This winter I saw an exhibit of Ellsworth Kelly's plant lithographs. Large scale and deceptively simple, they felt to me to be nearly perfect art because they seemed to embody, not just the physical being of the various botanical specimens, but a certain person's encounter with them in a certain moment. I walked around the gallery from print to print, several times. Each visit with each print turned up new details.
I've been responding to Keith Taylor's newest chapbook of poems in the same way, circling back and back again, rereading with pleasure, and I highly recommend that you pick up a copy of this lovely little book and do the same.
Each of the fifteen short poems in The Ancient Murrelet (Alice Greene & Co.) feels at once knowable and inexhaustible, like the Kelly lithographs. "The Weaver" particularly caught my attention. More than any of the other poems it emphasizes connection, communion even. The weaver, who is going blind, empties a pillow for swallows who come close enough "to pick / the small ones that catch / in the weaver's hair." We can imagine they will weave the feathers into their nests. The weaver's art moves into a wild bit of land.
In "When the Girls Arived in Copenhagen," two girls, strangers to this place it seems, walk through a neighborhood on "hushed" streets where "snow [falls] in soft piles on their hats," like the feathers. They/We look through uncovered windows, where Danes relax in tidy living rooms, reading or "bathed in blue / television light." The lounging occupants might, or might not, be reading novels about girls walking snow-covered streets. Connection might happen and it might not. The image is beautiful and ambivalent.
Beauty is never the main point of Taylor's poems, at least not conventional beauty (although the music of each one of these poems is strikingly appealing). In another poem there's a goldfinch, for instance, "dead among the oak leaves," and in another, a calf separated from its mother by a barbed-wire fence. The bird's been unburied by raking, a kind of connection; the calf, "I try to lift . . . away from the coyotes." The ancient murrelet of the title poem—"lost or brave or blown here" from the North Pacific–ends up at "the dirty mouth / of a river that drains / the abandoned car factories // of South Bend." The same poem points out that nearby "the untouched / but beautiful young / run down the beach in summertime." Taylor immortalizes all of these things, which, together, strike me as complexly, disarmingly, beautiful.
I've always admired the fact that Taylor's poems enact a habit that anyone who needs wild nature but lives far from old-growth ecosystems will recognize. His speakers find it wherever they can in the rich mix of the human and other-than-human—a commingling that turns out to be as eloquent as tapestry. "The Lavender Farm," for instance," gives us cultivated "royal rows of color" "between two old dunes," and "Screech Owl; Early Evening," "a dark fist / in a leafless maple . . . / above Washington Street." In one of my favorite poems, "we listen expectantly, with hope, / for the quiet yip of [wolf] pups hiding / close to an overgrown two-track road" and the woods are transformed into forest.
The ancient murrelet will die, the calf is not successfully returned to the pasture, and any quiet yip heard will likely be coyotes. Belonging or not belonging, the poems in The Ancient Murrelet seem to say, matters less than being, together, for awhile.
Call Literati Bookstore about buying a copy: (734) 585-5567. Click here to visit Keith Taylor's website.
Thanks for the review, Alison. I look forward to reading the poems for myself.