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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

reviews «Ins and Outs of the Forest Rivers»

by Nathaniel Tarn, New Directions


As the recently published Poems for the Millennium, volume 3, Romantic and Postromantic poetry suggests, of the many questions raised for poetry by the emergence of the modern, secular world, one has provoked answers fast and various: what should be done with that word: sacred. By the light of all that is rational, should this word, and all its legion of synonyms, be preserved, replaced, reinvented, forgotten, or kept in circulation like nothing was wrong. A small word of huge concern, and to no one so much as to poets, since the origin and nature of their art suggests a relation to the older theo-centric world modernity was superseding. The first volume of Poems for the Millennium showed early twentieth century poets still vexed by this question. Modernisms across languages and political spectrums could be seen as an attempt to come to an understanding of what this word, sacred, and all it conjured might still mean, and what business poetry still had with it.


Now at a later chapter of the epic of the secular, in a world of resurgent theo-politics, this question comes up again, and with renewed urgency. Globally minded contemporary Anglophone poets such as Susan Howe, Kamau Brathwaite, Alice Notley, and Jay Wright have found themselves, as distinct and individual as they are, as a kind of cusp imagining the fate of modern poetry in a post-secular world. Among this scattered vanguard, Nathaniel Tarn has a particular prominence as one who has pursued the question of the fate of the sacred for the span of his entire career. From the late nineteen fifties on, Tarn is exemplary in Anglophone poetry for the stringency of his critique of the sacred, this word, once mere adjective, turned by analysts of culture and religion to an entire category of experience so that comparative studies could establish a post religious secular perspective on the long history of the engagement of the human with the divine. This lifelong inquiry brings Tarn to our contemporary moment with a particular authority and passion.


Tarn’s new volume of poems, Ins and Outs of the Forest Rivers, is an immense cry of anger, grief and joy in the midst of wars, ecological disasters, and dwindling material and spiritual resources. The many poems gathered here reflect a crisis, both moral and aesthetic, regarding what humans have done to the world, and how the world can be meaningfully depicted. The crisis has a personal edge to it: Does any place remain in an avowedly skeptical, rational, analytical sensibility, such as Tarn’s, for the sacred, that throwback to the pre-Enlightenment past, that also seems to be some index of the world coming to be. Repeatedly in a dark and exuberantly vehement book, a near miraculous beauty usurps our daily lives. Tarn will conclude that the relation of the beautiful to some notion of the sacred, and of these to a life where inquiry and ethical action are imperative, is still a functioning and laudable relation, but it must not only demonstrate itself within our experience, but survive the numerous critiques that our own historical sense requires us to ask. Ins and Outs of the Forest Rivers is an inquest into the outrage a particular species has visited upon the planet, and a quest if not for a defense of human life, if that is even possible, given the evidence the book amasses, at least, somehow, for “hope, only source of poetry.” (p.51)


This hope, chastened, less than celestial, stripped of a master narrative of salvation but for all that powerful and real, is the central subject of Ins and Outs of the Forest Rivers. Signs of it are searched out across a range of discourses, the philosophical, the mythic, the natural, and the personal. Modernity, it seems, has captured it, hidden it, but has left us a clue. The clue is our own bewildering sense of embodiment, depicted starkly and with scientifically verifiable god forsakenness in the sequence “Dying Trees.” First published as a chapbook in 2003, “Dying Trees” makes the ecological context of our embodiment undeniable. Drought and infestation, the “beetles draculating in the trees”(p.35) that ravaged the southwest at the turn of the millennium, turn an already metaphysically inclined landscape into an allegory of disaster. The beetles, plenty destructive in and of themselves, are also the blight of idiocy on high offices. Domestic warring over water, foreign forays for oil, the aging of the body, the withering of intimacy, are decried with vehemence and pathos. “Dying Trees” is a rebuke to the bias that leads us to place our well being over that of the planet which sustains us. The sublime, once joyously associated in European religious tradition with groves and forests, is reduced to the ghastly. In this suite of poems, the sound of devouring is never far from our hearing. An almost planetary harrowing reaches into our inner lives as well. While Tarn is full of prophetic rage about those who have brought about the condition of the world, he also shows us how our turns of thought plunge us into spaces of isolation and speechlessness, regions of negation Tarn has long explored with eloquence, and which are on rich display here:


moment, of day, of night, sadness: the motionless,
the inescapable, the color drained of color, tint drained
of tint, brightness of brightness, drained of all light;
sadness, the breath of flowers, the breath of birds,
the breath of simple things weaning from desolation,
the working permit of a dried up bone, the ghost
of all things tainted and disturbed. Now tired, now
desperately weary, the broken step and stagger,
the failure of the day, of every single day, of every
effort climbed along the ridges of a giant mountain . . . (p40)


Were hope to visit us in narrative form, we might well recognize it as a myth, a narrative of rescue or transformation that might allow us to see even the catastrophe of “Dying Trees” as an episode rather than an end. For poetry since the Enlightenment, mythology is both too precious an inheritance to reduce to figuration, but also too problematic a concept to be an uncritically received system of belief. In “Mathis At Issenheim” Tarn turns to the tree of trees, the ultimate tree in Western art and literature, the one that marks the intersection of the divine and the human, since for Tarn it has always been the case that a reality stripped of myth is only half a reality. Possibly the single most intense poem in Tarn’s vast oeuvre, “Mathis At Issenheim” offers the reader a deathblow to the soul. It is a furious meditation on the relation of the sacred to suffering, a meditation on the tree of the cross, and what happened upon it. The poem presents Good Friday as our continuous present. It is indicative of the boldness that has long characterized Tarns imagination that conventional renderings of the death of the Christian god, of the “pale, sentimental,/ rather effeminate homunculus / exhibited most often whose sacrifice / cannot be serious” are virtually an insult to our own hurt, and not worth our time. The god must feel the pain. We must feel the pain. A crucifixion means nothing if it does not depict the ultimate limit of bodily suffering.


Grunwald’s altarpiece, the occasion of the poem, is “the most cruel and devastating [crucifixion] ever painted,” so Tarn can be heard telling his listeners at a reading in New Mexico in 2008: (


Painted in 1526 for the Antonite order of Hospital Brothers at Issenheim in Alsace, France, this altarpiece was meant for the gaze of the terminally ill. (“The theory is they would identify with this god who was like them.” Appalling.) the sufferings of the god must exceed the most extreme insult flesh can bear. The god and the afflicted are united through wounding. In the crucifixion the blows come from without, from the world. Among the sick, the blows come from both without, the disease visited upon them, and from within, what their own bodies are doing to them. The body crucifies itself. And the central contradiction, that this particular con cannot be a god unless in this instance he is not a god, unless he truly dies, becomes the one way the divine can be known. As appalling as Grunwald’s aesthetic strategy might sound in the era of Big Pharma, with all its offers to help us “fight back” against disease, its end of life boutique of treatments and market driven social codes about the right way to die, one can see the Medieval artist showing the modern poet how to write his book. Whereas in previous works Tarn, a lifelong student of mythologies, has shown himself to be well acquainted with a wide range of religious speculation about the nature and meaning of suffering, here he is resolute about the primacy of pain. Tarn has found the darkest, most punishing rendition of the death of a god in the annals of art, because it is most like what the earth is enduring now. The devastation wrought upon the body of the earth in “Dying Trees” finds its parallel in what an emphatically incarnated Christ endures:


No suggestion of life
behind those sockets —
this is all death, absolute death,
the nothingness itself of “nothing”
which we in thinking death cannot
encompass, absolute shutdown
of all conductors, all electricity.
The feet gone animal,
scales and smoked armor,
or like advancing roots
ready to enter ground.
The torture instrument,
hacked out from trees
is bricolaged and rudimentary:
no elegance or balance in this cross.
A victim has become a tree,
he is the tree that the cross hangs on . . . (p26)


This is, then, a twentieth as well as fifteenth century Christ, the Christ of Vallejo and Artaud, the Christ who is beyond the human not because of his glorious divinity, but because he has borne pain beyond any the body can stand. For hope to be discovered in and for our time death must appear stripped of all promise, but still be other that a vulgar oblivion. Death must be a negation that transmits from within its depths the aura of a beyond. Like any number of poets from the Romantics to the present, Tarn has worked to preserve the capacity of poetry to feel the presence of a beyond, to admit its invisible and elusive presence in the modern world. Again, like any number of other poets, Tarn has labored to make new a poetry of cosmological speculation, and has made rich use, as “Mathis At Issenheim” demonstrates, of superseded schemes of heaven and earth in imagining the present. Robert Duncan, a poet with whose work Tarn can be seen in dialogue, lavished twentieth century poetic invention upon late Renaissance correspondences of the body of the world, the human body, and the body of the divine. Duncan celebrated the restored wholeness of the one and all, as if the pre-Copernican cosmos were a great emblem that could explain us. Both poets see the poet as the celebrant of a ritual drama, one that seeks to reorient the human to the universe. But for Tarn the ecstasy of the celebrant is darker, more troubled by the fact of the body, and the demonic turn that cultural forms can so readily take.


Tarn can in fact be savage in his critiques of the materialist vision of the transcendent, as in “On Soul as an Alibi for All Hypocrisy,” a satire on the location of the soul, which reveals with an exuberant horror where it most emphatically is not: in a place in the body. The inside is seen. The workings of nature are visible to the eye. Our bodies are of a piece with the trees in New Mexico, the rain forest in Borneo, the war-scapes of Iraq. With the body turned inside out, Tarn turns the mind inside out as well. In several masterful and dramatic philosophically charged lyrics the poet reminds us negation can only be the work of a consummately rational mind, one that forthrightly presents us with the music of its own turnings. Poems such as “A Language of Absence” turn upon ancient dichotomies, presence and absence, the many and the one, opinion and knowledge, foregrounding the unifying presence of the poetic through the variety of landscapes and occasions, and creating along the way the unshakable impression of a single ongoing soliloquy. The opening poem, “Pursuit of the Whole and Parts,” sets out the terms in stark fashion. The poem casts the traditional question of spiritual speculation, — how does the soul relate to the universe, is there a residue of the soul’s singularity when it enters the beyond, — in philosophical terms:


indeed the moment,[the very moment], is nothing but a part,
and never yet of a whole. But then, [but then],you are straining,

[ever straining] for the selfish possession of that moment;
forgetful of the whole, that which you were the first desiring,
the cloud that sits in the midst of your mind, [your mist],
which would swallow and make null all those parts as parts
floating around in the mind – and another kind of selfishness,
the selfishness of the light-hearted, the cloud-walker,
along with his invisibles, his intangibles, all those angelic wings
with emptiness at the heart, without beings between them,
all those illusions, that beg for the want of parts,
his kingdom worth less than a horse, [merely a parta part,].

Except of course, [except of course] if there were a signal,
if, in the midst of that cloud, all the parts were suddenly
beheld, [held] as if holding together, as if there were patterns
discernable there and, yes, of course, my god, the moment,
[the moment] would then be both part and whole in one body,
waiting only on mind, [the holy mind] to weld them together,
what once upon a time was called the firefly of spirit . . . (p2)


Tarn writes at the behest of a vision of perfection that occurs not only deep within the mind, but also deep within the world. The ironies that attend the title of the first section, “Of the Perfected Angels,” as lacerating as they are, do not negate the imagination of perfection, which itself directs us towards the condition of the world, and to our politics. As a poet of the contemporary moment, Tarn incessantly weighs our angelic potential against the rapacious, acquisitive and wealth appropriating behavior that so distinguishes us among the creatures of the earth. Ghost of Rilke, draw close: here, as in your world, the angels of the imagination must rescue hope from ownership. They must reaffirm the relation of hope to beauty, and beauty to ethical action. Our reward for participating in this redemptive process is that we share in its most distinctive characteristic, flight.


Whether as absorption in the divine mind or in the activities of birds, Nathaniel Tarn may well be our great poet of flights of all kinds, poetic, speculative, and also, more mundanely, in airplanes. “Flight affords Tarn snapshots of our place in the cosmos. From the air the world can still be seen as tripartite, with hells, heavens and the earths between them. One thinks of his earlier poem, Flight From a Mountaintop” (Selected Poems 1950–2000, p181) an extraordinary compressed survey of the mythology and history of flight, which concludes with Tarn speaking of flight in its ancient association with shamanism, and the seemingly lost or occluded potential of America culture. Perhaps there is no more vivid contrast to the state of the world and of the human in all of Tarn’s writing than in the lines that come in the last section of this earlier exploration of transcendent desire:


I could not have spoken like this
nor begun to tell you
That in America we now have
a dreampath again, or spirit quest if you will,
departing every day from the mountain top –
billow of air underwing
ground lost below height,
although it is not certain than anyone will look
at the finest flyers as they perform in the blue sky,
In the thunderhead sky with tones of copper or iron . . . (p.184–5)


As an essentially lyric poet, Tarn constantly takes up, as here, the plight of the singular self, the specific embodiment of longing and desire for flight that constitutes any particular life. But in his recently published epic, Avia (Shearsman Books 2008), incredibly, Tarn finds a way to put all of modern civilization in mid-air. Avia is historically dense, near crazed with specificity in regard to the air war over England which Tarn witnesses as a child. But Avia can also be read as a historically grounded critique of the transcendent, a drama of a newly discovered twentieth century perspective on the planet. In Avia, war is lifted into the heavens. The sky-high death matches come fast and furious, but we are left with a very ancient sense of foreboding, as when a warrior in Homer attacks a god, transgressing the realm of the divine. In Avia men finally attain the quality of birds and angels, (“Death, death/ is all around, only in sky is hope,/ only in that which man has never touched . . . “ (p.265) and we see what they do when they achieve it. In Ins and Outs of the Forest Rivers, the airy realm serves as it always does in Tarn, to recover the sublime, and occasions some of the most beautiful lines in the book:


On billionth trillionth evening of the world
by one man’s estimation,
gigantic cloud pivots on itself
wind-launced contrary
dark fearsome beast, mountain-tethered,
downing from the Sun’s house,
swims up again, alive
in the full circle of its emptiness.
Wind, temperature, interminable cycle.
Sky loses contrasts,
palest blues, high cirrus filaments,
swallowed by rising animal — -
all now one darkness.
What has at times been called the “soul,” . . . (p76)


In 2005 Nathaniel Tarn traveled in the wild regions of Sarawak, Borneo, East Malaysia as an anthropologist trying to help “indigenous communities find alternative lifeways after losing lands to logging, oil palm plantations etc.” In the title poem, which recounts this mission, Tarn updates the foundational narrative of anthropology, the narrator pressing into the non-Western wilds as observer, of cultures, of habitat, of belief systems and ritual life. But now the anthropologist is a kind of planetary social worker, documenting the degradations of what was once the subject of a noble inquiry. Now he is the hospice nurse as the cultural other fades away. The poem is both modest and immense. It sticks to the facts of the undertaking, but registers them with a heightened perception, a perception marked by the historical moment of globalization and ecological holocaust, but also, unexpectedly, by mortality. This poem reprises the themes of Tarns’ earlier more overtly heroic sequences such as A Nowhere for Vallejo, The Beautiful Contradictions, Atitlan/Alashka (Alashka with Janet Rodney), and perhaps even his prose text Scandals in the House of Birds, those grand works of epic ethno-geographical description, while powerfully restating fundamental questions about self and other. As Ins and Outs of the Forest Rivers opens, we expect to see what we have seen before in Tarn, the poem of cultural interaction, of the interdependence of culture and environment, the poem as political witnessing, the poem that touches on all the immense and imponderable issues raised around matters of intervention and the necessity of trans-cultural values. That is perhaps what the poet himself was expecting to write. But happenstance, as it will, happens, and the poem commits itself to a new course. The rain forest guide dies. The quest to provide counsel and to act as moral witness becomes something else. The poet now must escort the body of the guide back for burial. The poem slips into myth. Though dead, the guide remains a guide. Now we are once again on a journey into a more metaphysically charged landscape. The rainforest is a yet another figuration of the dying tree, this time in the desert of modern markets. As the original purpose of the trip fades into the background we realize a sacrificial drama is being staged in this final forest: the trees slain, the remaining life forms rush in on each other, leeches draw forth the blood of the poet. Concentrated in its narrative, the poem seems more like a single ritual act. We are bearing back a body to the world, out of the body of the world. The poem grows richly expansive in its tropes and its speculation. The forest canopy is a remnant of heaven, as Tarn effortlessly weaves into the poem local history and indigenous myth:


At the back of all buildings in the cities
mocking parameters of “progress”
forest walls rise in abundance and from
the walls hang great war cloths
along whose strands the race depends.
All beings once woven into the cloths,
all beings compete there for air to breathe
and food with which to tamp their hunger.
The early patterns are the most complex
with the hooks on which creation hangs . . . (p.99–100)


As we drift on what may be one of the West’s final exploration narratives, it becomes clear that the poet’s relation to hope, the elusive grail of the entire book, is one of fidelity through trial. The hope that remains is not just the residue of what it once was. One begins to suspect that the poet has all along sought a purification of hope, burning and sifting it until it is cleansed of its association with avarice, with acquisitiveness, even the poet’s disinterested own:


Sometimes it is my pleasure to become
obsessed with one of many subjects: this
time the predicate is “bird.” I slither through
an unknown land with a methodical thirst
for a knowledge which will quench the desire
and cause it to desist. Leeches drain flush of
blood runs crimson down my legs and arms . . . (p.94–5)


“The predicate bird” recalls the long history of figuration of birds in poetic tradition generally and throughout Tarn’s oeuvre. Needless to say the poet is not a hunter, but a bird watcher (though the skill set may not differ all that much.) He is distinguished by his idealism, what he looks for is vision not meat. In this volume, birds are the “last consolation,/that last of freedom’s definitions — the bird/rowing air’s waters/his primal visage of the sea” p.11) But the poet is not quite apart from the others who look for gain in the rain forest. It is a particular kind of knowledge the poet seeks, more like the confirmation of what he knows already, different from what can be got from bird books. He is looking for an encounter, for the moment the creature manifests itself to the senses, which will free the poet from desire. In this, as in so much else surveyed in the volume, the devastation of hopelessness is not to be evaded. What world religions once promised is not available to modernity, not desirable were it so, but moments of illuminative recuperation are still possible:


In the middle of the scene
the vast river hushes too, rapt in its
rapids, its bridal veils of water,
creating a sound recognized as distance.
Far from the world of corporations
in murderous contention, the forest wonders
how men will last. Sun falls on leaves
a blessing lighting their myriad veins: it is
as if the air itself were sung with joy
in the temperate heat of earliest morning . . . (p.99)


But whose life is worth such a glimpse? All that is seen must now be placed against a human life, a life neither anonymous and distant, nor known and intimate, the life of one to whom the poet was bound only by shared ethical concern. The guide’s death is also the final showing forth of the planet’s own. Here “at the farthest point in space-time, / at the greatest point of geographical distance” (p.98) the poet asks for a vision. He wants to see the god of this world, if only in the form of Lord Buceros, a hornbill that lives only in the rainforest top, a bird that, almost incredibly, contains the name of an ancient and troublesome god within it. Eros. (Is Eros the secret subject of the book?) Here the aura of the allegorical subsumes the ethnographic adventure. Having seen what the world now is throughout the course of Ins and Outs of Forest Rivers, having seen the nadir of death and absence, one is inclined to see, for example, the leeches the poet finds on his own limbs as mobile wounds, linking the blood of the poet, with that of the rain forest which is slowly being destroyed, with the spree of creatures now forced to live atop each other in a place once Edenic. Do we deserve the glimpse of this or any god? Are we capable of obtaining the state of purity in which the vision of Eros can be distinguished from all the baser motivations that Ins and Outs of Forest Rivers describes? The verdict of the poem is a chastened, provisional, historically conscious yes, a yes upon which a post religious sense of the sacred might be constructed.


Lord Buceros himself, prince of forest and sky,
bird of the river gods and gods of fallen heads,
dropped out of the sky and covered a tree
and seemed as large as the tree, covering it entirely.
It was still possible to glimpse the colors of the head
and know it for itself. Although this bright darkness
preceded the death, a death mourned by its fellows,
warrior-bird was known: for me, a death redeemed (p.102)


The ambiguities here are not to be elided. This is an Eros who appears, perhaps can only appear, in this time cycle, in the form of a war god, (The book has well established the pervasiveness of war in our moment.) The bird, when it descends, reverses the scale of microcosm to macrocosm that the poem has deeply established. Until now no birds can be seen, high up in the heavenly canopy. They are distant attributes of the forest’s own primordial holiness. When Lord Buceros is seen, he seems larger that the forest itself. He establishes a vastness that seems beyond calculation. What we know of this divine descent is modest, — what were we expecting, a Rilkean lament to direct us up the mountain? — but in terms of Ins and Outs of the Forest Rivers, the pleasure of the colors, the bright darkness, the affirmation that a thing can be known for itself, and perhaps the sustaining of its gifts, the establishment of an alternate and inspiring sense of scale. In a book of such deep skepticism, the poet does not forsake the hint of some criterion of lasting value. It’s there in the last word, which the poet almost offhandedly drops, the word that underscores the sacrificial logic of the volume, redeemed.


Nathaniel Tarn has been thinking environmentally, politically, spiritually, and passionately for his entire writing life, and never more so than right now. To start reading Nathaniel Tarn’s Ins and Outs of the Forest Rivers is to find yourself asking yourself, does anyone have their eyes open? Are my own eyes open? Have they ever been? And to finish the book is to say yes, maybe some do, certainly at least one does, and, perhaps only now, yes, maybe I do.

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