Reviewed: No End in Strangeness: New and Selected Poems by Bruce Taylor. Cormorant Books, 2011.
There’s a marvelous description in Book X of Paradise Lost of the astronomical and climatological changes that accompany the Fall, and of the beginnings of predation among the animals. Milton is more concerned there with the vast scales that the still new Copernican Cosmology had introduced, and with squaring that cosmology with Biblical narrative, than with animal suffering, but he does describe how,
Beast now with Beast gan war, and Fowle with Fowle,
And Fish with Fish; to graze the Herb all leaving,
Devourd each other; nor stood much in awe
Of Man, but fled him, or with count’nance grim
Glar’d on him passing… (710-714)
Milton, God love him, didn’t know the half of it. It was in 1676, just two years after his epic was published, that a Dutch merchant named Anton van Leeuwenhoek wrote to the Royal Society in London of his discovery of microbial life. To say reactions were skeptical at first would be putting it mildly; van Leeuwenhoek had already made a number of important scientific advances using his microscope, but this time many thought the good burgher had, well, flipped his wig. A delegation to Delft confirmed his findings, however, and he has since become known (I only just learned this myself) as the father of microbiology.
And it’s to the life forms of the microcosmos, and to van Leeuwenhoek’s efforts, that Bruce Taylor turns his attention in the “Little Animals,” the longest poem in his new and selected, No End in Strangeness. It’s a phrase from this poem that supplies the book’s title, and its subject matter finds its way into the cover illustration, a photograph taken by the author in a local pond of a Hydra Viridis. Enlarged and silhouetted against absolute blackness, the creature, shaped like a sea cucumber with six tentacles surrounding a mouth at its top end, could easily pass for a space monster in an old episode of Star Trek or Dr. Who.
Taylor is a poet in the plain style if ever there was one, but in “Little Animals,” perhaps taking a cue from the sheer profusion of life van Leeuwenhoek discovered, he’s at his most effusive. He begins with a description of the book that is the primary source of information on the Dutchman, Antony van Leeuwenhoek and his little animals: Being Some Account of the Father of Protozoology and Bacteriology and His Multifarious Discoveries in These Disciplines, published in 1932 by Clifford Dobell, himself a bacteriologist and fellow of the Royal Society:
That old book has a million moving parts,
and when you open it to look inside,
they all spill out, like the escapement
from a sproinged clock,
spelling up the life and correspondence
of a Dutch cloth merchant called van Leeuwenhoek.
A regular little factory, this book,
as busy as a Jacquard loom
constructing its bustling world
of high-piled clouds and shambling
courtyards and canals,
and copper gutters filling up with rain,
a 17th-century rain, curled
like a great cascading periwig
over the cankered rooftiles of old Delft.
Paraphrase can’t really do justice to the nine or so pages that follow. It’s that rarest of creatures, a long lyric that’s also a page turner, a meditation on books and learning and the pastoral ideal, on life itself at its various levels of magnification, on the ways in which contemplation, aided and abetted by technology and the leisure technology enables, ends by discovering truths that seem to threaten the whole edifice:
for if you look, simply look,
with your bit of ground glass
you will see what is eating
these holes in the world, what chews
at the black straggle
and clings to those rafts of algae,
and cries up from the pages of a
strange old book, and hangs
in the damp sycamores
hollering for sex, sex, sex,
and probes in the dark muck
with its snakelike head,
if that thing is its head,
then opens its sudden mouth
with its wheel of whirling hairs
and starts to pull one
world after another
into its throat.
Monsters, rather than turtles, all the way down.
Let me call attention—not because it’s necessarily central to the passage just quoted, but because it seems so typical of Taylor’s approach—to an example of his immense poetic tact. It had to have occurred to the poet, given that he rhymes at irregular intervals throughout, and given that the line above ending “sex, sex, sex” is followed by one ending with “muck,” it just had to have occurred to him to rhyme “muck” with “fuck.” That he chooses not to has nothing to do with prudery—he uses the word elsewhere in the collection—and everything to do with a sense of what makes a poem work, with the kind of economy of expression that challenges readers to participate in the creation of the poem in their minds by interpreting its written score.
That’s not an isolated example, either. On every page, Taylor’s poems ask for, and reward, the kind of close reading that van Leeuwenhoek devoted to the natural world. Consider the first poem, in the book, “Nature,” a description of the lessons learned by the speaker from a school science experiment in which he and his classmates were asked to use a piece of damp bread to create their own “mould gardens.” No doubt the teacher was trying to show the children how ubiquitous, not to mention resourceful, life is. The take-away lesson for the speaker, however, was something altogether different.
What it meant
though this is not the way
our teacher put it, was
that if you ceased to frisk and palpitate
and scoot about
for even seven minutes,
this would be you.
Stand still, and tufts of moss
would fur your thighs
and little plants would cover up your eyes
and where you were,
a soft green pelt
would root and spread and grow.
Which goes, I’m almost sure, to show
that standing still is not
the way to go.
And nature, what is more, is not
a set of laws,
or scenic vistas
or a goaty little god,
but something ravenous
that walks abroad…
The “goaty god” that nature is not is Pan, of course, and we were prepared for the allusion to that great god by the “tufts of moss” that “would fur your thighs,” a foreshadowing, too, of the onset of puberty for the speaker’s younger self and his classmates. And Pan’s horns and hooves were inherited by the Satan who, Saint Peter tells us “walketh about, seeking whom he may devour.” Here the devil is literally, and literarily, in the details. Finally, the decay of a corpse, imagined here as something like the colonization of a stone statue by moss, is positively pastoral compared with the appalling reality, a reality Taylor invokes as a threatening, peripheral presence, precisely by not asking his reader to face it head on.
I don’t want to give the impression that death and decay are the only things on Taylor’s mind, though. He’s also preoccupied with their poor relations redundancy and failure. In poem after poem, things, and, less frequently, people, are lost, abandoned, placed in storage, dismantled. “Tomato Hornworm” begins, “At what age did I learn that life / was something you could fail at?” and concludes,
Now something is slowly moving across its life,
a tomato hornworm.
It seems to care which way it goes,
it wants to live well,
it appears not to know
how horrid it is no matter what it does.
I mentioned above Taylor’s quasi-invocation of the devil at the conclusion of “Nature.” In an even subtler way, his comparisons of human beings to worms, implicitly “In Tomato Hornworm,” explicitly in “Life Science,” allude to a passage in Psalm 22: “But as for me, I am a worm, and no man : a very scorn of men, and the outcast of the people.” Read in the context of Taylor’s work, that passage seems to reference both the poet’s fear of failure and his horrified realization of how much he has in common with the creepy crawly things, both micro- and macroscopic, of the world.
If No End in Strangeness is one of the grimmest books I’ve read in a long time, and it is, it’s also one of the most pleasurable, thanks to the obvious delight Taylor takes in his medium, and the skill with which he approaches it. There are the kinds of subtle touches I’ve just noted that give the poems a rare combination of depth and directness. There are the specialized vocabularies he employs with such a winning ease—dialect words, neologisms, the lingo of the microbiologist or luthier. There are the brilliantly apt descriptions and metaphors— as when the poet notes in passing a “pope-faced turtle old enough / to be my grandmother” or says of the moon, “Sometimes it’s there in broad daylight / roaming in its nightshirt / like a mental patient” or describes how “My neighbour’s ugly, ladle-footed dog / is whimpering for my neighbour. I can hear it scrape / its animal fingers on the locked screen door.” “Ladle-footed” is good, of course, but “animal fingers” is even better, and, in a low-key way, stranger.
Even more obvious on a first read is Taylor’s skill with meter and rhyme. He doesn’t write in received forms—there’s not a sonnet, sestina or villanelle to be found in the book. More often than not, he lets the rhymes fall where they may, but the effect, especially in the poems collected from his previous books, where he uses a regular pentameter line, is dazzling. One of my favorites, a poem I first came across several years ago, is “Social Studies,” a winningly jaundiced look at the idea, not just of Canada (Taylor grew up and lives in Quebec), but of human civilization as such:
Our history, I’ll be honest, is at most
a theory which the facts do not confute.
Some people came from somewhere to a coast
as ragged as the salt line on a boot,
and pitched their cabins in the wilderness,
and did the things that somehow led to this.
The country I live in is a patch of thorns
below a culvert in a sunken plot
where burly geese with necks like flugelhorns
intimidate the pigeons and are shot
by a district sales manager named Russ.
And that’s it. Our lives, our landscape, us.
But near the train yard, where I catch my bus,
a late October frost has clenched the ground,
the football field is hard as frozen meat,
enormous gulls are swaggering around
with snowflakes on their orange rubber feet.
They cruise through stubble with their beaks ajar
shrieking that what they are they are they are.
Just as often, though, the uses a loosely iambic, occasionally rhymed verse with varying line-lengths that has more in common with the verse libre of early Eliot, or HD, or the Frost of “After Apple Picking” than with the work of his contemporaries. In some cases, the rhymes multiply towards the poem’s end, clinching the conclusion like a flourish of strings in a movie soundtrack. Just as often, and more daringly, rhyme drops away as the speaker approaches some hard truth. I say “daringly” because the impression created—an illusion in the case of a poet and accomplished as Taylor clearly is—is of a lapse into artlessness. This happens most memorably in “The Waterfall,” a piece that I think can actually stand comparison with Henry Vaughn’s very different poem of the same name.
Here the river, in a rage
of fury and self-hate,
It tears itself to pieces like a page,
and leaps from its own rocks,
a thousand times a day.
Then, in the smash and mist,
it shudders up again
to hang there like a fist,
shivering with self-disgust,
impatient to be done
and failing, as it must.
I have come a long way
to watch this water fail.
I have paddled down rapids,
through keepers and sweepers
and carried my boat on my head
and standing before it
with shame and self-love
plunging and recirculating
inside me, I can’t seem to tell
if this is a wise thing
or a foolish one, a teacher
or an idiot child,
a beginning or an end.
That Bruce Taylor is virtually unknown in the United States is unsurprising, given the ignorance of poetry from around the Commonwealth that prevails here. That this most recent book was not nominated for the Governor General’s award in Canada is a more serious sin of omission. True, not every poem in No End in Strangeness is quite up to snuff. “My Real Estate Agent’s Kitchen” takes far too long to tell a story that ought to seem worth the time but somehow never does. “Gardening in Late Winter,” on the other hand, seems like a mere sketch for the kind of seriocomic meditation that Taylor writes so well elsewhere. But the book contains any number of should-be anthology pieces in addition to the poems I’ve already quoted from. “American Fireworks in Montreal” “Doodle,” “Echocardiogram,” and “The Slough” all combine clarity, subtlety and musicality in a way that leave most of the poet’s contemporaries (he was born in 1960) standing still. A book about entropy and failure, No End in Strangeness is a resounding success.