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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
What do you do if you’re born perfectly normal except that, for one thing, you know that the place of your birth was quite arbitrary and, for another, (to transpose Faust’s lament from heart to head) that there are two warring brains in your skull? If you realize that your personality is split between what Nathaniel Tarn calls, in a revealingly ironic inversion, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the anthropologist and the poet, what do you do? The present volume by and about poets/anthropologists is proof that the fruitful and frustrating internal dialogue is not unique with Tarn, even though his strategies for dealing with it are. It will suggest here that the circumstances of Tarn’s life, beginning with the arbitrary place of his birth, helped produce his appreciation for exile and add a significant layer to the tension between Jekyll and Hyde. That layer lets us unravel just how much the antagonists need one another.
In general terms, the tension between the two personae can be described as the simultaneous drives to understand and to identify with the “other.” In the first, Tarn maintains an “objective,” marginal, and alienated position vis-à-vis an “other” society; and in the second, he strives to cancel the differences with the “other” in order to achieve an unmediated identity. For the sake of tidiness, one might say that the first motivation is anthropological “reason” and the second is a poetic passion, irrationality, or “para-rationality.” But the two drives are not discreet, and rather than a binary opposition between head and heart, this tension is better described as an ambivalence in each of Tarn’s activities between desiring plenitude and resisting the fulfillment of desire. For if the object of desire is fulfilled and the distance between the writer and his or her goal is overcome, the space for writing, that is for human agency, is cancelled out. This play between wanting and still wanting to want is common to both Tarn’s activities as poet and as anthropologist; and the relationship is not surprising, given the fact that for a while Tarn considered the professions to be identical twins, both straining towards otherness and through it towards universality.
As an anthropologist, Tarn recognizes the empowering quality of his alienation; it urges him to close the gap between himself and the societies he studies by piecing together the disparate data and by conceiving a pattern that would probably not be apparent at the rational level to the insider. The goal is the pattern, but only the fragmentary nature of the information allows one to write about the coherence achieved. Once that coherence is established to the anthropologist’s satisfaction, there is little reason to keep writing. And as a poet, the goal is, similarly, to reach a plenitude of a re-constructed “uni-verse” (Tarn’s pun), bonded by love. But each time that desire is satisfied, poetry is silenced. One, admittedly partial, way of reading Tarn’s enormously rich work, then, is to see it as an exploration of the space produced by the relationship between anthropologist and poet; that is, between the desire to know the other, and the desire to be the other, or at least to be at one with her. When love relationships, with woman or with the land, are fulfilled, they become only parentheses in an ever-renewed desire which is the very condition for writing.
Of the various strategies that Tarn came upon for negotiating a peace between Jekyll and Hyde, desire and fulfillment, the happiest was to come to America. For him America was and still is the one place that satisfies the desire for national identity while it assumes that absolute, irrational identity is impossible. It is the country to which one can still “choose to belong. ” That paradoxical doubling of verbs opens up a space for Tam’s ambivalence between desire and realization: the first verb is rational, transitive, and proceeds from the freedom that alienation affords; the second is spontaneous, unwilled, and suggests the plenitude of an unmediated relationship with a community. Another way to point to this paradox is to say that America was conceived, in both the intellectual and the biological senses of the word; it is the product of the will to overcome the distance between an idea and the world, and it is a natural, geographic reality that is given. But it is the alienated and self-willed quality of America that made it so attractive and available to Tarn. Because its citizens either come from somewhere else or were displaced on their own land, they may sense that their culture is made, whereas other societies may more easily mistake culture for nature, human products for natural givens. Here the poet/anthropologist has room to play out the tension between wanting to participate in an already coherent culture and wanting to produce that culture through writing. He can be inside a particular, American, world view because it is necessarily porous and self-consciously invented. Therefore, the desire for plenitude and the desire to resist it can call a truce here, “while we select the American we are dreaming,” it is the only country that, tellingly, has no proper name of its own.
Nathaniel Tarn declared his American citizenship over a decade ago, having been drawn to this place since childhood. Why then, he complains in his recent AP “Forum” essay, do other Americans still pigeon-hole him as British? A very unlikely Briton he is, too. Born in Paris to a Roumanian-French mother and a Lithuanian-British father, sent to a Belgian Lycée from ages 7 to 11, Tam arrived in Britain a week before WW II irrupted to threaten the whole of Europe. He was already unsure of what was at stake and whether it would not be better to let the Old World destroy itself. The young alien (“frog” to the Britons) saved himself from suicidal depressions during the Blitz by reading a child’s biography of Lincoln, memorizing a map of the States, and dreaming about the New World where nationalism was based on principle not on birth.
In 1948 Tarn returned to France and to the French language “forever,” to the surrealists who, to his surprise, were alive and well at the cafés, and adopted the then fashionable distance regarding the United States. The heat of this homecoming cooled, though, when the young poet discovered he had effectively been sundered from his “original” language and could write only “twenty-fifth rate Apollinaire.”  Add to this an incipient passion for anthropology, poetry’s apparent double, and Tarn’s rootedness in Paris relaxed. Anthropology brought him back to the English he had repudiated and sent him forth to America. Graduate work at the University of Chicago, a first field experience in Atitlan, Guatemala, and first-hand exposure to American poetry and poets stayed with Tarn when he returned to England. As an anthropologist there, in the heyday of social-anthropology, he was urged to kill off the distracting poet, Mr. Hyde, which he dutifully tried to do. Tarn finally traveled to the Far East he had always desired and subsequently published an astonishingly broad and a significant literature that ranges from ethnohistory of the Mayas to the relationship between religion and politics in Buddhist societies.
Nevertheless, nostalgia for the cafés and a need to be among other poets brought him into “The Group”, which met on Fridays over tea and “politely tore the guts out” of a particular member’s poems. Through these contacts, however, Tarn eventually read his work on the BBC. Gradually the “British ‘career’ occurred,” with the First Guinness Prize for Poetry which led to Tarn’s first book with Jonathan Cape and a year later with Random House. After leaving anthropology in 1967 Tarn became the general editor and a founding director of Cape-Goliard Press, a merger of Goliard Press and Cape poetry that he had urged, and began promoting French and American works at a staggering pace, from Barthes to Olson, Levi-Strauss to Zukofsky.
Breaking with anthropology, much of which he felt had bogged down and hardened into an academic jargon, not only liberated Mr. Hyde, it also made all narrowness including the “Little Englandism” of Tarn’s poetic circle less bearable. Whenever the “shift” to America began, it matured by the late 60s and Tarn left the Old World for the New during the boom for poetry that came as a response to America’s war in Viet Nam. Coming to America was, then, a much more deliberate, patriotic act than those most of us performed to acquire our citizenship; i.e. by birth or by a desperate lack of alternative. So why do many Americans apparently resist accepting Tarn? He is alive to the irony of his “foreign” identity when, for once, he is as much an insider as anyone in this country of immigrants and refugees. And he attributes the resistance to America’s mobility: first they welcome you and then they move you on. But I think there is more to it, and Tarn, the anthropologist that part of him remains, may appreciate the irony from the other side. He may well have chosen this country precisely because he is a European pining for America as an ideal.
When Hans Kohn wrote a now standard work called American Nationalism in the 1950s he like so many survivors of WW II was thankful for belonging to a country defined by an idea rather than a territory or a race. According to him, the patriotic passion for this country is based on the enlightened principles of liberty, equality and fraternity and on the founding documents that embody these principles, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Compare this to the “natural and subconscious forces” of nationalism in other countries and the special character of this one becomes apparent. It is the only nation founded by an act of free human will. Tarn was drawn here for this reason and because America is the one place where he is free to choose esthetic and political options; here they are obviously invented rather than inherited, although these may already be taken as an inheritance which would help account for the exclusionary “Americanness” of some poets. Despite this partial ossification of options into a tradition, America is first an idea and then a form. Therefore, its citizens, especially its poets, can be free to realize the idea in an adequate form.
Kohn is cautious, though, about identifying enlightened ideals with the American experiment. For Tarn the place itself seems to make the original pursuit of anthropology (to kill off God and replace him with universal reason) redundant. But for Kohn this describes a decidedly European view of the States. Americans themselves, and especially those who allegedly fought for Enlightenment ideals in the Revolutionary War, acknowledge other, more traditional, roots. The war, he explains, was fought to preserve the colonists’ inherited rights as English citizens. Since the Crown refused to respect those rights, they were repeated on a more abstract level in the rational, enlightened, rights of man. The United States managed an ideological shift from birthright to natural right by fusing English tradition with a-historical reason. But European observers, including the shrewd Tocqueville, tended to “underestimate the English root and saw only the glorious fulfillment of the promises of the Enlightenment,” in the American republic. Tarn, too, may still be dreaming America from the other side. Maybe that is why he continues to work at giving form to the idea when those who have inherited its corrupt form learn to live with disappointment. “I cannot, in motion, accept that America was built at all, ever. I accept that it is being built now, out of sense of ‘our day.”
For good reason, Tarn objects to nationalism when it refers to other countries, as when he observes sadly that the world has not “finished with that demon,” in reference to the Sino-Soviet conflict. American nationalism, however, sometimes seems to escape his censure because it is so diffuse in this family of nations. As with so many of us, though, Tarn comes on a snag here that opens up a major seam in left-wing culture since the Popular Front of the 1930s and, in a more general challenge, to understand the relationship between nature and culture. After many communists admitted that the masses were not being moved by the abstract ideals inherited from the Enlightenment, the Popular Front asserted, by ideological fiat, that there was no contradiction between rational internationalism and “natural,” irrational nationalism. Since then, poets of the left have tried to reconcile them, or at least to make the contradiction beautiful. Those who celebrate America, for example, see it on the one hand as a nation of nations, pluralist, inclusive and uncentralized; on the other hand it is a nation among nations, to quote Kohn again. And in this latter characterization, America’s relationship to others often blurs the distinction between an openness that embraces the other and the will to cannibalize. That America defines itself as an idea surely challenges a regressive, genetically, territorially, or even linguistically defined nationalism. One has only to compare Tarn’s patriotism with Donald Davie’s to see the contrast. But this very challenge generates a new nationalism that knows no bounds. We will see that Tarn’s poetry, and especially his recent essays, becomes more and more aware of this and dwells on the dilemma of an America that loves the other to death, locking the objects of desire in an annihilating embrace.
Nevertheless, and true to his adopted identity, Tarn refuses to be pessimistic. He comes near to what Sacvan Bercovich calls the “American Jeremiad,” a sermonic discourse that ascends from denunciation and threats of brimstone to a sublime re-dedication of America’s community to its mission. This unshakable faith in the mission to establish God’s nation, and in Americans as his agents, distinguishes the discourse from its more dour English parent. What is so striking for Bercovich, who emigrated from Canada, is that the land itself is seen as the privileged site of the Lord’s work, a land that has only arbitrary lines of demarcation from Canada and Mexico. It is consistent with this tradition, that Tarn should feel his primary loyalty to the land itself, but quite inconsistent with his Enlightened, European concept of America as a rational embodiment of abstract ideals, the same ideals that allow him to be an insider.
In any case, his love for this country generates entirely American solutions to the problem of purging greed from love. Tarn proposes to revive the spirit of creating a distinctively American language that will, by the nation’s very charter, be universal. The question is, of course, where to begin. Do we assume that what is American and chosen should by definition be universalized (the Puritan mission)? Or do we assume that the abstract universals of an antitheological rationalism should be embodied in a country that willed itself into being? The tangle may be hopeless, but the challenge to humanize religion through reason may be all we have. César Vallejo, the Peruvian poet who provides one of the subtexts for Tarn’s A Nowhere for Vallejo, put the challenge like this: ‘Dios mío si tú hubieras sido hombre / hoy superias ser Dios.” (My God if you had only been a man / today you’d know how to be God.)
Tarn probably appreciates the irony of being so committed an American because he is still so European. The ethnographer in him is fully aware, and perhaps amused that as a newcomer he may be more sensitive than others to the vitality of American language and to the potential for creativity here. However much belonging matters to him, a possibility recurs in his poetry that being an outsider, a nomad and orphan, brings with it the very American virtues of clear-headedness and self reliance.
A further note on language: among American poets, Tarn has always defended, published and attempted to follow the mid-century “New American Poets,” especially the Black Mountain School. He indicates that he must leave to others the task of judging how far he has successfully followed them, how far, in short, he has founded an American idiom of his own. In his recent essay, “Child as the Father to Man in the American Uni-verse,” he has returned to this problem and has asked how far William Carols Williams and his school were successful as founders of an idiom made out of those multi-ethnic elements in American English which did not remain permanently sold out to English English in the Academy and its publications. He asks, to summarize the matter, whether the “American idiom” invoked by Williams was a political illusion or a genuine achievement. In so doing, Tarn continues to ask whether American poetry remains open to “outsiders” or not and addresses the notions of nationalism with which I am dealing here and in which his own thought is enmeshed.
Tarn has the mixed fortune of always having been an outsider. The combination of affectionate longing and critical distance makes him an intellectual poet. He describes that distance as a permanent state of culture shock, “Which is why Jekyll invaded Hyde in the first place.” After his first two, “English,” books, the estrangement is less existential than geographic and esthetic because of the exile Tarn experiences from a familiar land and a mastered style. Paradoxically, the exile gives him a privileged position from which to meditate on estrangement as endemic to art and more generally, to the human condition. Both his physical moves from one country to another and his professional shifts from poetry to anthropology, back again, and then to publishing and teaching literature make Tarn’s life a narrative of displacement, transfer and substitution. That these words are associated today with post-structuralist criticism is very much to the point, since I want to suggest that despite Tarn’s uneasiness with what is called “decentralizing” in poetry, his experience and the peace he makes with “permanent culture shock” dispose him to a kind of post-structuralist, decentralizing practice in his poetry. That is, his poetry appreciates the constitutive quality of difference and of shifts in meaning.
At a playful distance from a language that he knows is borrowed, as all languages are, Tarn explores these changes freely because he is less bound by habit or reverence for one’s language than an “insider” may be. Like his ideal America, orphaned by an act of will rather than by fate, Tarn remains open to variations of language and culture. He is free to translate, mediate, interpret; but all this is in the service of underlying principles, rather than to throw doubt on them. This is where Tarn differs from post-structuralism which suspects the will to attain and to secure ultimate truths is doing violence to the differences that an ever-changing language allows for.
As a nomad, Tarn can be said to live in no particular place, that is, in a “nowhere” or a utopia. Granted, he has chosen to throw down roots in the United States and specifically, until further notice, in New Hope, PA; but the very fact that he is free to choose underlines his rootlessness. Before choosing to belong, Tarn had mockingly uncovered the trace of rootedness in the European concept of righteousness. This is clear from the poet’s identity in a poem called “Nomad”, an identity counterposed to the righteous justicer:
I shall square the circle: uproot each sentiment,
hack out my heart from its beating place,
rather than be a son to righteousness.
And that is all the tending I will do, the tilling and ploughing.
But I want the lovely earth to flower and my cattle to graze
and laze along in a frieze along the sky just as they are.
Tarn’s attraction to César Vallejo surely has something to do with the Peruvian’s identification of poet with nomad, as in, for example, the line that serves as epigraph to A Nowhere for Vallejo: “Y madrugar, poeta, nómada, al crudísimo día de ser hombre.” (Waking so early, poet, nomad, to the raw day of being a man.) Because of their playful, desacralizing practice in a borrowed language, these poets can come to see their exile as an extended Eden that gives them room, and with it desire, to experiment. Rather than identify with a particular place, Tarn claims, in the essay “Toward Any Geography, Toward Any America Whatsoever,” that the entire world becomes available space for creation and cause for celebration. And in The Beautiful Contradictions (section 2), the poet makes a meal of the pain world-side and “spew[s] it out again,” as poetry. In other words, as the master of dialectic (BC 15), Tarn makes the diaspora into a Utopia, a nowhere and a yet-to-be. Rootlessness is not a hindrance if it is recognized as an opportunity for universality.
Tarn will return to this wandering-Jewish version of the “fortunate fall” in a poem letter to his companion and co-author, Janet Rodney. Reporting to her from Paris about (his son’s?) Bar Mitzvah, Tarn writes that the Egyptian exile gave us a calling: it made us cantors in an extended world where we have the space that makes poetry necessary. But the advantage of exile is missed if nostalgia blinds one to the freedom of being in the utopia of “nowhere.” That seems why Tarn’s early poetry attempts to sort out what it means to be Jewish in a modern world, why Jews feel privileged, and to what end that privilege can be used if not to celebrate the entire world. (See “Portrait of a Modern Jew,” and “Israel in the Park,” in Old Savage/Young City .)
Perhaps his awareness of being an outsider, and almost by circumstance impersonating insiders, generates the air of guilt and responsibility that seems to motivate some of these poems. This is exacerbated by being an anthropologist who is prone to feeling a certain guilt of the survivor. Despite all the respect and affection one brings, anthropology studies the other in what becomes a preliminary incursion of the West. The danger is, of course, that even admiration can herald appropriation in the West’s open-ended policy of incorporating, perhaps cancelling out, the differences of the closed, “primitive,” object of study.
the lovely tribes falling like shadows
If we must play with words
the nouns should be like lungs
sooted with smoke
the verbs like cancers ravaging the blood
Where is the life I lead
how dare I lead it
how shall the earth survive
endless attrition (“The Words,” October) 
Instead, the anthropologist may find himself translating “romance into ritual,” in Tarn’s inversion of Jessie Weston’s book that traces how imaginative writing in the Middle Ages develops from ritual givens. In anthropology “primitive” imagination ossifies into a codification that can be deadly.
Tarn’s re-dedication to poetry is, in some ways, a response to this guilt. It is an affirmation of life and of his responsibility to celebrate it. And when he asks the Tzutujil priest of Atitlan to offer a prayer on his behalf, it is for life and health, that is, for plenitude rather than for writing. So Tarn subordinates knowledge and even poetry to celebration, but he retains the ethnographer’s joy in discovering how varied and inventive human culture is. His research and piecing together of other world views has little to do with intellectual elitism. On the contrary it allows him to avoid solipsism and allows him to translate the “exotic” into an accessible code that makes his vast erudition available to unspecialized readers.
Tarn’s “borrowed” English combines wonderfully with other borrowed languages, most notably with Spanish. And though Pound may have been a model for splicing foreign phrases into a poetry of the “uni-verse,” the difference is apparent in their choices. While Pound draws primarily on classical, medieval, and Far Eastern languages, Tarn, knowledgeable in a variety of languages, is drawn mainly to Spanish, a language as American as English is. In the second section of The Beautiful Contradictions, for example, the linguistic syncretism of English, Spanish and an indigenous vocabulary repeats the religious amalgam of the Zutujil cult. Huracan is called the “heart of heaven,” and if any should doubt his identity with the God of the Bible, one has only to think of Jehovah’s original role as a storm-god. In case the doubt persists, Tarn reinforces their substitution by offering a parallel commentary about their fickleness. “Huracan the heart of heaven thinks again,” is transposed in a sacrilegiously funny tone of pious resignation: “the Lord has given… the Lord has taken away… blessed be the name of the Lord who thinks again.”
In “The Great Odor of Summer,” written in response to the violence at Kent State, Tarn complains that America has betrayed her mission by resisting syncretism. Only the rich can afford to be pure and to imagine themselves self-sufficient; they are impoverished by their selectivity. Tarn’s poetic language offers the corrective of including French, indigenous languages of the cultures he has studied, German,  and others. But the most daring experiment in blurring the demarcations between the languages of America, and one of the many reasons for this book’s appeal, is A Nowhere for Vallejo. In it, each poem is introduced by an epigraph from Vallejo that Tarn doesn’t bother to translate. Translations from Vallejo used as found-poetry, sometimes with word-order or even syntactic changes, are incorporated into the stuff of the book-length poem. As a result, many of the verses are laced with Spanish words, from Vallejo or not, that call no special attention to themselves. They are not set off by quotation marks or by italics. In at least one almost imperceptibly subtle move, Tarn uses the variation “especial,” which is also the Spanish form of the word, when the more common “special” would have fit perfectly well. For a moment the distinction between English and Spanish blurs entirely, as if they were interchangeable.
The ideal America for Tarn seems to be multi or bi-lingual and syncretic. it is a promised land where the distance between nature and culture, the given and the made, frees translation to go any number of ways, not necessarily from “marginal,” “unnatural,” Spanish to “dominant,” “given” English. When asked why he has translated Latin American poetry, Tarn didn’t deliver the anticipated response about identifying with America as a hemisphere, North and South; he merely credited circumstance and spoke of his translations as a “service to the republic of letters.” But this undoubtedly underestimates the role of translation, displacement, and cultural shifting of ground in his work. An argument could be made for calling it a continuing experiment with the translation of cultural codes, from the desire to be a “Master-Spy” and decoder (see OS/YC p. 17) homesick for an “original” language but still close enough to mediate, to the practice of personalized, creative translations in the Vallejo Book. These displacements become aspects of his role as “master of dialectic” and mediation.
An early critic has noticed a “severe will to form” in Tarn’s first two books of poetry, Old Savage/Young City and Where Babylon Ends. The critic attributes this to the “English” character of the early work. And despite his long-standing objection to “little Englandism,” Tarn agrees that these books participate in the insular tradition of tight, highly crafted and closed poetry. These poems are haunting and masterful; they range in mood from the asphyxiating heaviness of heart in “Grief Is So Much a Now,” through the guilt-ridden existential dilemma of surviving in the indifferent world of “The Omen,” to the mystery and celebration of poems like “Ranger Spacecraft” and “The Delivery.” Having mastered the art of “wordsmithing” so early in his career, Tarn seems bent on expanding his technical horizons to keep pace with his gradual expansion of spirit. That movement apparently begins with the despair of having been born into a hopeless world that, by some miracle, continues to exist. The surprise and delight with the world, however fallen, is what I take to be Tarn’s point of departure for his “American career.” The opening stanza of the title poem, “Old Savage/Young City,” written, as it happens, out of American experience, telescopes this trajectory and ends: “I find myself delighted again to belong to this world.” Here, renewal follows upon violent imagery and pain, as if feeling pain itself were a miraculous reminder of being alive.
In formal terms, this poetic alchemy of pain to pleasure will mean a gradual opening up to verbal, syntactical and rhythmic experiments, which points again to why America is so attractive for Tarn; it is the place where he is free to choose the length of his lines, the registers of his language, and generally to sidestep the constraints of a more cautious tradition. In 1969 he wrote, “I am aware of moving towards more and more open form as I discover that there is less and less that cannot be discussed in poetry.” Tarn dates the definitive philosophical and then trans-Atlantic shift from the time he wrote the essay, “The World Wide Open: The Work Laid Before Us in This Disunited Kingdom” and his third book of poetry, The Beautiful Contradictions (1969). That volume, full of the pain turned joy of wrenching away from paternal authority and embracing maternal vitality, was written under the liberating influence of MacDiarmid. Tarn calls him, among a number of other poets, a “father figure,” but this is probably a term of convenience and an exaggeration. Knowing himself to be an outsider, Tarn also knew that he could not be an English poet for long, still less a Celt like MacDiarmid. The same distance distinguishes Tarn from the tradition of other models and teachers, which is why he can choose to adopt or to abandon these models. But MacDiarmid was special because he woke Tarn to unimagined possibilities of content and form. Tarn remembers that the imposing figure and long lines of this bold Scot communist poet were lost on the English versifiers who had not developed the habit of looking up.
From this point on, Tarn’s poetry takes on a decidedly public character. The anthropologist in him had always been fascinated with the dialectic of observer and observed and with the interplay between “restricted” and “elaborated” codes of communication. Now that fascination will pull in the direction of universalizing and leveling the differences between inside and outside, high and low. His language will become ever more “restricted” in order to extend his readership. Hermetic poetry becomes odious because it won’t do for getting on with life, for making love to the whole earth as mother.
let’s get around to loving our mother in all her positions
open her bed in this hotel to all the courants d’air
don’t let’s worry if it stops us making poems for a while
we must get used to being seen to be doing justice to her
to learn the vulgar trick we need to keep her happy
we may even grow to love the way she tastes and smells
and fuck private language unless you know and if you know
you’re public (BC 14)
Public language, we may say, is the organ for loving, and the fruit is a wholeness and plenitude that follows an ethical, affectionate relationship with the world. Another name for this function of the poet, the name that Tarn prefers, is “legislator” in the tradition of Shelley and ultimately of Plato’s philosopher kings. Why should poets be in government (hardly a shocking proposition in some other countries)? Simply put, it is because they are or should be conscious of various levels of experience, including the deepest levels where particularity and universality meet, according to Tarn. His use for poetry, in other words, is purificatory and inspirational. If that seems predictable, Tarn agrees it is. “You end up with banalities; they’re ultimately what it’s all about.”
This intended ethical effect of poetry, though, doesn’t yet tell us about how the effect is produced. And it is here that Tarn continually proves himself a master, not only of the totalizing, universalizing dialectic that gives theme and structure to The Beautiful Contradictions and later works, but also of the techniques that make the “ultimate banalities” seem new and almost shocking in their self-evidence.
Tarn’s poetry is pitched to intelligent, somewhat jaded readers whom it manages to outstrip with a verbal and allusive density that puts the erudition of an accomplished ethnographer at the reach of the common, but careful, reader. Conscious of the world outside him as a cause for admiration, Tarn enjoys doing research for his poems and offering up a “world wide open” to be celebrated. But he succeeds at an even deeper level than merely offering. He disarms his readers by calling their language into question, by demonstrating that which is fraught with seams, the syncretic patchwork of language, so that we must acknowledge it as a composite, changeable field of creativity. Tarn alternately amuses and disturbs his public with ever inventive plays on words and syntax, with juxtapositions and transgressions of codes that include the spilling over from one language into another. Surprise is the only thing one can expect, but the expectation doesn’t dull the effect, even on re-reading. And once he catches the reader off-guard the new or renewed feeling produced recasts one’s thoughts before the habitual thoughts can deaden the feeling. Consider the following example of Tarn’s capacity for revealing the horror behind a familiar language by defamiliarizing it. It is a horror created by form because he doesn’t trust the content (North America’s exploitation of Peru in this case) to have the desired shock effect, which would have been enough for so-called “political poets.”
Where they mine his ores
wrecks of better housing
under crumbling mountains
in the high towns
there are no gardens
children tell homes apart
by numbers on the blocks
Arbeit macht frei
There is nothing remarkable about this syntax, although Tarn is a virtuoso of syntactical surprises. Instead, the ease with which we read this stanza captures us in an accessible order that fits like an old shoe. And while the vocabulary, except for the final line, comes from the most common register of Tarn’s “restricted” code, the rhythm it produces is vaguely disturbing, too insistent and too short. In place of the regular iambs and anapests that the familiarity of syntax and diction might predict, Tarn jolts the traditional scansion with unexpected stresses (“high towns,” “tell homes”) in a sprung rhythm. The strained English lines become much stranger with the last sprung line in German. Though foreign and associated with Nazi concentration camps, the relentlessly short rhythm of the line seems merely to extend the American English that precedes. And the cruel hypocrisy of the Nazi slogan similarly extends the American work ethic to a grotesque but now imaginable degree. The effects of being trapped by the familiarity of syntax and vocabulary into recognizing our own barbarous rhythm are shock and shame. Suddenly we are the objects of our own fears.
The most self-conscious experiment with surprise is A Nowhere for Vallejo, where the poetry comments directly on its relationship to the unexpected. Beginning with the title of this daring exploration at the frontiers between biography and autobiography, translation and interpretation, Tarn is already shifting the ground from under the reader. That ground is, of course, Nowhere. Perhaps it refers to no place in particular and therefore to “everywhere.” Does nowhere mean, literally, no place, utopia, or does it mean nowhere as the noplace of limbo ? These alternatives need not be mutually exclusive, especially not in Tarn’s world view which begins with the happy astonishment that the world has endured. And it continues to endure, unexpectedly, throughout the Vallejo book, where, for example, the poet’s lover is “surprised by morning / and his voice when all speech had been lost,” and where the Vallejo persona writes to a friend: “Understand me Juan one lives one’s life / and it enters into him / almost always by way of surprise.”
As for the proper name in the title, does it refer to Vallejo, who gradually abandoned the difficult poetry of Trilce for his fraternal Poemas humanos and who learned to be a socialist in his Parisian exile? Or is Vallejo a persona for Tarn? Perhaps both poets, along with the Inca Garcilaso, who wrote to celebrate his mother-culture, are personae for a responsible, mature poetry that doesn’t mistake responsibility for results:
And he’ll forget
then forget to forget
the world will end
he is not its master
whatever he thinks of the matter
to whatever extent he can explain
or not explain
quite apart from him in its own crucibles
the world will come to an end
Instead of scoffing at the poet’s impotence, Tarn’s modesty regarding the results humanizes the vocation, as does his sense of humor which produces affectionate jokes like this one about Vallejo:
Play me he said a little Beethoven
he had like that some bourgeois ways
The constant shifting of linguistic ground, the unpredictability of syntax and rhythm do not however, exhaust Tarn’s strategies. He conserves from his early highly crafted and relatively closed poetry a will to round off the long lines and apparently random images. He often ties them up into a statement that frequently takes the form of finalizing iambs. The lines quoted directly above are one example. Another is:
Now he braces himself
never to hate the world
for having lost her
Tarn is well aware that this penchant for poetic tidiness may be contradictory for one so bent on opening poetry up in both form and content. But he is unwilling to give up the tension between wanting this openness and fearing a literary anarchy that would replace responsibility with a new self-indulgent cynicism. In other words, he won’t give up wanting and prefiguring the object of desire, lest the mere desire to desire cancel out the productive tension. Tarn’s defense of dialectical thinking and writing is a self-conscious response to advocates of “decentralization” of poetry, purging it of a universality that leaves traces of imperialism, who offer little worth straining towards. What Tarn proposes in his poetry as an esthetic/political corrective for a tainted, traditional universality, is, as we will see, an embrace of the world through the mother to substitute the fatherly fantasy of dominating rather than loving the world. A constant theme in his work since The Beautiful Contradictions (especially in Lyrics for the Bride of God and Alashka), Tarn could not be more contemporary in his critique of domination, including traditional Marxism. Nor could he be more in harmony with the spirit of feminism and ecology, which some political theorists hope can be beacons for the blind spots of historical materialism.
In A Nowhere for Vallejo and elsewhere, Tarn distinguishes between poetry and song. If one were to isolate the most significant distinction, I think it would be the element of surprise. In The Beautiful Contradictions, part 14, Tarn seems to mourn the death of song. But part of him, the Jekyll who has lived with Hyde so long, revels in the space that death leaves open. Song is a metaphor for plenitude here, and desirable as this is, it leaves little room for the inventive agency of the poet. This may be why Tarn welcomes the worm of history that threatens to obliterate so much beauty in the Prague section (10) of the book. Working as the principle of negation, the worm makes room for the poet to be “master of dialectic.”
A Nowhere for Vallejo is a stunning and rather short book; the earlier Beautiful Contradictions is slightly longer, but neither can be sustained beyond the celebration of plenitude to which they build. Love fulfilled makes poetry redundant and it dissolves into song. After an endearingly conventional rhyme (“use it … lost it”), so unexpected from an expert in delicate internal rhyme and alliteration, Tarn writes:
all poems have dissolved into a song and we survive
this poem goes that way
cannot go wrong
peak climbed sea swum (Vallejo 49 )
the Sun is in the sky and needs no moving (50)
Here, logically, the book ends. Earlier, a promise of this harmony had introduced song as the end, if not the goal, of poetry, in these caressing lines:
Snakes in the water
their sinews dance
the poet swims with Coya
in a passion of waters
they clean their skins
ring out their hair
sing to one another
the unrecorded songs (25)
The tension between poetry and plenitude is, I think, most fully explored in Alashka, co-authored with Janet Rodney. Androgyny is the metaphor for wholeness in this book, the very form of which is dialogue and amalgamation of the lovers’ voices. As a trope for plenitude, their union through sexual love and a re-conceived art offers a wonderfully earth-bound alternative to the temptation to escape or transcend an imperfect world. There may be a snag in the project, however; their harmony is hard to sustain in poetry. The desire, then, in this book is not the quest for human love, but the unrealizable pilgrimage to America’s last and already lost wilderness. Towards the end, they admit: “we knew the immortal white of the place / is what we had failed to reach… ”(p. 222). But even as the questers set out West, which they also call “nowhere” and “space,” the reader senses that they are already in utopia by virtue of the empty space itself. Tarn has stayed in Alaska regularly; and this book makes clear what he sought there: an uncorrupted space where he can re-dream (redeem?) America.
One reason for Tarn’s freedom to experiment is probably that, being a cultural orphan, he is spared some of what Harold Bloom calls the anxiety of influence. Tarn does not need to kill off or even to push aside those poets whom he may consider fathers. Either they are conveniently dead already, or they do not really belong to him. He sidesteps paternal censure by refusing to recognize any father as “natural,” and by freely choosing his models: William Carlos Williams, Olson, MacDiarmid, among others. Their authority is contingent on Tarn. In fact, he authorizes them. Perhaps this is one of the moves that he intimates in the title of an essay, “Child as the Father to Man in the American Uni-Verse.” Fathers are only provisional; and through his affectionate but desacralized relationship to them Tarn contemplates the illusion that patriarchs really dominate mother earth.
In A Nowhere for Vallejo, for example, God the father takes the form of the Sun and is trapped in the theological paradox that turns authority on itself. Transferring to the Sun the riddle of whether God can do the impossible, Tarn observes that, “if it were master of itself it might stand still” (p. 44). The poet has as much right and as much clarity (p. 22). Thus, the Sun becomes a counterpart, not a model, and certainly no anxiety-producing obstacle.
One problem with fathers is that their love is hard to distinguish from appropriation, which is also the problem embedded in the American ideal. Even the most promising patriarchal models are limiting, Charles Olson, for instance. Tarn was unpleasantly surprised to learn the extent to which Olson’s poetry is made up of quotations from others, to the point of being virtually an amalgam of already written material. Of course, the technique can be considered an exercise in modesty, but Tarn worries that ‘this “openness” to others may be an unintended process of cannibalizing them. With “open” poets, anthropologists, and with America, naivete or even good intentions are not enough:
The world is eaten slowly by her peaceable cats
whose guiltless teeth stain with the guiltless bird rust.
(“The Omen,” OS/TC )
Tarn’s response is not simple. I read it as an appeal for and a contribution to reworking the American ideal of openness by renewing, not rehashing, its language with a view towards universalizing without sacrificing otherness.
To do this he has to reconceive himself and the other in a relationship that replaces dichotomy with a desiring and desirable difference. Here two metaphors take over: one is androgyny and the other is incest. Both bring the female principle sharply into focus as a determining force of the experiment in making America. Tarn is orphaned only, of course, on the paternal side. His mother is a constant; she is the entire earth. His race of “matrilineal nanny goats,” including Christ, was always an embarrassment to the gentiles (BC 10).
Incest, Tarn’s earlier strategy for self-birth, goes far, though not all the way, to banish violence from love. But Tarn is careful to show his partner’s relative autonomy, not to use her as a mere vehicle of his self-conception:
My job she told us with some solemnity
is to life the myth like a bandage from his eyes
to show him that only in imagination have I ever been his mother
(mother-marriage won’t work in theory and is bound to be rough in practice) (BC 4)
She may be hinting that a possible problem with this totalization of the earth as mother, and with the admittedly provisional appeal that each woman represent all women (BC3 ), is that the poet may be jumping the gun for establishing plenitude. Universality is produced here by his effort to give his voice sufficient range for others to speak though it. Without minimizing Tarn’s success in conceiving a new relationship of love without violence (see BC 3), the harmony he achieves comes primarily from the coherence of a single voice that has mastered the dialectic between self and otherness. This univocal coherence is what Mikhail Bakhtin found characteristic of poetry and why he suspected it of authoritarian tendencies. He favored the multi-voiced and ambiguous novel. Bakhtin undoubtedly overstated his case against poetry. It may, in fact, have been a critique of Stalinist centralization displaced onto the literary discourse that gave Bakhtin some breathing space. But an exaggeration is not an outright fabrication and his paranoia of poetry may point to a danger in the poetic tradition, even if it doesn’t locate a formal necessity. The danger, at least, of universalizing by denying difference comes to mind in one aspect of Tarn’s incest strategy: the appeal for us to imagine a “choral voice” of seamless universality among women, including the men who identify with women. In other words, the incest of Beautiful Contradictions retains something of the dichotomy between masculine activity, competitiveness, difference, and feminine receptivity and undifferentiated love. And this universalization of the feminine, by an act of poetic and masculine will, could possibly be read as a gentle variation of the unfortunately tight embrace that Tarn resists in anthropology, ethnopoetics and in American politics.
But Tarn’s act is different from the paradigm of self-creation in other American writers who turn their backs to Europe and to history. While writers like Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman imagined that they were sufficient to create themselves and, by extension, to create an American culture, Tarn knows that he needs a partner. By banishing the fathers, other American writers may be assuming all the paternal authority over both culture and nature. Tarn, by contrast, doesn’t substitute himself as one master for another; he joins hands with the earth that has been mastered. And, once he recognizes her as an equal partner, the incest metaphor is dislodged. The poet’s identity moves from incestuous Oedipus to androgynous Tiresias (BC 5 ). Like him, the bisexual Mam of the Tzutujil Cult becomes a model for America’s new race. And the new Messiah is not born of a virgin through the agency of a transcendental patriarch. In a wonderfully simple and fundamental subversion of English usage, Tarn writes that the (neither male nor female) child is given birth by both parents.
If Hyde was happy in his mother’s embrace, Jekyll never really let him be. Tarn’s skill in imagining the “other’s” world view and the respectful distance from which he desires her bring him to a new level of intimacy in poetry. It begins from a mutual embrace between male and female so profound and so equal that the very distinction between the sexes blurs even as it makes the union possible. At this point Nathaniel Tarn’s single voice combines with another, and he coauthors Alashka with Janet Rodney. The book, as I said, is an experiment in androgynous art. And if it does not yet constitute a chorus, it is a promising duet. Even if one evaluates the poems as only a mixed success because of the way poetry here tends toward self-sufficient and self-silencing song, the great virtue of the experiment is that it whets the appetitite for a possible poetry of love free from violence. Alashka has in fact found the promised wilderness; it opens up the imaginary space for a democratic eroticism, a space that produces the desire to fill it in.
and we give birth
with all the elements
becoming the many faces
of the land this moment of
our re-entry. (p. 208)
The earlier ideal of perfect unity through being subsumed by the master of dialectic is pried open a bit here, enough to give each poet-lover the distance to continue desiring the other. We can now imagine a love that does not draw the other so near that he or she is cannibalized. If love can respect that distance then it would go beyond even Whitman’s liberating model of “amativeness” as the basis for American relationships; his homosexual imagery is finally more autocratic than Tam’s, because Whitman celebrated equality by assuming that the other was or should be identical to himself. The androgynous model — which is obviously not linked to any sexual preference but to a freedom from sex-related roles — offers the hope of equality through the appreciation of the subtle differences between lovers. With this model, perhaps, Tarn’s American idea(l) can achieve an adequate form, one that describes a space between desire and its object.
I have attempted to explore here the multi-faceted concern aroused by Nathaniel Tarn’s ethnopoetic relationship to the American Continent — a world he can both remain outside of and become part of. Readers of Tarn’s works will notice an important omission here; I do not consider his Lyrics for the Bride of God, for this complex work no doubt deserves a study to itself. Its importance in the Tarn corpus is manifold. If The Beautiful Contradictions initiates a passage from Europe to America already hinted at in the title of his first book, Old Savage/Young City, and if such works as Vallejo and Alashka document his wrestling with his problematic on this continent, Lyrics provides most of the linguistic, ethical and political motivations for the passage from east to west. it is in Lyrics that Tarn attempts to create his own version of an “American idiom”; it is here that the most versatile transforming games with language were played. It is also here that Tam tries to enact to the full, then destroy and finally transform, a pseudo-romantic “macho” ideal and substitute for it his view of a shared sexuality, a transformation in which woman and land share equal space with man. In Lyrics, finally, Tarn’s efforts to articulate his doubts about the American utopia are evident; those doubts will lead to the more sophisticated meditations on the American situation that appear in his work from 1976 to the present. The end of the book-length poem is worth quoting:
and all that done, they come to the places they have baptized
with all the variants of the word Hope, which means hope for bargains:
Hope-Well and Hope-Truly, and New Hope, and Good, Clean Used-Hope,
and, leaving behind any reality whatsoever,
they buy the shoddy, the useless, the ugly and the bad
in the name of the singers of liberty who left our world so long ago.
At night, when everyone is drunk, they piss on the trees of the town,
and they shit in the streets, and they masturbate in the parking lots,
and then they bugger the injun princess in the municipal square
where they had left her only some years back
as she bounced out of the forest:
infin che’l mar fu sovra noi richimso…
In his more recent writing Tarn seems to be settling into his Americanicity. I am thinking of work like Journal of the Laguna de San Ignacio,  Palenque,  or the newer Seeing America First poems. We must wait to see where his new sense of being at home will lead him and whether he can work out from there.
 I owe the formulation to Jaques Derrida’s discussion of Rousseau in Of Grammatology. (trans. Gayatri C. Spivak, Baltimore, 1974) See also Barbara Johnson’s summary in her “Translator’s Introduction to Derrida’s Disseminations (Chicago; 1981), pp. i-xll.
 In a letter of July, 28, 1983 Tarn pointed out to me the importance of this tension in Buddhist thought and, by extension, in his work. Commenting on my observation of the tension in his writing, he added: “Incidentally, resistance to fulfillment is related throughout the work to the Bodhisattva vow to delay attainment of full Enlightenment/ Buddhahood/ Nirvana until all beings are simultaneously saved.” See “Old Savage/Young City,” section X, reprinted in Atitlan/ Alashka (Brillig Works Press, distributed by Inland Book Co., 22 Hemingway Ave. East Haven, CT 06512), p. 9.
 “An Interview with Nathaniel Tarn,” with Jed Rasula and Mike Erwin, in Boundary 2, IV, I (Binghamton N.Y.; 1975), p. 6.
 “The Odor of Summer,” reprinted in Atitlan/Alashka, p. 54.
 Hans Kobn, American Nationalism (MacMillan, New York; 1957), p. x.
 “Child as Father to Man in the American Uni-Verse,” in American Poetry (I, 2, 1984), p. 68. See also “Dr. Jekyll… ”, p. 1.
 “Child… ,” p. 69.
 Ibid ., p. 70.
 “Dr. Jekyll… ,” p. 5.
 “Child… ,” p. 74.
 Kohn, op. cit., p. 3.
 “Child… ,” p.75.
 Ibid., and “Dr. Jekyll” p. 5.
 Kohn, op. cit., p. 9.
 Ibid., p. 13.
 “Toward Any Geography/Toward Any America Any America Whatsoever,” reprinted in Atitlan/Alashka, p. 155.
 “An Interview… ” p. 27
 “ Child… ”p.73.
 Georgi Dimitroff, The United Front (Proletarian Publishers, San Francisco; 1975), p. 78. In his statement of the Third Communist International in 1935 he established the relevance of nationalist traditions, generally associated with fascist propaganda, for communist literature.
 Donald A. Davie, “Poet: Patriot: Interpreter” in The Politics of Interpretation, S pecial Issue of Critical Inquiry, vol. 9, no. 1 (Chicago, Sept. 1982)
 Sacvan Bercovitch, The American Jeremiad (University of Wisconsin Press,
1978), pp. 7–8.
 Ibid., p. 11.
 “Child… ,”p. 71. “An Interview… ,” p. 7.
 “An Interview… ,” p. 10.
 “Dr. Jekyll” p. 4.
 Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature at Rutgers University since
1971, Tarn has also taught at the University of London, Cornell University, S.U.N.Y. Buffalo, Princeton University, the University of Colorado, among others.
 Atitlan/Alashka, p. 175
 October was reprinted in A Nowhere for Vallejo (Jonathan Cape, London;
1970), and that volume was reprinted again in Atitlan/Alashka; “The Words” appears below.
 Atitlan/Alashka, p. 4.
 I especially like the use of the word Gemütlichkeit here; it is so attractive and so ironically old-worldly.
 A Nowhere for Vallejo, p.34.
 “An Interview… ,” p. 8.
 Stanley Corngold, “Where Babylon Ends: Nathaniel Tarn’s Poetic Development,” In Boundary 2, IV, 1 (S.U.N.Y., Binghamton; Fall 1975), p. 57.
 Quoted in “Child… ,” p. 74.
 “Child… ,” p. 73.
 Ibid., p. 74
 “An Interview… ,” p. 15.
 Ibid., p. 19.
 Ibid., p. 21.
 See a comparable motivation to build something on nothing in “The Curtains,” In October, reprinted In Atitlan/Alashka, pp. 21–22:
I shall build on nothing
on nothing build my house
out of the iron nail remorselessly
hammered into the ground of this dead year
the nail so bald so cold
out of humiliation and the grinding feet
on nothing build my house
and when the leaves are fallen
and hammering is done
and curtains of the house will have been hung
Through which we glimpse
the place we shall inhabit
full void that memory
 A Nowhere for Vallejo, p.47.
 Ibid., p. 42.
 See Issac Balbus, Marxism and Domination: A Neo-Hegelian, Feminist, Psychoanalytic Theory of Sexual, Political, and Technological Liberation (Princeton; 1982) and Stanley Aronowitz, The Crisis In Historical Materialism: Class, Politics and Culture in Marxist Theory (New York; 1981)
 Note the claim by the authors that, “Despite any kind of appearances, every single poem in this geography is a jointly created fiction.” Atitlan/Alashka, p.158.
 “Dr. Jekyll… ,” p.12. and “Child… ,” p.78.
 Mikhail Bakhtin, “Discourse and the Novel,” in The Dialogical Imagination, trans. Michael Holquist (Austin; 1981).
 Montemora, New York, vol. 5.
 Montemora, New York, vol. 7.
 51. See for example, Sulfur (Pasadena, no. 4) and Conjunctions (New York, no 4.)
First published in American Poetry (2: 1, Fall 1984), pp.13–35.