Becoming Local: Keith Taylor’s “The Ancient Murrelet”

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The Ancient Murrelet, eponymous bird of Keith Taylor’s new poetry chapbook, just out from Ann Arbor’s Alice Green & Co., was named for its distinguished appearance. According to The Audubon Society “white eyebrow-like feathers on the head, combined with its shawl-like gray back, earned it in the nickname ‘old man’ in generations past; these same features are responsible for the bird’s present day moniker.” Populations living in Asia are endangered, and those in British Columbia are also struggling. This small, buffeted seabird threads its way through Taylor’s collection as poetic subject and recurring symbol of both recurrence and dispersal, or perhaps dispersal as a kind of recurrence.

In “Chasing The Ancient Murrelet Taylor writes of a bird’s death “in a place / it doesn’t belong, where it can’t find / the right food or a mate, but where I find it, following / clear directions on the internet.” As birdwatcher and poet, Taylor seeks out his subjects, and often finds them on margins, which is not to say that he looks in these places for self-aggrandizing recoveries. Subjects are everywhere, struggling and thriving, and good poets are receptive to accidental encounters and simultaneously, continue seeking. The entire book, laced through with nimble drawings by Melanie Boyle, takes us through landscapes and across borders familiar to Taylor’s readers, but continually, book after book, wrought anew: the commingling of the wild, the natural, and the domestic worlds; strange, shimmering encounters that are not stripped of their secrets. These brief poems let the light in. They know when their maps-of-language have taken us to openings, windows.

My favorite poem circles like snow on silent evenings:

 

When the Girls Arrived in Copenhagen

and left the station, near midnight,
snow fell in soft piles on their hats
and backpacks.

No cars or people passed
while they walked
down the hushed streets.

Through the windows without blinds or curtains
they could see Danes bathed in blue
television light

or quietly reading in uncluttered rooms
small novels perhaps about two girls
long ago walking through snow.

 

Notably, Taylor’s poems do not present assumptions about the world as seductive poetic fact. Instead they let their subjects unfold. By the end of the “When the Girls Arrived in Copenhagen,” it seems that an invisible hand has tilted the poem’s hourglass, rearranging time.

I have heard poetry-loving friends call poems, and the perceptions chronicled therein, “gifts.” Gifts from a poet to readers, gifts from readers to one another, and sometimes, gifts from readers to those who do not read poetry, and maybe don’t like it. For those in the last category, the “gift” of a poem is not necessarily discarded like the luckless holiday fruitcake. Poems, despite resistance, can reach out of themselves and take root in someone else. They surprise, they comfort, and sometimes appear as a ghostly parallel track running alongside the reader’s own experience. Chapbooks have an intimate quality: a poet collects work (often recent) in small-book form, distributes it (often locally), and shares it. This method of sharing reminds us that poems need not have a massive audience (for poetry, which by other genres’ standards would be quite small!) to circulate deeply. Circulating poems deeply—and locally—allows poets to collect their art and send it out into the world in humble packaging and at regular intervals: a good practice for poets, and a lovely gift to readers. Where “local” is for Taylor has changed over the years. Although he was born in Canada, if you ask him now he says “local” is Ann Arbor; Michigan; the Great Lakes Region. But, as the first poem in this collection reminds us, he once felt that he did not belong here. Of course, he has published numerous full-length collections of poetry since that time, which scan larger swatches of his imaginative landscapes and have circulated widely. His new chapbook, however, is a wise and gentle reminder of the light deep, local circulation can generate.

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