Wednesday, February 07, 2007
Unveiling / Marianne Moore, the latest chapbook from Michael Cross’ Atticus/Finch Press consists of two movements from a larger work by the Cumberland Valley poet, John Taggart. Taggart, whom I’ve been reading since he was what you might call a student poet out of the University of Chicago (he would go on to get his Ph.D. at Syracuse), is somebody I never would have thought to have called a Cumberland Valley poet before his last book Pastorelles. As a young poet, Taggart was one of the first in his generation to really base his practice on his reading of the Objectivist poets, especially that of Louis Zukofsky & George Oppen. But where others might have been interested in the work of these poets for their political allegiances, or in Zukofsky for his work on the materiality of the signifier, the thingyness of his language as Stephen Colbert might put it, Taggart’s interest appears more to have been in the careers of these two poets as a philosophical or critical project.
It was, at least as I read it, that philosophical dimension that proved to be a bridge from these early books to the works for which Taggart is most widely known, Slow Song for Mark Rothko and a series of works that invoke the musicians Thelonius Monk & John Coltrane. Marked by a use of reiteration that reminded some readers of Steve Reich or Terry Riley, and which others took as a call for poetry as ecstasy or transcendence, it’s worth noting that Taggart has not only used his influences as conscious, even revered models, but that he has always chosen those whose practice can be read (or seen or listened to) as among the most philosophic in their genre’s recent history. Indeed, that musicians like Monk & Coltrane demonstrated how one could think in their music is precisely what someone like Wynton Marsalis objects to in their work. And when one hears that “the trouble” with Zukofsky is that he is so willing to be difficult, it’s largely the same complaint. So it’s intriguing, if not absolutely scandalous, that somebody like John Taggart can come along and demonstrate the arc of emotion that lurks in the work of these artists.
Taggart’s current piece, at least from the portions visible here, continues these inclinations, organizing Unveiling / Marianne Moore around three historic figures: Moore, who was herself briefly a Cumberland Valley poet during the years when she taught at the Carlisle Indian School prior to heading to New York, 18th century Philadelphia naturalist William Bartram &, geographically the outlier here, Marilyn Monroe. Seeing in Monroe not simply an echo of Moore’s own name, but also an antithesis in their conceptions of the feminine, yet even deeper an echo of their self-willed approach to the world, neither of them really capable of being copied as such (tho with Monroe at least there have been nearly an infinite number of attempts). These elements commingle, section to section:
18th century common
name for botanists naturalists horticulturalists all the attentive students of nature
The truth is naked
the truer truth is the A after B truth the figurative/the body
after finally/at last without
A new name a true name unpublished not
in the books
nomen nudum a naked name
But the structure of this chapbook opens up many more questions than it answers. The two movements represent sections 1 – 27 and 73 -87. What comes between? Does it end with 87 or, as I hope, go onward? How do the elements of Chinese cultural history, which are sprinkled throughout, come to relate finally to the trio of major figures spelled out here (and, in fact, are the three all there are? What about Alexander Wilson, Bartram’s student, who just peeks in here toward the end?
As always with Atticus/Finch books, the production values here are simply gorgeous. In the image above, you can just make out the “Skinny tree sparsely branched’ impressed in the palest gray ink into the pale green cover, the image itself taken from the first line of this work that proclaims it is “lacking / a felicitous phrase to begin.” But as so often happens with chapbooks taken from much larger projects, as grand as it is – and this is one of the nicest books Taggart has ever had – it leaves you hungry for more, maybe not answers to the mysteries here so much, but at least the full suite which promises to be grand.