Reviewed by David Keplinger
You are living on a planet that is remarkably varied, but made of living and non-living entities whose destiny ultimately is one: all this must disappear. You are one of those entities. The country is one. The continent, too. The ice of Antarctica, too. You are living, as I live, in a prophet’s monologue, we are spit on the tip of his tongue. It is a world of unfathomable range, in which slugs mating and the Nike shoe can exist simultaneously. If you are Sam Taylor, you have awakened to the fact that all—from JC Penny’s to the Circle K—are worthy subjects of poetry.
Taylor’s second collection, Nude Descending an Empire (Pittsburgh University Press, 2014), begins with a prophesy, but it ends with belief. Prophesy insists a foreseen outcome. A belief is merely an idea about the unknown. Taylor’s lengthy volume, at 91 pages, reads as reverse homily, moves from knowing to conjecture. With the title of the first poem, “The Book of Endings,” he intends for a cognitive dissonance. It opens:
Some time while you read this page
or the next one, a species—
like you, with your grandmother,
your dozen eggs, your walk in the park,
a species as vast as your life
and the lives of all your ancestors
chasing bison across Old Europe
or huddled around a fire—will disappear.
You are put into danger, or rather you are told that reading this page is dangerous, dangerous for that animal, “another story of four billion years/telling itself for the last time.” As the poem continues, you are reminded that while this species is indescribably beautiful, you will never see it, and it is, finally, “already gone.”
Taylor’s work reminds me what I already know in my nightmares, and for which I feel (as human, awake to my life’s conditions) a sense of guilt: that the space I take up and the food I ingest have come at the sacrifice of other lives, great and small. Such metaphysical guilt lies at the root of all religion. This poetry has the air of religion, too, the way it references daily life, with its “armfuls of Fritos, and ribs, and iced tea,” and applies it to the larger concepts of truth and mortality and grace. It even sounds like religion: “And where the sun touched the water, it became a thousand lies that walked about the streets and one of them was me. I felt my hand become a lie, my feet, my wrist, my mind, my collarbone… (“The City of Lies,” breaks removed).
With that heightened knowledge of other lives, their intersections, I feel what is nowadays being called “sonder”: a deep down apprehension that the living and the rocks and water are living out a story billions of years old, each entangled with other stories just as ancient. No better example is the following poem—and because it is so good, it merits reprint here in its entirety—:
With their slowness, they are tunneling
into each other, moving together
where no movement is,
into nothing at all, eyes everywhere.
Soaked through, glisten and sheen,
they inhabit a time all their own,
in which clouds reel past like horses or trains,
the world around them a soundless
babble pitch, in which they hear
only each other, only the yellow.
The full lengths of their bodies
are like the full lengths
of the world, pressed together
like New York’s Empire State
Building rubbing against the marble
statues of Tiananmen Square,
and each of 68.4 billion stars
slowly sliding over the bald pate
of the man with the pretzel in the park.
They are like the lives of two people
touching from beginning to end:
the porcelain sink of her crying
in the grade school bathroom
rubbing against the sycamore leaves
of his last walk downtown.
Very much in the lineage of Rilke’s New Poems, “Slugs Mating” takes the very small and equates it with the massiveness of historical disaster and architectural achievement. Again, a cognitive dissonance: I meet the subject as it really is, as some phenomenon four billion years in the making, but which only exists right now.
Like “Slugs Mating,” the final poems of the book, some of the best in this collection, step beyond the prophetic. The last piece, “The Book of Spring,” calls for an expanding love, one in which we pose no certain outcome for our lives, really no future or past, but only an awareness: “There is not one thing here/that is possible: in my lap are asters and daisies and lupines, and this quivering/…and there is/no reason we couldn’t all at once believe.” A lyrical journey from reason to “no reason,” Nude Descending an Empire aligns Taylor with the subject matter of Whitman (“When I Heard the Learned Astronomer”), Hopkins (“Pied Beauty”), and Keats (“When I Have Fears that I May Cease to Be”). Keats claimed in the famous letter to his brothers that negative capability was the charge to be “in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact or reason.” In the three poems mentioned, it’s marveling that saves us, that lifts life beyond explanation.
While Taylor’s writing seems bred from strong mid-nineteenth century stock, its broad homage (or should I say swan song) for American life no exception, the book is finally Modernist in its language and material. No other poet I have read of late really digs into the American idiom like Taylor does. His poetic vocabulary includes CNN, Facebook, WalMart, Nike, and General Electric. Nude Descending an Empire is a gorgeous and difficult elegy for an America that has already descended, waved its handkerchief, and gone below. As Orpheus, Taylor comes off elegiac, but unswerving. In a masterful poem, “Goodnight Moon” he captures that difficult stance better than any poet of his generation could: “Goodnight Walmart, I imagine you an empty warehouse of wind/ like the carcass of a great whale picked clean.”