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Nathaniel Tarn, 1979.

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Photo: Nathaniel Tarn, 1979. Photo Janet Rodney.
Back to the Nathaniel Tarn feature Contents list

Readers should also see the Tarn feature in Jacket 6, 1999, and
Nathaniel Tarn: «Selected Poems 1950–2000», reviewed by Brenda Hillman in Jacket 28, and
Nathaniel Tarn: «Recollections of Being», reviewed by Martin Anderson in Jacket 36

Nathaniel Tarn Feature

Joseph Donahue

Review of Nathaniel Tarn: «The Architextures»

(Chax Press, 2000) Paper, 110 pp. $16


In book after book, Nathaniel Tarn has traced the feelings, thoughts and rituals that establish what and where we think we are. His recent work, The Architextures, brings to this accomplishment a reckoning. True, Tarn has never written more passionately and deeply about the worlds he has passed through, or more scrupulously documented the way each of us takes hold of what he calls here “the one true life.” For all its compass of lands and lives, The Architextures is less a book of adventures than of their ends. These seventy prose poems, divided into ten sets of seven, each prose poem with three parts, make up a prolonged and masterful meditation on death, if not an out and out book of holy dying. In passage after passage, the poet sifts the rubble of what is, for the shape and feel of what will be.


In pursuit of this, the poet moves about the world. But travel affords few answers. Locales are vanishing: “. . . roads spider over the planet, so wide you can see them from any other planet, however far away (p. 10) As particularities of place meld, Tarn steeps his paragraphs in glimpses, portraits, scenarios, psychological sketches. The world’s not seen for the first time here, despite Tarn’s long commitment to the Edenic vision. The world’s not quite ready for a final appraisal, though despair and anger buff the edges and intersections of this text to an apocalyptic sheen. But the worth of what is, especially in light of what’s ahead, needs at least a drive-by estimate. Tarn’s sentences flash, staccato at times, elliptical, dropping pronouns, stretching out in arcs of eloquence. The Architextures moves through the localities of a life, urgent, unharried, treasuring the many ongoing or remembered situations, bothered by intimations of some radically different elsewhere. Worlds and lives at their extreme moments dominate the text, moments when it is possible to see how desire exceeds its object, survives its object, and perhaps as well the desiring subject.


What’s at stake? There’s a crisis of cognition unfolding. The narrator needs to know something. We keep encountering emblems of a failed quest. The physical whipping endured in ARC 4 suggests more subtle losses. The nameless body brought low may be no less than a knight errant, at the wrong end of a police beating: “Punched around the kidneys, thrashed to the floor in his own waters pooling, exits alone, ramrod-backed after defeat, through the dark entrance hail, dark corridor, into the dark night…” (p. 12)


A summa of desire is required. Seeking such a doctrine, The Architextures revisits places where culture, geography and language aspire to some consummate condition: Italy, China, Tibet, Mexico. We are not so much in these places this time around — and consider the major efforts of Tarn that have emanated from living elsewhere — places in this book are everywhere and nowhere. We know them by how they move through us. Tam’s meditations loop around, through and behind the scenes. One is tempted to talk about the camera work of the paragraphs, but this might imply a tyranny of the visual. Still, so much here has the feel of a movie, some in-flight adventure flick during the flight of the soul. The fast clip distracts us, caught up as we are in the subplots of a particular ARC (each prose poem is titled ARC and numbered, with year of composition added), we might forget that this entertainment is also the mind’s search for the hidden shape of the world. As a trained anthropologist, Nathaniel Tarn has a sophisticated understanding of ritual structures that shape communities. As a poet his interior testimonies argue for the irreducible authority of moods that resist all collation. Somewhere along the way Nathaniel Tarn had a special curse placed upon him: he longs for the transport of a rhapsode, while praising the deliberating mind. His ecstacies are analytic. In The Architextures, what nags the narrator is the possibility that desire will be fulfilled within the world, and not beyond it:“What is eternity if not the love you never had at sunrise?” (p. 53)


Death-bed vigils make theorists of us all. Words are for the living; aghast, we watch as our own words seal the dying one out of the human community. Language reclaims the identity it gave. But there is still consciousness there, stripped of what it took to be life by life, as the not-yet-bereft prepare for the absence of one who has not utterly gone. Tarn’s eloquence on our last liminality is formidable. Elegies grouped in the section entitled “Amicus Curiae” take the measure of the slash in the texture of our lives. We are given only the initials of the memorialized. These lost ones are approached in a manner both fleeting and direct. The poet’s manner reminds us that they have already been internalized, and are now figures in an ongoing inner colloquy. These works do not spend themselves in grieving. Some of the dead, such as Kafka, are recognizable. His parable of the gate and the suppliant before it, called up in ARC 25, is worth keeping in mind as an especially resonant precursor to the spiritual ambitions of this text. These lost lives in “Amicus Curiae” afford a partial self-portrait of the narrator. Identities blur in what amounts to a kind of inner argument about knowledge and achievement. ARC 23 contends with Paul Celan, another expert in the mapping of cultures and histories, Celan presents a troubling vision of what the poet can expect whose ambition is to reach the edge of words. Tarn writes: “And what you knew before you figured word, or while you met it, or even afterward, how does that clothe when winter want blows cold? Nothing prevents you from a turn of page: but, look, they troup again, closer this time, informed by page before, threatened by page to come. Many a page to come weighs on your knees: scarcely a winter blanket to your desperation?” (p. 42)


This interrogatory note recalls the marvelous incantation of the opening suite, the title of which, “The Man of Music,” points toward the Orphic cast of much of the poem’s finest utterance. Questions begin the book, and seep through it. The authorial presence evaluates all. Thus the particular density of The Architextures,combining as it does the many styles that have won a place in Tarn’s writing, the ethnographic, the meditative, notebook renderings, declamation from the heights, as we sense the poet retesting the conventions of representation. Each ARC has both a primacy and a feel, an architexture. The substitution in Tam’s title, texture for tecture, constitutes a warning, that shape not distract us from the feel, of the “very one life we were destined for.” But also the text compels us to feel for the shape of our lives. The dictionary gives a subordinate meaning for the word arc:“the part of a circle which a heavenly body appears to pass through, above or below the horizon.” This seems in keeping with the quest of the poem for the compass of the unseen. The arc that is also the promise. The arc that is also the ark into which the world is gathered.


The first text called up by The Architextures is a foundational legend for early modernism, and for a whole lot else, a legend Tarn has configured obsessively throughout many poems, the Eleusinian mysteries. These ancient devotions to Demeter pointed to the possibility of a world beyond the world. Tarn is not alone in arguing that we no longer have the chance to go to the underworld and win our way back — the underworld is coming to us. But among his contemporaries of the chthonic, Tarn seems most resolute in preserving some sense of a divinized feminine presence, a beloved who has been at times Persephone, Eurydice, the Shekinah, or an earthly wife or lover, but always what Stevens might have called “the interior paramour.”


The ARCs often address some aspect of the beloved. This is in fact a formal pattern, the poet tells us late in the book, in a moment when he refers to the paragraphs as stanzas, raising thereby in an offhanded way some questions of genre. The pattern, however, violates itself sufficiently to retain its efficacy, and also to involve the reader in a suspicion as to the hidden presence of the figure when her stanza does not specifically address her. The ratio of words devoted to her and to the world feels about right. The goddess gets a third. The visual logic and the verbal logic nicely invert each other. While in reading we ascend in a sense through the paragraphs to an apex of words given over to her, visually the foundation of each ARC is her provenance. The Eleusinian subtext haunts the speculations: are the mysteries revealed that of a life beyond the life we know, or is the promise locked in the logic of sowing and harvesting? Readers familiar with Tarn’s work may approach the opening suite with a certain hesitation, fearing the myth might too readily determine what we might learn about the world in which the myth achieves its meaning. But Tarn has anticipated this, by the very form of the poem, which requires the flux of mental life that continually recontextualizes the myth, and more dramatically, by discovering an unexpected capacity within the cherished figuration.


The closing section, called “Surviving the Life,” remains moving after numerous readings. It is a testament of faith after the testament of evidence. “The very one life we were destined for” announced in “The Man of Music” completes, we might say, its arc. The wall that is the subject of this concluding suite of poems, at which we wait, into which we are absorbed in moments of heightened consciousness, and concealing from our view some far side, the experience of which provides the only possibility of a true utterance concerning the wall, may or may not be the wall of Paradise. It may or may not be what was placed around Eden after our dispossession. There is no guard or gate. As befits a volume with a title like this one, all we know is that the wall is there. After so many crossings of boundaries, of style, of location, of tone, in a world where all is porous and postmodern, we come to the first and last checkpoint: “where you can believe another life. Or, if you like, survive your previous life. The one on ‘this’ side of the wall. You try the words inside your mouth and they sit well: ‘I am surviving my life.” (p. 101)


It is in regard to this ultimate barrier that Tarn invokes the interior paramour, who seems to pass beyond the realm of the sexual: “. . . the ‘she’ is not here” (p. 101), though the narrator’s passing through the wall, facing the challenge of various demons, leads to a continuous dwelling in her presence. Tarn has turned here to the more purely divine aspect of the figure that has been central to his poetry at least since Lyrics for the Bride of God. The wall chastens and purifies, one passes into the wall, and through it, but it remains an image of separation, of bounds, and the goddess who might preside on the other side of it does not co-mingle with her devotees. In a formulation that even the celebratory joy that suffuses the final suite cannot quite remove our chill when the poet tells us: “That the beloved maintain distance and solitary splendor. This as the only task of hope.” (p. 107) The Architextures, by contrast, is intimate and diverse in its splendor. And it admirably takes up the task of hope.

First published in First Intensity #16 (2001): pp. 248–51

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