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Brenda Hillman reviews

Selected Poems 1950–2000
by Nathaniel Tarn

Tarn Selected cover Wesleyan Poetry Series: Wesleyan University Press distributed by University Press of New England. 2002. 256 pp. 6 x 9 inches; $19.95 Paper, 0-8195-6542-3; $45 Cloth, 0-8195-6541-5

This review is 4,500 words
or about 10 printed pages long

Steady Turbulence

The U.S. Senate has just voted to approve oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Preserve. People of conscience head for comfort to email or blog (Microsoft XP 2000 doesn’t recognize blog, has squirted the red squiggle under it). Bush appoints one dreadful Cabinet member or judge after another. People of conscience are stunned and catatonic.

Here is a section from “After Jouve,” a timely poem included in Nathaniel Tarn’s Selected Poems:

And we went and invented ourselves machines
They came smashing everything drilling the old earth
               filling the old air
Waves rays shining axes
And there you are my power has grown terrible
My anxiety also
My instability
I can’t sit still anymore
I search I become
I’m no longer my real age I toy with everything
But my God hoary war has come back and scarcely changed
Human blood has only one way of flowing
Death has only one way of flowing
Death has only one step always the same to fall upon me
Space has shrunk my soul it is newer
I do not say better
I would not dare
                              (115) [1]

Tarn translated this poem in the early 70s because it was a work so close to his own feelings he sensed he might have written the poem. The words seem profoundly appropriate for this time. In four slim sections of incantatory free-verse, the poem addresses human desire, human invention, and death in elemental phrases and dramatically unpunctuated stanzas. It employs anaphora and other forms of repetition (“flowing”) in its phrases; the figures of “I” and the “you” are non-specific, archetypal.

This poem may not be ‘about’ Bush’s next drilling but the poem symbolically carries the drilling image to any situation of  dire consequence. Like William Blake, Tarn sees political dismay in light of a collective psychic dismay.

Nathaniel Tarn, New York, 1999; photo by John Tranter

Nathaniel Tarn, New York, 1999; photo by John Tranter

Nathaniel Tarn’s Selected Poems 1950-2000 (Wesleyan University Press, 2002) is a prophetic volume, a handbook for the coming decade. Arranged chronologically, it has reprints from nineteen of Tarn’s thirty-five books. Here the literary reader can find reality hybrids and can experience the camaraderie of whole image systems from the twentieth century. No syllable is lonely or aloof.

One is often reminded, by Tarn’s references, his subjects, and his dedications, not only of Blake but of Yeats, Vallejo, Charles Olson, and Robert Duncan. Like those writers, his work brings together mythology, Western and Eastern philosophy (including Gnostic thought), political commentary, scientific investigations, naturalist descriptions and very personal love poetry. This poetry redefines nature and art for human culture, bringing a genuine psychological and linguistic curiosity about the human mind, about what it means to be human.

If there have been, for two hundred years, mighty poets writing in symbols mainly for communities of other artists, and if there have been, since the beginning of time, mighty poets writing for everybody, there have also been mighty poets of the third space, whose work can engage both artists and general audiences. These poets avant the art but also rethread it into the widest fabric of culture.

Nathaniel Tarn has been this third kind of poet. His poetry has maintained its stubbornness, its non-conformism. His poems have been printed in magazines one doesn’t find in waiting rooms, yet it is accessible enough both in style and voice to have a large general readership. His philosophy is heterodox and his images can be read by those who know Plato and those who don’t:

When we sit down to talk of values
               and start where most men end
neglecting the simple beginnings
               we make an end of the Academy
I am interested in those who begin at the beginning
philosophers in caves    playing with light and shadow
taking the explanations of others who sit in caves
               and welding them together into one answer
                             Look do you know
that 99% of mankind is syncretistic
               that isms are a luxury of the rich
and that we
              with our eyes of ice
              our eyes of petal and flame
              our eyelids like the wings of summer flies
                  in the great light of total opposition

are poor   and rightly poor    and rightly    rightly    poor? (67)

The gentle chain of modifiers, subordinate clauses, and dreamlike images in prepositional phrases all render a generous, almost psalm-like appeal to the thinking person. Many of Tarn’s lines, especially the lines of his political poetry, enter consciousness like acupuncture needles used for the social body. The psychic roots of his Ethnopoetics? both the individual as a collective, and the collective as the discrete conscience? enable the poet to go to a bearable place, one which is neither littoral nor middle ground but alternative, contiguous, other.

Tarn has explored the continuum of the solitary voice and the group in his brilliant essays on the ‘vocal’ and the ‘choral.’ [2] A hopeful, non-centrist vision of the world is possible, even in the most recent poems printed in this volume, a series of poems for citizens and friends in St. Petersburg:

Sleep, banished sleep
              moaning over a distant radio,
music filling the train?
              all the compartments,
all the corridors,
              conductors, passengers,
                             the driver by himself
where fire was, in days gone by,
              now electricity the queen
one zero one, and zero one,
              and back to one,
              moves us throughout the planets
up to our future (infinitely) home. (p. 328)

Though his style has varied from acutely spare to ecstatically expansive in the five decades the volume covers, the procedural tone, method, and subject matter — what is sometimes called “voice” of Tarn’s work is always recognizable. [3]

Casting a net into many volumes of selected poetry in these last few years has not produced such a gravid yield as Tarn’s does. This reader prefers individual volumes of poetry to almost any selected. But at their best, selected poetry volumes offer compactness for publishers and readers alike, characterizing the work of a poet at a particular moment, re-contextualizing poems in new ways to lift them across decades.

Tarn’s Selected Poems is extremely successful as a single volume, and is one every American should own. Almost a decade ago I reviewed Barbara Guest’s Selected Poems, and I felt the achievement was similar — it fulfilled expectation as a single volume. [4] Like Guest’s, Nathaniel Tarn’s selection shows how a committed artist can maintain? for  one-half of a very dire century? a constant energy for new projects, a formal, passionate experimental vision, and an animated ventriloquism that speaks to a wide range of readers.


Nathaniel Tarn was born in 1928 in Paris of British-Lithuanian and French-Rumanian parents, educated in France, Belgium and England; he came to the United States in 1970, having been enchanted by Apollinaire, the Surrealists, Claude Levi-Straus and, oddly, by the Pilgrims and American literature.

Nathaniel Tarn, 1953

Nathaniel Tarn, 1953

The earliest work represented here — that of the first three volumes, Old Savage/ Young City, Where Babylon Ends, and October, written and published in the sixties — mostly navigates Tarn’s relationship to surrealism and symbolic reality; these pieces are lush and alive with excesses peeled off line by line.

The earliest poem in the volume is “Old Savage/ Young City”; written in 1953-1963, it is an homage to many poetic fathers and cities, and calls up Apollinaire’s Zone at times but it is really Apollinaire-channelling-Whitman in Zone. And like Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Mallarmé, Tarn employs a dreamlike ship for his symbolic journey:

From the inner skin of my dreams
from the womb’s lining turned inside out,
where the soaring pine once nestled;
from the capsized backbone of my iron ship
that ploughed the rorqual, now a harpoon
thrust navel-deep into the fallow sky,
this knowledgeable heart, magic artificer,
convenes the mystery of all that I have ever known
and I find myself delighted again to belong to this world. (3)

Degrees of magnetic attachment to French poetry will quite never disappear from Tarn’s writing. Where the young poet tries on trappings of symbolist-surrealist mood-scapes, the older poet will still dance with them. You can also hear notes of Melville’s Gnosticism, the voyager entering the ship of knowledge, and the confident poet voicing American optimism about the role of his task “magic artificer.” Defiantly, the epic poet uses time against itself; the symbolist poet uses paper as breath.

By the time he moved back once and for all to America, Tarn had been the founding editor of Cape Editions and the Cape-Goliard Press at Jonathan Cape Publishers, London with links to New York through Richard Grossman. In youth he had attended the University of Chicago on a Fulbright, acquiring a PhD in anthropology, and during a thirty year anthropological career he formed friendships with leading artists and intellectuals from a range of disciplines.

How curiously Tarn’s ‘sound of consciousness’ seems to have developed, slightly less fettered by literariness when he publishes The Beautiful Contradictions, in 1970. After this he will pare down his images and patterns, inspired by structuralist anthropology, and will seek to define the mythic as a way of getting past the limitations of human life. Echoes of Leaves of Grass and Four Quartets enter in this period, as well as of Vallejo, to whom he addresses a passionate series. These reflect a man-as-world, world-as- myth.

Tarn has for most of his writing life been more interested in poetic sequences for working out moral, aesthetic and epistemological questions. The poems from The Beautiful Contradictions have a deeply meditative quality; they muse on desire and time:

it is a myth you know that desire dissolves all obstacles
it has never been known to dissolve mountains at all
and should the most violent fire you can imagine melt one
nevertheless another would grow up precisely in the same place
and the landscape look exactly the same as it did before
because there is no end to the production and destruction of mountains (33)

A title of one of the books written in this period, Lyrics for the Bride of God, points to the more psychological writing in a third period of Tarn’s writing. The poetry of the eighties represents an inclusion of depth psychology in which he works to re-integrate ideas of mind and nature, male and female.

Since the eighties, his work has become increasingly formally experimental as he wrestled with theoretical concerns of the time (deconstruction and post-structuralism) but unlike many experimental writers of the 80s, Tarn has always addressed the deepest psychological and spiritual matters, and has expressed political opinion without severely ironizing the project of doing so.

Always attracted by multi-lingual, multi-ethnic approaches to knowledge, interested in the ‘outsider’ approach to culture, Tarn has done important research as a field anthropologist, making his living doing field work, teaching, translating and editing. I first ran across his work in the seventies in his exemplary translations of Neruda and Vallejo; he has lived in Central America, Southeast Asia, and Eastern Europe.

Because of his several fields of expertise, his poetry is sometimes referred to as if it were one-third of a triadic career. But he has always been first and foremost a poet in the largest sense. The lyric intensity of his internal and external geographies, his sense of exile-at-home and of multiple communities is reminiscent of many other poets who produce feverishly in exile — Aimé Cesaire, Paul Celan, Czeslaw Milosz, and Michael Ondaatje. Tarn’s adopted southwestern landscape figures in some of his most resonant verse:

“Canyons in which
I have walked on the floor of the sea
feet firm on sand,
fluttering in disbelief
along rock walls,
eyes full of cholla flowers
mammillaria flowers,
the goddess-nipples
              spiky today,
nostrils cool with the odor
sunlight draws from feathery palms,
rich banks of succulents
along the interface of sand and water.” (198)

Such a landscape is specific — canyons, cholla, succulents — but one can hear his symbolist roots nonetheless, as the desert diction gives the poem an erotic and an exotic cast.

How to trace Tarn’s poetic lineages is an interesting question. Although it is possible to read his poems without needing specialized jargon or poetics, his writing is full of erudition and learning. He seems to have some characteristic balkiness around the idea of universities, schools and poets? particularly a fear of ‘professionalism’ in his beloved art. (“I would argue that no specific blood runs in these veins” 137)

Some read his poetry mainly through Ethnopoetics and anthropology. His poetic sensibilities are dramatized in the personas of Hyde and Jekyll in “The American Uni-verse,” an essay from Views from Weaving Mountain, his fascinating prose collection. In that essay he embraces hermeticism and primitivism as aspects of Modernism; it gave me some insight as to how he tracks surrealism in all this:

“Primitivism”? as might be expected a priori from the relative simplicity of the poetries
which endow it with both its strengths and weaknesses? represents another
facet of our “modernist” heritage. Without exhausting the richness of the
endeavor known as “Ethnopoetics,” it might be accepted as another
example of “primitivism” in our moment. The father of American “Ethnopoetics,”
Jerome Rothenberg, leans toward some alternative aspects of twentieth-century
European “modernism” often neglected or demeaned by some of our leading American                                                                                     
“modernists”: dada, surrealism, and the like. [5]

One of my favorite poems of Tarn’s, “The Great Odor of Summer,” in which he explores the implications of the Kent State disaster, presents the taxonomies of daily thought processes, and asks whether poets should be in “schools.” It is a sensual piece with a lively texture.

               What will you do with the Academy?
               saw down the branch you sit on?
               transform it? burn it? rape it?
               drown it in wine and sperm
               dance it to ritual?
               retrieve it for disaster?
               fruitful disaster?
               take it over for your own harvest?
               occupy the great odor? (67)

The “odor” is a context for thought or creation. Tarn seems always to have had a sense of poetic community and exile. He has made the between realm the site of his poetry. In his essays, he voices the familiar split between ‘academic’ and ‘other’ commonly expressed by Black Mountain writers in the seventies (certainly now an artificial distinction since much of the ‘outside-the-academy’ writing has appeared in many dissertations? not to mention the fact that the university has ended up being a pretty good haven for intellectual freedoms of all kinds, especially as the Bush fascist takeover continues.)

Whether the binaries — academic or not? affected Tarn’s poetry, he has maintained a wise, quirky, steady oppositional stance. If the idea of Ethnopoetics offered an opportunity for him to connect surrealism and French thought with his visionary spirit-driven writing, he has maintained a mythic reach. “Narrative of this Fall,” a piece dedicated to Duncan, makes a plea that is both intimate and oracular for other poets to meet him in his imaginative epic space:

I am asking certain voices
which seem to fall from on high
and which are not mine that I recognize,
lodged into my ears from the side as it were,
although there are no walls? asking the voices whether
they know of any center to this floor. (136)


Wisdom is a style. Here are a few thoughts about Tarn’s style.

Tarn manages an unusually flexible tone; he seems to be a man bargaining with reality. People turn to poetry for radical insight into a mind at work and a lot of contemporary poetry doesn’t satisfy this need. Tarn’s work does. He effects his tone through the use of fragments, uneasy segue ways, hesitations, alternating at times with long unpunctuated passages; he mixes prose and verse, brings in aphorisms, remarks, songlike passages, technical language to allow the greatest emotional range.

The reader trusts the emotion in his poems. These include asides and expressions of what Andrew Joron calls “the unsayable” [6] In “Arc70:94,” part of a prose poem sequence, Tarn writes:

              Lift the veil. See the body underneath. See the born beauty of
the day revealed that started with such hope. There is so little time before
night falls. In my ending is despair said the philosopher: lovers denied
him. Despair? but let it not appear so. (312)

Expressions of personal emotion are out of style in experimental poetry. The reader fears sentimentality or a moralizing tone, eschews easy models or solutions for large problems of race, class, war, greed, family and domestic difficulty, not to mention the suffering wrought from the givens of the death, matter, and time. Tarn enters speculative moments:

I am beginning to understand how it is possible
for people in the very prime of age
to look forward to a long
uninterrupted sleep. (112)

“Wisdom” in much current poetry has gone toward a tone that seems easy: the poet presents an experience in which he appears as a kindly, self-congratulatory figure having a momentary insight that buffets him against uncertainty, offering the bromide about nature, family or other. There are many instances of the post-ironic tone of the cute puer.

As responses to the magnitude of our present dismay, the smug and the cute seem like poor choices? “I’m tired of them,” as Williams’ English grandmother said about the trees (though I’m not tired of trees at all). Tarn offers a complicated, recombinant uneasy wisdom, the unbearable ‘maybe’ of the world. Wisdom is a process, not a thing.

Secondly, Tarn is a master of the experimental romantic ode. More than half the poems in the collection are written in parts or use sequential forms. This is the ode and its traditions. With its twin roots in the Pindaric and the Horatian forms, the ode has always accommodated the vocal and the choral that Tarn writes about? the impulse to join the tribe and to stay apart from it.

The ode sometimes has shifts of tone, sentence structure or diction and in order to work through varying states of feeling, subject or mood. Tarn’s odes mix the Keatsian and Coleridgian impulses. The ode has a lot to teach us as readers and as people who must reside in a constantly shifting reality; in Tarn’s model, it allows an evolution of thought about the creature/ body realms. Like Palmer’s “company of moths,” Tarn is in the company of spiders:

And there is too much in the world
that cannot be married, or conjunct, or cemented in union
of any kind. How shall I then take the pure light
from my faithful, lifelong friend beside the bed
telling me to recognize myself in it and not fear,
and how not fall headlong, past all the brides,
lovers, fellows, acquaintances, down to the last
slip of the lizard’s feet on the greasy tree,
over the skull and through the eyes
into the world of spiders? (132)

This stanza is typical of his middle free verse style; a varying caesura keeps the music graceful but slightly off-balance. This ode goes on to catalog fear and its comrades.

If the romantic ode is traditionally about time, change and transformation, about recognizing one’s perilous humanness with varying degrees of acceptance, depending on how Keatsian (more accepting) or Coleridgian (less accepting) one is, many of Tarn’s accommodating odes take their time in a leisurely range. He meditates on a subject, swerves off subject, coming back then going beyond. One experiences the power of Tarn’s writing in segments and parts.

His odes and sequence poems address other poets and artists, political action, dream life, personal friends and lovers; this form allows his process wisdom. “Flight from the Mountaintop” details the life of an artist as the death of a desert bird in the figure of Icarus, the poetic impulse in a dream. There are often other characters speaking in Tarn’s odes:

“Is not the metaphor of our indited clarity
that exquisite bird, part white, part black,
whose very head, the pattern of the head,
                            is our question mark?
I forget (deliberately)
birds of one color
even the great
              ghost trampler of women,
or the black lout of the sea in all his forms,
who stands for the night of the sea in all his forms,
              and has no name, or,
if you will, a multitude, no matter.”(183)

Third, Tarn doesn’t shy away from a fearlessly epic, passionate word; this might occur in a phrase like  “ghost trampler of women,” “black lout of the sea,” “multitude.” Tarn has developed an epic and layered diction of a particular kind, as if Odysseus were writing in New Mexico? a normal grandeur.

The different stresses of lines with this sweeping diction and a demotic sensibility make for a syncretistic  optimism in his political writing; but even his shorter political poems sound like anthems at times, as does this passage from  “Or That the President Would Abdicate”:

                            Not to excavate,
but to bring forth:
              they need to be torn from their hinges.
You have been putting off this moment
              for most of your existence now,
                    (that use of now) and NOW,
it is inescapable: the poem’s new
              or else, each time, a soldier dies for it.
              Or that the president would die,
walk off into a grove, be blinded there,
step up to a hill, to be hung from a cloud,
              slide into a gully, to be mangled by animals?
but go, GO, it would be time for him to GO. (187)

The poet has a plan for the shameful president. He uses words like “forth” and “grove,” “be blinded there,” to call up Lear or Oedipus who must admit to a tragic knowledge. He rhymes “abdicate” with “excavate.” The President should GO, in small CAPS. The grand but simple language allows the poet to suggest the moral path. Elsewhere, Tarn’s epic diction accommodates itself to the quotidian:

In the cool of morning, between garbage trucks,
and rising slow to coffee and a couple of eggs
on ham and cheese: no toast, no jelly, keeping
the fats away, if the sky be not too contrary,
if they know what the desk will call for sure,
that much security afforded, then: some peace,
some listening to the careful birds pick apart
auspices of day. (226)

“If the sky be not too contrary” — elegance, tinged with Shakespearean sweetness and charm.
The narrator in Tarn’s poems is epically, Dante-ishly, troubled, tortured and enchanted by the female-as-other? by desire for and admiration of the female body, by the hope of integration with his feminine nature. Many High Modernist masters had profoundly unintegrated ideas of womanhood, women’s power and psyche. “Mother earth,” the great body, the specific lover, the desired other all figure powerfully in Tarn’s poems; he takes the feminine as a source and resource. With a nod to Yeats’ gyres, Tarn writes of this idealized feminine, his invisible bride:

              She who throws herself out of windows,
              in the gyres of her morning flights,
      is happy with them also.
But I do not want to see anyone I have known in this life,
my heart thumps like a cold engine started up too fast
at the thought that I would have to open the door to someone I know:
to her shadow in flight     /     as she’d come in
                                          to batter me down,
              and look I said to her,
I wouldn’t really recognize? and the scenario would be:
(yes she said, yes she said quickly, of course, I understand) (91)

This “open” stanza allows an artlessly confident lyrical free verse to incorporate doubt. Desiring the bride in the abstract, the narrator admits to fearing that someone too familiar would spoil his dream — he seeks not to resolve contradictions but to heighten them, making them part of the continuous unfolding of occurrence. These patterned contradictions and the working out of psychologically daunting problems is a notable feature of his poetry. The feminine figures also as death, and as an all-encompassing both potential and poetential, but her roots are in earth and passion:

stone is hard
and unforgiving as a dying prophet.
Oh, death might come now
to the ball of the eye
and take these feet
back to their golden pavements!
Out front
great walls of surf
as wide as her arms
who mothers the sea and all her creatures
among which whales play in the mind
sounding along its convolutions
and breaching into the clear air of genius:
where they cover the mother’s bosom,
her naked splendor with their wings (198-9)

Finally, the goal is to bring together in one life acts of imagination that involve choice. Creation involves the disappointment of having to be selective. The poet accepts that life is made of particulars and we must choose among them. It is partly this tension between the ‘everything’ and the ‘something’ that lends so much energy to his writing; The ecstatic pushes against the need to hold back. Tarn has written dynamically about how much creation itself has to do with selection, the giving up on the all-inclusive:

“I take the aim of art to be the creation of an order so surprising that it cannot fail to be perceived by receivers as new and different from what went before. ...While there may be an urge to be all-inclusive, or as all-inclusive as possible (few creators immediately attain the desirable level of  selectivity), the new order is little by little forced to give up on totality. Personally, my whole life  has been haunted by the urge to totality, to the incorporation of what the Chinese call the Ten Thousand Things, on the one hand, and the radical pain of the obligation to select on the other. Totality probably continues to haunt the ongoing process in any poetic production.” [7]

Almost everything that can be said of a terrific book of poetry can be said of this one. When reading Tarn’s poems, I am reminded about the big scope of poetry, about what it can truly do. Both deeply sustaining and pleasurable, it is an awe-inspiring Selected? that a poet knows the importance of living at this level:

For those who continue to wish to work down here,
life has to provide some means of ending.
It switches the powers off one by one:
our needs, the joy one takes in them.
Eventually most of the things that have pleasured us
are wearied by rubbing away
or deadness of desire in the marrow.
Then we lie down and prepare ourselves
to be transformed entirely into light
in order that we might be devoured by no other life. (112)

Brenda Hillman
January — March 2005
Inverness, California


Note 1. All page numbers are from Nathaniel Tarn, Selected Poems 1950-2000, Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2002

2. Nathaniel Tarn, Views from the Weaving Mountain, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1991, last section. An updated version of this volume is being prepared by Stanford University Press, forthcoming 2006.

3. Robert Hass has a useful definition of the term “voice”; he has called it “Something like style plus subject matter.” (conversation)

4. Brenda Hillman, “The Artful Dare: Barbara Guest’s Selected Poems,” Talisman #16

5. Nathaniel Tarn, Views from the Weaving Mountain, p. 74–75

6. Andrew Joron, Fathom, New York: Black Square Editions, 2003

7. Nathaniel Tarn, personal communication, 2005.

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