The Book of Fools by Sam Taylor Negative Capability Press 2021 $24.00 by Catherine Imbriglio
Missing fish. Missing birds. Missing bees. One absence meeting another absence. Sam Taylor’s brilliant, intricately woven The Book of Fools explores these and other facets of sorrow and loss by merging personal grief with eco-grief, prose with poetry, the underworld with the overworld, art with real life. The book traverses these categorical boundaries by means of evocative interconnections and crossovers, offering us a capacious hybrid text that not only wants to “yoke the lyric’s momentary burst of longing to the story’s epic scale” but is also comfortable mixing lyric with essay. As a result, one could think of the book as a sustained personal and poetic journey that opens its doors to the expository, providing readers with greater informational grounding than do many present day poetry collections. See, for example, the book’s “lecture” showing (among other things) how art is sullied by its relationship to modern definitions of the term “plastic” or its recapitulation of the many versions of the Orpheus story. That Taylor can demonstrate how these two topics are related is just one of the many delights his book provides.
Formally innovative, employing whiteouts, cross-outs, footnotes, upside down texts, brackets, fade outs, dialogue, boldfaced embossment of select words, tonal shifts, and thematic repetitions and disruptions, Taylor manages to create a kind of fluidity for his pieces – in most poems there is more than one poem to be read, for example – partially overcoming a key dilemma for lyric poetry, i.e., how to avoid permanently fixing the ephemeral that the lyric values and tries to replicate. The book’s subjects are many but chief among them are broken hearts and a broken earth, whose stories are pulled together by psychological and metaphoric takes on the words “under” and “underground.” “I must go under to find if words are there. But when the earth itself goes under, where shall I go?” Taylor writes. On one level, a book so concerned with literal and figurative disappearances could be read as a study in the poetics of erasure, but if this description sounds too off-putting, I would add the book is above all immensely readable, and for this reader at least, an emotional and intellectual page turner, something I can’t often say about most poetry volumes.
Right from the start, Taylor signals his commitment to experimental strategies that underwrite his thematic content. The book’s unusual dedication, for example, consists of a dream poem (“[Waking in the Mountains the Coldest Night of the Year]”) in which the poet tells his mother “a secret/ that had weighed my heart for years.” He wonders why he hadn’t told her before, since the telling “felt so good,” but upon “waking I remembered that she was dead.” Once a reader gets over the shock of that delayed revelation, s/he might notice the boldfaced “my mother” from the middle of the poem and make the connection to “for.” Perhaps more importantly, by withholding the death of the mother until the last line and enticing us with the suggestion of a secret, the poem creates anticipation in the reader. What is the secret that is too late to tell? Why start the book with such a strange dedication? It’s only after reading more that a reader might recognize the dream as one of the book’s many forms of the underground. In fact, many of the poems seem to encourage readers to look back to earlier poems in order to go forward, even though the more commonly known Orpheus story tells us that looking back has serious implications: when Orpheus looks back, he loses Eurydice, his beloved. When Taylor looks back, one of the things he finds is that he cannot visualize his mother’s face or remember her words. Here as elsewhere the book challenges the reader with epistemological conundrums: what happens when you look back into memory, personal or communal? What are the implications for the possibility of meaning, the possibility for truth? Fools constantly presses us to think about such matters. In the case of Orpheus, as with elsewhere, Taylor comes close to nihilism, but at the last moment takes a step back:
What does Orpheus mean? Whatever you want him to mean. Someone representing something goes to the underworld for something. Perhaps they have forgotten why. Maybe when they look back it was never there. Orpheus is no one.
And yet he came looking for me.
“Fools’ Guide to Orpheus (I – IV)”
He makes a similar retreat when addressing the subject of truth. One poem, for example, skewers the mythologies countries like the US create for themselves. Truth is
itself a myth, confounding, chimeric. Until the urgency of all that’s wrong becomes the fervor of believing and defending what was never true, all passion focused like a laser upon a single idea, pure because it has no referent and bears no burden of reality. “[There Ought to be a Law Against the Truth (There Is)]”
But in the end, at least for this poem, it’s the literal border crossers, the “illegal people/who every day, cleaning and mowing/and plastering, see and feel and hear/what is really going on.” Here truth is possible, if not to the myth makers, at least for the ‘illegals” who bear the burden of reality.
The book’s opening poem proper “[Journey]” ramps up the readerly apprehensions that began with the dedication. The poem consists of only three sentences, the first crossed out, the third a broken sentence appearing in a below ground footnote, all three creating narrative and intellectual suspense:
When I entered the room, it was like entering a painting. It was widely known there were problems with the lyric, as it might be known there were problems with a marriage.
1 A loose translation might read: My mother wanted me to drive her to the sea.
These opening sentences introduce motifs – art, marriage, problems, nature, the mother, a journey – the text keeps returning to and worrying over. The crossed-out sentence in particular is emblematic of what I read as three of the book’s central questions: can art help us understand ourselves and our world? Can it rescue and perhaps validate meaningfulness? Can we live inside art? Over the course of the book’s exploratory journey, sometimes the answer may be yes, and sometimes no. (From poem to poem, Taylor relishes double and triple meanings, contradictions, irony.) We see a bit of this in an autobiographical poem in which the poet reflects on his “‘torn apart” family and the impossibility of making any permanent sense of it, since time eventually wears everything away. Tonal edginess conveys the poet’s skepticism about the work poetry is “supposed to do”:
That time was good, and I realize now, since that’s what one is supposed to do inside a poem, isn’t it? Realize? grasp form from the crumbling jaw of form’s dissolve: the way our family was torn apart — fights, natural disasters, illness, divorce, suicide, death: like a fuselage ripped open that has to make an emergency landing — may not entirely be unrelated to how disturbed I feel by the worldwide devastation and dismal prospects as if a harmonious house might have protected me, as if I had no skin of zinfandel poured on decks. Or something like that. Prose is what we add to myth. It is our experience in which we say that we exist like no other, or did once, and is what time wears away. And now it’s also what we make poems out of! “[Fuselage]”
It’s passages like this that tempt me to read The Book of Fools as an extended ars poetica, however ambivalent. (So do the semi-cathartic, semi-humorous exchanges between the dead mother and her son in the upside-down portions of the book.) One can of course read primarily for the book’s autobiographical elements as long as one recognizes that Taylor is savvy about limiting what he reveals. “[T]o tell the whole story, you’d have to be a fool,” he writes, more than once. The snippets we do get are disturbing: we learn that Taylor’s mother is crossing into Tijuana for an experimental treatment for cancer, that his father has had a psychotic breakdown, that a good friend has committed suicide, that Taylor’s betrothed has gone “under,” that there was an episode with a former girlfriend who asked him two unsettling questions: “Are you raping me?” followed by “who are you?” There are even suggestions of “emotional incest.” With the exception of the mother and son’s journey to the sea – their arrival supplies the emotional climax for the book – these snippets feel like deliberate “less is more” gestures, without the kind of detailed elaboration that one might expect if the book’s primary emphasis were on memoir. As a lyric strategy, however, Taylor’s acts of withholding augment rather than diminish the impact of his painful experiences. They also make room for the images of ecological devastation that loom over the book’s autobiographical storylines and culminate with an eerie report on the Pacific Ocean’s missing fishes and birds.
All this is to say that Taylor’s book is significantly much more than autobiographical. Along with worries over the future viability of land and sea, the book is concomitantly concerned with aesthetic viability. Fools begins to focus on the making of art as soon as Orpheus, the poet singer and consummate border crosser, enters the text in the book’s third poem. At times a comic foil (see Orpheus’s argument with Poseidon over the trash accumulating in the sea), at times a stand-in for the author, Taylor’s Orpheus pulls in after him a trail of luminaries from western art, mostly white and mostly male. (Isadora Duncan gets a featured segment in an “intermission”; later Sappho and the great blues singer Robert Johnson have cameo roles.) Picasso, Matisse, and Keats make significant appearances, and there are borrowings from Wordsworth and Eliot, but Taylor is not especially reverential to any of these male figures. Orpheus has a bone to pick with Keats and his urn; Taylor has a basic disagreement with Oppen’s idea that the artist “‘must not come to feel that he has a thousand threads in his hands. He must somehow see the one thing.’” In contrast, Taylor writes of his methodology: “I have endeavored here instead to expose the underworld where a text is forged, and the conflicting myths – aesthetic and psychological – available within a single moment.” For him, “the erasure, the fragment, reinscribes chaos back upon a too ordered tapestry. A reclamation. A scarification, scared and sacred.” By employing semiotic strategies to impose textual “scarification” on his book, Taylor creates a sacred space that should profoundly shake up – scare and scarify – his readers. The Book of Fools ends with a trenchant double conclusion, which I won’t spoil except to say Taylor’s mother has the last (ironic) word on the problem of truth, while Taylor provides a final look-back at one of the earliest references to Orpheus, in a passage full of fishes and birds. This is simply a gorgeous book.