Wednesday, July 07, 2004
As noted in this blog before, Ahsahta Press, now a part of the Boise State University publishing empire, has – in addition to publishing books by interesting new writers – Noah Eli Gordon is next up on their to-do list, having just received the Sawtooth Poetry Prize – been doing serious work making available books of poetry by poets whose work might otherwise disappear from view. In particular, the press has taken on something of the project of tracking American modernism of the west, especially that which was not automatically linked up to a second-tier publishing center like San Francisco.
In addition to Genevieve Taggard’s To the Natural World & Judson Crews’ The Clock of Moss, the press has brought out two volumes by 1926 Yale Younger Poet Thomas Hornsby Ferril and Hildegarde Flanner’s The Hearkening Eye, as well as books by Haniel Long & Norman MacLeod, among many others. Unlike its volumes of more recent authors, such as Graham Foust or Lance Phillips, published as Ahsahta Press New Series, the books in its Modern and Contemporary Poetry of the American West series have a print-on-demand look about them, with matte covers and no real cover art beyond the press’ logo, with no blurbs or copy on the backs. My copies of both the Crews & Taggard volumes both disintegrated during their first reading, as if the glue in the binding were there more as a gesture than a commitment. Still, I’m exceptionally happy to have my hands on all of this material, whether it’s fairly obscure (as Taggard has become, say) or more recent, like the book by Crews or one by William Witherup – another little mag staple of my youth – or (and this is a gem of a discovery) what appears to be Cynthia Hogue’s first book, The Woman in Red. While I’ve been kvetching for decades over the problem of “disappearing poets,” Ahsahta has been quietly doing something about it.
If one were to divide the world of poetry, as Josephine Miles pictures it at the end of World War I, into “the poets in the Whitman tradition, trying their new freedoms, and those who held closely to or were renewing a kind of neat quatrain power,” Taggard might be said to fall closer to – tho not exactly in – the latter camp. Indeed, Taggard reminds me of the fact that Ezra Pound’s great poem, “A Pact,” from Lustra (“I make a pact with you, Walt Whitman -- / I have detested you long enough.”), is predicated by precisely the problem that the choice as posed, say, by Miles, of Whitman or the chains of quatrains, is finally not enough. One could, to some degree, see modernism in poetry as the attempt to offer an alternative to heritage of closed forms other than through sheer orality.
Taggard herself was born in 1894, a decade ahead of Carl Rakosi, a decade behind Pound, Wlliams, Marianne Moore & HD. Born in Waitsburg, Washington, northeast of Walla Walla & not more than 50 miles from where I was born, Taggard grew up in what was then outside of the United States, in Hawaii, returning at the age of 18 to attend the University of California, after which she lived a life in constant motion, living everywhere from Capri & Mallorca to San Francisco & New York. Rare for someone in her generation, Taggard taught poetry at three universities. Married twice – her first husband was confined to a mental hospital – Taggard died in 1948.
There is one poem in Taggard’s 1980 volume that addresses the question of competing aesthetics. It is called “Aleatory Wind” & Miles, clearly on the quatrain side of the fulcrum, characterizes it as “an essay”:
Especially the new beauty;
The honest eye that shines and pierces
Even while it pours its honest love like a vapor of healing.
The bare ritual offends;
And the ritual of brotherhood
Which is the basalt sense of the world
Offends, is made to seem contrary and ugly
By means of another ritual with a flimsy deity
And a fantastic logic.
Where the hands have no liking
For stones and where minds are blind
To structure. Wherever the hands cease to take hold,
Where the mind backs away from the plain and the related.
This ritual will hurt
The hands of those
Who have left the wilderness of necessity.
Deep mutuality, the sense of distance,
The sense of depth.
Of the fertility of stones, their tears.
Of the electrical star, its tears.
Of the hilarity of the stone brotherhood, the activity of jasper,
Of the inertia of stones, the fixity of basalt,
Of the vigor of stones in their power to draw,
To test metals, to build shapes, to be in space,
To become fluid in the blood of volcanoes,
Of these I made claim . . .
“No art,” said the European, sidestepping the rattlesnakes,
With ballet steps. “Unreal,” said the European, “No ghosts.
I took a stone of weeping in my right hand.
And a stone of laughter in my left.
So the ritual always began, testing the power to hold.
Holding them behind me I juggled them evenly and said “Choose.
Lodestones and touchstones. Magnets subtle, complex.
The greathearted jewels of the obsidian world.”
And looking downward I saw a finger of wind in the dust,
Spinning the dust in a wheel, erratic,
In a funnel, a nothing of wind.
New-world dust sang a sulky little song.
But the tourist heard no song
And saw only liver-colored dust
About a foot high, suspended, in which to wade.
This stone is the electrical star,
The cleaver of space; can you, will you
Bowl it in nine-pins?
Curve it, will it to glide
In dream repetition?
We learn slowly the ritual of stones
And the tactile sense. The snap of action.
The excellent flash of the body
When it kneels and swings.
In this ritual we dance.
For we clasp our ghost, we whirl with a new music.
He is the man we murdered,
The red man. He goes. He is here.
Our ghost is our culture. And we embrace another.
He is the man we murder.
The black man. He returns and returns,
Teaching ritual. And every kind of man
Draws into this whirl. The wind veers
As if to nullify all.
The center of the earth is basalt.
Here we gaze to commune
On action’s articulate bones,
Observing our guilt; the rituals of food and power
All wrongly played. Of this we know much.
Sharing aleatory wind
A thin ether.
Playing with skulls, colors, gadgets
Inventions and dice.
A dangerous country. With a culture like whisky.
The European wore gloves,
And under the gloves, thimbles
On each finger – clumsy.
He turned the pages of old situations
And muttered his pity in the stony places.
This is not, you may have noticed, great poetry. But it doesn’t need to be to make my point. Taggard, not unlike Pound, is trying to find a grounds for an aesthetic other than “the European, sidestepping the rattlesnakes, / With ballet steps.” Not unlike William Carlos Williams, who found Pound’s promotion of Eliot to be a capitulation to “the European,” Taggard likewise attempts to define something uniquely American (i.e. non-European) in which to ground formal differences.
The poem’s opening suggests that Taggard is going to find this quality – X – in some mystical notion, literally something capable of supporting “the fertility of stones.” It’s almost as if Taggard is anticipating Olson’s sense of landscape – or as he liked to call it, in caps, SPACE – but in fact she turns away from that dimension, at least as transcendant cause, looking instead on the temporal access. Thus, if the European’s complaint is that the new world – and by inference its poetics – lacks history – “No ghosts” is the complaint – Taggard counters precisely with the ghost of genocide, and not of one race, but of two.
Considering that a considerable portion of Taggard’s own work could easily be characterized as “European” in the sense that Miles suggests as “renewing a kind of neat quatrain power,” Aleatory Wind is an intriguing thought experiment. At one level, Taggard gets it that American poetry might prove inherently different from its cousins across the pond. Yet she wants the causes for this to be relatively straightforward – none of this “base vs. superstructure” stuff that was fashionable once upon a time here. What she ends up with is not that far removed from a version of American exceptionalism – the theory that attempted to explain why the US never had a major socialist movement. If the origin of European culture – those “ballet steps” – can be said to be history – “ghosts” – it is not that the US lacks its own apparitions, but rather than in our truncated sense of the past what we have instead are two genocidal movements – the Indian “wars,” and lynching.
And this is where I wish I knew just when Taggard was writing here – the only mention of this poem, the longest in the book, I can find among the index of her papers at Dartmouth is a collection of typescript fragments, undated. Is she testing open form, pushing it beyond her normal sense of the poem, which frankly is how I read it in the context of her other poems here? Or is this a kind a set-up? Is she arguing that what is distinctly American – our ‘”rattlesnakes” – is a kind of toxin, the literary vestage of our own damage? Hard to imagine that view too close to World War I, or WW2 for that matter.
The poem appears in the “Washington and California” second section of the volume, after the juvenilia of “Hawaii,” so presumably was written either when Taggard was studying at Berkeley, or relatively soon thereafter, thus the work of a woman in her twenties.
Yet if she is arguing for a connection between the violence & poisons of the American experience, this poem is, in the same moment, an argument for this indeed. What “offends,” after all is “new beauty,” “honest love” and “the ritual of brotherhood.” There is an articulateness to the opacity of the landscape, its immanence –
New-world dust sang a sulky little song.
But the tourist heard no song
It’s a conundrum that plays out in our own landscape as well.