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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

Peter O’Leary reviews

«Selected Poems 1950–2000» by Nathaniel Tarn

Wesleyan University Press, 2002


Taxonomy defined the Enlightenment; or, maybe, the reverse, such that taxonomy is Enlightenment’s ultimate expression. Rationalism yields to organization, to the desire to classify, arrange, quantify, comprehend through arrangement. Taxonomy in poetry might seem the least poetic thing about it: aspects of meter and rhyme; names of shapes and forms. Looking at modern poetry in English, looking at modernism specifically, we might presume its principal, spectacular features to be those lacking taxonomy: from Poundian sprawl to Williamsian hobble to H.D.-vaticisms, at its best, modernist poetry shuns classification. Or does it?


One of the great taxonomists was Goethe. Strolling the paths of the Villa Giulia, the public botanical garden in Palermo, he came upon an ancient aloe plant, its dinosaur fronds rooted it seemed to him in divine memory. A detailed sketch of the plant shaped in his imagination a holy zoomorph: the Ur-pflanz, the proto-plant from which all other forms descended. He published his findings — he considered this a “scientific” discovery — in Versuch, die Metamorphosen der Pflanzen zur erklären in 1790, perhaps the first work of a poetics of morphology. Goethe’s quest was, of course, purely poetic, utterly romantic, even as it “enlightened.” If we’ve learned anything from Linnaeus, it’s that archetype does not yield ancestor: to delineate or discern an imaginary proto-form does not provide a missing link, does not show us a history, even as Linnaean structures insinuate this possibility. Taxonomy is, after all, an elaborate hobby of the mind, like stamp or badge collecting. It doesn’t explain the cosmos even as it allows us to move through it more cogently.


But is this entirely true? The poet wants to explain things; at least, to express them, meaningfully. Even poets schooled in rampant modernism. Nathaniel Tarn, a poet in Goethe’s image, has spent over fifty years writing a poetry invested in the lessons of modernism, yet informed by the disciplines of anthropology and ethnography. Among his teachers in this field was Claude Levi-Strauss, codifier of structuralism. Radically simplified, Levi-Strauss’s writings have shown us that the matrix out of which our thought, ideas, culture and above all myths emerge is a series of opposites held in tension. Levi-Strauss’s structures don’t explain things; however, they express the meaning of things, or at least where meaning comes from. Take myth: in Levi-Strauss’s system, myths make visible contradictions held inherently in our thought or behavior. For instance, the possibilities of incest revealed in the Oedipus myth. The myth neither explains nor condemns incest; instead, it reveals its contradictory meanings (desire and tragedy, let’s say) so that they can be recognized.


Poets have used myth (or been used by myth) much more often than structuralism. Even Goethe’s botanical writings drip with myth, to speak nothing of Faust.A morphologer treats even poetry as a foreign language, creating lexicons and systems prior to understanding. Yet it is the determinations of a post-modern taxonomic imagination in the field of modern poetry in English that makes Tarn so interesting. His poems, carefully and amply selected by the poet himself in Selected Poems, 1950–2000, are replete with classifications, taxonomies, and languages, from both the “natural” and the “cultural” worlds. Tarn has spent extended amounts of time conducting his poetic researches — like an Artaud with a PhD — in the highlands of Central America, in Burma, in Alaska, in Russia, and most recently in Central Asia, always returning to America, where he has made his home since the 1970. In his travels, and in his work, Tarn has kept his observing eye sharply focused, especially on that most ephemeral animal class, birds. An alternative title for this selection might have been “Ornithography.” At one point, in the midst of “Narrative of the Great Animal,” a riveting hymn to Denali from Alashka, his book of Alaskan poem- and mythology-collaborations with his wife Janet Rodney, Tarn simply presents a list of birds he’s spied (the Denali parkland, in such proximity to the Arctic, hosts a number of rare passerines and plovers):


   our — minute — preoccupations
under Denali:
   horned lark (American first)
   eagle (repeat); eagle (but immature)
   wheatear (American first)
   phalarope (American first)
   (continue as per notebooks,
   list climbing, x% of total record). (168)


Tarn makes the list-keeper’s fetishizing visible here, with his indications of “firsts” and with his “confession” of the length of his list, its presence in his notebook. Introducing this sequence, Tarn emphasizes vision, the sight and insight allowing him to witness:


And, had we not seen this,
wound not have seen, either,
in any sense of the word “seen,”
since only this mountain gave the world eyes
       and senses

to apprehend it with (167)


Following the list of birds above is another list, one comprised of “invisibles,” which are birds he heard in the Denali wilderness but didn’t see there (No slouch, Tarn indicates parenthetically where he spied these birds later in his travels; for instance: “harlequin duck (later: St. Paul)/ arctic warbler (later: Point Hope),” etc.). He completes his list by returning to vision, not as one of the senses, but as insight joined to knowledge:


and the great animal,
even greater than this animal,
(Denali god-beast,
with hips of stone,
rock haunches),
            waiting for the next occasion also
to get us before another sighting,
            another chance at this vicinity
            among the thorns and dangers of this world —  
            BUT WE HAVE SEEN IT

            and thus, by implication, also the other
            as dark as this is bright… (168–9)


The resolution of the taxonomic list, Goethe-like, is archetypal, a deified mountain (augmented by the lovely buddhistic image of its “hips of stone”). The “other,” at least at this instance of the poem, appears to be the shadow form of Denali itself, its imaginary being rising up in the interior vision of the taxonomer-poet. A pull of opposites held in tension out of which the meaning of his experience arises.


In one of the later meditations that make up the masterful Architextures, Tarn declares: “Sure there must be a place from where you can depart. From where you go into your head toward that other space” (310). Compelled by this inwardness, which he understands through a metaphor of ascent, the poet’s vision lapses, such that even birds elude his ken, except by their menacing sound:


                And our eyes are so blind, the why rattles its cages like a raucous bird to so many a why. If eyes could see, there would be no why — only assent. Up we go into the mountains — feet accumulate by thousands; breath comes short on short; just tying up a shoelace you collapse from great heights. Up there the prayer-flags slap birdless air, songless altitude. Though there is always a raven to croak what seems the time and chat you up with some small prophecy. (310)


As taxonomy requires vision, the visionary requires transformation. Nathaniel Tarn’s poems are transformations of a classifying imagination into visionary utterances.


A few words about the selections here. Despite its generous size (at 335 pages, the book is significant), Selected Poems 1950–2000 represents a portion of the poet’s output. Tarn is responsible for over forty volumes of poetry and translation. Nonetheless, Selected Poems has a comprehensive feel to it, a sense of a life’s-worth of accomplishment. Some of the books it picks from are in print, such as the magnificent Kabbalistic poem of the Shekinah, Lyrics for the Bride of God, or the recently published Architextures; but others have long been unavailable, including such early collections as The Beautiful Contradictions, A Nowhere for Vallejo, and House of Leaves,each represented in this volume. For this reason alone, Selected Poemsis worth acquiring. More importantly, this collection of Tarn-the-assembler/morphologer’s poems is a radiant inventory, a testament to the poet’s commitment to a poetry of transcendent experience, mythic understandings, and a collector’s pleasures. Throughout this book, Tarn demonstrates that making it new means seeing it new by understanding it newly through the grid of his structuring imagination.

First published in XCP: Cross-Cultural Poetics #12 (2003)

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