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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

Nathaniel Tarn


ψυχας εχοντες κυματων εν αγκαλαις

— Archilochus

Here, now, as ever, going out again
from Finis Terre, final of earth, or
“end of world” as they call it here,
all consumption left behind.
The earth fragments – first the big islands,
cannot be told from earth, then
smaller and smaller islands among
their channels, trees grabbing soil
with weaker roots, until all’s rock where
unimagination starts, where
tempests flare around the dreaded horn.
The last inhabitants’ blazing canoes
expose their nakedness to the last explorers.
This plot begins and ends with past.
But what we name the future follows on.

The earth sinks into mind
sea being mind of the earth
in constant movement, constant fretting,
endlessly jumping from thought to thought,
waves rolling in from the planet’s belt
to greet each other as far-flung kin.
Deep in each trough, thriving unseen,
beasts huge as obsessions, beasts
small as secrets; beasts with invading arms
long as your most fearsome nightmares.

The sea lifts its swell into whales;
the smallest speck of foam
is a bird padding along a wave crest
almost invisible in search of upturn.
How deep this is, how fathomless!
What is going on down there
how far do you drop in the abyss
before you feel the ground again
before a basis offers rest again, foothold,
security? Meantime ghosts
of the dead at sea
the circling weather’s homeless
tantalize waves with wing tips
as they go round the endless dip and rise,
cruising the air, may not alight for years.

Toward the center,
center of center,
where the mind of the earth turns solid,
whereto a single bird
may fly per annum, attracted by
some odor, some ghostly odor,
while most in glossy millions
hold the circumference for access to the sea.
A silence there hard to believe, a hazeless,
dustless air when in the clear: a spot
on the other side of knowledge
from which all other points are North.
Where is your “epilepsy” West, your “wisdom” East
when everything flies you away from known dimensions
into the stillness. This is no crossing
from a river’s side to its other bank, but
lack of movement absolute,
total attention
to a deliberate deliverance.
The orb has turned all diamond.

Birds melting in and out of waves
caressing tip with tip but never touching them,
bird, beast, eyes peeking out – a quick
look-see and gone again. Ice
opens, ice closes. Horizontal
black line of sleeping animal,
vertical white line of standing bird:
those that swim in the air,
those that fly in the sea.
Some that flash snow and bathe in snow
roll on their backs in snow at times:
black eye, black beak, black foot
signal a presence against white on white.
Some that are checkerboards in black
and white, set your cold eyes to shivering.

The days stretch into years or seem to do
for all the world has told us of itself.
Anything new revealed?
High mirrored in a low
has been known for ever.
Sun floating here in mid-floe mist
unwilling to climb or fall,
unfurls a panoply of colors.
Mythical grass flashes its green.
Phenomena can all forget
except the huge electric sea.
Now you imagine days,
days similar to days,
days after days uncountable,
days that cannot be numbered
by any calendric art. They are
a single day – or very few you’ll swear
by the lights of the old star,
and while innumerable
they cannot be distinguished.

Domain pitches and rolls:
hearts out of throats,
muscles tightened to lock in breath,
backs slamming up against the bulwarks,        
“one hand to the ship,” one to your life.
The roll is very tender,
soft yet relentless, moving us
from incarnation to incarnation.
You would not think such gentle motion,
a whisper in earth’s circles,
could leave even your mind unbalanced.
But the mind flies out like a bird into mist.
Perhaps this is your coffin,
propelled into white fire
out of one universe into another.

As you reach the great white
peak of the single color,
emotions have been draining
out of your lives.
Naked you go into the continent
in endless search of cleanliness,
exiled imagination’s only host,
until imagination has quite rotted.
The word “reality” assumes a meaning,
breath suddenly leaps fast,
distance-devouring clarity
brings all the secrets of the continent
close up against your eyes.
This is the moment of desisting
from human will. Whatever flares
to pass along the sea lanes, whitewash away.
With the, no, not the fear of dying, no –
but the immeasurable depth of sadness
for having such a trifling time
to deal with the one hundred thousand things.

[Far back in another dimension
far as you cannot remember,
all the wenches dead, the culture petrified,
dance music curls on the leafing air,
music of heartbreak and there is such.
Your body may sense it as you move
and step it – but  it’s only dream.
Despised, acclaimed, despised again through over-
hype, you cannot hear it here –
engulfed by silence and the immense white air.]

They said back then
there was a frozen continent
in the high latitudes encircling the globe:
are you moving toward it?
The sea overwhelms all distance,
spreads out beyond its cup into space –
there is no other explanation
for how long you have been moving
toward no destination.
You can imagine the white
drawing in all your colors
all the differentiae in your body
until you walk as a ghost,
as someone who has crossed
a limit on no map.
It can be described also
as having crossed to the other side
whether this be a river
or the earth-girdler’s self.
But, as you know, there is no crossing.

Is it possible to be overwhelmed
by landscape? Yes. Engulfed? Yes.
Sparagmatized? Broken to shards? Yes.
Sun so blinding in ice facets that
borders fade and you enter
what hunters have known for centuries:
silence of silence. No silence on known
ground out silences this silence.
What is an individual
among a stretch of creatures
so spread over so many miles
the eye cannot encompass them?
Eventually you wear
the pelts of all the animals
you have come so far, at such
expenditure of energy,
to witness. Nothing is heard
of the alleged known-world
for however long a time
you come to donate here.

Above the songs of leviathan,
you sense in your trembling limbs
laments of captive ships, locked, crushed
and piece by piece delivered by the ice --
born into other waters than their homes.
Everything you have brought
from the outside dissolves. Eyes shut,
the creatures never seem to need to see,
eyes free are globes of melted ice.
Your self in that beast’s pelt
rests economically on a blue berg,
gazes a moment at the undocumented,
(zodiac pass by),
eyes close again.
Blindly you lead the blind through paradise.

Cruising up the channel,
whose sides seem to fall in on you,
you are shut in a block of time:
it could be a cage – but these are walls not bars.
No height can be ascribed to the walls:
as in a dream
white veins blink through black stone.
Even on cloudless days, rock climbs on up,
so measureless, it will outlast your sight
and terminate it.

Where the initiating bang
unpacked imagination’s jar,
the jar of one named as
all-gifts, all-giving,
a small meteorite
from out uncounted universes
slammed here, name cruelty.
No thing, no person spared.
Truth that we are at any moment
in any time, in any place,
less than a hair away from
ultimate disaster.
In this possession,
this epilepsy if you will,
the mind unfurls
like a great banner of its own freedom
white as balloons — the weather’s breasts
and will accept its fate.
Of all the gifts, kept by an after-thought
hope only held the jar.

You come back to your life, your everyday,
the one they call with relish “normal”
and how you hate it!
Through days of outrageous storm, the whole
ship rolling like a drunk, your navel
in your throat, the brine coating your mouth
with its obscene concoctions.
Obsession slides and slits the waves.
You are not allowed to move
of your own volition
but are pushed this way and that discretionless,
day after day though the roll lasts soft
and would hardly seem fierce enough
to move a marble from child to child.
Yet, note, no kids grow here.

You have been out of “our” known sphere
for the first time completely, and now,
returning, the sphere can never be itself again.
What it has done to itself in the meantime
you cannot fathom. You have not heard
the “news” for all the time away. Suddenly
you realize you may not hear the “news” again.
Mankind in its inhuman sadness
is of no further value. It no longer serves
as yardstick for comparisons.
You have seen creatures who,
full-versed in every ethic, act with such spontaneity
that they can never judge. You have been gathered
into Eden yet found it full.
There is no berth for you to sleep in.

Purchased by the sea
you will never walk the same.
The line will never be straight
but curve continually in an attempt at straight.
The line is weakened underfoot,
the earth loses its strength --
mud devolves into krill, blood
washed to water pinks: diluted wine.
Shit pink, you stink among dry corpses,
your innards groped by scavengers.
Waves flush out of your pockets,
your pant bottoms, your
mouths and ears — your bodies
reclaimed in full by foam.
She who walked out from it, dying, dead,
now smiles, entices.
You will meditate standing by streams while you molt,
paddle breathlessly instead of flying,
sound like every being except yourself,
experience the ultimate solitude.
Then, your heart, once given to embalmers,
suddenly homes with you to mate again.

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