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Attic boxes full of shards. Family stories full of secrets. A grandchild wondering what to save and what to throw away seeks to make sense of what it means to inherit anything at all. In The Forage House, the speaker unravels a rich and troubling history. Some of her ancestors were the Randolph Jeffersons, one of Virginia’s most prominent slaveholding families. Some were New England missionaries. Some were dirt-poor Appalachians. And one was the brilliant, controversial Thomas Jefferson. Shuttling between legend ...
Attic boxes full of shards. Family stories full of secrets. A grandchild wondering what to save and what to throw away seeks to make sense of what it means to inherit anything at all. In The Forage House, the speaker unravels a rich and troubling history. Some of her ancestors were the Randolph Jeffersons, one of Virginia’s most prominent slaveholding families. Some were New England missionaries. Some were dirt-poor Appalachians. And one was the brilliant, controversial Thomas Jefferson. Shuttling between legend and story, history and family tale, these poems visit cluttered attics, torn wills, and marked and unmarked graves. Working alongside historians and archaeologists, Taylor unearths buttons, pipes, and the accidental rubble of a busy state building its new freeway. Based in years of research and travel, these poems form a kind of lyric journalism, collaged from tantalizing fragments. Moving between past and present, East and West, they reveal an uneasy genealogist struggling with ambiguous legacies. The poems ask how fragments exert force now. They dance between inheritance and loss, reimagining “illuminating lies.” In their hunger to assemble and remember, they also forge a new record of struggle and love: “how much I wish for will not be recorded.”
“Tess Taylor’s The Forage House is a brave and compelling collection that bears witness to the journey of historical discovery. Sifting through archives, artifact, and souvenir, Taylor presents a dialectic of what’s recorded and what’s not, unearthing the traces that give way to her own history—and a vital link to our shared American past. What’s here and accounted for draws us powerfully toward what’s absent; what seems complete here never is—something as fragmented as history in the language, as haunted too.”
“Ezra Pound’s definition of the epic—’A poem containing history’—demands courage and intellectual range, as well as lyrical gifts. Tess Taylor meets that challenge in The Forage House. A figure of epic scale, Taylor’s Thomas Jefferson is tragic as well: ‘ambitious foundering father.’ The poise, candor and reach of this book—with a vision that embraces the enigmas of contemporary El Cerrito along with those of the slave-owner Jefferson—are deeply impressive.”
“Document-gatherer, exorcist, mourner, pack-rat, and celebrant—Tess Taylor orients herself within her family’s history of slave-owning in Virginia, their missionary zeal in India, and their displacement to California. A mini-history of our nation, her ambitious poems ignite fact into lyric flash as she implores her ancestors ‘to explain / their America, their prodigal / half-remembered, always present pain.’ The Forage House is a book of conscience and sensuous reckoning.”
“In Tess Taylor’s collection of poetry, American history is a garment woven from tattered bits of family lore and large swaths of imaginative inlays, so that which shines most is a spun strand of stunningly rich language.”
“Tess Taylor’s The Forage House is, among other things, a tribute to the human capacity to perceive the objects of one’s attention—one’s surroundings, things at hand, and even oneself—not merely as they appear in the present, but also as products of, and with, particular histories. These histories can never be retrieved in their entirety, much less with perfect certainty, and what we discover of them might turn out to be difficult to accept. Nonetheless, the sense that we live “haunted by remains” should be cultivated and celebrated as a redeeming human trait, one that will serve not only to fortify our grasp of the present, but also our commitment to the future. Few books in recent memory have taken up that task as scrupulously and artfully as this one.”
When they found Emeline, a nail
held her sack dress together
at the neck. She lived by gathering herbs
for curing leather, lived off land
her people held since they took it from the Cherokee,
quilted mountainsides in Appalachia
where they hewed walnut into rocking chairs
and sang the stony country's blessings be
and ballads carried in their ears from Scotland.
From my grandmother, her granddaughter,
I have one word in her dialect: stime.
Long-ah, half-rhyme with steam, its meaning: not enough.
As, there's nary stime of tea nor sugar nar.
In iron light, in the mountain graveyard
her clan's settler stones grow up with moss
thick as harmonies in shape-note tune.
In those woods, a shadowy foundation:
They took apart her house to save the boards.
Eighteenth Century Remains
The ridge a half mile down from Monticello.
A pit cut deeper than the plow line.
Archaeologists plot the dig by scanning
plantation land mapped field for carbon, ash, traces of human dwelling.
We stand amid blown cypresses.
Inheritors of absences, we peer
into the five-by-five foot ledge.
Unearthed painstakingly, these shards:
two pipe stems, seeds, three greening buttons.
Centuries-old hearthstones are still charred,
as if the fire is only lately gone.
"Did they collect these buttons to adorn?" But no one knows.
"Did they trade, use them for barter?"
Light, each delicate pipe stem,
something someone smoked at last
against a sill-log wall that passed as home,
a place where someone else collected
wedges of cast-off British willowware.
Between vines, a tenuous cocoon.
A grassy berm that was a road.
A swaying clue
faint as relief at finding something left
of lives held here that now vanish off
like blue smoke plumes I suddenly imagine—
which are not, will not, cannot be enough.
Mission Album 1915
May Whitcomb's children wave from their veranda.
They sling their bicycles against the jhula.
At the door, their saried ayah.
A bullock-wallah waits with bullock cart.
Dressed as pukka sahib, grandfather
in the shadow of a banyan.
Along stucco walls in Ahmednagar,
shirtwaisted women pose their babies—
New New Englanders born on the Deccan.
Men cradle guns.
Around umbrellas, bending coolies,
tiffins of church-picnic luncheon.
Beside the stream, mudpies;
near tamarinds, their bungalow.
New soldiers march beyond the gates.
The Mission quells the Empire's famines.
(They feel, even then, the shifting:
Gandhi-ji has come from Africa
"and is, it seems, determined to start something,"
writes Great-Grandfather Alden,
noting our World may not be as it's been.)
May still makes the holiday arrangements.
The day of Fancy Dress, her cook prepares
stuffed chicken for American Thanksgiving.
Small Mary reads her books on Autumn,
and poses as "fallen leaf," while William
is "Red Indian Savage," feather in his cap.
"And really," May writes, "is a perfect heathen."
They receive hard cranberries
from a parish off Cape Cod.
Summon once again a pilgrim God.
Pray for succor in their wilderness.
You work as a journalist, pursuing legends
of other people. It is October; gold leaves fall
on your birthday. Little mysteries
swirl with you, a Tess—
now hunting out a dented spoon or crest,
some half disguise by which to know yourself.
In Boston or Brooklyn
you carry some rune, afraid of a lover,
dreading the war.
Your friends barter carbon, prepare for pandemics.
In airports you watch tarmacs
flicker through your reflection.
Leave versions of selves in the various cities.
Misplace your doppelgängers.
Little Americas, discarded paperbacks:
O slaveholder & O bastard son.
O blurred stone & out-of-wedlock woman.
In May Whitcomb's Letters
28-11-1914, Ahmednagar, India
Nothing is to be written on this except
the date and signature of the sender.
Sentences not required may be erased.
If anything else is added the Postcard will
To avoid delay in delivery, correspondence addressed
to Prisoners of War should be written in English,
I am quite well.
I have been admitted to Hospital
(and am going on well.)
I have received your (
Letter follows at first opportunity.
Light silts through tulip poplars, waving.
Light gilds granite stones. Winds
hold renegade voices, fugitive
of the ravenous grave.
Roving, grieving, a confederate cry:
Hey hullah nonny fiddle honey-child o—
"My two hands grubbed." Jefferson's hands: his slaves.
in the Susquehanna foothills of the forever mountains.
Appalatio Mountains. An old west their horizon.
Now in the graveyard of these colonials,
Little stone, baby stone. Granite cracked with lichen.
Portal to the gone world, the old world. Hush now.
All your daddy's rages and drink can grow silent,
like a cruel overseer sent at last away.
Wedding Album 1977
My parents kissing in a kitchen.
In her loop-eyed dress my mother—
enormous in her belly, I loom.
In a commune in Fort Greene
she typed and typed her dissertation.
Upstairs a woman practiced primal screams,
a wild-haired painter mourned his dying wife.
My parents had already made my life
near the mass grave
of hundreds of Revolutionary soldiers,
a cockeyed brownstone full of junkies,
somebody who stripped my parents' jalopy
down to wires and bones.
Soon they sold all they had
and drove to Madison to have me.
Had five people over for pie.
It was done then: They were married.
Weeks later in their bedroom I was born.
In piles my mother's writing
watched us from unquiet bricks and boards.
From Sausalito in a Gray Wind
Fog fills the abandoned
missile site, seeps into ex-nuclear bases.
Sage & rough manzanita
clamber over shut wartime caves.
Deep in the cracking bunkers,
the plaque of a Civil War soldier
come to rest in this west-facing cold.
At this river the Miwok
gathered their willow and reeds.
The word Miwok means only "the people."
They burned belongings at death, but
Russian soldiers traded for baskets, so
these headlands live on in St. Petersburg.
Now fogbanks a thousand miles wide
blanket disconsolate sea bells.
The bunkers are Cold War relics.
On migrations the wind is nationless.
Hawks glide from Alaska to Mexico.
At the Farallons, the ocean deepens.
My grandmother came west and stood here.
The Blue Ridge haunted her dreams.
At this shore, she hummed mountain ballads:
When first to this country a stranger I came—
Southampton County Will 1745
I, Etheldred Taylor, of sound mind and body
in the presence of God almighty amen
do deed three things:
Books Negroes Land.
(Accumulations pass each to a son.)
I find his will, pen in hand.
Shift my books, hurt to see.
From his dim ghost I inherit
One silver teaspoon. Half a name.
In another ink-smear, crazed genealogy:
Jefferson, indebted, sold his own books
to form the first national library.
He bought more.
Wrote: "I cannot live without books,"
then died in a debt greater than the nation's.
In botanies, wild turkeys stalk islands,
each painted plume shimmering as
all that lay west—
I have seen continents strewn
with theatrical objects, women's bodies
open as plunder
even in the margins of the most accurate maps.
Bestiaries, night-blooming flowers.
Model orreries. Anatomies. German philosophy. Cabinetry, every Palladian vision—
I was taught: He could not afford to free his slaves.
"Most valuable for their number ever offered at one time in the state of Virginia"
said the newspaper his granddaughter's husband published.
FOR AUCTION: Furniture, family.
Faded ink yellow as bruises
now underscores his "tall walls of high Rome."
I can trace the names of his white children's descendants.
Where the enslaved went after auction
not all written down.
In any archive, fingering pages,
I am enthralled by gilt work, silk,
leather, the quill stroke's turn.
Feel physical want
for ink as if desiring the conquest
of tongues. And feel my pen's weight:
for this parchment made with a knife?
Whose life was traded?
Luxury of blind and delicate pages.
On which spines does this volume rest?
Our grandma taught her nine patch & strip piecing,
how to measure, how a fabric falls.
My sister heard her and came out a maker.
She garners fabrics, hoards a jumble pile.
She's skilled enough to half-ignore geometry,
to spread out winter evenings
and ignore us. Obbligato with the treadle's whir, she leans
into a tag-sale apron, Japanese cottons,
cambric dyed one summer in the yard.
She likes found fabric, asymmetries:
She's taught herself to work by instinct
basting light to dark, canary
to an emerald paisley:
Her expression's almost revenant
as she rips and hems and irons—
Tonight she sliced our mother's wedding sari.
Silk ribbons bloomed and I admired
her fierce concentration to resettle
even that bolt at a staggered angle,
how she hoards it, how her body stores her making,
how she destroys each blessed thing she's salvaged
to harvest it as her exploding star.
Excerpted from The Forage House by Tess Taylor. Copyright © 2013 Tess Taylor. Excerpted by permission of Red Hen Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Big Granny.................... 15
Eighteenth Century Remains.................... 16
Mission Album 1915.................... 18
Official History.................... 20
In May Whitcomb's Letters.................... 21
Graveyard, Monticello.................... 22
Wedding Album 1977.................... 23
From Sausalito in a Gray Wind.................... 24
Southampton County Will 1745.................... 25
Crazy Quilt.................... 28
World's End: On the Site of Randolph Wilton.................... 31
Home of the Taylors.................... 36
Virginia Pars.................... 38
Martha Jefferson's Housewife.................... 40
Ghost Limb.................... 41
Museum of the Confederacy.................... 44
Hopkins in Winter.................... 46
Antiques Roadshow.................... 47
Oral History 1963.................... 49
Meeting Karen White, Descendant of Jefferson's Gardener Wormley............ 51
Route 1 North, Woolwich Maine.................... 53
A Letter to Jefferson from Monticello.................... 57
Song for El Cerrito.................... 69
Song for Sonoma.................... 71
World's End: North of San Francisco.................... 72
Reading Walden in the Air.................... 76
Domestic Economy.................... 77
Altogether Elsewhere.................... 79
Bombay Archive 1975.................... 80
Foraging Memory: Barnes & Noble Review Interview with Tess Taylor
The poet and essayist Tess Taylor's The Forage House uses the lightning flashes of her lyric voice to illuminate our shared national story. Its beguiling narratives in verse lead to challenging locations — episodes out of the past that aren't easily resolved — and linger at a busy intersection of where the famous and infamous share the sidewalk with figures out of Taylor's own well-traveled American life, which ranges all over the map, from a junk shop in Maine to an aging California suburb.
We are, she writes, "inheritors of absences," but in the gaps in our collective memory The Forage House finds a wealth of possibility. Whether digging alongside archaeologists on the site of Thomas Jefferson's estate at Monticello or rifling through her own family's back pages, Taylor uncovers in these poems the stories that emerge — seemingly of their own accord — from the disorderly fragments of yesterday.
I spoke with Taylor — a frequent contributor to the Barnes & Noble Review — about her book, its genesis, and the relationship of poetry to history, via email. An edited transcript of our conversation follows. —Bill Tipper
The Barnes & Noble Review: In describing this book of lyrics, your publisher stages you as working beside archaeologists and historians, unearthing fragments of American history and making investigations into the past. And it does seem an apposite way to describe the sense many of these poems give. How much of that archaeological conception matches how you see this project, or yourself as a writer?
Tess Taylor: It is true! As I wrote this book, I was lucky to receive funding for research from the American Antiquarian Society and the International Center for Jefferson Studies, in Charlottesville. Over two separate summers I went to those places and dug in, so to speak. At Monticello, I had great fun of making friends with one of the archaeologists who was excavating the grounds, and with a curator, who give me access to some of the hidden corners of Monticello. I would walk around and hear about what was being dug up. I would sometimes get to touch pipes or buttons or boots. And there were lectures going on weekly and sometimes daily of people's research. I was moved by being near these raw materials of history, and of working so closely with people who were digging up shards and grappling with the process of interpreting them. What to make of the left behinds, how to find the stories hidden in police rolls or under the grounds of a new freeway? What do we learn about the lives of others — or even ourselves in a scatter of buttons? The figure of poetry as a kind of archaeology, as a kind of "forage," if you will, felt resonant. For the process of coming to a poem can be a kind of digging, a kind of grappling with traces. And, once it's made, a poem is as mysterious as a shard. It has a kind of completeness, but it also makes use of silence.
BNR: Your collection begins with "Big Granny" — a snapshot portrait of your great-great-grandmother. You begin from the vision of her freshly discovered dead body — "a nail/held her sack dress together" and end with the dismantling of her Appalachian home "to save the boards." But the problem much of this collection faces is a history that can't be taken apart.
TT: Yes. The book as a whole begins with a portrait of my grandmother's grandmother — a woman who lived in a remote part of Appalachia that didn't get roads until the 1940s, a place where Scottish ballads ran deep and where song catchers went to gather seventeenth-century songs that had died out elsewhere in the world. That land is as shrouded in legend as it is starred with wild rhododendron. Emeline — this granny — was a legendary figure in my grandmother's lore, a touchstone in family legend. For me this book — which does take on large historical figures — was also about the intimate mystery of family stories, the blurry oral hand-me-downs out of which we craft our primal senses of who we are.
Traces are mysterious things, and sometimes the history of what we can find out about ourselves or each other is uneven. Some of these poems try to uncover the places and sites and ways that slavery was practiced in my family. What is difficult about that history is not just that I can't "take it apart" but how little I can even reconstruct of what happened. It's shocking how little of it was written down. My poems also reflect that even self-knowledge is political, partial, shaped by forces beyond us. I wanted to capture history that felt fissured and cracked.
BNR: "Families are still stories," you write. There's a lot of family history here — and it twines through what could be called our national genealogy, most vividly in the case of Thomas Jefferson, patriarch of two families, one white and one fathered on black slaves. You say you think he'd have been fascinated by DNA, which reveals his hidden or "opposite" family to us. What do you make of the contradictions in that Enlightenment consciousness that enabled such doubleness?
TT: Well: I don't pretend to be a scholar of the Enlightenment or even, really, of Jefferson, though I've read a fair amount about him as a lay person, and grew up in his thrall, and though I spent those summers with residencies to research my connection to him across the street from his home.
However, I have lived through a time in which the way we see Jefferson has grown enormously more complex. This is a necessary complexity. I grew up giving my father the Dumas Malone biographies of Thomas Jefferson for Father's Day. These are noble biographies of a great man. His relationship to slavery is rarely mentioned.
Now we live in a time when it's impossible to think about Jefferson without thinking about the paradox of his life as a slave owner, where the Smithsonian just launched a wonderful exhibition called Jefferson and the Paradox of Liberty. That exhibition contained some of the deep archaeology of slavery at Monticello that I watched in the making. It was a thoughtful and also painful excavation of how that institution was practiced there.
What do I think the moral is? Well: Jefferson fails us. Jefferson inspires us. There are some people who say Jefferson was a product of his time, and others who say that Jefferson was better than some; others who say he was worse than many. I don't actually know where I come down on this question. As a poet, I have the liberty to think all three things at once.
Mostly, I think Jefferson haunts us because he is us. When I think of Jefferson, powerful, but often absent from his plantation and his family; revolutionary, but also inscribing injustice; I think of the paradoxes of contemporary life: the environmentalist who flies miles and miles attending climate conferences, those of us that hate global warming but consume great quantities of oil driving; the person who eats organic food but whose clothes were doused with toxic pesticides and then made in sweatshops in Bangladesh.
What I mean is not that we are horrible people, but that the inequities and paradoxes that Jefferson embodied haunt us because they mirror our own. He inscribed and participated in a deeply unjust economy. He also left an imperfect road map towards something better. While partaking in a deeply imperfect world he wrote beautifully about something more perfect. He tantalizes us because of this.
Jefferson is also charismatic. He loves things of beauty — things of the mind. I challenge anyone to go to Monticello and not leave feeling fascinated by Jefferson's intellectual range, by his gardens, his vistas. But those beauties — like many things of beauty throughout history — come at enormous human cost. Jefferson preoccupies me because I like and dislike him. I struggle with him and admire him at once. BNR: I was most moved by the story of your grandfather, as you give it in "Oral History 1963," standing up and publicly criticizing a bitterly segregationist judge in Danville, only to discover the implacability he faced from the judge. Is this a story that's been told in your family, or did you discover it on your own?
TT: Yes, my grandfather, Leigh Taylor, did fire off a letter to Judge Aiken following his decision to sentence civil rights protestors in Danville. I wrote some as a journalist about the facts of that case. Interestingly, this piece grew out of my need over the years to ask my father and grandparents what their lives during the civil rights movement in Virginia had been like. I always got this funny sidelong answer about "granddaddy and the judge." It took a while to peel back the layers and actually learn the story.
You know how family stories can be — people refer to them as if everybody there knows what everyone else means, but when you actually ask what happened no one can quite remember? What you hear shifts depending on how old you are, who is telling, what time of day (or night). In my life this story emerged out of such a back- and-forth. Later I went back and researched the journalism that surrounded that event. In a way this need to circle and make sense of legends, this need to decode family lore, is a proxy for work I do in several places in the book.
BNR: Not all of the encounters here are on such a national or historic scale. One of my favorites is "Wedding Album 1977" — a brief but brilliantly distilled snapshot of your parents' life, the moment before you entered it. Like many of your poems, it also suggests a sneaky sense of humor: "Enormous in her belly, I loom." Do you think of poems as having moods — puckish, elegiac, meditative — when you begin them?
TT: Oh, I don't know — tone has a way of finding you! I think this poem really is about the strangeness of trying to place yourself in the world. It's almost about the search for a founding story, a kind of origin. This poem is one of my founding stories: In 1977, before I was born, my parents lived in an un-renovated commune in Fort Greene, in a house was crumbling then and is now worth $2 million, or something equally enormous. The poem is a record of how I transcribe my imagination of a time that came right before I was born, but which looms large in the way I understand my parents and myself. I grew up in California, not Brooklyn. I'm interested in the slippery quality of how that story becomes "mine."
BNR: Did you have a sense of poetic models — or ancestors — for this book? Do you think of yourself as having a place in a family tree of poetry?
TT: I can tell you who I love: Auden, Bishop, James Wright, Walcott, Natasha Trethewey, Robert Hass, Robert Lowell, Dickinson. I honor them each as literary forebears, and I'd be honored if you found some echoes of these or other fine poets in my writing. But I hope that you'll see something else at work with the genealogical premise here.
I hope that in some way this struggle with personal genealogy can offer a proxy to some of the things that we think about when we think about literary genealogy as well. My family canon is incomplete, all historical canons are incomplete, and that incompleteness is made by forces larger than any of us — by the unevenesses forces of history itself. When in the grandmother's attic, what do we keep and what do we throw away? This is not just about grandmothers or attics. It's about the politics of identity, the very blurry stuff out of which we construct our selves or families or cultures. How do we come to belong to stories? How do they come to belong to us? What does it mean to inherit anything at all?
BNR: Poems taken from life make me curious in the way they offer such opportunities to imagine we're feeling what the poet is feeling. "Song for El Cerrito" begins, "I used to hate its working-class bungalows, grid planning, / power lines sawing hillsides" and ends with what seems to me to be one of the most luminously serene moments in the book — the moon in the "real sky." Let me ask the question we're not supposed to ask poets: Is that how it really was?
TT: Ah, well?I could tell you — but then you'd have to believe me.
—August 30, 2013