L. TAYLOR: SUBJECT
Although English is a difficult language in which to rhyme,
does, and does so well, is mute her exact rhymes
with slant and half
rhymes, increasing the music,
and doubling the delight. We have
to stop and go back
over a stanza to realize that what at first seems
free verse does, in fact, rhyme; again Taylor’s
light touch and
good ear hard at work.
If, as William Wordsworth
argued, "the first principle of poetry should be pleasure," then
Marilyn Taylor’s collection Subject
to Change certainly exemplifies
that quote, as it gives her readers great pleasure indeed. Mixing
formal poems with free verse, this book tackles a variety of subjects,
from anthropology to obituary columns, from upspeak (ending every
sentence with a question?) to osteoporosis, from an ode to the Nissan
Stanza (what a great name for a poet’s car!) to Wallace Stevens’ voice
mail, with a great liveliness and wit throughout.
One of our earliest pleasures in poetry
is rhyme and meter, something
which has currently fallen out of fashion, although the New Formalist
movement has done much to resurrect its reputation. Here,
Taylor scatters formal verse — sapphics, a rondeau, several
rhyming quatrains, an ambitious and elegant crown of sonnets (which won
The Dogwood Poetry Prize), even a clerihew and double dactyl — with
conversational free verse, like glacé cherries studding a
fruitcake. Mixing it up like this keeps the reader constantly on
her toes; in several cases, it was not until a second reading that I
realized, for example, that "Posthumous Instructions," the poet’s
take on the ultimate recycling, ie, the disposal of her ashes, is
indeed a Shakespearean sonnet, a complement to a craftsperson at
work. Here is an example of her light hand with the rhymed
quatrain, in the final stanza of "In Memory of the Nissan Station
. . .the disagreements, groans and whines
Stanzas could or couldn’t do.
So if one comes
your way, check out the lines
breaks. Make it yours. And make it
Surely the ghost of Ezra Pound would applaud with pleasure on reading
Although English is a difficult language
in which to rhyme, what Taylor
does, and does so well, is mute her exact rhymes with slant and half
rhymes, increasing the music, and doubling the delight. We have
to stop and go back over a stanza to realize that what at first seems
to be free verse does, in fact, rhyme; again Taylor’s light touch and
good ear hard at work. Look at some of these pairings in "The Geniuses
Among Us": perennials / testimonials, happen / soften,
fences / romances, and the end: where we’ve been / where light is
But there are pleasures in free verse as
well, namely the use of
figurative language. In "Rondeau: Old Woman with Cat," here are
some of the inventive ways Taylor describes osteoporosis: bones
that are "porous as swiss cheese," "lacy filigrees," "breakable as
glass on stone."
In "I Miss You and I’m Drunk" the
telescopic arc to the metaphor is
what captures our interest:
Look at the way
the moon just sits there
with its brights
beam across the water . . .
First, the moon is a car, as seen in the lines above, then the lovers
are drunk drivers,
. . . woozy,
the barricades, catching
over and over. . . .
ending up "with the moon all over [them,]" as they lie on the ground,
almost unconscious. At this point in the poem, the moon has swung
back up in the sky, but the solitary lover is going
to spend the
night right here
on this besotted
beach— to carve
tire-track in the sand, deep
and warped with
Somehow, in the mysterious way of poetry, this incendiary love has
turned into the sandy beach, and heaven help anyone who gets in the way
as the speaker comes roaring up the dunes.
It’s hard to separate the pleasure of
language with the pleasure of
wit, which sifts (to go back to the fruitcake metaphor) through the
entire collection. Some of the funniest poems are spoken by Aunt
Eudora, who reads Harlequin romances, visits Paris, and becomes a
there’s no reason to portray
sucking gin like lemonade—
young girls are
not supposed to write that way.
we don’t care to read an exposé
on how your mama
gets the grocer paid;
there have to be
more proper things to say.
(This is the advice given by her seventh grade teacher; knowing Aunt
Eudora as we do, we know she won’t take it.)
And then there’s the hilarious "Reading
the Obituaries," which begins
with, for me, the chilling line, "Now the Barbaras have begun to die,"
trailing their older sisters to the grave,
and then moves backwards to the previous century’s "Dorotheas, Eleanors
and Pearls" and forwards to
Debra, how can you be growing old?
Michelle, your hands are cold
reminding us again how popular girls’ names fall in and out of fashion,
and how all trends, including those in poetry, come and go.
In fact, it’s this flexible use of time
that provides the greatest
pleasure to the reader, from the deep time of "For Lucy, Who Came
First," our earliest ancestor, to the "Notes from the Good-Girl
Chronicles," which skewers the sixties, seventies, eighties, to the
current concerns of osteoporosis ("Rondeau: Old Woman with Cat
"), and monthly breast
self-examination ("Another Thing I Ought to be Doing"). Time, as
it ticks and tocks through our aging bodies, is the defining subject
here: what changes us, and how we are changed.
In my favorite poem of the collection,
"Poem for a 75th Birthday,"
which has the wonderfully poignant opening line, "Love of my life, it’s
nearly evening," the setting is a garden, "our rectangle / of clammy
clay" which he, the beloved in the poem, has turned into "Southern
California. These flowers ". . .haven’t got the slightest
clue / about the future . . .," but we do, don’t we? The speaker
the poem wants time to stop
. . . as I lean
direction, absolutely satisfied
afternoon is all
there is, and
night will never fall.
Ironically, the speaker knows she cannot keep the sun from
time from elapsing, and yet, isn’t that just what poetry does, arrest
time, like the lovers frozen on Keats’ Grecian urn?
"Subject to Change: A Reflection on my
Students," the title poem,
with its double pun, chimes in an elegiac tone, as even the young
. . . like me,
[are] travelling headlong
familiar, vertical direction
beautiful, blackmails young,
and turns to
phantoms those I move among.
We are, all of us, subject to change, and
while we don’t like being
reminded of this familiar news, the pleasure comes in how Marilyn
Taylor, through her wise and witty takes on these subjects, death and
dying, youth and aging, reminds us to
. . . pour
yourself another glass of port
dithering becomes addictive
drink up, and keep Time in perspective
If it kills you,
buddy. Life is short.
Most of us move through our own
lives, half-blind to its beauty, but
then a poet like Marilyn Taylor comes along, reminding us that it’s all
subject to change, that what we love most will leave us, but still,
. . . a field of
where it’s April
again and again
["To a Cat Gone Blind in its
and we can sit back, sigh, and drink it in with pleasure.
Taylor, Marilyn L. Subject to Change.
David Robert Books, 2004. ISBN: 1932339035 $16.00
© by Barbara Crooker