'Surroundings answer questions'
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)
1. William Empson, Some Versions of Pastoral (London: Chatto and Windus, 1935), 3.
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).
4. Charles Altieri, Self and Sensibility in Contemporary American Poetry (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 5.
5. Geoffrey G. O’Brien, Green and Gray (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).
6. John Taggart, Pastorelles (Chicago: Flood Editions, 2004).
7. O’Brien, The Guns and Flag Project (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002).
8. Raymond Williams, The Country and The City (London, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975).
9. O’Brien, Metropole (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011).
10. Taggart, Songs of Degrees: Essays on Contemporary Poetry and Poetics (Tuscaloosa and London: University of Alabama Press, 1994), 5.
11. Louis Zukofsky, Prepositions: The Collected Critical Essays (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2001), 13.
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.
13. Taggart, When the Saints (Jersey City, NJ: Talisman House, 1999), 2.
14. Taggart, interview with Brad N. Hass, Flashpoint, 2002.
15. Taggart, Dodeka (New York: Membrane Press, 1979).
16. Taggart, Peace on Earth (Berkeley: Turtle Island Foundation, 1981); Loop (Los Angeles: Sun and Moon, 1987).
17. Rochelle Ratner, “The Poet as Composer,” Paper Air, 1979. See also Karl Young’s essay at thing.net.
18. Joseph Conte, Unending Design: The Forms of Postmodern Poetry (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991), 15.
19. Robert Duncan, The Opening of the Field (New York: New Directions, 1973). See in particular “Often I Am Permitted to Return.”
Edited by Matthew Cooperman