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Contemporary Poetry and Poetics


Review of Marilyn L. Taylor's Book of Poetry



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.

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 villanelles, 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 Wagon":
           . . .the disagreements,  groans and whines
          about what Stanzas could or couldn’t do.
          So if one comes your way, check out the lines
          and breaks.  Make it yours.  And make it new.

Surely the ghost of Ezra Pound would applaud with pleasure on reading this!
      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 pouring in.
      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 on, aiming
          that yellowish beam across the water . . .

First, the moon is a car, as seen in the lines above, then the lovers are drunk drivers,
                                         . . . woozy,
          reckless through the barricades, catching
          fire, turning 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
          another tire-track in the sand, deep
          and warped with complications.

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 post-modern poet: 
          For instance, there’s no reason to portray
          your daddy sucking gin like lemonade—
          young girls are not supposed to write that way.

          And 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,
          the Helens, Margies, Nans

and then moves backwards to the previous century’s "Dorotheas, Eleanors and Pearls" and forwards to

          Ah, Debra, how can you be growing old?
          Jennifer, 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 of the poem wants time to stop

                                        . . . as I lean
          in your direction, absolutely satisfied
          that summer afternoon is all
          there is, and night will never fall.

Ironically, the speaker knows she cannot keep the sun from setting, 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
          in that familiar, vertical direction
          that coarsens 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
          Before your dithering becomes addictive
          Then smile, drink up, and keep Time in perspective
          If it kills you, buddy.  Life is short.
                    ["Horace Redux"]

     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, there’s

          . . . a field of preposterous green
          where it’s April again and again
                    ["To a Cat Gone Blind in its Eighteenth Summer"]

and we can sit back, sigh, and drink it in with pleasure.
Taylor, Marilyn L. Subject to Change. Cincinnati, OH:  David Robert Books, 2004.  ISBN:  1932339035  $16.00

© by Barbara Crooker

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