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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

George Economou reviews

Nathaniel Tarn: «At the Western Gates», and
Nathaniel Tarn: «The Desert Mothers»

«At the Western Gates», by Nathaniel Tarn, Santa Fe: Tooth of Time Books, 1985

«The Desert Mothers», by Nathaniel Tarn, Grenada, Mississippi: Salt-Works Press, 1984


It is a commonplace of the large, historical view of poetry that individual poets in this century have been compelled to discover or create a world-picture to replace the inexorably eroded and ultimately lost image of the world and everything in it commonly held in the past. After the affront to our cosmic narcissism wrought by the revolutions initiated by Copernicus, Darwin, and Freud in the way we think about the universe and our place in it, poets, like their philosophical and scientific analogues, have tried to apprehend and reinstate some principle that makes it all hang together, to discover in some form or other what Karl Jaspers called “the Grand Reason” by which to save ourselves and our art. We have learned to accept this dimension of every worthwhile poet’s enterprise, this need to find a great design and an individual place in it as a condition of artistic productivity. The convention of the invocation has almost disappeared, but the need to begin a poem with some assurance it is attachable to a coherence prior to and greater than itself abides.


That the poems of Nathaniel Tarn since early in his career have been directed towards an awareness of a greater world is attested by the work itself as well as by his own observation that “you really do form a world-model, a cosmic model, for yourself, which then localize or universalize according to your need” (“An Interview with Nathaniel Tarn,” Boundary 2,IV, 1975, 6). Tarn’s ability to combine his emotional intensity and notable intellectual breadth — he is a man for whom learning is meant to serve the special knowing of art — gives his poems their singular immediacy and reference. The urgency with which he begins the record of one of his wide-ranging interests or experiences fuels the movement outward to ends that exceed and subsume the personal reflexiveness that provides a starting- point. This can be nicely illustrated by a small, mid-career book of twenty love poems with the telling title The Microcosm (Milwaukee: Membrane Press, 1977). Characterized by a delicacy and directness of statement to the beloved that is laced with geographic and mythological allusions, the lyrics progress as if drawn by a gravitational force to a perception of their love that acknowledges the earth and universe as its only meaningful setting. By the closing lines of the final and title poem of the book, the love has been subtly reduced to a term in a simile but its value appreciated by its metaphorical integration into a vision of the planet and galaxy:


between tree fingers
a telescope achieves the sky
quietly like a confident husband
and at the climax of the firmament
ringed with a crown from another sphere
Saturn alone is spinning on itself

in the wavering summer light


The Microcosm reveals an important, if not primary, way in which Tarn the poet thinks. At the Western Gates, with its double suggestion of heading for a new entrance and an exit, is a more complex continuation and fulfillment of this impulse to compose poems that fit and form recognitions of a macrocosm. He strives for an epic vision through a variety of mainly lyric sequences that pull together, in every sense you can think of, to achieve it. While no one poem, Shield of Achilles-like, unfolds a full cosmic vision, the entire book, with its five divisions that treat specific yet overlapping matters, yields a great though necessarily only partially completed image of an order. These matters, to which veteran readers of Tam are accustomed, derive from his manifold experiences as anthropologist, archaeologist, comparatist, linguist, naturalist and explain the plenitude of vivid detail in the earth, air, and waters of his world. As the last poem of the first section, “Journal of the Laguna de San Ignacio,” neatly shows, the learning and experience are contained and controlled by an artist with a vision and an ear for verbal intricacy and balance.


“Perhaps it is not the sea
we have witnessed
raising these whales
to the power of air
and downing them again to depths
unheard of in the history of water —
perhaps it is the sky,
even paradise,
and these are the heavenly animals
with wings of wind and music
who have laid their image
on all earthly souls
(since nothing is forgotten.)”
Father, the gate is open
he declared on landing.
Wrote on that desk
and in that book they say
that was the oldest in the library
within the belly of the whale:
“these are the animals
the ancient men,
blind leading blind,
in the old days, on the old ships
with perfumed masts,
hearing the music of the sirens
thought to be angels.
(p. 14)


The whale-watching theme, which is dominant in this section and major throughout the volume, presents the discovery of what may always have been the true microcosm, and homo, if no longer microcosmus, has been raised to a new level of fabricator, finding himself through and in his work.


“Another sorrow.
One more defeat.
Another death.
The sea’s outside,
distant waves
breathe in all sounds.
Suddenly I meet the beauty of my poems
whom I had never seen bridal before.
I live with them as man and wife
outmarried by death only.
There is no other house”
(p. 22)


Always a powerful presence in his work, the beloved is introduced early in the book and gives us a moment of special humor when the poet posits the need for the other marriage through and in which a man finds himself.


Vagaries of the sea life.
My bunk is so short
I need to lose head or feet
and its sky is so low
I have to be fitted into it
like a dime into a slot machine.
If you come into the cabin
you break my back,
if I come in, I break yours.
We have bruised elbows.
Nowhere to sit and read,
the lights don’t work.
Water floods in the basin.
And how the hell we get to fuck in here
is any circus animal’s guess
(p. 6)


With the deceptive ease of its amusing contrast between the severely constricted cabin space for human fucking (man and woman, circus animals themselves, will no doubt find a way) and the unbounded eros-in-the-sea enjoyed by the whales, the poem still establishes a place for the lovers in the larger scheme of things. This lovers’ place is explored with poignancy in part five, “North Rim,” where the poet muses on and observes his beloved in poems that also chart a course through the Bering Sea to Japan’s Hokkaido. This northern, exotic setting is remarkably evoked by a number of the poems in this part of the book, but its heart (“But the whole of creation is in question,” p. 25) lies in the middle section, “Jonah’s Saddle,” in the compact between the song of nature and the poet’s own coincident nature to sing it — “The world has voice in us, we are the crust of its imagination” (Atitlan/Alashka, Boulder: Brillig Works, 1975, p. 155).



What is NOT song?
What will dare
NOT become song?
Will grass
refuse to become song?
Will flowers?
Will fish
not become song
making a speech in poetry?
(leave us one song to ourselves
they might say
and give us all your poetry!)
Will the animals
not become song?
What will pack-rat do,
red rattlesnake,
fox on the desert’s edges;
will they refuse to become song?
And what will deer do —
will they shy away from song
and hide among thickets
on the other side of the lagoon?
And the whale,
as long as the wall of China,
will the whale herself
not become song?
(p. 28)


It is this unity, the knowledge of its possibility, that enables the poet and those that follow him through the poem/song finally to enter “the order of ideal time.” The sense of Dantean stasis, of rest, achieved at the end of Tarn’s journey conveys the experience of being admitted to that order,


Rain swallow,
ama tsubame,
busy time’s scythe
but far faster
slices the air
above Teuri:
black knife
through a grey rainbow
made of delicate cloud.
At the busy hour of birds
all of a sudden
life is tolerable again,
the birds hone to sharpness
our remembering
that we have never travelled before,
will not travel again,
are not travelling now.
(p. 68)


and depends on the cumulative effect of all of the poems that precede it for the measure and substance of its simply stated grandeur. It has been particularly prepared for by the poem “Palenque,” in which Tarn pays tribute to one of his culture heroes, Denis Puleston, who asked ‘Let the order of ideal time/ be asserted and let me/ be at the center in the/ fire which is still/ and does not consume” (p. 31).


The poems in The Desert Mothers, on the other hand, are unified in their emphasis on Tarn’s citizenship in the community of poets and artistic innovators. Like “Palenque,” many of the poems in The Desert Mothers spring from the poet’s profound interest and involvement in the lives and work of others. Whether meditating on flight (that ‘dreampath”) and taking off from an epigraph from Hölderlin, mourning the life and death while honoring and defining the work of German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder, transferring the questing Peredur, the medieval Welsh version of the grail seeking Perceval, into a modern, southwestern setting, assaulting the polluters of our water and politics, and responding to the inspiration he has found in the works of friends, these poems are linked by the deep concern and stubborn hope for the failing city of man. Their ultimate effect is to nurture rather than to put down or mock. They are the stands taken by the “desert mothers” of the desolate city against despair, just as their desert forefathers withstood a different manifestation of the dark-voiced negator. Tarn has for some time recognized and tapped his own feminine/maternal sources. “We have been/ from band to band of the desert/ and the woman inside me/ is alone speaking,” he writes in one of the poems in At the Western Gates (p. 23). This voice is heard in both books and draws upon, is attuned to, the saving song of nature. But Tarn will not fall into the trap he himself was warned against: “Speaking for nature so vociferously that all relevance to the present, despairing city is virtually excluded” (“Fresh Frozen Fenix,” New Literary History, XVI, 1985, 425). The end is not just communion with nature for one, the end is to revive the human community with its dynamis. How At the Western Gates and The Desert Mothers complement each other may be shown in a number of ways, but none better than this:


Peredur West

Smell of the desert
before the sun eliminates all shadows:
the rider who would not write us down
as if we had not lived
breathes it in completely
entering the canyon
his lungs awash with childhood perfumes.
Westwards he moves, his right hand held
by the invisible daughter of the earth.
Motherwards he moves, back to his homeland,
the lady leading him has promised it:
he grants her trust implicitly.
Recites the names of the first landowners
bringing a map to life that had been lost
since the disaster he alone survived.
She leads him to a fountain
in the canyon’s heart
which they had tried to quench in the old days
but the fountain sang a wound
and never could be quenched.
Star of the Desert, he begins to sing,
Rose of Sand,
here I stand at my father’s fountain
and you have left it utterly,
waters that once sang joyously
drowning the reason for all tears
have turned to sand and bones are now
all my solace day or night.
It is here he begins to write us down,
here he takes off his leathers
and is dressed in armor like the sun.
Facing the mesas jagged like a saw
with teeth fit for a giant’s grinding jaw,
he now moves further west.
Even so, travel helps the weary poet
moving a song back to his heart.
Brighter than a thousand suns,
his father shines against his breastplate,
strikes from his lance
a thousand shards of light.
His eyes are put out now,
he writes by touch,
guiding the quill with his free hand.
Blind I return to my father’s land,
blind, I accept my mother’s curdled milk,
blind, I shall write us down with our last ashes.
Poverty, he says, as he enters the mesas,
naming them for the gift he has gotten of God.

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