Pastorelles by John TaggartIn Pastorelles, John Taggart situates his local world on a much bigger map. Around the bend of a roadway, in a red daylily’s architecture, through a covered bridge, inside the rattling of a chainsaw, intertwined in a tree trunk’s fiver, or in the creek’s mud bed, Taggart cannot help hearing echoes. It is a unique culture, and it is all ours. With the discriminating eye of a reporter, Taggart builds aural monuments to his local customs and to a wider culture.
American poetry’s two competing poetic impulses that Robert Lowell infamously labeled “cooked” and “raw," or traditional prosody and experimental poetics breaking with tradition, find a place for a cease fire in John Taggart’s poetry. From “Henry David Thoreau/Sonny Rolllins”:
In the night air
the seven planets in material orbits
so huge and moving at so great a speed must produce sound
harmonia of heimarmene
ringing and roaring sound the sound of a grinding down
“heavenly harmony” in waves and particles
in the air in the ear in the heart
in the heart there is a melody of heaven’s harmony
ringing and roaring
alone with that
without a song with that.
The lyric is only one element in Taggart’s poetry. For him, a poem’s materiality holds immense value. The stuff of the poem displays itself from every sightline. Taggart’s poems feel like you are touring a post and beam house: none of the poem’s material is hidden. Through repetition and imposing syntax, he causes the reader pause to examine the act and material. The foregrounding makes poem spring from page like an object in a physical reality. If this were not apparent from Taggart’s poetic techniques, it will be by the time the reader gets to “Thales the Milesian/In a Time of Drought.” The pre-Socratic founder of natural philosophy, Thales was the first concerned with the nature of matter. Taggart draws a line from Thales of Miletus to his poems’ materiality. In the poem, he compares living matter with dry forms grasping seemingly for life. He ends the poem, “corpses / these shrivelled up shapes in the shapes of corpses / shapes in the shapes of clutching life.” Taggart’s poetic mechanics rev his poems to life. They need not clutch. The poems hold air like sculptures do on and off the page. By building these types of poems, Taggart has no use for metaphor. He is of WC Williams’ school of “no idea but in things” and “a poem is a small (or large) machine made of words.”
Meanwhile, lyric and foregrounding charm and distract the reader while helping to resolve unsettling subject matter. Taggart masks his analysis, history, spirituality, and politics that rest under his poems—the stuff of his poetry. His lilting captivates and allows the reader to digest slowly the news. It begins with the first poem, “Carlisle Indian Industrial School.”
Now a college of the military
what was once the Carlisle Indian Industrial School
photograph on a wall of the college
young Indian couple
almost prim almost properly “Victorian”
brooch coat and tie
left unclothed flashing/black/unforgettable their flashing black eyes
for those who would be generals.
How do we deal with our ugly stains, Taggart inquires tacitly? We tell stories. We lie. We try to escape. More often than not in the States, Jesus Saves. Don’t stop reading now. Remember this is America. Have you taken a close look at the campaigns lately? Whether it is a genuine impulse for the metaphysical or pure lip service, we search for forgiveness or forgetfulness, and spiritual systems all have a musical or aural component. Like Taggart, we return to the music. Music helps and it’s music that keeps Taggart’s poems from imploding. But his music comes not from some predetermined soundtrack imposed upon his poems. No. Taggart takes the music from his local setting of rural Pennsylvania to erect his echo chambers. Built from the material of words, he assaults us repeatedly. With each repetition, the meaning of a word or phrase changes, shifts, unpacks, and/or springs. From “In the Kitchen”:
Someone 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
fingers of the girl in a fist around a pestle
silver mortar reflecting brown table
on the brown table broken garlic dried red pepper
plate of four silvery grey-brown fish four fish with four fish eyes
brown and shiny black pitcher
beside plate and pitcher
in the skillet a silver spoon two unbroken eggs.
Taggart forces us to hear not only the sound but that from which it springs. Words form the bedrock of his poems. They are the rough materials of the object.
He ends the volume with “Plinth.” In it he describes the foundation upon which the school rests, and we can only surmise this must be the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. We have been here before.
what can be done
that music may enter as though a welcoming portal may enter this
air/among these pines.
Equating the ephemerality of his music with the entry among the pines, we recognize by now on the last page that Taggart’s poems comprise a physical and ephemeral space. We know that his descriptions’ specificity hold a place in our individual realities, too. We have sorted out our stories, built our own houses of the world. In spaces that Taggart fills with familiar echoes, we see the countless marks we have left behind.
Pastorelles by John Taggart