) and day (three) produce an insistent turning of the experience of drought; we sense it as duration, “a time of drought,” and acceleration “already too dry and too warm.” Yet we experience it ultimately as a poem, the lines spilling and repeating, phrase by phrase, a voice turning the concern. The irregular lengths offer counterpoint, an over/under cadence that pulses with alarm. Met with this interior meditation, we might expect the poem to move up and out into a global alert. Yet it resolves itself by a move back into the particular: “copper beeches / young leaves of the young copper beeches / shriveled up shapes.” It is not the general condition but the material case that’s visible. These are the trees of Taggart’s south-central Pennsylvania hit hard by drought in the 1990s. Place and time in the poem are occasioned by Taggart’s literal experience, and they manifest the compositional process in the repetitions of the poem. Whatever symbolic import we attach to the juxtapositional strategy of “Thales the Milesian/In a Time of Drought” it registers first as a local ambience. Taggart is no Eliot; a physical ruminant, turning the ground of the poem, he chants “these shriveled up shapes in the shapes of corpses.” In this way the “shapes in the shapes of clutching” that end the poem are as much the feeling of the trees as the feeling of the poem. Exchange, inhabitation, a readerly horizon opened by recurring sounds and motifs. Again and again in Pastorelles Taggart moves us back and forth between the density of the physical landscape and the associational field it generates.
Ideas come from places, and places disclose their real subjects as layers of inhabitation, weather. More likely than not, Taggart’s speaker is poised in situ, thinking on a scene, into a scene. The meditative tone of Pastorelles emerges from observation; context suggests the relationship of locally organized spaces and times. Take the first poem in the book, the haunting “Carlisle Indian Industrial School,”
Now a college of the military
what was once the Carlisle Indian Industrial School
photography on a wall of the college
young Indian couple
almost prim almost properly “Victorian” (1)
The poem describes a site, an exterior, a building, until we are suddenly inside the college looking at a “photograph on a wall of the college.” Taggart cleverly enjambs the title into the poem to juxtapose a then to a now. But the time slips again — backward — with the third line of the poem; we oscillate between these competing times such that we are present in both. And it is inside a building and outside a building; inside the photograph and outside the photograph. Taggart’s thinking-through-the-object creates a visionary space where “their eyes flashing / black / unforgettable their flashing black eyes.” I get a jolt from this act of witness, the poem as much as the photograph; the poem sees the photograph, and suddenly the chilling history of our genocidal ‘settlement’ of America comes alive. This site itself — a late-nineteenth-century boarding school in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, that tried to assimilate Native American children — suggests the relationships of the poem. College to war, conquered to conqueror, “flashing black eyes” to a “brooch coat and tie.” The poem ends with an ethical reverberation that comes from the place: “lesson / for those who would be generals.”
As a kind of pastoral anthropology, Taggart’s Pastorelles is always digging around, plunging into the farmscape. The serial poem “Not Egypt” accomplishes this adroitly, starting from inside Taggart’s home: “Turned sideways / window turns into pillars / shadow pillars and shadow porches / deep red valley in a valley way down in Egypt land” (13). Our eye moves sideways, out the window, onto the porch and down into a valley. The archaic syntax of “way down in Egypt land” suggests some mythic subject, or perhaps a Christian spiritual, especially as the subsequent lines are “shadows and habitation / of the dead.” Yet Taggart is simply observing the history of his place. Egypt turns out to be an unincorporated town in Pennsylvania, one of the oldest settlements in the state, and a crucial cement-producing area (Egypt cement built the New York City subway). Our readerly associations enter the poem as an extension of that anthropological instinct, neither right nor wrong, just activated. As the poem moves on through its five sections, Taggart uses specific features of the landscape — a stone wall, a shortcut road in the woods, redbud bushes, a steel plow — to trace the history of its uses. He discovers “dusk and dark along the road past Ramp’s stone house”; “tool and tools / to move through depths of a valley”; “wind / exhilaration of the fragrance of the flowers / by starlight”; and “the sweet cherry orchard / no longer there / not one tree of the orchard left to shake.” Signs of human inhabitation blend with natural processes, become natural processes, all “testaments of the dead / testaments of the unwrapped dead” (13).
One of the considerable pleasures of all this plumbing of the scene is the music by which it sings. Taggart ends this lovely poem with “a labor of ecstasy / considerable labor of ecstasy” (17). Much like Geoffrey G. O’Brien, John Taggart is interested in identifying writing as a crucial labor. A rural subject, the tracery of people at work, this pastoral digging adduces to a version of proletarian literature William Empson might recognize, however much admire. The rural limit produces a particular kind of beauty closely observed. For the sincere man is one with nature. Taggart’s locus amenis is his own backyard, which also happens to be an American wilderness successively settled for its garden potential:
from the creek through another woods under another road
through another woods to the creek again
made by a number of men with their tools
by their labor
which is my labor also (“Not Egypt,” 17)
Poems like “Work,” “In the Kitchen,” “Rhythm and Blues Singer,” or “Henry David Thoreau/Sonny Rollins” explore the poetic labor as it analogously inhabits various portraits of people “woodshedding.” That each might be seen to have made a “sincere account” of their work seems to be Taggart’s ethical and economic concern, not to mention his American literary claim. Here is Zukofsky’s “objective”: “In sincerity shapes appear concomitants of word combinations, precursors of (if there is continuance) completed sound or structure, melody or form. Writing occurs which is the detail, not mirage, of seeing, of thinking of things as they exist.” Taggart’s ledger exhumes cultural figures, lost voices, private collections; we are instructed in the histories of our gardens. Good thermodynamics, labor is preserved in a vivid range of site maps. Correspondence is a question of local character, places to be sure, but also people and the objects that they make. Indeed, one of the pleasing discoveries of Pastorelles is the correspondence between the photographs on the cover — taken by his wife, Jennifer — and the poems in the book. Beautifully and spaciously produced by Flood Editions, there is a winking aboutness to this text that extends materially across sympathetic objects and landscapes. Yet we should not be surprised by this, as one of Taggart’s early projects, editing the seminal ’60s journal Maps, projected this materialist poetics from the outset.
As I’ve said, much of the labor of Taggart’s poetry, in Pastorelles and throughout his work, can be found in his music: signature word and phrase repetitions, clausal fusions that mutate syntax, running infinitive verb structures, all in shades of seriality that variously stretch repetition over time. Energetically speaking, there’s something preserved in the circular music of his poems; phrases, lines of thought, turn and return, working out the logos by the melos:
Full/open red daylily
reminder that the object is a song
for which the troubadours commended themselves to a life between
risk of holding back
risk of not holding back and the death of desire
which is the death of song
which is the death of the troubadour (“Pastorelle 2,” 3)
One hears the lines in one’s head, anticipates them, discovers them, amplifies them through the nuance of repetition. The readerly horizon is intensely recursive, a lyric work that incrementally awakens our senses “concerning the lily its full/open throat open for a day” (“Pastorelle 2”). Yet it is also a self-interrogation, or the interrogation of the song. The poem interrogates the lyric function of the troubadour by singing. Taggart’s Objectivist attention seeks to accurately notate the body proper, but the body moves day to day:
the problem is not turning
into a rock
the problem is a problem of how
far how far can I throw myself and how far can I
throw myself again (“Pastorelle 7,” 43)
Restlessly recasting the object of attention, the poem, the rock, Taggart’s line keeps freezing or spilling “the problem” of attention: “the problem is a problem of how” “far how far can I throw.” The poem turns back on itself, just as the question of the next poem turns back on the author. It is the problem of a lifetime, and the project of books. Listen, for instance, to its endurance in yet another project, another poem, six years prior: “the subject was roses the problem is memory … the problem is memory the problem a problema / the problem a problema a problem to find / a problem to find the unknown.” When the Saints is an elegy for his friend, the artist Bradford Graves, but it is also the question of poesis itself experienced as a daily phenomenon: “how far can I throw myself and how far can I / throw myself again.” In a 2001 interview with Brad Hass, Taggart notes this as a kind of improvisational making/unmaking: “I see it [the poem] as addressing form and working with form as a grid. The task is to get it set up; then, once you’re in it to not so much get out of it but as you’re going along to go beyond it, to go off the grid.”
Beyond any gestural pipings, Taggart’s looping repetitions are a very real working out of musicological properties, in particular the cantus firmus tradition that spans from Gregorian chant to contemporary Minimalism. Employing a fixed melody or theme over which variations turn and return, Taggart has been exploring this mode since at least Dodeka in 1979. In this, and the subsequent period, cantus firmus manifested in a variety of extended forms, more or less uniform in line and syllable count. Poems such as “Peace on Earth” and “The Rothko Chapel Poem” had a sustained architecture that induced a powerful choral effect. In Pastorelles, Taggart’s activity is different. Often varying short and long lines, lines which isolate the repeated word or phrase, or doubling words line to line or within lines, Taggart enacts a curious echo that is more intimate and condensed:
Gradually how gradually
one comes to understand the poets
as gradually as
the compulsion of one’s own compulsion the compulsion to repeat
(“The Compulsion to Repeat,” 62)
Yet the sound is more contrapuntal swing than Gertrude Stein insistence. Here it is the compulsion to repeat that discovers something. Music, as such, is a generator of the intertextual field. Taggart’s got a brilliant ear which increasingly syncopates the line and opens the page toward sources as various as African American spirituals, Sonny Rollins sax solos, country music, Sainte Colombe viola, the minimalist lyrics of William Bronk, or Lorine Niedecker, Charles Wesley’s Methodist hymns, Steve Reich’s polyrhythms, Robert Quine’s guitar leads, and the visual music of the painter R. B. Kitaj. Taggart chooses his subjects carefully; or rather the musical properties they explore are particular cadences, rhythms of thought, as much as sources of inspiration. And they continue to move.
In the poem “5/On the Line” we see Taggart explicitly metapoetical. It’s a deft and witty literalizing of the poem’s activity, as it is five separate poems on the subject of the line, often with five-line stanzas, or patterns of five words. Here we find Taggart doing what seems signal of this later period: the accretive serial poem. By using the lyric to interrogate the history of the lyric we get a repeating lyric that metonymically extends the sonic architecture of the lyric, but in an irregular manner. Extension is the key, how far can the line “throw?” As the poet Rochelle Ratner observed long ago, “The deeper I get into reading Taggart, the more I come to understand that it’s not so much music his work is involved with but variations.” One only has to reread a poem like the thirty-five page “The Rothko Chapel Poem” to see how long the line can blow. Yet here the densified figuration from “5/On the Line” offers:
Said to have begun in the middle
middle of the line mulberries with mulberries and their weight
white and black and red
weighing down the branch not a word in the line (70)
Tracing the line in medias res, Taggart sources through ancient Greece, but immediately shifts the context to mulberries, the Pennsylvania local, a color and a weight that “writes” the page by season, “… not a word in the line.” This “natural language” makes sense, “because the line = The branch / mulberries / their weight what holds the line in place as a branch extending in space.” Taggart’s tracing of the poetic line to visible nature, the literal bow of the tree, provides the instruction, and suggests the present material is always the source of our intelligence. Good Objectivism, we may trace the line forward historically, but it is always written on the present case, informs it as a material density of thing seen by attention. Yet the poem offers a bridge as well. Pastorelles refracts pastourelles, Old French lyric forms of the twelfth century expressive of rural character. Time crosses the limb in an act of lyric attention. An ongoingness, the next poem in the series offers a more mythic necessity to the scene: “The best one of the best lines / “Pan Sleeps” // which explains everything which explains why the drought” (71). We return to the drought in the poem “Thales the Melisian,” and to the arcadian source of the pastoral imagination. We also reloop to the beginning of the book. Are we to believe our environmental crises are due to a lack of song? Should we try the “problema” again? Repetition compels us to think on it. Reading Taggart’s variable line affords an opportunity. And something happens, the music is both an invitation and a discovery. Nature is imperiled in this query of the line, and it produces a line of poetry; it is a line of descent and a line of witness, something divined and something literally seen:
which explains everything which explains why the drought
year after year the ground in the woods
cracked gravel and powder
where the grasses ferns and grasses where the trout lilies used to be
roots of the trees
great length of the roots of the trees exposed
across the path stepped on run over by the tractor (“5/On the Line,” 71)
Thirty-seven of fifty-three poems in Pastorelles are serial. Their “limitless set of relations,” to quote theorist Joseph Conte, “take shape from the diverse ways in which items come together undetermined by external necessity.” It is perhaps true that the whole book is a series, or a continuation of the serial project initiated by Loop. The non-“Pastorelle” poems in the volume develop cases, sites, and correspondences, with “Pastorelles 1–15” operating as a kind of interstitial riff or refrain. Essentially open, improvisational, and aleatory in their placement in the larger structure of the book, they gain momentum from their sonically accretive manner. Yet an examination of the overarching forms reveals an intense sense of stanzaic correspondence, and a preponderance of subtle number games played into a kind of physical texture. Taggart’s repetitions are intensive — acting within poems — and extensive — acting across poems, and even books. In Pastorelles, recurring forms of the series (three to seven poems each) stretch our sense of increment; one hears oneself hearing this poem, the last poem. Themes and images as well as phrases leap across the book, and the book as a sustained activity is both radically destabilized and enlarged. Repeating gestures of sound and ideolect thus conserve their energies like living systems, books. Indeed, the organic metaphor is apt despite Taggart’s resistance to metaphor. For indeed, it is not a metaphor at all but a felt property of the poem. There is something so deeply musical about his poetry that he reverses mimetic sensibilities; we see, we have insight by the drone of the poem. It’s very literally a spiritual hymn and a devotional activity, a faith in the lyric tradition that is not sentimental but performed. As he says in “Rhythm and Blues Singer,” “words entangle us / words in letters of the alphabet the letters in written words” and “rhythm = the backbeat of all biological pleasures / blues = bad luck and trouble / to sing is to be untied” (48).
Importantly, this singing is also an attention to natural processes, sites of disclosure. I see the echo of images on the cover of Pastorelles and the physical field of the poems to which they correspond. It is tempting to locate these locations to a more theoretical “opening of the field” via Duncan’s famous formulation. And we wouldn’t be wrong for there is a dual permission in Taggart’s book: to return to and dwell within specific meaningful places in the natural world, and to thematically rewire the coordinates of western environmental history. This is the good instruction of Taggart’s pastoralism. And if his music allows this physical experience so too do his built up subjects disclose a particular evolution of poetry. Pastorelles is rife with premonitions of mortality, both in a poet’s life and in the turning of the seasons. This quality imbues the book with a sustained elegiac tonality, and situates, at first glance, its pastoral gestures in an arcadian past. Yet the knowledge we might yield from such a backward glance comes up against the more immediate permission of the present:
In such an evening such as this evening
this May evening the lengthening light of this May evening
let us walk in the woodland garden
a grove or green place
and in this place let us take up your question
(“A Grove or Green Place,” 44)
In successively numbered sections of “such evenings” it is the flowers, trees, and shrubs of the poet’s immediate garden that offer “the still bright clarity of the cardinals” (45). Nature has a course for us if we should care to study it; and “in such an evening we are taking up your questions /question of what we are.” Poetry-as-thinking resides in the materially utopic present of “green and not-green parts of this green place.”
Yet those images, those bridges and daylilies imply a journey of the garden, and to this we owe some debt to Leo Marx’s machine. Shot through with technology, we manage our being by being on a journey. In this regard that time-worn aspect of the pastoral — excursus — fuses the city and the country. Throughout Pastorelles John Taggart seems to be on a ramble, driving, walking, taking in the scene. Modernity’s recasting of the tradition provides a convenient open road through an informational field: “I’m in the dark on a long long long lonesome road / a roadless road and not a preference” (“Aluminum Road” 7). Something of an initial outing, we start Pastorelles at the “Carlisle Indian Industrial School.” On and through the book we walk through various glades and seasons, we drive the “Aluminum Road” and visit a “Car Museum” only to end up, in the last poem, “Plinth,”
cannot be glued cannot be pinned
what can be done = the parts abutted
to the rough foundation stones from the old schoolhouse (104)
Taggart reconstructs the local scene by minute attention; a new, presumably more compassionate and ecologically nuanced history might emerge from the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. It will be rebolted, “the plinth resting on / bolted to those stones.” There is something urgent in the lament; it calls for a new foundation. How shall we build it, “what can be done?”… “that music may enter as through a welcoming portal may enter this // air / among these pines.” It turns out all that lyric acuity might have an ethical application. In the carefully organized structure of the book we have an apt demonstration of an in situ thinking song. It is suggestively symbolic of where we might be headed.
I want to end my discussion of Taggart’s Pastorelles by noting a distinct formal feature that offers some last evidence to the utility of the pastoral tradition. Some of the titles of the poems in the volume — and in the subsequent volume, There Are Birds (from which I take the title of this essay, “Surroundings answer questions”), most significantly the sixty-two-page “Unveiling/Marianne Moore” — employ a backslash to curious effect. Poems such as “Henry David Thoreau/Sonny Rollins” seem to juxtapose characters, effect a study in character. Other poems, such as “Thales the Milesian/In a Time of Drought” and “Parmenides/Fragments 3 and 15A,” evoke a simultaneity of subject across time and space. Or it’s a subject as idea or person, and a process operating on that subject across time and space. At other moments it is contrast, or a kind of severing or caesura, or even a line break, “because the line = the branch / mulberries” (“5/On the Line”). Dialogically suspended, Taggart manages, by way of the backslash, to triangulate things, people, and ideas into the third term of the poem; yet it is not a synthesis, not a condensation or summary connection. He lets the juxtaposition speak as the materials would present themselves, a kind of parataxical voice. This omnidirectional quality of dialogue — of the poet in dialogue with avatars and the disparate materials of his culture — prefigures that particular dialogic tension between the city dweller and the shepherd, or rather the contradictions between them. Caught singing between the future and the past, between an exhausted tradition and the world it would still attempt sincerely to embody, we would do well to include all the terms in our present investigation. John Taggart’s Pastorelles eloquently gives us the trace to find our way:
Cut of the slash
which cuts and which connects
of the cut of
which leaves a blue mark
black and blue mark
which can be read as a kind of bridge
connecting black and blue and
the abstract truth of
time itself. (“Henry David Thoreau/Sonny Rollins,” 23)
2. Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America (London, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1964). Class idyll, or Manifest Destiny, we seek a magnification in the pastoral. Marx’s genius is in showing that, despite this commonplace, the train, or technology largely figured, is exceptional in America.
3. This is Charles Olson’s argument as well in Call Me Ishmael (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997): “I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America man, from Folsom Cave to now. I spell it large because it comes large here. Large and without mercy” (3).
12. Taggart’s papers are housed at the University of California, San Diego. See the Online Archive of California; also of note is the Fales Library and Special Collections at NYU. The John Taggart Archive is a collection of correspondence Taggart received as editor of Maps from 1970 to 1974. Collection highlights include correspondence from Carol Bergé, Paul Blackburn, Hayden Carruth, Robert Creeley, Guy Davenport, Gary Snyder, and Louis Zukofsky.
14. Taggart, interview with Brad N. Hass, Flashpoint, 2002.
17. Rochelle Ratner, “The Poet as Composer,” Paper Air, 1979. See also Karl Young’s essay at thing.net.