On John Taggart's 'There Are Birds'
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.
2. Taggart, There Are Birds (Chicago: Flood Editions, 2008), 4.
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).
4. Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1976).
5. John Taggart, Remaining in Light: Ant Meditations on a Painting By Edward Hopper (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993), 32.
8. Taggart, When the Saints (Jersey City: Talisman House, 1999), 56.
9. Taggart, Pastorelles (Chicago: Flood Editions, 2004), 3.
10. Taggart, When the Saints, 69.
11. William Carlos Williams, Selected Essays (New York: New Directions, 1934), 126.
13. Wallace Stevens, The Collected Poems (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1961), 17.
14. Robert Quine (1942–2004) was an American guitarist who had a role in the punk rock movement, and who, like Taggart, graduated from Earlham College in 1965.
15. The first publication of “Refrains for Robert Quine” contained the following lines:
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.”
16. Williams, Collected Poems, Vol 1: 1909–1939, eds. A. Walton Litz and Christopher MacGowan (New York: New Directions, 1986), 312.
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.
21. Williams, Selected Essays, 124.
22. See Marianne Moore, Selected Letters, ed. Bonnie Costello, Celeste Goodyear, and Cristanne Miller (New York: Knopf, 1997; Penguin, 1998).
23. See The Fables of La Fontaine, trans. Marianne Moore (New York: Viking Press, 1964).
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.”
25. Francis Picabia, Francis Picabia: Late Works 1933–1953, ed. Zdenek Felix (Ostifildern-Ruit: Verlag Gerd Hatje; New York Distributed Art Publisher Inc., 1998).
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.
28. See Walter J. Ong, The Presence of the Word: Some Prolegomena for Cultural and Religious History (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1967), 120.
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).
30. Mark Flanagan and Tony Kirkham, in Wilson’s China: A Century On (Kew: Kew Publishing, 2009), retrace Wilson’s travels and find some of the places he photographed.
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).
32. Ovid, Metamorposes (New York: W. W. Norton, 2004), book 1, 53; Heroides (New York: Viking Penguin, 1990), book 2, 60.
33. Identified by John Taggart in a letter to the author, September 23, 2010.
34. See Simone Weil, Waiting for God, trans. Emma Caufurd (New York: Putnam Press, 1951).
35. Williams, Selected Essays, 122.
36. Soren Kierkegaard, “1848–1849: The Widening of the Rift,” in Journals and Papers: A Selection, ed. and intro. Alastair Hannay (London: Penguin Books, 1996).
37. Graham Stuart Thomas, Trees in the Landscape (London: Jonathan Cape, 1983), 71.
38. Robert Duncan, Ground Work: Before the War, In the Dark, intro. Michael Palmer, eds. Robert J. Bertholf and James Maynard (New York: New Directions, 2006), 241.
39. Geoffrey Chaucer, “Troilus and Criseyde” and “The Book of the Duchesse,” in The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, ed. F. N. Robertson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1961), 72, 73.
40. Stevens, Collected Poems, 373.
41. Williams, Selected Essays, 128.
42. Behind this line is the title of a Duke Ellington song from the 1940s, “It Don’t Mean a Thing, if It Ain’t Got That Swing.”
43. John Taggart, “Chicago Breakdown,” 1913: A Journal of Forms, no. 2 (2005): 67–72.
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).
45. Rémi Labrusse, “‘What Remains Belongs to God’: Henri Matisse, Alois Riegl and the Arts of Islam,” in Matisse, His Art and His Textiles, 55.
46. Taggart, Songs of Degrees: Essays on Contemporary Poetry and Poetics (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1994), 71.
47. René Char, La nuit talismanique in Oeuvres completes (Paris: La Pléiade, 1983), 505.
50. James Cahill, Chinese Painting, new edition (Geneva: Skira; distributed by Crown Publishers, Inc., New York, 1972).
Edited by Matthew Cooperman