Part of what poetry does at some fundamental level is reroute our attention. Its body of sound, visual and rhythmic shapes, expose our senses to heightened pressure, while the charge of its associations are able to tell us how much to think and feel about whatever we think and feel about through its various imageries. Or, as Victor Shlovsky said with much greater economy, “to make the stone stony again.” What compels in Tess Taylor’s poetry inevitably points to her craft and artifice, here in her new book Work and Days as well as her first collection The Forage House. In the previous, she explored her ancestry to Thomas Jefferson, to Virginia, the legacy of being a white body in the context of slavery and much else. Her new book propels attention, seemingly, on a much more concentrated, “innocent,” lyrically gorgeous and formal level—preternatural lyrics about the cycle of the seasons, the metaphors of spirit and consciousness. But I stand amazed at how much the literal ‘soil’ these poems were written while cultivating and attending to, form a continuity not a break from her previous grandly historical American book of poems. Scholar Nancy Isenberg’s new book White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, helps give focus to my thoughts on Taylor’s austere, resonant and sometimes terrifying subjects: “Jefferson, too, wanted Americans tied to the land, with deep roots to their offspring, to future generations. Agrarian perfection would germinate: a love of the soil, no less than a love of one’s heirs, instilled amor patriae, a love of country.”
The more one reads through these formal, darkling poems, the more one shudders to realize her project—the wages of war, labor, ecological violence—is revealing yet further urgent contexts for poetry in 2016. I had the honor to touch upon some of these considerations with her recently over email.—Adam Fitzgerald
Adam Fitzgerald: I’m wondering who was the person that began writing the poems of Work & Days and whether or not she was the same person that finished writing that book? How much in common she has with the author of The Forage House?
Tess Taylor: Well, that’s a big question. In fact, the books overlap quite a bit — perhaps in a subterranean way. I like to think of the books as being written in linked modes — epic and georgic. When I received the honor of going to the Clampitt House, in the Berkshires, I’d been working on The Forage House in Brooklyn, Boston, and Virginia for four years. The Forage House is ambitious on a lot of levels: it leaps through time and space; it deals with difficult historical material gathered from archives; it talks about my own legacy as the descendant of a slaveholding family; it moves through centuries and across 3,000 miles, asking what stories contain and what they leave out. When I came to the Clampitt House, it was mostly done. But it was not finished.
Still, the thought of spending an entire retreat year finishing that nearly finished book was daunting. I thought: OK, I have this gift of time. I need to break it up, get exercise, meet people, feel part of this new world. I have always been an avid gardener. I grew up in Berkeley and worked teaching youth gardening skills at a community garden plot that became the template for Alice Waters’s Edible Schoolyard. I helped coordinate a community garden in Brooklyn. So I called the people who run the Clampitt Fellowship and I said, “Can you put me in touch with a community garden?” And they said, “Well now, this is a rural area. We don’t have gardens, but we do have farms. Would you like us to connect you with a farm?” And it began.
So while I was finishing the epic that was The Forage House, I was starting the work that led to the quieter bounded georgic that is Work & Days. By luck and stumbling I was learning a new art form: the cultivation of food. By March, I was out on a cold field, moving stones and cleaning up a greenhouse that was more like a tent frame covered in plastic wrap than any glass thing you might think of. By April I was shoving little seed trays around and watching the temperatures each night to guess when we might be safe to put a new crop out. I spent days whole days planting leeks and kale. There was an urgency and physicality to it. We had to be in symbiosis with the earth. We live in a time when weather is increasingly unpredictable, when the season yoyos up and down. But in this work we had to entrust our livelihoods to vicissitudes of weather. This was radical: You can have thought about global warming all you want, but when you’re the one gambling your life on the soil — well, there was something profound in that.
AF: This is making me want to ask about your childhood and home life. What kind of relationship did it have to food, organic or processed, farmed or locally sourced, big chain supermarkets of suburbia? Tell me a little about the world you came from and of the Taylor dinner table.
TT: It’s a mixed bag! I was born in Madison and moved outside Berkeley as a six-year-old. It was the eighties: we ate tuna fish casseroles, Campbell’s soup, canned vegetables, boiled Brussels sprouts. Unfancy, but I am lucky in that my mom is a genius at putting something practical, fast, and nutritious on the table each night. We ate together: that was ritual. We had some interesting foodways, too: my mom spent years in India and can make a very mean dal — lentil soup, chapatis, Indian vegetarian food. That food is practical, inexpensive, sustainable, filling — a wise food to share. And my southern grandma, my mom’s mother, was nearby. She is from hardscrabble North Carolina mountains. She and I cooked a lot together in the afternoons when she watched me. She made mean cheese stars, she made pie. They were working cooks. They knew about not wasting food — how old bread becomes bread pudding, how every chicken gets boiled to make broth, how to stretch a grocery bill. It was more practical housekeeping than Martha Stewart; it had real everyday reverence to it.
But it was the eighties and early nineties. Alice Waters was nearby, becoming this kind of unavoidable Berkeley cult. We Berkeley kids were in passionate conversations about how mass-produced meat is bad for animals and for us; how mass-produced vegetables are destructive to the soil, to people’s bodies, to the workers who harvest them. How what’s trucked in for a million miles tastes less good than what you can grow nearby. I always loved that in food you can see, when you take care of it well, that it gives you more pleasure and sustains you better. I liked the radically obvious fact that doing what’s better for the soil and the earth and the plant rewards you with the delicious. I like that pleasure is part of the equation.
This was my emergent social ecosystem. My friends and I took permaculture classes. My friends and I volunteered at farmer’s markets. The climate in Northern California makes it laughably easy to eat locally: by February we have new greens and citruses. But this was joyful. We love our greens. We love our satsumas.
Early on, I got interested in food justice issues. I used to get food for free or half off at the end of farmer’s markets and lived that way a long time. I have always hated that fresh food should be a province of those who are better off. I would love to feel that there is nothing yuppie about being able to eat well. Because, ideally, it shouldn’t be so: Ideally, we would have good fruits and vegetables woven into the fabric of our lives. Ideally, we’d have time to cook food that sustains us. Ideally, we’d have time for sustaining ourselves. This remains a foundational dream for me. It would be brilliant if our cities had edible landscape and foodshed and all our traffic medians were planted with fruit trees. I mean, what better use of space is there, really?
AF: What you recount is endearing and profound. And yet, I’m looking at the opening poems of Work & Days, with their crisp, stern wink at A. E. Housman, and the taut, surgical strike of the lines and stanzas. This is hardly “nature” poetry or “eco-minded” as uplift, as harvest jubilee or liberal optimism. In fact, as recurring titles and images indicate, there’s an apocalyptic shadow clinging to the ultrasound of your imagination. Which is to say, I’m wondering how the very focused experience that ended up generating the book, this encountering of earth, brought you a kind of lyrical sobriety and melancholia rather than not. (Is Masaccio’s Expulsion too melodramatic a parallel?)
TT: Yes. We live in that shadow, you know. There’s a line in the book: “It’s just apple picking against the apocalypse.” To be clear: I believe in the apples and the picking. Because what is life for but to savor the apples? I believe that the pleasure of attending — really attending — can itself be revolutionary.
But — It’s just that on the field as I reveled in, say, the second week of ripe tomatoes, I was also so often aware of the terrible margins of that beauty — the way in which, even as I worked I was hearing about pregnant fieldworkers being sprayed with pesticides; about ice sheets melting; about drone strikes on someone else’s children. I kept remembering that at the edge of the pastoral or georgic there are always wars, always people coming home from wars, people being shattered in wars. War — the subject of the epic — is a great destroyer of plenty.
I’d note that rather than being the “mere beautiful” the field actually was a place from which to care. I’d think about how that news threaded through fields everywhere. How hunger, after all, is perhaps the most ravaging force we face. What we call “terrorism” may simply be hunger of others that we do not name as such. The field made me feel more urgent, more present. It became a center from which to focus my attention.
AF: The book opens with Hesiod — a rhetorical challenge about lingering. Can you talk to me about the importance his work, and that concept in particular toward rethinking the lyric in our moment?
TT: That quote is from Hesiod’s Theogony — a very long poem that’s about the birth of the Greek gods. It says: “But why linger? Why stay in this world of oak and tree and rock?” What is the value of our attention — to food, to work, to our bodies, to pleasure, to nature, to the fragile world — in this wildly distracted time? What value tending? What value attending? These are questions that drive the book and fascinate me.
Hesiod: ancient Greek poet, the figurehead of farm poetry. “Hesiod” may or may not have existed, in the way “Homer” may or may not have existed — that is to say, that poetry is may or may not be the work of an individual but is certainly the distillation of a culture, the writing down of an ancient oral tradition. What’s interesting about both of those poets is that they emerge out of the Greek Isles about 700 BC. While Homer is famous for distilling the Odyssey — a poem about the epic journey, war, and nation building, Hesiod’s Works and Days, which is more poem-as-instruction manual — how to turn soil, when to plow, what stars to watch, how to raise cows, how to raise bees. Think of that: poem as instruction manual. Poem as way-of-learning to see and feel.
I come back to that opening question: Of what use attending? These years have been full of escalating, painful public crises. I do believe in the lyric — that small rhythmic, sonic, attention that is often a provisional built space hovering somewhere outside “real” time — can be fortifying. I have this friend who is a therapist who works with activists. And he often tries to help them find and fortify that space from which they might most strongly act. All year on the field, I moved stones. I moved the rubbly stones that fill the fields of New England — classic farm labor, necessary labor because New England is glacial moraine. But I also remember that “poem” comes from the Greek poein: to build up, to pile. A poem is a kind of building-up. And what if a lyric poem is the kind of building-up that we need in order to continue to face the rest our lives?
Photo of Tess Taylor: Danielle Nelson Mourning