Friday, May 07, 2004

I have a love-hate relationship with the poetry of John Taggart. Always have. When I was a young poet in college, particularly while I was at Berkeley in 1970-71, Taggart was just enough years older to fill the role of someone with whom I could feel very competitive. His magazine Maps, with its impeccably published special issues on Olson, Duncan & Zukofsky, was everything my photocopy-&-stapled Tottel’s was not. He not only was paying attention to the very same poets whose work I most closely modeled my own after, Taggart’s poetry was philosophically informed & sophisticated in ways that I felt my own more phenomenological instincts would never allow me to become. And we had friends in common, notably David Melnick, who had known Taggart when both were at the University of Chicago, who let me know that Taggart was a really nice guy as well. I was riven with envy.


As it turned out, we’ve both had productive, albeit fairly different, careers as poets. Central to my own experience – and something I was just coming fully into contact with around 1970 – was the emergence of the scene that would become known as langpo, at first at Berkeley, then in San Francisco, and later more broadly. John took a job in Shippensburg, PA, 150 miles west of Philadelphia, 170 miles east of Pittsburgh, 100 miles north of Baltimore, a position from which he has only recently retired. Even the modest metroplex of Pennsylvania’s state capitol, Harrisburg, is some 40 miles hence.


That Martian anthropologist might thus see John & me as a type of social experiment – what would become of the writing of two poets with very similar influences if one were to insert himself into a thriving urban literary environment, the other to move in exactly the opposite direction, to become part of a daily community in which he alone was the only poet with whom he might have face-to-face contact? There are, of course, gaping flaws with such a comparison – John & I are also very different people, a fact that his engagement with an openly spiritual poetics makes evident to me every time I read his work. And as John’s work moved away from the Objectivist-inflected poetics of his earliest books toward a mode of ecstatic verbal performance dominated by reiteration as a device, I found it harder & harder to convince myself that I ought actually to read his work.


So I come to Pastorelles, Taggart’s new book from Flood Editions, with more than a little of my own baggage in tow. Do I then trust my gut instinct that this is the best book Taggart has ever written? I do, in fact, but you might want to more cautious as to what I mean when I write this.


Pastorelles is, in many ways, a “roots work,” Taggart going back to the bedrock instincts that first drove him as a poet – the same instincts that I’m most fond of in his writing. One result is that Pastorelles looks & feels far less like Taggart’s ecstatic drone poems & much more like his work from the 1970s, such To Construct A Clock, The Pyramid is a Pure Crystal, and Dodeka. Further, reading Pastorelles I sense a familiar model informing the structure of this volume, the books of Robert Duncan, especially Roots and Branches & Bending the Bow. In that model, the pastorelles of Taggart’s title, which are interspersed throughout the book, function not unlike Duncan’s own Passages, that open-ended longpoem that was itself modeled after Pound’s Cantos. Indeed, a pastorelle is a kind of canto, specifically a rural song, rural in this instance implying local. The echo from Duncan’s passages to Taggart’s pastorelles is so strong (as was, obviously, Duncan’s own echo from Pound) that one could be misled or at least misdirected by focusing too much on that fact alone. Still, it cannot be mere happenstance that at 60 John Taggart has constructed a work that ties together the whole of his literary life & that, in so doing, has gone back to first models. Like Duncan, he appears utterly unconcerned with the stigma of appearing “derivative.” 


Pastorelles is a term that also suggests a devotional aspect to such songs – I wonder if Taggart knows that there is an order of Paulist nuns called the Pastorelle Sisters? The entire concept of the pastorelle thus seems perfectly suited to take on this central role in Taggart’s poetry.


If there is a limitation to Taggart’s project, it lies in the relative sameness of the poems throughout the book. There is not, to my eye & ear at least, a compelling difference between a pastorelle & any of the other poems here. Consider, for example, how clearly defined both Duncan’s Passages & The Structure of Rime are within the framework of Roots and Branches, Bending the Bow or his post-hiatus Groundwork volumes. Passages generally follow an “open-field” form that has its roots in Pound’s Cantos, while Rime tends to be in prose. Other poems reflect other modes – the lyric, for example.


Taggart’s poems are mostly short – only a couple run more than one page, unless they’re divided into numbered sections in a mode that feels closer, say, to the serialism of Oppen than to that of Armantrout. The stanzas are short & the lines mostly also. There is, however, in Taggart a flatness to the line, almost a deadpan quality, that enables it to stretch out, sometimes to great effect:


Recliner shape in a corner of the room
red La-z-boy shape
left on the shape blue bathingsuit pulled down and pulled off.


That is, in its entirety, the third & final section of “Motel.” It has the almost Tourette’s-like twitch of the word shape, Taggart’s signature device, creating folds in what otherwise is an utterly simple & striking image. Everything here, it suggests, might be reducible to shape – decidedly a quirky stance given the emphasis accorded to color – yet it is not at all self-evident that the shapes are all that they seem – the final one in fact introduces a gesture, pulling down & off, that only resolves in the eye (or mind’s eye) into something other. One might even read this as a nude. It is in precisely the way shape disrupts, even distorts every line, that we find Taggart most clearly. This language is not reducible to speech, certainly not song &, in spite of the overlit photorealism of the scene, not image either. Rather, all three are refracted one against the other. The yield is much more than the sum of these parts.


The reading experience here thus is very different from the aural immersion of Taggart’s trance poems. Individual lines tend to be quiet, not because they are hushed or bland – they’re never that – but rather so that the ear will settle in to allow details to expand, to emerge, even bloom. Which results in simple poems that are best read only one or two at a time – try to read them all in one sitting & the richness will start to pancake back into that deadpan affect. Read slowly, however, Pastorelles is one of the finest books you will find all year.