Tess Taylor: Foraging Memory

The poet and essayist Tess Taylor’s new book, 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 new 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.