Review: John Taggart, Is Music: Selected Poems
ed. Peter O’Leary, forward C.D.Wright. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2010. $19.00
Robert J. Bertholf
John Taggart’s early books are out of print, so it is good to have this new “Selected Poems,” Is Music, with a “Foreward” by C.D. Wright, and edited by Peter O’Leary, to get a sense of the early poems and then the progress of his career. Taggart has long been considered a follower of the Objectivist poets, mainly Louis Zukofsky and later George Oppen. His poems were tightly constructed pieces with a stunning clarity of images and statement, as well as carefully tuned rhythms and a strong concern for the poetic line. This volume begins with poems featured by the indefatigable editor Cid Corman in the third series of Origin, no. 14 (July 1969)— “The Drum Thing,” “Lester Young Pursued by Meteors & Other Personages of the Night,” and “Position.” By this selection, Taggart starts his poetry not in the Objectivist poetics but in the home of the New American Poetry with sharp rhythms and crisp statement of “The Drum Thing” and “Position,” but also with “Lester Young Pursued by Meteors & Other Personages of the Night,” where Taggart again shows the influence of American jazz by joining mention of Lester Young to a Miro painting, Wallace Stevens and an Italian libretto in a parable of the origins and life of an artist. The wide range of his references and open rhythms are also characteristic of his later poems, so Taggart redefines himself, and a direction he will write into, with these poems and with the small selections from To Construct a Clock (1971) and Prism and the Pine Twig (1977).
Once out of the 1970s with the poems from Peace on Earth (1981), his work moved forward with a very carefully made scheme of repetitions that Taggart, it was said, derived from American jazz, principally John Coltrane, and the contemporary American composer Steve Reich. In the next volume, Loop (1991), the scheme of repetitions produced the major poems “The Rothko Chapel Poems” as well as the poem “Not Quite Parallel Lines.” Then the poems of the book Standing Wave (1993) develop serial and referential forms. After that volume the poetry focused on the woodland garden around his home in Columbia County, PA in Pastorelles (2004). There are more poems from this book reprinted in Is Music than from any of his books which must indicate that the place and the poems are defining for him. He expands his concerns for place in his next volume, There Are Birds (2008), to the entire valley in PA where he lives. The new poems in Is Music “Kitaj Angels” (2010) extend his views on the serial poem and the interrelationships of poetry and painting.
One possible agenda of “selected poems” gives a record of a poet’s publications as well as a record of the changes or developments, or even failings, of the poetry over a period of years. The quick sketch given above, I hope, acknowledges that Is Music presents Taggart’s poetry as it moves from careful beginnings through the major poems of Loop to later books with their wide and very interesting frames of references as well as the fluid rhythms of composition so clear in Pastorelles and There Are Birds. The record emerges out of the selection itself which shows that the book’s movement is very well planned.
To emphasize deliberate planning of the book, I should mention that the first poem selected from the first book, To Construct a Clock (1971), “Ricercar,” projects the direction of the book. A “ricercar” was a sixteenth and seventeenth century piece of instrumental music often used as a prelude to another composition. The word means “to search.” The ricercar developed into the complexities of the fugue. The parallel lines of music and poetry hold here. Taggart’s early poems are a prelude to the profound complexities of the fugal structures in the later poems.
A total of four poems from Taggart’s following books, To Construct a Clock (1971) and Prism and the Pine Twig (1977), have been selected. The large step then to the three poems of Peace on Earth (1981)—“Slow Song for Mark Rothko,” “Giant Steps,” “Peace on Earth”—is smart enough and in fact a reiteration of the procedures of repetition in the major poem “Peace on Earth.” In the second part of this poem, five italicized lines of the first section of each poem recur and change through replacements and repetitions until they take over the first position, by emphasizing the word “napalm.” This is an anti-war poem and a prayer for peace that in its third part allows the words “sana tafan tana tanaf tamafts” to ascend to the poem’s central statement. The poem ends in songs of celebration, in joy looking toward peace:
To lift to lift up to life without
effort to sing high and low high and low
to hold and to lengthen he carol
sana tafan tana tanaf tamafts bei
sing tamaf tamafts bai to stand still in the shining
dance in the lily-flower
in the ring of the flower’s thought
in the light of day.
In Loop (1991), Taggart’s poetry moves in two directions. The first leads to the “Marvin Gaye Suite” and “The Rothko Chapel Poem.” Both poems reformulate the processes of replacement and repetition, but in the second Taggart surrenders to the colors of Rothko paintings in the Chapel in Houston:
Red deepened by black red made deep by black
prolation of deep red like stairs of lava
deep red like stairs of lava to gather us in
gather us before the movements are to be made
This thirty-page poem is one of Taggart’s finest and the stunning achievement of his initial twenty plus years of writing. The poem “Not Quite Parallel Lines,” however, proposes a different understanding of what a poem can accomplish. Taggart moves toward a serial poem in which a group of poems is related by the recurrences of themes and procedures, rather than the logic of a plot or narrative. He begins with the abstract idea of parallelism and then through a series of examples, references, and intertextual references—columns, films and poems, the power of music and the power of language—makes the idea concrete in the text of the poem. The poem is rich in references to the Bible, “tongues of fire,” Heidegger’s concept of “releasement,” jazz, singers, song and hymns, as well as physics and the movies. The two traditions, one in literature from Hawthorne and Melville, and one in music from John Coltrane and Albert Ayler are almost but not quite parallel to Taggart’s origin and growth as a poet:
the horn is the instrument of the growl and shout
and if and if the horn what of the scratching pen
who would have dreamed that there must be opposition
heir to and opponent of these exceptional natures.
“Not Quite Parallel Lines” is a breakthrough poem for Taggart.
Pastorelles is a book-length serial poem made up of individual poems that derive from geographic features around Taggart’s woodland garden in Columbia County, PA. Pastorelles is both the name of the volume and the name of a numbered series interspersed among other poems in the volume. Four of the “Pastorelle” poems appear in Is Music. Taggart creates a field of action, a geographical base as the fictive field for his poems, with the modifications and expansions, internal and external references as well as sophisticated repetition as elements of form. The presentation of information around the poem becomes more complex in this volume. The four-section poem “In the Kitchen” indicates mastery of references in the poem. The repetitions in the opening lines are now familiar parts of Taggart’s poems, then the references to the song “Working on the Rail Road”— “Someone’s in the kitchen with Dinah”— and then Van Morrison’s song “Brown Eyed Girl” lead into a description of Diego Velázquez’s painting Christ in the House of Mary and Martha, and scriptural passages about Mary and Martha preparing a meal:
Some one someone’s in the kitchen
old lady someone’s old finger
a design a sign old lady someone’s leathery old finger that points
someone’s in the kitchen with a brown-haired girl
who is wearing a gold-brown tunic over a grey-brown skirt
brown-haired and brown-eyed
finger of the girl in a fist around the pestle
The domestic scene grows out of the description of the painting, and a second painting on the wall in the first painting of Christ pointing his finger. The elements of the references and the paintings mix into a contemporary scene with the maid in “gold lamé sheath, / it’s finger it’s finger-popping time in the kitchen,” to Hank Ballard’s song “Finger Poppin’ Time.”
His next volume There Are Birds (2008) is represented by four poems. “Grey/Scale/Zukofsky,” for example, weaves together references to William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, and Louis Zukofsky along with references to the photographers Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Edward Weston, Anselm Adams, and Alfred Stieglitz. Here the references are not simply pasted onto the poem; Taggart transfers their significance from outside the poem to inside the poem so they inform the meditation without didactic assertion. Taggart conceives the poem as taking place in a field of information and the information moves into the poem for amplification and modification, in this case another derivation of his poetics away from Zukofsky and closer to Williams and Pound, the directive he gave by beginning the volume with poems from Origin. “Odor of Quince” becomes the odor in the surrounding ambient information around the meditation on what can be seen and known and brought forth through language into the song of poetry. The poem rehearses its own proposals for making “new signs”:
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
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 of serial forms. This is a major poem by a poet fully attuned to an intricate poetics.
The poem “Kitaj Dancer” reprinted here from Pastorelles points forward to the seven poems appearing under the heading “Kitaj Angels” which conclude Is Music. In 2001, the National Gallery in London offered an exhibition entitled Kitaj in Aura of Cézanne and Other Masters. The catalog with that title matches Kitaj’s painting with paintings by Cézanne and others that Kitaj used to derive his paintings. Taggart chooses seven of these pairs and derives a poem followed by a prose “Meditation” for each. The line from Cézanne to Kitaj to Taggart turns into a study of the process of derivation and the transformation of the vision of the painters into the articulated language of the poet. The exhibition and the poems celebrate the life together of Kitaj and his wife Sandra with views that are at times erotic and at times angelic. All of Taggart’s finest habits of writing show up in these pieces: repetitions, in-flooding of songs, musicians and other ambient information surround the poems and the meditations. The paintings are rich in colors and the poems are at times dense in their description of the forms and colors of the paintings:
two snow angels one
message she and he arm in arm
who are one long arm no longer ochre kind of pink suffused who are one long
arm all grimed with one color a grave color black color
The selection and planning of Is Music matter most in laying out Taggart’s record. The poems provide many examples that John Taggart is a very accomplished poet. His beginning poems turned into a sophisticated poetics in which internal and external information join in serial forms. The question remains, however: what is music? In Taggart’s world poetry is the same as song, so following along, from poetry is song, the logic leads to “poetry is music.”