Keith Taylor’s new collection of poetry, MARGINALIA FOR A NATURAL HISTORY, will be released early this November. It is a book that is keenly aware, at every subtle turn, of the mysterious non-human consciousnesses that inhabit “our” human world. Such sensitivity is not new to Taylor’s work, but it is magnified by this volume’s economy and ingenuity of form: each poem is a compact and resonant eight lines, with nine syllables per line. These formal “constraints” distill each poem to its perceptual center by telescoping in on some elusive glint of the natural world that must necessarily remain remote. When I reached the end of this collection I felt grateful for the wisdom and respect—both for his readers and his subjects—so evident throughout.
First, for his readers: Although there are many epiphanic moments in MARGINALIA, none have the manipulated and manipulating “Gotcha!” trappings of poems that exist merely to move us, however artificially. The revelations here are organic precisely because they arise within the speaker as he moves through forests of body and mind. They are not hasty or self-absorbed extrapolations of experience, but instead recount travels through an experience:
Running Down from the Hills
I limped too close to night and too far
into that dry south CA valley
and came out on a high sweaty trail
I didn’t know. It took forever
on bad knees. Fog was blowing in cold
and I was hobbling down too slowly
when a mountain lion screamed somewhere
below me. I moved more quickly then.
Next, for his subjects: It is the tendency of poets (and people in general) to take the natural world—its places and their inhabitants—as ready-made symbols, a kind of short-hand that can facilitate our understanding of ourselves. There is something touching and even beautiful about this all-too-human desire, but there is an equal risk of becoming self-absorbed and downright facile in our reaching toward a natural world that is gloriously and, perhaps for human beings, aggravatingly self-contained. To put it simply, if we humans are always the center of the human world, then we should allow other places and other creatures to be the centers of theirs, too. We cannot honestly hope to understand or speak for them. Taylor acknowledges this problem and its inherent possibilities in the following poem:
Pathetic Fallacies, Early May
If they could talk, I think the new leaves
of the Japanese lilac bushes
by the back window might say they’re pleased
to receive the rain this cold morning—
there are few things worse than a spring drought,
for lilacs, anyway—but when drops
hit a leaf, it springs back, recoiling
as if slapped often before, afraid.
It is perhaps best to let a book of such direct luminosity speak for itself, and so I will leave you now with a couple more of my favorite poems from the collection. Keith Taylor is a rare and trustworthy guide to the many humming, gorgeous, and mysterious natural worlds unfolding all around us.
Signs and Wonders
First flicker drumming on a dead ash
at the tail-end of a harsh winter—
we’ve learned to cling to these simple things,
forgetting, for only a moment,
emerald green ash borers killing
the trees, starlings chasing woodpeckers
from their holes, or the garlic mustard
that will sprout in profusion below.
At the Living Creche
A camel in the church yard on State
walked around the fence toward our car
(This is true! It really did happen
late Christmas Eve after I picked up
Faith and Christine from Mass) and he bent
down to stick his head in the window.
Snow collected on his pelt. The steam
and stench of camel breath filled the air.
The photograph is “Aspens, Dawn, Autumn, Dolores River, Colorado, 1937” by Ansel Adams.