back toJacket2

The Internet address of this page is


Nathaniel Tarn
Recollections of Being
reviewed by Martin Anderson
Salt Modern Poets, 2004, ISBN 1844710556,Paper, 109 pp. £7.99 and US$12.76

This review is about 7 printed pages long. It is copyright © Martin Anderson and Jacket magazine 2008.See our [»»] Copyright notice.

Flight from ‘The Ten Thousand Things’


Turning to the poem which provides the title for this collection by Nathaniel Tarn (Tarn’s Selected Poems 1950–2000 published by Wesleyan University Press is reviewed in Jacket 28) one is engaged by what is not only one of the declared concerns of the poem itself, but of the entire collection:


Cloud around tree outside the window
in which, at a sudden movement of mind,
all is contained again. Not to be here —
but there, in the cloud, and to be there
as a being here of which, in other wise,
there is no conception.

paragraph 3

The dissipation, that is, of that sense of a separate self without which any authentic move outward to the human or non-human phenomena of our environment is postponed. Transcending such sense the observer in the poem, watching birds feed, imagines a state of being where the birds become ‘all others’ being and my own’:


itself at home in cloud, cloud in sky,
to furthest worlds, all single dwelling
of this unity.

Nathaniel Tarn, Central America, 1953.

Nathaniel Tarn, Central America, 1953.


This ‘unity’, playing upon the idea of no-mind by reinstating the word ‘mind’ from the end of the poem’s second line, Tarn evokes in a later line of the poem: ‘the absent-minded in full preoccupation/ with the ten thousand things’. In this process of removal, as an inhibiting presence, of the identity of the separate self:


                                       Not to be here —
but there, in the cloud, and to be there
as a being here of which, in other wise,
there is no conception.


Tarn appears to bring the collection’s title poem into relationship with a body of ideas which by ‘defusing and dismantling the reifying tendencies inherent in language and conceptual thought’ (not that Tarn’s poetry ever gives the impression of working towards making language redundant!) leaves ‘behind nothing other than a dramatic awareness of the living present’.[1]


‘The living present’ ... Tarn’s poems (and this collection is no exception) frequently exhibit a relish for the demotic; not only in terms of word choice, but also in terms of the way they capture the at times staccato velocity of its energies. Such energies — kinesis — in Tarn’s poetry appear to be part of a conception of motility consistent with an assault on the notion of a separate self, and part of a thrust, making the poem an organic recipient of that motility, to connect with nature, the cosmos and the human community. Tarn’s language, often simulating a sense of the ‘immediate’:  


Desert lies miles below, lapping world’s end.
Gone thirst though: here water flows, rushes, sings
(‘Hawk’s Place, Lobo Canyon, New Mexico’)


is capable, too, of a quietly sober and meditative, almost courtly, gracefulness of movement


she walks afar in time
that streaming logos —
our love limps after her
we know her back so well
no path can go astray,
nor day lose all its vigils.
(‘Ttention! Her Cadences’)

Nathaniel Tarn, New York City, 1999. Photo John Tranter.

Nathaniel Tarn, New York City, 1999.
Photo John Tranter.


Such variety is unsurprising, perhaps, considering the diversity of Tarn’s cultural and linguistic background - an English poet, editor, translator and anthropologist of British Lithuanian and French Rumanian parents, born in Paris and brought up and educated in France, Belgium and England, who, in 1970 left England to live in the States - and considering the diversity of his intellectual interests and literary associations and influences. In which other contemporary poet writing in English can such a range of verbal qualities and effects be found? Within such a range Tarn moves in his poems between the sensory contact essential to a poet who, existing in vital connection to his world, is committed to raising the land and its natural phenomena to a level of linguistic vividness, and the ratiocination equally essential to a poet seeking to dissect the obsessions of a world intent on degrading and destroying them.


Having said this, it should be clear that Tarn’s poetry is not a poetry that rests content with fixing a particular emotional/intellectual state within a memorable set of personal images but is, rather, a poetry which forges, questioning, through the dynamic of a restless crop of imagery and ideas to often unexpected destinations; frequently, on the way, bringing to bear upon, or evoking out of, the substratum of individual experience, mythical identities or patterns which dissolve the voice of the traditional lyrical ego. It is, consequently, a poetry which requires of the reader a sustained act of attention.


To return to the collection’s title poem and to the question which occurs near its end, ‘Do a myriad lives have to be wasted for the now/ to sharpen this one life?’ Apart from the self-transcending acts of love and attention which the poem’s final lines suggest can achieve such sharpening, ‘the sun wills me/to wither down to a last flare of love’, other lines in the collection set up a more sombre prospect:


Groaning towards the finals of this year, war may still eat,
[devour all peace] with that colossal fire, mountain of smoke,
preludes the sun’s demise before our time is over.
(‘From: The Book of Nudes’)


War is never far from the poet’s mind in Recollections of Being. Even in the so called ‘Domestic Poems’:


                                              Bright with no
message, the eyes of those who daily
stay for birth shine on. They go regardless
into their light day, leave us to darkness,
a quest no border comforts, no answer brooks
in the blind time of war.


It is there in the particularly fine poem ‘Ancestors’ where Tarn visits the Lithuania of some of his ancestors, and the site where the Transatlantic Lithuanian flyers Darius and Girenas died, and hears the ‘blood beat/of excremental music’ associated with the mass killings by Nazi storm troopers during which many of the local inhabitants had ‘stood on rooftops/many smiling/to watch the shooting circus’. Here, in the


Rite of return
elegant orange “bird”
                shines on my memory
flying the sun from west to east.


It is in this ‘orange “bird”’, i.e. aeroplane, of the aviators where the confluence of aviator and avian occurs, of those Transatlantic flyers and those ‘birds of my secret childhood’. Flight, ‘Atrocious fight against gravity,/everything wishing to fall,/to lie down and sleep’ (‘El Ultimo/The Last Man’), represents a dominant figure in Tarn’s work (whether in his attraction to birds, aviators or motility) and is often encountered in the form of a flight both into and out of the present. As we saw earlier, the collection’s title poem expresses the desire both ‘Not to be here - /but there...and to be there/as a being here of which, in other wise,/there is no conception.’ At the heart of this, seemingly contradictory, desire there appears to be, however, a profound (akin to a Madhyamikan?) aspiration, perhaps most memorably expressed by Tarn in the long and beautiful poem ‘Palenque’ included in his 1985 collection At the Western Gates, to both exist at the centre of time in the phenomenal world and yet not to exist within time, within those enmities engendered by its divisions and apportionments, at all (are the reaches of such aspiration intimated, perhaps, in those apposite qualities of a charged velocity and of a quiet meditative gracefulness, found in equal measure in the movement of Tarn’s poems?):


this pathetic raft, off at dawn
back into shark-infested waters
                        abandoning the country,
timeless — to live in time at last
but live apart for ever
(‘Azucar Amarga / Bitter Sugar’)


Why, in your thoughts, do you still want
for some such break in time
as might put stop to a long mediatation
where you have been quite out of time
but, in the same event, wished to re-enter it
(‘Burial Plot’)


There was some time
         when there was not yet time
for which the languages of time
          could not deserve us
(‘Gravitational Waves’)


The poetry in this collection is honed finely against those competing and destructive energies within time which, because they apportion little value to the time-less ‘now’ that will ‘sharpen this one life’ and to that ‘unity’ of separate but linked beings within which it is enfolded, make impossible the realisation of such a project. Instead such energies create, increasingly, a world where that ‘unity’ of the collection’s title poem, where the self is not separate but part of the larger natural and human community from which it derives its identity, is replaced by a uniformity of individual need driven by the satisfying of individual and selfish desires. A need which, being utilitarian and manipulative, has no interest, at all, in the essential difference and nature of the other


                              Forgotten now forgetting, no
more the absent-minded in full preoccupation
with the ten thousand things, each separate,
each needing its own space, its unique memory.
Years seem to have gone by in this forgetting.


but which, subordinating beauty and ‘sensual communion’ to profit, and cooperation to competition, produces:


                  ...    those who keep our root alive
unable to persist on their own lands
for fear they should endanger the pristine view
of the animals beloved by travellers and banks
and where the furrows of the diamond mines
have turned to blood along the continent
(‘Waterhole, Breasts, Root’)


In the same poem Tarn imagines the consequences of the loss attendant upon the elevation of that need, and upon the disappearance of that ‘now’ within which all others can share and sharpen their sense of the irrepressibly beautiful and mysterious body of the world (frequently envisioned by Tarn as the loved one):


                           ... sky wrapped in mourning winds,
white jubilant earth covered with fallen stars
sings to these flowers among her proven thorns.
On one rock painting, six tall men, down from the north,
carrying baskets on their heads — the oval pattern:
clearly they can be called baskets from their position
but there is no message from that wounded time
concerning their contents, these were not painted:
were they fruit, were they greens, were they honeys,
were they things once called paradise, that will not come again,
will never be called paradise again


and, just as earnestly, laments its absence in his own country:


                                         hour of all treasure wasted,
all beauty mired in overkill, obscene abundance:
great flower of our lives destroyed by frosts,
                              over and over, winter blast
against our bliss
(‘For Mister Irby, ‘Merican Master, upon his call steps: word’)


      ... was this the land I designated as
my final home: my coffin here!
my graveyard!
(‘Ttention! Her cadences’)


The collection Recollections of Being measures the fall from this potential state of being where the ‘ten thousand things, each separate’ is given ‘its own space, its unique memory’.


... But all the lines
return again into the picture as the sun wills me
to wither down to a last flare of love.
(‘Recollections of Being’)


The question ‘Do a myriad lives have to be wasted for the now/to sharpen this one life?’ of the collection’s title poem is rhetorical then. That final ‘wither’ qualifies, heavily, all our assertions.


The value of Tarn’s poetry, however, lies not just in its need to acquaint us with such a question but, ultimately, in its ability to acquaint us with the unique beauty and the nature and importance of ‘the ten thousand things’ (the Many), and with those ‘things once called paradise’ (the One). At its best it renders these poles of archetypal and mythical experience as manifested in the troubled world of the 21st century, and the contexts within which they acquire meaning and significance, with an unusually fine discrimination of the mind and the senses.


[1] Huntingdon, C.W. The Emptiness of Emptiness, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1989.

Martin Anderson

Martin Anderson

Martin Anderson’s most recent publication is The Hoplite Journals (reviewed in Jacket 31). Shearsman Books in the UK will soon publish the second volume of The Hoplite Journals as well as a new poetry collection Belonging. Martin lives just outside London but has spent many years until recently living in the Far East. He still visits there as a Professorial Lecturer with the Department of English and Comparative Literature at the University of the Philippines, Diliman, where he teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in creative writing, modernism and 20th century British poetry.

Copyright Notice: Please respect the fact that all material in Jacket magazine is copyright © Jacket magazine and the individual authors and copyright owners 1997–2010; it is made available here without charge for personal use only, and it may not be stored, displayed, published, reproduced, or used for any other purpose.