Commentaries - April 2011

Nathaniel Tarn, "Unravelling / Shock"

Nathaniel Tarn; "Dying Trees" jacket


The eighth section of Nathaniel Tarn's sequence Dying Trees is titled "Unravelling / Shock." Dying Trees was first published as a chapbook in 2003; later, in 2008, it was included entirely in Tarn's New Directions book, Ins and Outs of the Forest Rivers. When the Dying Trees sequence was still unpublished, Tarn gave a reading at the Kelly Writers House (2002) during which he read several sections of the then-new poem, including the one discussed here by Marcella Durand, Burt Kimmelman, Erin Gautsche, and PoemTalk's producer and host, Al Filreis.

The setting is certainly Tarn's parched American southwest. Drought is killing the trees; a cancer diagnosis is delivered; nationalism has brought more warring. The convergence of the three forms a "web." "A hole [has been] torn in the fabric of the world." News travels bodily; leaders fail to lead; beetles pierce bark; a demonic mouse – "wee" and yet terribly efficacious – compounds the morbidity to the point of body-snatching. It happens as an ecological, medical, and political simultaneity, and the speaker is not in a state to be much concerned about keeping the categories separate. Thus the poem is itself "the whole infernal weave" – a quality more obvious in this eighth section of the poem than in others. Our talkers, Burt especially (a great admirer of Tarn), found this verging on didactic. And yet Burt, Erin, and Marcella all acknowledge that what's actually causing the sense of didacticism is the "unravelling" of the poem's lines and thematic focus.

Burt, Erin, and Marcella each take a turn, toward the end of the discussion, in an effort to relate Tarn's career-long interest in ethnopoetics to the ecopoetics of the Dying Trees sequence. Indeed, then, they ponder the two categories in general relation.

Back in our poem, "Ghosts" walking among the dying trees get the last word (quoted in the final lines of the poem):

              "those days,
those days you took no notice of, counting them poor,
dispersing them among the memories you could not value
at their truth worth, you could not recognize enough to feel:
who knows if these few days, these very days, were not
those ones lived together here, the only paradise?"

Tarn, an eminent anthropologist as well as a poet, finds a speaker at the apparent end of the world and has him describe a paradise lost; the verb is lived, not live.

- - -

In 2003, Jacket published two sections of Dying Trees, the 7th and 9th. The 9th, entitled "Golden Globes of Hopefulness," was also recorded during the Kelly Writers House reading mentioned above. Jacket also published Tarn's review of a book about Robert Duncan and illness. And Jacket 39 included a wide-ranging feature of essays and commentary on Tarn's work overall.

PoemTalk #42 was directed and engineered by James LaMarre, and edited, as always, by Steve McLaughlin.

Quotation from a poem by Sir Walter Scott printed on the final page of a report published by the Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), Review of the Scientific and Cultural Conference for World Peace, arranged by the National Council of the Arts, Sciences, and Professions, and held in New York City, March 25, 26, and 27, 1949 (Washington, D.C.: Committee on Un-American Activities, U.S. House of Representatives, 1950 [originally released, April 19, 1949]), p. [62]:

Breathes there the man, with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
This is my own, my native land!
Whose heart hath ne'er within him burn'd
As home his footsteps he hath turn'd,
From wandering on a foreign strand?
If such there breathe, go, mark him well;
For him no minstrel raptures swell;
High though his titles, proud his name,
Boundless his wealth as wish can claim,--
Despite those titles, power, and pelf,
The wretch, concentred all in self,
Living, shall forfeit fair renown,
And, doubly dying, shall go down
To the vile dust, from whence he sprung,
Unwept, unhonour'd, and unsung.

[to be solemnly chanted with heavy accent]:

Then they had Aesthetics, then they had a Canon.

They could not Stop from their Ethos of Oppression.

Then I saw America, dressing in all White,

 Settling through the West with a Blinding Light.

[end with a philosophic pause] 

Harriet Monroe, in her Introduction to Vachel Lindsay's 1915 volume The Congo and Other Poems wrote: "They are destined to a wider and higher influence; in fact, the development of that influence, the return to primitive sympathies between artist and audience, which may make possible once more the assertion of primitive creative power, is recognized as the immediate movement in modern art."

The "They" in my revision of the chorus of Lindsay's "The Congo" (a poem that you need to listen to to fully experience)  and in the above passage from Monroe, refers to the White Poets Society, a not so secret multi-national society of white poets who aim to assert primitive and occult creative powers. Different branches of this society are also known as Whitman, New Criticism, Modernism, Postmodernism, Confessionalism, and many many more. You can watch them perform here.

While a present day White Poets Society member like Tony Hoagland is quite different than Vachel Lindsay, it's not surprising that Lindsay's "Fat black bucks" pounding the table and stamping their feet become re-articulated in Hoagland's Vondella Aphrodite. And clearly, Hoagland's poem tries to elicit "primitive sympathies" between white artist and white audience (remember, he said he writes for "his tribe") by trafficking in dirty stereotypes. And no doubt he exhibits "primitive creative power" because his poem sounds like it was written by Early White Man.

Then they had Aesthetics, then they had a Canon.

They could not Stop from their Ethos of Oppression.

Then I saw America, dressing in all White,

 Settling through the West with a Blinding Light.

One of my favorite responses to the Rankine & Hoagland debate is an essay by Major Jackson, titled  "A Mystifying Silence: Big and Black." Yes, I know, the Jackson essay was published in 1997 but if you didnt notice the theme of this debate for many is "rehashing." Anyhoo, Jackson's essay examines many poems about black people written by white poets  (apparently Jackson collects these kinds of poems):

Thus far, white poets have been content to: populate their poems with people of color (see Elizabeth Bishop's "In a Waiting Room"); exoticize and extol the virtues of ethnic life and so-called "primitive" cultures (see Vachel Lindsay's "The Congo" or any number of Jazz poems written by white poets); make passing presumptive and ostracizing remarks about nonwhites (see Tony Hoagland's "Poem in Which I Make the Mistake of Comparing Billie Holiday to a Cosmic Washerwoman"); or cunningly profit from the loaded meanings and connotative power black and other dark-skinned peoples have come to signify in white readers' imagination (see John Berryman's Dream Songs and many works of literary art by American writers). Contemporary poets replicate some of the same strategies but also are beginning to frame contemporary situations, map new emotional and psychic terrain as well as aesthetic approaches to discuss difference in this country and for us as a public readership to take delight in, to debate and argue.

Why do some white people write like this? Is it the nature of their Basic Savagery? Jackson concludes: "Many white contemporary poets do not have black friends."

I am only kidding. He does write that, but I'm quoting it out of context. Actually, Jackson sees a lack of contemporary white poets writing race, and he thinks it would a good thing if there were more (be careful what you ask for [enter tony hoagland]! Jackson concludes for real:

"It bears repeating again: for us to actualize as a country whose ideals and documents profess the value of a diverse ethnic and racial populace, we must begin to pen a body of poems that go beyond our fears and surface projections of each other to a fuller account of the challenges and reaches of an ever-evolving democracy." 

And by "ever-evolving democracy," Jackson of course means "ever-consuming capitalist imperialism."

Then they had Aesthetics, then they had a Canon.

They could not Stop from their Ethos of Oppression.

Then I saw America, dressing in all White,

 Settling through the West with a Blinding Light.

[note: a great discussion of The Congo can be heard here on PoemTalk]

Philology in a new key: Poe, decentered culture, and critical method

Lecture at the Kelly Writers House, introduced by Danny Snelson, April 4, 2011

audio of  lecture: (1:16:59): MP3

Images from Janet Kurnatowski Gallery show
(Go to Sibila for  full set of images)
A selection from the show "Emma Bee Bernstein: An Imagined Space" in Brooklyn, New York, March-April 2011. The show is open two more days: Friday and Saturday, April 22 and 23.  The show was curated was Phong Bui and Linnea Kniaz.  More information here.