A veritable maelstrom of work lately, in the wake of an epic birthday party this past weekend. (The recycling bins are full of beer and wine bottles; I hazily remember – with wincing embarassment – that the guitars came out sometime after midnight.) In the intervals of grading (or thinking about grading), reading for classes, taking care of the girls, & other pursuits, I've turned over a few books of poems.
John Taggart's Crosses: Poems 1992-1998 (Stop Press 2005) was the great unfindable book (not) in my library. John & I had been frequent correspondents for a long while, had spent quality time with each other over the years, not least in the DC book and record stores, but had to some extent fallen out of touch after I moved to Florida & became immersed in the LZ biography. We reconnected at the 2004 LZ centenary conference at Barnard/Columbia in 2004, and since then I've deeply enjoyed his Flood Editions books, Pastorelles and There Are Birds – splendid collections both, exploring a newly compressed, rhythmically various idiom. To my delight, the postman the other day brought his brand-new, enormous selected poems, Is Music (Copper Canyon), edited by Peter O'Leary.
But Crosses: after searching futilely for the book online for years (having missed its initial publication announcement entirely), I'd entirely given up on finding the book, only to happen upon a pristine volume in City Lights in SF this past spring. For me, there was an odd kind of time-lag in reading this in 2010, for Crosses is really echt mid-period Taggart, its poetics deeply congruent with the repetition-with-variation of Loop (Sun & Moon, 1991), Standing Wave (Lost Roads, 1993), and When the Saints (Talisman House, 1999), rather than the suppler, more demotic poems of Pastorelles & There Are Birds. These are, however, as with the best of Taggart's work, strange, darkly luminous poems. He writes about music, musicians, and philosophers; he even writes, however obliquely, about film – I note an immersion in The Last Temptation of Christ. But there's no sense of the shallowly ekphrastic or adventitiously occasional here: a painting or a performance or even a movie are for Taggart the levers with which to pry his way into the deep & uncomfortable moral mysteries of life. There's a profound & bloody, quite probably heretical, Christian imagination at work in Taggart's poetry, along with a relentless, merciless musicality.
Turning from Crosses to Robert Creeley's late Life & Death (New Directions, 1998) is like switching from all-Schnittke radio station to a late-night noir jazz program. The idiom is far more comfortable – Creeley's familiar, clipped idiolect, the brief lines & occasionally memorable turns that have been familiar to our ears since For Love – but it's all in a darker, albeit simpler register. I've heard much complaint of the long falling-off of Creeley's work after its peak some 40 years ago (and yes, my favorite of his books remains Pieces), but most of the poems in Life & Death, tho they may not measure up to the bravura experimentation of the early books, are beautifully turned, even graceful. What makes the book hard reading is not the occasional slackness, the moments in which Creeley repeats well-worn moves from his playbook, or even the intentionally awkward rhyming bits, when Creeley betrays his affection for the Fireside Poets he read in his childhood – but the poet's growing obsession with aging and death, the sense that each poem might well be his final valediction.