My favorite book by Nathaniel Tarn was not written by Nathaniel Tarn. The acknowledgements to Alashka—first published in full in 1979 and recently republished by Shearsman with a host of Tarn’s other OOP books—go like this:
Despite any kind of appearances, every single poem in this geography is a jointly created fiction and any resemblance between the voices you hear and real, flesh & blood authors is purely confidential.
The fictional voices offer these poem to the real voices of several people among them who they especially remember…
From there, a list of names unimportant to my task. The book asks to be filed under Nathaniel Tarn & Janet Rodney. The book: two poets, who lived together at the time of the book’s writing in the mid-1970s, and who live together now under the sign of the Santa Fe high desert, describe three summer trips to Alaska. Here’s a long quotation to give you a sense of the poetry’s movement:
Deep in waters, the mountain lay
wrapped in her veils and promises
ready to give herself from the feet up.
Foothills like an artist’s workshop,
ochres, siennas, ambers,
draw the eye up to lose itself in blue heights,
dream of her radiance above our heads
weaving imperfect shades:
happy as children allowed to play
until light fades on hills around,
world of plants clinging to the tundra,
spreading outward like mats, sad as love-pangs,
wildflowers, short of summer warmth,
flickering energies on the bank,
mosquito-murder in the greens
“Lady, breathe your wind,
move the dwarf-plants
upon their fragile stems
above our heads.”
From the movement of
a number of nearby stars
we imagine that
a mountain becomes ours from the depths
conceived as bride
from among the dead…
Note the movement from ecological to existential place, the easy uncovering of mythical material in the real, and the musical transposition into the last stanza. Such easy shifts mark Tarn’s long career and it makes sense that you’d see them in a co-written book. The acknowledgements are correct. If you know the work of Tarn and Rodney, you can easily piece what may have been written by one poet or the other. But to reduce the challenge of the fictional voices mentioned in the book to exegetical finger pointing is to remake the problem of the book—and Tarn’s writing career—into a milquetoast one. Who finally is the lyric poet instead of Tarn and Rodney’s more exciting question: who or what could be the fictionalized lyric poet?
Don’t misunderstand. The co-written book does not merely take the meeting of the lovers and extend that love into the world, mixing love-play with nature-play, hiking up a mountain with hiking up a skirt. To do so would reduce one world to the other’s, put the world on display in service of the lovers’ self-ishness, or the lovers’ self-ishness back into the world. In The Choral Voice, one of many essays Tarn has written examining the relationship of poetry to his equally triumphant work as an anthropologist, he writes:
The voice is not reached by going to others; it is met by going to one’s own deepest self and discovering how un-self-ish it can be. To “become an informant,” in the final sense, is to let voice speak which is not the property of any one person—or only such in the liberality of allowing all voice to speak within it. To be an anthropologist in the final sense is no longer a bringing of many voices, the surface of other voices, to the collective singing place and exhibiting these voices in an ordered and governed fashion. It is a letting be of voice, in the confidence that the deeper it can go and the more it is free to express itself, the more collective it will be heard to be.
Rather than use the other to acknowledge one’s genius—as poorly written poetry and anthropology have and continue to do—Tarn uses lyric voice in a never-ending quest to continually find and re-find a or the totalizing fiction of the world within himself. This fiction isn’t him but somehow is. Book to book, Tarn’s process results in ongoing recoveries of his own fictional voice; the voice comes to be through a dedication through poetry that is always his own even though it never was. In Tarn’s most recent book, instead of Rodney, he becomes enraptured with Hölderlin.
The Hölderliniae is possibly Tarn’s last book—he just turned ninety-four. The book’s main conceit is a series of italicized pronouns—I, He, She—that seem to refer to, respectively, 1) a persona who may or may not be the historical Tarn, 2) Hölderlin, and 3) Hölderlin’s mother. Add to this a fourth perspective: 4) the person writing the book, another persona who may or may not be the historical Tarn. With these floating signifiers, the book’s voice becomes a drift, never quite becoming any character at all, except, of course, the character of a book you are holding in your hands. Here’s an out-of-context passage to give you a sense of how the pronouns work:
…We’ll never know how She lay down and
died – too soon. How mind, his own He claimed, moved
toward dissolution or to piecemeal politeness toward the
mother spirit who had killed him. As for the I re love, She
who adored the I, a son, and yet could not protect him
from the father, from all the fathers in the business world
(read scholars world). Whose only letter to the father we
now possess together with a hundred letters He tried to be
forgiven by, while fighting all the time for clarity. Clarity!
Clarity! When I began the book for the first time, I immediately stopped, ordered a couple Hölderlin collections, read their introductions, and then read Tarn’s book between dips into Hölderlin’s poetry. This was foolish. Tarn includes all the biography you need in a short introduction to the book. Reading Hölderlin to understand Tarn is as helpful as listening to Blind Lemon Jefferson to understand Led Zeppelin. It doesn’t hurt, but then, it’s not exactly the point, is it?
It’s difficult to describe what it is like to read the book, and where the shifting pronouns take the reader. To characterize the pronouns is to collapse them into…something. Tarn’s work, unlike most American poetry being written today, always resists any response or theoretical underpinning that isn’t simply the poetry itself. The closest reduction I can make is to imagine an audience member describing to you the action of Lear wandering with Kent, the Fool, and Edgar. In the audience member’s description, they attempt to analyze the action, but always fall short in the realization that the action is neither myth nor objectified psychoanalysis nor biography nor…
And even if the audience member succeeded, whose biography would it be? Whose myth? Whose psychosis? For Tarn, poetry is the beginning and the end of both it-self and every-other-self it can carry:
The man with the mustache exhausts one with a constant search
for changing all things into nouns. We poets now demand loud,
ordinary status and the same privilege of masking boundaries
the visual arts and music all enjoy. Our “property”; our “what
is one’s own”; we now require – but on a universal basis – that,
among other goods may find an end to the absurdity of battle.
Translation from one language to another is now so prevalent
that the “own languages” cannot be barriers to universal loving
recognition. So poets’ mothers & fathers; sisters & brothers are
in the one truly, the one and only universality. The great among
originaries will then remain originaries – without the masks that
scholars hide them with and will continue to be affected by each
Tarn’s comparison of poetry to music and the visual arts is solid. Picasso certainly has a hand in his bulls, but he is not them; Berg both is and is not Lulu; H.D. is only kind of a Greek girl obsessed with feet. A more enlightened reading: who fucking cares? Tarn blames scholars for putting masks on poets, but even worse are poets who need poetry to be their voice rather than a choral voice. (Let us not speak of poets who only want to destroy voice.)
All of Tarn’s major works share this drifting, choral quality. They also share an attempt to create a spiritual biography of the poet in poetry’s own language. By poetry’s own language see that chain of negatives above: not quite myth, not quite biography, not quite analysis, not quite theoretical concerns about contemporary politics, and on and on. Others will have their own ideas, and the rest of the books totally slay in more mellow ways, but I consider the major books to be: The Beautiful Contradictions, Lyrics for the Bride of God, Alashka, Avia, and now The Hölderliniae. In these previous books, Tarn’s version of spiritual biography has attended to, respectively: becoming a poet, what’s the deal with making out with people, how I found a life partner, and what is war anyways?
The Hölderliniae announces its theme like this:
It is a question of a murder: a man is murdered wishing
to live a life He’s not allowed to lead over two hundred
years ago. He wished to be a poet. His folks wanted a
clergyman. He fought long, hard and, at the end, He lost
his mind. A question then of being murdered, of being
slowly murdered. By life which turns to death as birds
drop sky to ground, at faint of gnat biting your cheek.
The two hundred years and the clergyman clue the reader that, at least in this stanza, He is Hölderlin, and we are learning about his life. But then, in the third stanza, something else pops up:
In sleepless nights before dead fires, assassinated fires:
no coming up for air, no pass from worm to fish, from
fish to ape, from ape to – what! this thing is human?
this thing debased, massacred, gassed and paralyzed,
ghost-like legions of murdered men: when wars decide
never to end, never to terminate, when wars begin again
at cap drop, enter our lungs, we can no longer breathe.
That these other dead men appear centers the book—it is not about a poet but about the figure of the poet. The effect is similar to Woolf’s in Jacob’s Room, a series of poetic considerations that form no eventual boundary around the figure of Jacob. Instead, the holding up of the possibility of character, especially the character of the poet, in the face of the world’s rottenness. This first section ends:
Singer of rivers reversing time: if there’s a single
drop of life left in this man, this man is being slowly murdered:
it is become of him, because he lived and died among the dying
peoples, the deaf, the paralyzed, the gods.
Death has a thousand cards to play. Life only one.
This quiet announcement rings every moment of the book; even, and especially, the poet who is writing this book to you is being murdered by the world. To write poetry is to play the one possible card in response to death. In the 29th section Tarn writes:
The work emerges as
life vanishes: a monument…
…Yet ultimately work must be retrieved
for work alone is life, life insignificant without. In an unending,
immediate brotherhood together with the sacred, He veils his
sacred in the silence of the poem so as to calm it down and to
communicate it to mankind. The poet must remain upright, yet
stricken none the less – result: a torn existence in torn heart
Life matters. Written by a 20 year old these lines are bluster, by a 90 year old they are a finger pointed in exaltation. The work is a tragedy in eighty-two pages. Who the players are is anyone’s guess, just that they are humans.
Name a general object on the planet and Tarn has blended his voice with it and its specifics: environment, myth, capital, war, nationality, language, writing, extinction, the cosmos, hatred, and on and on. A serious list! An unfortunate aspect of The Hölderliniae is that it fulfills Tarn’s poetry in solemnity. From experience, the author is a laughing joy in “real” life, but throughout the book there is very little lightness that beckons to what life can be like during bubbling, effluviant moments. This isn’t to say his work, in general, isn’t funny. But Tarn’s humor is Beethoven’s rather than Mozart’s, or, to repeat myself, Lear’s rather than Bottom’s. What is odd about this is that one of Tarn’s repeated voices are of the lightest bodies on the planet: birds. Birds are everywhere in his books, and when they do show up, or when Tarn begins naming birds, the poet tends towards weightlessness. Here, from The House of Leaves, is the end of a poem about fishing with James Laughlin:
Laughlin and I spend the day looking for trout
pools I shall never use bird-man myself
long moments working water pieces
Later “I think we may see moose along the Snake”
Laughlin says I think I have a new joke about “meese”
“I have seen moose every time up the Snake”
The Snake is a very fast river with silver tresses
drowns men in her hair and patient pines
a porcupine lumbers out and disdains our wheels
There are no moose anywhere buy L. stays calm
casting for fish in the Snake’s foaming hair
while the hawks work like crossbows in the sky
As darkness falls two hulks rise from the river bed
“The father and his daughter the meese” L. says politely
the shape more impressive than the details of moose
which I never saw in the end on those shingles
In the light which would not go down the bats hunted
the mosquitoes gathered busy on hand and arm
it seemed to me I knew precisely where I would die
Even in a jokey-poem like this one, Tarn finds his way to sobriety. Look again at how the first stanza of The Hölderliniae ends above: “By life which turns to death as birds / drop sky to ground, at faint of gnat biting your cheek.” Perhaps it is too much to ask that The Hölderliniae, a book about last-making, include much lightness in its tone. But if it is Tarn’s last book, may he not only be remembered through his serious attempts at plumbing the depths of poetry’s voice, but, also, as a bird-man floating hilarious above, singing as a flock in cheerful harmony.