Tess Taylor, hailed by Ilya Kaminsky as ‘the poet for our moment’ resides in El Cerrito, California. Her poems have received international acclaim. Taylor’s chapbook, The Misremembered World, was selected by Eavan Boland for the Poetry Society of America’s inaugural chapbook competition. The San Francisco Chronicle called her first book, The Forage House, ‘stunning,’ and it was a finalist for the Believer Poetry Award. Her second book, Work & Days—a farm journal for a small organic farm—was called ‘our moment’s Georgic’ by Harvard based critic Stephanie Burt, and named one of the 10 best books of poetry in 2016 by the New York Times. Last West, Taylor’s third book, is a hybrid photo and poetry book. Retracing the steps of Dorothea Lange in California, Taylor documents the haunting echoes between past and present. Taylor’s fourth book of poems, Rift Zone, traces literal and metaphoric fault lines—rifts between past and present, childhood and adulthood, what is and what was. Rift Zone was hailed by Stephanie Danler as ‘brilliant’ in the LA Times, and Naomi Shihab Nye called it ‘stunning’ in The New York Times. Rift Zone was also named one of the best books of 2020 by The Boston Globe.
The following interview took place between Tess Taylor and Tom Laichas on 23 August 2021. It has been edited for length and clarity.
TL: You took courses in urban studies as an undergrad, did a masters in journalism, an MFA, and have an abiding interest in geography and geology. Yet you don’t work in a city planning Department, aren’t anchoring All Things Considered, and aren’t monitoring JPL’s seismographic equipment. Given the alternatives you might have pursued, why poetry?
TT:There is something about that life with books—with reading and being in the conversation about books—that kept calling me. There are times when I have looked for a more proper day job, but I just kept feeling I’d like to write for a few more months. That feeling has continued for twenty years! I’ve been lucky to be able to cobble together a life of teaching and writing nonfiction so I have some freedom to get some poems written.
TL: Was there a point at which you felt you could say, “yes, I am a poet,” or did you spend some years in doubt?
TT:Gosh, that sounds like every morning! (laughs). Both. It’s having this passion to piece together fragments you think might make something. And then suddenly you’re deep inside it, writing it, rewriting it, and then you start thinking, “oh, maybe this is a book.”
I think Auden says that a poet is only a poet on the last draft of the last part of the poem, and the rest of the time they’re a writer. I like that—I think it’s probably true. This urge to get things down on paper and to give them a certain texture and lightness and shimmer—it just kind of calls you.
TL: You were 23 years old when Eavan Boland chose The Misremembered World (2003) for the Poetry Society of America’s Chapbook Fellowship. Then came a full decade before your first full-length collection. You’ve said elsewhere that this ten-year hiatus was formative.
TT:The poems that that Eavan Boland selected were from my undergraduate work and also from my first years in Brooklyn, when I worked as a waitress. Those were years when I was forming a very strong commitment, for instance, to spend days in the New York Public Library, reading Cavafy or Ovid, taking classes at the 92nd Street Y, and getting into dialogue with other writers.
In my mid-twenties, I just had a lot of things that needed to be established in my life. I moved houses a bunch of times, and went in and out of graduate programs. It was just a really, really busy phase of growing up and thinking, what is it that I have to say? I think I was carving out my terrain, figuring out how to manage material, figuring out things that were beyond lyric and form.
I was impatient for the first book — I wanted it to come sooner. But I now see that those ten years were hard-earned time.
TL: In The Forage House (2013), you interrogate your own family history, which reaches back to both poor backcountry families and to Virginia’s tidewater elites, most notably Thomas Jefferson. How did that project come about?
TT:Well, growing up I had learned both the history of my family and the history of the country in ways that didn’t make sense to me [as an adult] — that were so full of omission and absence. When I was about 20, the DNA evidence came out about Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings [a woman enslaved on Jefferson’s plantation]. At that point in my life, I’d never heard of Sally Hemings. The entire story shifted. For me, that was personal. It meant that there were kin that I had not known about.
It wasn’t Jefferson, it was the entire history of enslavement in America, so interwoven with that that of family—my family in Virginia—and I didn’t know anything about it.
Originally, I set out to write prose. I thought I could write a fantastic memoir. I got permission to do research at Monticello. I was thrown into the company of archeologists and historians and others who were thinking about these histories from all kinds of different angles. It was such a pleasure to work alongside these people. I wondered, what is it that I bring to the table?
As I was doing this work, the shard-like nature of this history’s remains kept striking me. I would find a will, or something from a police blotter—some tiny, haunting fragment that would point outwards to both the violence and the complexity of the eighteenth or nineteenth century.
There was a commonplace book that Martha Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson’s daughter, would keep. She had tons of grocery lists in the book and then, weirdly, this quotation from Romeo and Juliet. That fascinated me because I am also the kind of person whose commonplace book would have a quotation from Shakespeare right alongside my shopping list. The quotation was: “My poverty, but not my will, consents.” That’s the Apothecary speaking. Why does Martha Jefferson have it there amid her housekeeping lists? What did it have to do with market money she was spending, often buying goods and groceries for her own enslaved? What was she writing about? The evocative quality of these shards really called me.
The fragments did what poems do, they dance between presence and absence. And it really made it clear to me that what I had in mind were poems. Suddenly I wasn’t writing a memoir anymore.
TL: In 2016, you published Work & Days, written about the seasons you spent on a farm. Can you recount how you went from knocking around archives to weeding vegetable beds?
TT:I was trying to finish The Forage House and won a grant from the Amy Clampitt Foundation to spend a year at Amy Clampitt’s House in Lenox, Massachusetts. I knew I needed something beyond the house and the writing.
I’ve been a gardener my whole life, so I asked if I could work in a community garden. They said, “we don’t have a community garden here, but we do have a farm. Would you like to work on a farm?” They set me up with an internship on a three-acre community-supported farm by the Green River. We grew food for eighty families and, I think, four restaurants. It was amazing to me to see how much food could grow on three acres and to be part of the growing season’s labor.
The year gave itself over to note-taking, to observation. It really just started as fragments in my notebook. And then I had this big argument with myself. Maybe this isn’t serious enough to write about? Maybe it’s too beautiful, at a time when we’re skeptical of beauty? Maybe this isn’t a useful intervention in the world? Of course, those the same sorts of arguments you always have with poetry.
I also spent that time reading farm poems, reading Hesiod, reading Virgil, reading John Clare, getting clear on the line of the georgic mode, and thinking about the tradition’s trajectory. I think that’s really interesting also to notice that in these first and second books there’s a fascination with working in a mode—the history poem, the epic history poem, the georgic, the farm poem— and wanting to engage those traditions and seeing how they register if you use them now.
When the year ended and life got busy again, I had to stash my notes in a drawer. When I pulled them a few years later, I thought, “This is what I want to say. This is a book.” There it was, waiting for me. It was like a present.
TL: Had you begun Last West and Rift Zone by that time?
TT: I didn’t know for a long time that I was writing two books! I began Rift Zone and Last West when I moved back to Bay Area ten years ago and started a family in the same neighborhood I had left. I had thought I would never, ever come back to El Cerrito, not for any reason. But having had this intense fascination with place and soil in Virginia and Massachusetts, there I was, in my own backyard in California, in my hometown, trying to read this landscape and make sense of it.
Last West began when I was walking around my neighborhood. I realized that one way I knew how to see it was that through Dorothea Lange’s photographs of the 1930s and 40s. I wondered what she would offer me as a kind of artistic grandmother of my place. Going to her work, I realized that it contained a whole micro-history of this part of the Bay Area and California, when people were arriving here out of the Dust Bowl and settling these neighborhoods quickly, and also instituting racial codes really fast. Just as the war desegregated many workplaces, Japanese internment happened and people were removed from their homes and sent to the camps. It was America making progress and also backsliding at the same time.
Lange saw that. She had this eye for the paradox of a place—for American paradox. I got fascinated with her and wanted to go to the places that she had been. I was lucky enough to have the Museum of Modern Art work with me on that. In a sort of roundabout way, I was connected with a curator who took a real interest in what I was doing.
TL: And Rift Zone?
TT: A lot of Rift Zone begins in the collapse of one memory on top of another. When you’ve been some place and you’ve loved it, and then you return a decade years later, suddenly there’s this intense pungent overlay of emotion. So part of the “rift” was this kind of seismic thrusting of lost time in space.
Also, the Bay Area that I returned to was changing: It’s a hub for tech economies and also for ever greater inequality. The shelterlessness crisis we’re living through here is so intense. There is a feeling of precarity here, of living in a world that could become uninhabitable in just a moment.
I began to think about this actual seismic soil of California fracturing in a moment when we ourselves, as a country, also feel so fractured. So that began Rift Zone.
TL: I want to explore some of the themes in your work. In a recent essay for Harpers [“Getting On With It: Art as Civic Repair,” Harper’s Magazine, July 2021], you reflect on a sojourn in Northern Ireland. You observed performance art, theater, and festivals, and were struck by the intentionality artists in Northern Ireland. You suggest that their work has contributed, consciously, what you call “civic repair.”
You write that art’s presence in public spaces and audience participation in arts events—“helps people … unsettle themselves and in doing so may shift their views.”
How is it that art—and writing, and poetry—”unsettles” us? How can this repair our damaged civic life?
TT:I think that we arrive at poems with gestures of uncertainty. We don’t solve poems with poems. Instead we linger in them. We observe them. We explore mystery. But poems don’t have “solutions.”
If we’re lucky, works of art take us out of ourselves. We are removed from what we thought we knew. Given a few moments to be inside something that’s possible or paradoxical or beautiful can be puzzling. I mean, beauty itself is a puzzle.
The article suggests that if we can create situations where we don’t have preconceived conclusion; situations where we have opportunities to be with other creators with other vistas, with people who are similarly willing to be unsettled; if we share stories and invite ourselves to reflect on those stories; well, then art and art practices can create situations that dislodge us ever so slightly from fixity.
There’s been a lot of fixity. We’re living in a time where people are very sure that they know what they think, and have very strong ideas about one another.
I just wonder if one role of art might be to chip away at that fixity just by providing the occasion to make together, and to join in the common act of making. To remind us of common purpose, but also the fun of being together, making something or receiving something someone else has made. The project of building art, of making art is a powerful social adhesive that does join us into common making and common togetherness.
TL: You mention art’s power to dislodge us from fixity. Do you try to correct for dead certainties in your own work? Do you consciously emphasize ambiguities?
TT: Well: it’s good to be precise in language. You think of James Wright’s “The Blessing,” which starts “Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota/ twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.” Twilight bounds forth. What a good verb! Wright’s words are so precise. They do beautiful work, leaning gorgeously against each other.
So avoiding the kind of dead certainty I’m talking about is very much not about avoiding precision. In fact the right kind of precision “Twilight bounds” for instance can restore things to a very real sense of strangeness, can acutally open them to a different kind of ambiguity. What I am talking about has to do with writing that can actually, even with great precision, help us to see ordinary things freshly. Dusk, trees, sunsets, one another. I think that there’s something about the lens of poetry which stays, at the same time, precise and strange and doesn’t presume to know how it is all going to come out. There’s an openness.
TL: Throughout your work, you’ve been interested in the ways that memory distorts and reshapes the past. In “Discovering a Continent”, you recall reading an atlas as a child:
xxxxxxxxLike some explorer,
restless on the coast of something hoped for,
I turn back, trawling at the edges
of that strange and misremembered world
That “misremembered world” of your first collection emerges powerfully in The Forage House when, writing of Virginia ancestors, you dig deep into omissions and silences, particularly about slavery, but also about more private family matters.
If you were a historian, I would assume that you wanted reconstruct the past more accurately than inherited memory can. But you’re writing poetry. How do you see the relationship between poetry and memory?
TT: When you enter a personal story, a memory, you have so much to contend with. You have the self that you were, your memory of encountering a thing. You have the self that you are, perhaps encountering it later, and seeing it differently. You have the rhythm and the shapes and the colors and the aesthetic values that means something to you. I’m thinking here of that quality that Frost would call “the sound of sense”— the texture of somebody’s voice, or a family language, or the slant of conversation. The poet is attuned to that sense—how it builds meaning.
What I am getting at is that any history is always sticky with associations. How do call any one piece of it The Truth? The truth is much more fluid, I think. We’re always looking through the lens of our feelings and our desires and memories of feeling and memories of a truth.
TL: I’ve found that students new to poetry tend to lump it with fiction. History is “real” (and if it’s not, it’s a “lie”) whereas literature is fiction, an act of imagination removed and remote from reality.
What, for you, is the relationship between poetry, representation, and the real?
TT:You know, the Greeks thought of poetry, history and literature all in the same breath. History wasn’t above poetry. History and poetry were equal partners in the dance of remembering.
I think of that opening monologue in Richard III—the way in which the very sound of his words creates the feeling of being in a hunched and angry body. You can’t get through the speech itself without having your own voice run out of breath. The sounds of the vowels—the shape of the sentence—contort you into Richard’s shape.
Here’s language that has been marshalled to create a character, the character remembered through that language. Once they’ve heard it, people are interested that there’s a historic figure, Richard III, whose body was recently found under a parking lot. But it’s the language that makes the character, which makes us wish to reimagine him.
So I think it sort of works backwards sometimes—that it’s a flash of interest or delight or confusion that starts us off. Those animating words create the story and the image, which leads us to the history.
A lot of times a history can’t be found except through some imaginative gesture. That’s the violence and the failure of the archive: the absence of people whose lives didn’t get recorded or remembered. Poetry can stand in and create spaces for remembering, or at least point at the ways they were forgotten.
TL: I particularly admire Rift Zone’s “Song with Shag Rug and Wood Paneling.” You recall visiting your parents’ newly renovated home, “clean as a lobotomy.” Later in “Loma Prieta, 1989,” you quote Baudelaire:
… a city’s form is always changing
faster than the longings of a mortal heart.
We Californians have erased entire streets and communities, erased them from maps and memory. That’s true especially of working class, immigrant, and Black, Hispanic, and Asian neighborhoods. In both these poems, there seems to be an acceptance that such “redevelopment” was often inevitable. And yet there’s also a stubborn resistance against forgetting.
TT:I’m interested in the way that places save things for us, the way they make memory possible. We lodge entire portions of ourselves in places that are exterior to us. There’s versions of the self that are held by the built environment. That’s also true of language—language also holds us.
TL: In “A Song With Sequoia and Australopithecus,” you write:
xxxxxxEach body cradles its own conservation.
Each body bears forth the enormous dark chain.
xxxxxxWe only half grasp what we inherit.
In caves the first humans played
xxxxxxthe parts of the Doric scale on their bone flutes.
do re mi fa vibrating over eons over eons.
Here you imply that the memory goes very deep, that in some sense we remember much more than we know that we remember. This implies that poetry, and all art, reaches into the chest and makes visible memories which have been previously inaccessible to our conscious selves. Is that a fair reading of the poem? And is it a concern of your work generally?
TT:That poem is partly about becoming a parent and being part of the long reenactment of creating a species. I’m thinking about all of the cultural and social forms that we carry forward without even thinking or knowing about them.
It is not only that poetry itself recovers memory, but that poetry recovers our relationship to our bodies, to language, to attention.
I’m working now on more poems that think about food. One of the things I learned is that really, no food item has been introduced to the human diet for 3000 years. We’ve traded and produced them differently. We certainly synthesize them in factories our ancestors never dreamed of. But plant for plant, animal for animal, our diet as a species has been pretty stable for a long time. One of the oldest meals ever found was a bird cooked between two stones—basically ten thousand-year-old brick chicken.
We’re plagued by deep problems like racism and poverty, and we must work to solve them. At the same time, we live inside very old chains. It’s useful to remember the enormous histories that dwarf us in order to be humble, to begin again.
TL: You remind me of Göbekli Tepe, in Turkey. It’s a monumental Neolithic site—11,000 years old, vastly older and larger than the Stonehenge complex. For fifteen hundred years, before agriculture or cities, people gathered in large numbers for some kind of performances, ritual or otherwise.
That site speaks to exactly what you’re talking about: that communal in-gatherings—almost certainly including dance, visual art, and poetic expression—long preceded civilization.
TT:COVID has been devastating for the arts. Certainly our late capitalist society would like to marginalize it. But there’s this funny affirmation of art too. If art was optional, we would have switched it off. Instead, we have really missed it. We need this form of connection. It feels very, somehow, very fundamental to our being, even in this crazy time of crisis. It’s a fundamental piece of what we do as humans. We get on Zoom to do it—we still light these lamps.
TL: I want to talk for a moment about your relationship to archives. When you visit an archive, do you go prepare a research program, or do you root around a bit, keeping an eye out for the odd document or beguiling object?
TT:A bit of both. You go looking but you get pulled in by happenstance and ephemera. The Oakland Museum had this funny back room full of photocopies of Dorothea Lange’s notebooks. I went and I saw Lange’s notebooks in 2017. They had this incredible music. They mapped her journeys through the 30s and 40s.
It was thousands of pages of notes to go through, a lot of it interviews with people she met along the way. I looked for what felt hot or pointing. I would copy or type out whatever had a sort of rhythm for me, like “I wouldn’t undertake to farm this land no more,” or “This country is a hard country. When you die, you’re dead, that’s all.” These felt haunting to me. They resonated with all the conversations we’re having now.
Lange was really fascinated with what people need. She’d sometimes make a list: some meat, some oranges, some fruit, tobacco, some beans. She would write down the price of gas versus wages. She wanted to know, for instance: could people afford to move on from a labor camp?
I just fell in love with her note-taking. I wondered about the places she had been—what are they like now? So, moving out from her archive, I went.
When I was in Belfast, I got to go to the Linen Hall Library archive. Somebody brought me out a famine box. It was a box that had held the chits handed out by the Crown to authorize the aid you’d get during the potato famine: half a ration, one ration, two rations. You could come and say, you know, “I haven’t had a crop, I have ten children.” And they would say, “Why do you have ten children? And why can’t you fish?”
The famine box was part of this violent and cruel history. But it was also, by itself, a beautiful, and strange object, not itself culpable for the cruelty that it enacted. Weirdly, we can see the box—but we can’t see the people. The people are gone. But here’s the box. Those are the kinds of things that would fascinate me in the Monticello archive as well: a will or a deed or a testament, or sometimes an advertisement.
Somewhere in that triumvirate of presence, absence, and floating possibility, the poem starts.
TL: I was moved by Last West to go back to Susan Howe’s Spontaneous Particulars: The Telepathy of Archives. She writes that “each collected object or manuscript is an empty theater, where a thought may surprise itself at the instant of seeing. For conversion to experience, there must be a mysterious leap of love.”
TT:Or it elicits a tenderness from us.
TT:Frost said that “the poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom.” But I think that a poem also summons us into a kind of a tenderness. I think that’s what art trying to do in the world, surprise us, despite ourselves, into tenderness, and allow that tenderness to reroute us ever so slightly so that we aren’t as fixed as we might have been. I mean, a 150-year-old box can open us into wonder and empathy for the past and also for the present. I think that’s the magic.
TL: You earlier described archives as containers for shards, that you sometimes pull together into a collage. How do make a whole from the fragments?
TT:I actually love collage as a form. I like to cut pieces of paper up and glue things down. I love quilts, like the quilts of Gee’s Bend. I love [Robert] Rauschenberg, who does assemblages of strange objects that push against one another.
In film, we tend to think of things happening through plot, but they also happen through pattern and repetition and variation. There’s a beautiful movie by Jim Jarmusch, Coffee and Cigarettes. Nothing happens, but people have coffee and cigarettes again and again and again. From people’s hands and cigarettes and coffee cups, he makes a pattern that generates pleasure. Sometimes meaning can happen not so much by arriving at a perfect answer, but through a symphonic circling of a question, a patterning around it.
TL: Last West reminded me a lot of the mid-20th century documentary pastiche, particularly Charles Reznikoff’s assemblage of court records in American Recitative, [John] Dos Passos’ newsreels in his USA Trilogy, and Muriel Rukeyser’s poetic documentation in The Book of the Dead. When you organize your work in this way, do you have this tradition in mind?
TT:I’m sure I have it in mind. I don’t always lay it out as such. But of course, the material I draw from lends itself to certain framing. I knew, for instance, that Last West was going to take the shape of a year, because I only had that long to write it. Certainly I’ve read Book of the Dead, and I had just taught a big course on documentary poetics at Queen’s University, Belfast. And, documentary poetics is a fascination of mine.
My experience of making things is to sort of bumble towards what feels right to me. Then, later, I say “oh, that felt feels very related to what I was reading about before,” or “that does really feel like something I want to think about.” But in the moment that I’m making it, it’s almost like blundering, because there’s this sense of being obsessed with it, not knowing why. It feels very mysterious, and I want to get it right.
The sense of rightness I want isn’t dictated by wanting it to be more like Muriel Rukeyser. It’s a kind of internal sense of rightness, a testing against some kind of inner mysterious Platonic ideal of the poem.
This fascinates me. Out of what does this sense emerge? It’s really strange that we have a sense that this rhythm would be better than that rhythm, or this music would be stronger than that music. We can study music quite deeply, but the music we make is more personal and surprising than what we’ve studied. It’s not schematic.
TL: Much of your work, not just Rift Zone, is shot through with the vocabulary of earthquake country: strata, fault lines, tectonic plates. Why do you center your metaphorical language on quakes rather than, say, fire, flood or any of the other catastrophes California is prone to?
TT:To be totally fair, the intense fire seasons we have now hadn’t fully started when I wrote Rift Zone. I mean, if I had come home and it had been all fire all the time, I might have woven poems around that.
But my dad is a real geology buff, and he really loves to talk about the geology of San Francisco and the Bay Area. We had moved here when I was small, and it was something that he made a project of.
There’s this incredible sense that this land has such specificity. It’s pretty incredible to be on the edge of third continental plate, pushing north to Alaska. I’m sitting here in this wool sweater in August because it’s cold out. We’re in the fog while the rest of the country is going through a heat wave. So we’re always slightly akimbo.
The geologic metaphor also felt like a way of talking about the fractures in this country at this moment. It also was a way of talking about a place that’s at once very ancient and hyper-modern, that’s geologically young and restless. There’s a lot of metaphoric possibility in this kind of soilscape, in the figure of upthrust, in the crust and the depths.
I just found myself finding that language fortuitous. I mean, “fault” is a wonderful word because it has so many meanings. And at one point in Rift Zone I write a whole ars poetica to “fault.” But also there’s this question of whose fault is it that we are in the situation that we’re in right now?
I’ll say that one other part of the geology metaphor comes from reading [Seamus] Heaney’s ‘Bogland’ and his notion that I’m going to write you about my soil, but my soil is this bog, and it goes down and down and down, and it holds and stores everything from butter to elk. In doing so, Heaney paints a picture not only of his soil, but of his country and of his country’s poetry.
I thought, what would it be like to try to write something like that about America and about California? What does our soil tell us about ourselves?
TL: Your work is politically engaged. It’s sad and sometimes angry that our politics forgets and buries so much: Japanese internment, precarity and marginalization, narratives of slavery and war.
Not every poet engages directly in politics. There are many quietists who productively cultivate their own gardens without saying much about the larger world.
Why do you feel such urgency to incorporate the political into the poetic?
TT:I think that we’re living through a moment when enormous violence is being done. I believe that poems can be places of deep reckoning and rerouting, and that they should be places of deep reckoning and rerouting, that they should allow us to return to the world with fresh commitments. Some of our commitments are to one another, and some are to the Earth. Our social bonds are in tatters right now, and our bonds with the Earth are in tatters.
But the politics that show up in my poems are not necessarily the politics of arguing with other people. Yeats said “we make out of the quarrels with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.” My poems have to do with genuine debates I have with myself: of what measure beauty, of what measure outrage, of what measure action, of what measure retreat? How do we balance those things in a moral life? How do we hold ourselves in right relation?
One way or another, I think the poem is an attempt to get into right relation. Robert Hass talks about the whole history of the ode as an attempt to get into right relation with the thing that’s being addressed.
“Politics” is a weird word, because it’s not on or off. It’s kind of a spectrum of awareness or behavior. I always think of it as a Venn diagram, because my political self, the self that goes out marching or the self does letter-writing campaigns or works for health care for artists and a recovery for the arts economy, is not at all the same person who’s writing the poem, though they overlap somewhere.
Poetry helps us excavate our lives as feeling, thinking beings. Part of our lives as feeling, thinking beings is our witness, our relationship to others, our relationship to history, our relationship to the future. That is the work which grounds me, which I hope to extend.
Trying to navigate those things with integrity is, I think, part of what the voice of poetry attempts to do.
Tom Laichas’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Spillway, Stand, Rappohannock Review, Prime 53, and Ambit. He is author of Empire of Eden (High Window Press, 2019) and Sixty-Three Photos from the End of a War (forthcoming, 3.1 Venice Press).
Tess Taylor: Eight Poems
WORDS AT DAYBREAK
Before beginning in earnest,
without meanings to identify them,
they emerge like figures behind a gray curtain.
The dark flock on the foggy horizon
defers arrival. Engaged in some play
of its own making, it circles and drifts.
Still, fricative, almost particulate songs
filter down, silting along the gray shore.
They summon the ear to something, to something.
from The Misremembered World
EIGHTEENTH CENTURY REMAINS
The ridge a half mile down from Monticello.
A pit cut deeper than the plow line.
Archaeologists plot the dig by scanning
plantation land mapped field
for carbon, ash, traces of human dwelling.
We stand amid blown cypresses.
Inheritors of absences, we peer
into the five-by-five foot ledge.
Unearthed painstakingly, these shards:
two pipe stems, seeds, three greening buttons.
Centuries-old hearthstones are still charred,
as if the fire is only lately gone.
“Did they collect these buttons to adorn?” But no one knows.
“Did they trade, use them for barter?”
Light, each delicate pipe stem,
something someone smoked at last
against a sill log wall that did for home,
a place where someone else collected
wedges of cast-off British willowware.
Between vines, a tenuous cocoon.
A grassy berm that was a road.
A swaying clue
faint as relief at finding something left
of lives held here that now vanish off
like blue smoke plumes I suddenly imagine-
which are not, will not, cannot be enough.
Light silts through tulip poplars, waving.
Light gilds granite stones. Winds
hold renegade voices, fugitive
of the ravenous grave.
Roving, grieving, a confederate cry:
Hey hullah nonny fiddle honey-child o –
“My two hands grubbed.” Jefferson’s hands: his slaves.
in the Susquehanna foothills of the forever mountains.
Appalatio Mountains. An old west their horizon.
Now in the graveyard of these colonials,
Little stone, baby stone. Granite cracked with lichen.
Portal to the gone world, the old world. Hush now.
All your daddy’s rages and drink can grow silent,
like a cruel overseer sent at last away.
My parents kissing in a kitchen.
In her loop-eyed dress my mother-
enormous in her belly, I loom.
In a commune in Fort Greene
she typed and typed her dissertation.
Upstairs a woman practiced primal screams,
a wild-haired painter mourned his dying wife.
My parents had already made my life
near the mass grave
of hundreds of Revolutionary soldiers,
a cockeyed brownstone full of junkies,
somebody who stripped my parents’ jalopy
down to wires and bones.
Soon they sold all they had
and drove to Madison to have me.
Had five people over for pie.
It was done then: They were married.
Weeks later in their bedroom I was born.
In piles my mother’s writing
watched us from unquiet bricks and boards.
from The Forage House
From Wisconsin before it was Wisconsin
a glacier hauled _these stones you stand on.
They traveled on its rubble.
They are the glacier’s spit, its fissured teeth,
the path it garbled on its travel.
In 1880, the Stockbridge, last of the Mohicans,
were removed to Wisconsin: white edict
impassive as a glacier.
This town and farm and gabled houses
all are built upon that absence.
Now you bend into this field to clear it.
xxxxxxxxxYou think of a frozen fist,
of ice~sheets melting. Glaciers lost
in too~warm early weather.
The west wind blows in from Wisconsin.
Each stone you touch is cold as bone.
As if it holds some trace of spirit
FIELD REPORT! APRIL
Quid faciat laetes segetes, quo sidere terram vetere …
“What must be done to bring a heavy harvest,
under which stars to turn the earth … ”
-Virgil, Georgics I
Mulching garlic: muck is heavy.
Everything is brown or gray.
Moving grasses, haying sprouts:
cold knobs rise, ache in my fingers.
In this field not Pyrrah’s bones or Deucalion’s
but human remains:
(though even here farmers dig up old weapons)-
though while we work, the radio
broadcasts poppy harvests and bombings,
limbs shattering in another country-
In our field today:
xxxxxxxxxa lost child’s sunglasses.
Hot. Cold. Then a too,warm spell:
navies of clouds come and go, come and go-
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx – all north too soon.
In the greenhouse
we plant nightshades,
tomatoes & cucumbers:
stage summer plenty while
the radio announces
dead seals in Labrador –
and above us rose-throated grosbeak return
from Tulum, from Oaxaca, those borderless migrants.
Across the hemisphere, farmers start the old art.
Bow into broccoli.
Push machines or their bodies.
Plant starts or seed.
Buy oil for tractors. Cross borders. Spray pesticides.
Virgil wrote by which signs shall we know?
We too are small against great constellations.
We plant when the sun shines. We augur & pray.
from Works and Days
ELK AT TOMALES BAY
Nimble, preserved together,
milkweed-white rears upturned,
female tule elk
bowed into rustling foxtails.
Males muscled over the slopes,
jostling mantles, marking terrain.
Their antlers clambered wide,
steep as open gorges.
As they fed, those branches twitched,
yet as one buck reared his head
squaring to look at us
his antlers & his gaze
held suddenly motionless.
xxxxxxxxFurther out, the skeleton.
The tar paper it seemed to lie on
xxxxxxxxVertebrae like redwood stumps.
In an uneven heart-shaped cavern
xxxxxxxxa coccyx curled to its tip.
Ribs fanned open,
xxxxxxxxhollow, emptied of organs.
In the bushes, its skull:
sockets & mandible,
sinuses, loose teeth.
All bare now except
that fur the red brown color
of a young boy’s head & also
of wild iris stalks in winter
still clung to the drying scalp.
Below the eye’s rim sagged
xxxxxxxxflat as a bicycle tire.
The form was sinking away.
The skin loosened, becoming other,
shedding the mask that hides
but must also reveal a creature.
Off amid cliffs & hills
some unfleshed force roamed free.
In the wind, I felt
the half-life I watched watch me.
Elk, I said, I see
you abandon this life, this earth.
I stood for a time with the bones.
February: Buckeye unscissor new leaves.
Cows pasture, buffieheads paddle,
a kestrel perches on a bishop pine.
Now just above us the mountain’s humped spine
xxxxxxpushes north to Alaska.
Extinct invertebrates ride sea cliffs through time.
Even these stones have lost cousins in Mexico.
Even this freshet is landmass torn open,
even these rocks are reft from each other.
xxxxxxEach shelf pulses onward, a restless swimmer
looking for land though nothing is still.
Gray whales swim through ocean explosions,
along continents forged of cracked dispossession.
Sunset today: The ridges grow luminous.
Sharp air, dark spice: horses exhaling.
They stomp on the cold, steaming, visible earth.
We heat the stove. The children are napping.
The cabin’s the raft on which we are floating.
Below us the crust is molten, is nationless.
We only light our lamps on the rift.
from Rift Zone
Tess Taylor’s Rift Zone reviewed by Tom Laichas
Rift Zone: Poems by Tess Taylor. £12.23. Paperback. Red Hen Press, 2020. ISBN: 978-1597-09776-5.
Other works discussed, all by Tess Taylor: Misremembered World (The Poetry Society of America, 2003); The Forage House (Red Hen Press, 2013); Work & Days (Red Hen Press, 2016); Last West: Roadsongs for Dorothea Lange (MoMA, 2019); “Getting On With It: Art as Civic Repair,” Harper’s Magazine, July 2021
I read somewhere recently that there are two kinds of poets: those who single-mindedly rework one particular set of ideas throughout their career (think Wallace Stevens) and others who move from thought to thought and, seemingly, from one self to another (among living poets, for instance, Ruth Padel). Tess Taylor is both kinds.
Eavan Boland described Tess Taylor’s debut, Misremembered World as a “book of places that are really times and times that are actually places in disguise.” Published when she was 23 and drawn from her undergraduate work, Misremembered World explores how time and place shape-shift as we struggle to witness and to remember. “Words at Daybreak,” the first poem in this first collection is, in truth, a creation myth for poetry:
Before beginning in earnest,
without meanings to identify them,
they emerge like figures behind a gray curtain.
The dark flock on the foggy horizon
defers arrival. Engaged in some play
of its own making, it circles and drifts.
Still, fricative, almost particulate songs
filter down, silting along the gray shore.
They summon the ear to something, to something.
Taylor situated her second collection, The Forage House, in a much more specific place and time. A descendant of Thomas Jefferson, Taylor sojourned at Monticello among Jefferson’s former property and papers, there to meditate on the enmeshment of founding fatherdom with slavery’s moral degradation, a legacy and memory suppressed by later generations of Jefferson’s white descendants. “That violent silencing endures,” she writes in the aptly titled “World’s End,” suppressing as well the more intimate stories of less celebrated American families including, in “Virginia Pars,” her own Appalachian ancestors:
Still sad alcoholic ghosts came stalking.
Unsolved, always thinking white or colored,
they slunk by, rank as shame
Work & Days took a very different turn. Having won a grant to complete Forage House at the Amy Clampitt home in western Massachusetts, Tess Taylor feared that a year of single-minded responsibility to just one task in one house in a very small town could become maddening. She asked her sponsors whether the town had a community garden where she might work. No, it didn’t. But it did have a working farm, one which sold produce to area restaurants. There, for the year-long balance of her residency, she spent much of her time laboring. Organized by seasons, Work & Days is reminiscent of Wendell Berry’s plainspoken almanacs of physical labor and sabbath rest. As Taylor writes in “Field Report: June,” these were not routines of serene ease:
For hours we shove leeky handfuls,
hardened off for weeks. The air
is onion. For hours we crawl—heat
rides my back
like I’m its horse. I punch again,
stuff six to a row & on
all morning. Move by inches. Plant.
The twenty-eight poems in Work & Days make visible the relationship between what we do in the moment and how we live our lives. “Houseman was right,” she tells us. “your life is short. / To miss even this springtime / would be an error.”
Last West: Roadsongs for Dorothea Lange was published just before the pandemic, to accompany New York’s Museum of Modern Art’s retrospective of Lange’s photography, much of it for the New Deal-era Farm Security Administration. By this time, Taylor had returned to her childhood hometown, the Berkeley-adjacent Bay Area suburb of El Cerrito. Lange lived much of her life in a house not far from Taylor’s own, and Taylor found resonances in archival photos of their shared neighborhood. Lange’s home was a base of operations for her travels throughout 1930s and 40s California, with its dustbowl refugee settlements, its wartime “relocation centers” incarcerating the West’s Japanese-Americans and, everywhere, its itinerant labor camps. In Last West, Taylor arranges such material in a collage, interleaving words from Lange’s field notebooks with Taylor’s meditations, more than eighty years later, on places and people whose lives have changed less than Lange would have hoped.
Taylor’s latest collection, Rift Zone, explores suburbs rather than farm soil; speaks from the 21st century, not the 18th; and situates her observations not in Massachusetts or Virginia, but in California. The overriding theme here is precarity: political, domestic, and economic. Rift Zone’s
geologic metaphor felt like a way of talking about the fracture in this country at this moment… There’s a lot of metaphoric possibility in this kind of soil-scape, in the figure of upthrust, in the notion of the crust and the depths.
Rift Zone’s opening poem, “Pocket Geology” begins deep in California’s bedrock:
xxxxxxxxxthe Earth’s mantle, rock moving.
xxxxxxxxxContinents are milk skin
floating on cocoa.
xxxxxxxxxA restless interior
xxxxxxxxxsweeps them along.
The state’s fractured bedrock becomes a metaphor for other ruptures: political and social cleavages dividing us from other, and emotive breakages alienating us from those we love. Each of these rifts is literal—and each also serves the others as both analogy and metaphor. Taylor plays with the language of earthquake country in “Etymology with Tectonic Plates”: “Faultline we say & what is this but tendril / to fault to foul a falling short a failing / to blame to blemish / e.g. a damaged place / the word also making visible / at least in part the unimaginable…”
At the outset, instability is not geologic but domestic. In “Song With Shag Rug & Wood Paneling” she writes of returning as an adult to her childhood home:
My parents renovated that old home.
It is clean as a lobotomy
gone the shameful faux-wood paneling,
dark embarrassment of my teenage years
I who spent a decade sending hatred
toward a glittering asbestos ceiling
have only a dump to hate
My ancient vehemence is confounded
by brightly lit new silence
The lobotomized house, shorn of its interior cladding, forgets Taylor’s memories as, on a much larger scale, the bedrock can shift and take with it the memories of many thousands who bought into California believing in the ground’s reliability. She makes this point sharply in “Escrow,” one of her four “California Suites.” Prophesying the precarious future of “your fragile real estate,” she writes:
In every sale, a list of ways
your home could be destroyed.
Flood, earthquake, fire.
Your house may end in mudslide,
be damaged by a rain of golf balls;
you may live downwind of poison breezes
off oil fields, refineries, or croplands.
It does not require apocalyptic fiction to imagine the state tumbling. “Loma Prieta, 1989,” recalls a day thirty years ago when she and her neighbors rode “high & tottering on the bareback crust.” And of Olema, a community in California’s Marin County, she writes:
Below us the crust is molten, is nationless
We only light our lamps on the rift.
Taylor has it right: those of us who live in California practice a kind of willed amnesia; we decide not to know what, buried as deeply within us as the grinding Pacific Plate, we know all too well. As Taylor has it in “Song With Habitat Exchange,” we take refuge in the serene mellifluence of suburban street names: “Calmada, Calmosa, California, Mar Vista / Ocean View.”
This self-induced amnesia leads to erasures more consequential than those of houses or neighborhoods. Entire ecosystems vanish, replaced by imported plant and animal life. The disappearances are little noted: most of us in California measure our roots in decades, years, or months, not in centuries. Such obliviousness stalks the larger world too, of course. In Rift Zone, Taylor reports that her young son eagerly adds to his vocabulary’s “bestiary,” but:
Still everything we name
Zebra, hippopotamus, rhinoceros
Soon I’ll also be explaining
how each word marks
a half-lost species.
Our willful obliviousness is the first step toward more sinister erasures. In “Raw Notes for a Poem Not Yet Written,” she again recalls Lange’s photos, this time of the World War II-era Japanese internment camp at Manzanar. In the piece, she crosses out words, explicitly confronting falsifications in the record of oppression: “They never came back / their white neighbor saved / (not all) / of their business…” As is true of Forage House, Taylor resists any effort to soften or to dissemble.
Tess Taylor’s five published works each remind me of other personal favorites: Misremembered World of Eavan Boland’s The Lost Land and its own intimacies of time and place; Forage House of Etheridge Knight’s “The Idea of Ancestry;” Work and Days of Wendell Berry’s Clearing; Last West of Muriel Rukeyser’s Book of the Dead; and Rift Zone of California’s contemporary poets of suburban and exurban landscapes, particularly Jacqueline Suskin, and Mike Sonksen, and Susan Suntree.
Though diverse in topic and tone, Taylor’s work has, over the past two decades, built toward a singular landscape of language, thought, and feeling. Taylor first excavated Rift Zone’s geographical and geological soil in the first pages of Misremembered World. The interplay between present and past, between memory and history, so central to Forage House, returns to inform Last West. The seasonal cycles of weather and labor which imbue Work and Days with such quiet conviction and earned grace, echo in Rift Zone’s rhythms of quiescence and calamity.
As Taylor herself has remarked, her themes “seem to recur, lapidary fashion, across the books,” each work echoing those before it and presaging those which follow. Each, Taylor has said, is a “ghost figure” for the other. Always the rift, quiescent for decades, its energy accumulating for another transformation of landscape. In Taylor’s telling, the capacity for violence, both human and natural, shadows us. Yet the rift is, as Taylor has said, also “at its best, generative.” It is the figure of destruction, but also of creation and rebirth.
Tess Taylor’s work reminds me most powerfully, not of a poet at all, but of 20th century French historian Fernand Braudel. Imprisoned in the few decades of our brief lives, Braudel argued, we come to believe that mere events—wars, elections, social upheavals— decisively change the world. Occasionally they do. However, Braudel was deeply skeptical of contingency’s explanatory power. The impact of any “event,” even one spread over a decade or more and involving millions of people, is altered—sometimes constrained, sometimes turned aside, sometimes intensified—by dense social, institutional, and economic systems which have developed over many centuries. These, in turn, are embedded still more obdurate facts of climate, topography, and geology. Human history is, in short, path-dependent. We have less control than we would like. Our efforts to free ourselves from the past run into much more resistance than we expect or acknowledge.
Occasionally we recognize that history, whether personal or collective, is shaped by much larger forces, not all intractable, but none very forgiving to the pressure we exert against them. Forgetting becomes our collective defense against this fact. We build our houses, real and metaphoric, on earthquake faults and then almost purposely empty our heads of the fact that the earth is prone to sudden displacement. In “Discovering the Continent,” from Misremembered World, she notes that we “hunger for illusions, needy for / new frontiers to be eluded in.”
Yet Taylor is a poet, not a historian. She rejects the kind of historical determinism that crushes our faith that change is possible (in fairness, Braudel was not a strict determinist either). Whatever oppressive legacies we inherit, whatever precarious foundations we build upon, some choices—and often the most important ones—remain ours.
The central issue in Taylors work, she says, is how we should “hold ourselves in right relation.” Here is the old Stoic’s question: how do we live a moral life in a world which seems so hostile to any aspiration for human decency and freedom? In Last West, Taylor quotes a woman, homeless: “this country’s a hard country / when you die, you’re dead, that’s all—” (“Margot & Alice on Homelessness”). For Taylor, that passage, stark upon the page, is not a defeatist surrender to an implacable and irremediable world. It is a call to do better.
Because she is not a historian, Taylor can go where historians cannot, toward the transformative and redemptive power of beauty. In “Notes on a Diebenkorn” she describes a palette whose light, “mainlined from Matisse,” is very much that of Diebenkorn’s home in northern California, a region to which Taylor has returned:
xxxxxxHow in him the light is primary
xxxxxxthe high hard sheen of Berkeley,
xxxxxxeucalyptus hitting walls—
How his trick is catching
some refraction off the water,
beveled salty mirror
xxxxxxThe copper’s shifty now
xxxxxxenough to tempt the fog in—
A place of willful forgetting, of moral amnesia, “of landfill & movable real estate” —yes, it’s all that. But, as she writes in “Envoi: San Francisco,” it is also a place of human aspiration. We go on despite and maybe because of our faults.
city of faultline city of water:
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxAs much as of anywhere I am of you.
She is. And with her, so are we.
Tom Laichas’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Spillway, Rappohannock Review, Prime 53, and Ambit. He is author of Empire of Eden (High Window Press, 2019) and Sixty-Three Photos from the End of a War (forthcoming, 3.1 Venice Press).