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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

Lisa Raphals

Reading Nathaniel Tarn’s «House of Leaves»


Nathaniel Tarn is one of a fairly small group of poets writing in English who attempts to lift poetry from the parochial in a world of cheap language, cheap images, cheap sensation and cheap emotion. He writes in an intellectual tradition that links the accuracy of poetic language to the accuracy of scientific language, including the social sciences. His training in anthropology, emigration from England to the U.S.A., and field work in South America and Southeast Asia are often cited as influences on poems that are, in different ways, concerned with geography, landscape, and their ecologies, histories and cultures. As Tarn himself puts it in his preface to Views from the Weaving Mountain:


I am no longer interested in a poetry appropriating ethnological functions after decades of writing and reading such efforts, nor in an anthropology attempting to flirt with literary functions by producing what never amounted to more than belles lettres. Rather I am attempting to find a language which, while remaining strictly attached to scientific veracity, would abdicate none of its literary potential. [1] 


The House of Leaves (Black Sparrow, 1976) is the second book of poems written after Tarn’s emigration to the U.S. in 1970. Its titles range from references to personal encounters to place names (Leningrad, Guatemala, Santiago, Salamanca), to the gnomic (The Fire Poem, Narrative of the Spiders).


Some books draw on a central metaphor that is as powerful as the book itself, an example is Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook. The image of the “golden notebook” that integrates the fragmented consciousness of the other notebooks is itself independent and powerful. Here the organizing metaphor is the “House of Leaves,” the title poem of the collection. [2]   


This house, surrounded by leaves
             like a ship wrapped in surf,
this house we’ll call the house of leaves as long as we live [3]   


Nor is Tarn the only contemporary to write about such winding leaves, including one of the few English poets for whom Tarn has any use:


Under four-part arachnoid invitation
  of songs riven with fresh sound,
the green leaves grew all around the window,
  sweet and completely around. [4] 


What kind of leaf house does Tarn build and inhabit, and what does it say about what a poem should be? As Ian Robinson remarks in a recent review in Shearsman: “Should [a poem] be a narrow account of the personal life, or should it go beyond the individual and his experiences into a region that is more intellectually challenging and comprehensive, that embraces more of the very nature of our lives now?” [5]  Tarn’s work questions the uses of poetry in a (at least an Anglophone) world that typically reduces it to anecdote, therapy, language games or performance for its own sake.


From branch to branch, arrow to wound,
tree top to bottom like a cascade,
almost a somersault you’d think, astounding speed,
circling sometimes like racers round a post,
                       birds at their feeding.

The birds as a record of my life’s tracks
the recording of the birds eventually is my life [6] 


What begins as clear sketches of birdflight suddenly shifts:  


            You come to the house of leaves, you arrive,
           and the tracks change direction.
                                             No longer
            from myself to myself only the short day
           long with work only, but short on breath and freedom,
            but from myself to you, the weaving of paths,
            goal of exertion – if there be any goal in this life

making of food and bringing it out on platters,
preparation of anecdotes for entertainment [7] 


But just as we prepare ourselves for confession and domestic detail:


Leaf on leaf    branch on branch    leaf behind leaf
branch interleaved with branch
    pages open on air
green layers going back into the wall
    of distances I don’t explore
wishing to be bound in
in a lining of leaves with delicate veins, like hands
closing me into silence [8] 


The perspective pulls us back to a “life among leaves” and three views of birds in rapid movement:


the bird appearing as a distant shadow, colorless,
remained a shadow: I won’t see him, ever again,
and the bird, caught between leaves, part of him in shadow,
part of him caught by light
                                    and granted color / or the bird
close-up in the closest trees, presented on the branch,
almost with a label on him so clear his livery,
like a flag, a banner of the material universe [9] 


Now the entire image, the birds and their enwombment in the house of leaves, are turned in a new direction:


So: held in the layers of the mind, your various repose
facets of body I love, some light, some dark,
standing in the far trees and coming gradually into the light
    as the leaves fall [10] 


These lines unite the intimate voice of the lover with the detached voice of the observer. Even better, they avoid that self-glorification that so often swells the voice of the (typically male) poet celebrating sexual intimacy or conquest.


Tarn’s interests in geography, anthropology and culture have been widely remarked on. But he is also an astute observer of ecological landscapes. Images written three decades ago have a new harshness, as in this scene from “Letters from Leningrad to the Reason for Living”:


There is so much to understand
             and I want    as always    to talk to you about it
                        stored up for you until the load of days crushes
                                    imagine: and there is no more time
                                                the ice cap spreads    the world is starving


But as we turn the page, perspective shifts seamlessly toward a more directly political history


                                                                             there is ice on the silk of her thighs
                                                                             the man-made stars slip slowly from our vision

                        Two weeks from now Prague will fall silent

                                                            this tide shall turn . . . [11] 


The next poem addresses the growth of human cultures and civilizations from an entirely different angle, “Food”


From a thousand years back
            he talks of the grass
which must be covered with salt
            from sea-spray
to make good lamb


This “history of civilization” requires a certain geography, the growth of cities


            of the appropriate places
in which to purchase the ingredients


Again what starts like a foodie paean to elite-priced ingredients shifts gear to a larger issue:


a demography:
            But no cooking in OUR country
            no working of food / only for paupers ...

IN THE CAPITAL, he begins again,
           everything is dying,
you can’t find the right ingredients
                       any more
yes, well, I’m sure of my cheeses
but the strawberries are made by engineers [12] 


Despite the strawberries and lack of soup, this poem sets up the infrastructure of “civilization” as a precondition for the “civilized” pleasures of gastronomy (and their decline). In “Desde Pachichiyut” we return to hunting and trapping, but seen with the eye of the scientific observer:


If I could catch that beast
            come to the trap at leisure
study shape    fur
   color of eyes
blood    density of blood
            all its metabolisms [13] 


Here we observe someone trying to find a new subject matter (and its language), and the effort shows.  Later in the same poem:


Power drains out
the poems melt
and as I look
at the sustained efforts of others
my weaknesses appear
like evening spiders [14] 


In his most recent book, Ins and Outs of the Forest Rivers (New Directions, 2008), Tarn returns to the same concerns, but with a sea change of line and utterance. For example, in “One among Rose Gardens”:


Despite of the landscape, soil’s
poverty, absence of shade, harassments of the
blinding sun, I have persisted here toward my
pride’s fulfillment in a rose garden ...

... They have their seasons, as
the local plants, dependent on shared weathers,
a unity of all variables. ...

It’s what I love, what I have always
done, what has sustained my life, sustains
love still. Flower’s perfections, more than the
bird’s (which moves, whistles, can often speak),
is hope – in its most elementary statement ever. ...

Outside dead wars grind on into the barren sunsets, all
wars now frying heaven’s roses in globalizing deserts. [15] 


Politics has turned contemporary, and shorter unadorned lines create a new directness.  


This directness may be more apt to Tarn’s intellectual concerns, and perhaps truer to the intention stated in the preface to Weaving Mountain. For example, consider “The Postnatal Rabbit,” which takes up (without mentioning it) an ancient philosophical conundrum, the skeptic’s circle, and Socrates’ venerable claim not to know:


I see it as a baby rabbit, minute,
so very baby, it’s hardly had the time to sniff one
sniff of this dear world. So: what’s the valuation
of one baby rabbit? Compared, for instance, to a
single preemie caesered out of a mother’s womb,
the mother just now shot? Is there up there among
the clouds one entity personalized who counts the
rabbits born each second on these rabbit-bearing
planets (for we are not alone), prepares for each a
golden coronet, a pair of wings ...
                                                        ... I
feel a dozen times a day I do not know. [16] 


Another descriptive poem, “Fire Season,” takes up something increasingly well known to anyone living in the American southwest:


Our pines continue to die and continue to die  —
funeral carpets of needles around their base.
You could sleep there, you could suffocate
soundly and be in harmony with all of nature. [17] 


The bright frontier has turned feral. Consider Los Angeles:


Birds from colorless to color; flowers color
to colorless. To stop life’s turn to nightmare
adopt the colorful patience of birds. Flowers
take flight and become birds, add color to
the birds in sky, so high, their colors hit invisible. ...

Out there in Hollywood, air-breasted women
trying to become birds and failing even, why
at ascent to flowers!

In cities, when the noise by day is overwhelming,
birds have evolved in time to sing by night, thus
to be heard by other birds. That’s what we birds
are doing now, that once were poets of the day. [18] 


The final poem of the anthology, “Ins and Outs of the Forest Rivers,” recounts fieldwork in Sarawak, Borneo, undertaken in 2005 at the age of eighty, in conjunction with volunteers trying to help indigenous communities find alternative livelihoods after their lands were lost to logging:


... Forest will choke
you if you move carelessly, without
extremes of circumspection. The animals look
haunted: they run into each other far too often.
Birds find overmuch to feed on in the canopy.
They fly in circles, caged by the borders
imposed by bulldozers and other noise-makers.
It is the vastness of the forest over-shrunk.
Note, one pointed out, of all these surrounding
mountains only that small part over there
about a tenth, is free of cutting – and now
they’ve got concessions for that tenth and
even villages sink into their maelstrom,
because of having to give up their choicest trees,
the ground infertile and unhallowed,
their fields unable now to raise the rice [19] 


Here the house of leaves is quite literal, and also gone. It is replaced by a deadly canopy in which birds hide themselves and people can no longer sustain life.  Does Tarn believe that


                                                If this
were blood, the whole land would run red.
Trapped in the monologues of ancient stories,
invisible birds and heroes sound their songs
but no one’s there to hear them. My own ears
age day by day – I can hear less of birds
who sing the tribal sorrows for lack of poets.
All fades to elegy. Deadened by repetition,
I try to hear the words in birdsong, attempt,
by swallowing remnants of beauty, not to lose hope.
Colleague ends up by whistling like a bird. [20] 


What bird is Tarn whistling like? He is one of a number of contemporary poets who have engaged, in various ways, with academia. Unlike those who remained, often in Creative Writing departments, struggling to teach writing for credit or cash, he made a clean break, changing even his name. This poem records a terrible journey, undertaken because of a once in a lifetime opportunity to volunteer as an anthropologist. [21]  But in these poems the pieces have knit themselves together of themselves. The result is a poetics grounded in a tension that is “good to think with.” For all Tarn’s intellectual and political commitments:


                   I climbed this
mountain by mistake on a bitch trail.
No matter for my mind is so replete with birds,
so fabulous a kingdom of the upper sky
cannot be abdicated for a bunch of facts
a bunch of species ticked off in a book [22] 


Theory never paralyzes the empiricist’s, and the poet’s, thirst to see:


One dusk, as the light went down over the river,
the one bird I had dreamed of seeing and despaired
of ever seeing as the days went by, finally
Lord Buceros himself, prince of the forest and sky, [23] 
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 [24] 

Works Cited

 [1] Nathaniel Tarn, Views from the Weaving Mountain: Selected Essays in Poetics & Anthropology (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1991), x.

 [2] “Three Comings to the House of Leaves” was originally published in Boundary 2 4.1 (Autumn, 1975): 49–52.  It became the title poem of The House of Leaves((Black Sparrow, 1976).  Quotations are from the original Boundaryedition (henceforward HL), available at (accessed 14/10/2008 17:35).

 [3] HL, 50.

 [4] J. H. Prynne, Pearls That Were (Cambridge 1999).  Tarn on Prynne: Weaving Mountain, 58.

 [5] Ian Robinson, “Nathaniel Tarn : A Review", Shearsman 5 (1982), accessed 14 October 2008.

 [6] HL, 51.

 [7] HL, 51.

 [8] HL, 52.

 [9] HL, 52.

 [10] HL, 52.

 [11] House of Leaves, 13

 [12] House of Leaves, 15–16

 [13] House of Leaves, 39. Pachichiyut is a site in highland Guatemala, near Panajachel on Lake Atitlan.

 [14] House of Leaves, 40.

 [15] Nathaniel Tarn, Ins and Outs of the Forest Rivers (New Directions, 2008), 20–21.

 [16]  Ins and Outs of the Forest Rivers, 24.

 [17]  Ins and Outs of the Forest Rivers, 57–58

 [18]  Ins and Outs of the Forest Rivers, 71

 [19] Ins and Outs of the Forest Rivers, 91–92

 [20] Ins and Outs of the Forest Rivers, 94

 [21] Ins and Outs of the Forest Rivers, 88.  In addition to the physical difficulties of travel to Sarawak, at the remotest point of their journey, the colleague who had brought Tarn there died in the night of a heart attack.

 [22] Ins and Outs of the Forest Rivers, 98.

 [23] Lord Buceros is Buceros rhinoceros, the Rhinoceros Hornbill.  For some of the Dayak people of Borneo, it is the embodiment of the war god Singalang Burong.  It is only found at the highest level of the rain forest in Sumatra, Java, and Borneo, and is the state bird of Sarawak.  It can measure up to 127 cm (50 in.) in length and can weigh up to 3 kg (6.6 lbs), and is on on the I.U.C.N. (International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources) Red List of Threatened Species.

 [24] Ins and Outs of the Forest Rivers, 99–100.

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