1189 The special in the ordinary

Strangers
by Rob Taylor

Windsor, ON: Biblioasis, 2021
$19.95 / 9781771964197

Reviewed by Christopher Levenson

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Decades ago I came across the statement that “a poet is someone to whom significant things happen.” At the time this seemed to me the height of neo-Romantic pretension, elevating poets as sensitive souls set apart from the rest of humanity. Later I realized that the crucial element is recognizing the special significance of ordinary everyday events and things. When this moral and spiritual radar is matched by literary skill the resulting poetry can be profoundly affecting. Such is the case with Taylor’s latest book, his third.

His characteristic themes here focus on family and the strategies of relationships, but he doesn’t simply record the travails and joys of young, hands-on fatherhood, such as attending to his infant son’s colic in the wee hours, nor on memories of his own childhood traumas. He also makes us see how his older brother’s “disease piled/ snug in him/ like cargo/ in a transatlantic hold” and feel his exasperated, loving helplessness when facing his elderly mother’s dementia or the sadness of hardly having known his dead father. It takes a special temperament to be able to write as directly and intimately about such situations as Taylor does without lapsing either into sentimentality or self-pitying melodrama.

There is indeed nothing showy or theatrical about Taylor’s poetic methods, and although the endnotes reveal a wide range of literary sources, he wears his knowledge lightly. Granted, at times, as in these lines from “November, six a.m.”

The sparrow we found was far from dead
some minor gouges in its neck, its contract killer
driven back like Noriega from the Holy See

the reference, not footnoted, seems, if not obscure, certainly a stretch.

Rob, Lucas, and Marta Taylor in front of Al Purdy’s A-frame. Photo by Ben Gabriel, courtesy The Al Purdy A-frame Association

The “At Roblin Lake” sequence, written while Taylor and his family were staying at Al Purdy’s house north of Belleville, Ontario, allows him to exploit an eponymous gallows-humorous riff on Purdy’s “Interruption,” in this instance about disposing of hordes of possibly infectious dead mice. This fits in well with his skill in celebrating the work and lives of Seamus Heaney and two of BC’s very best poets, Elise Partridge and E.D. Blodgett. Moreover, the whole sequence illustrates the almost subliminal grace with which he insinuates a wider symbolic meaning into an apparently mundane situation. Thus in “Last Embers,” outside at night — many of Taylor’s best poems are nocturnal — with his wife dousing an open fire, the poet visualizes

the baby asleep further inside,
maybe waking as the glass opens and closes, feeling
the air shift, smelling embers, tasting smoke,
hearing his parents’ laughter and knowing then
that the night, too, requires attendance

However  whereas, say, Yeats would  draw  the reader’s attention to the way his poetic mind works — “Another emblem there!” — with this poet such moments creep up on us unobserved.

Nor is this an isolated instance. In “The Jockey of Artemision” he finds in the classical sculpture the perfect “objective correlative” for his awareness of his infant son’s potential, “that future boy, beyond our grasp,/ relentless, reinless, silent, blind.” So too, in “County Roads” talking inwardly to his son asleep in the back seat, he meditates:

                                                                         You don’t stir.
It’s the motion, I know. The speed and turns and vibrations.
And also, I tell myself, your being just the right distance
from me, facing the rear windshield, the night curling past,
curving backward, rewinding almost, and me
always a foot behind you, a foot ahead of you,
unzipping and zipping the darkness around us, the road
endless, your dreams  buzzing like morning glories.…

Vancouver poet Rob Taylor. Photo by Marta Taylor

Nothing shouts “symbol” but it is there to be found.

Such moments, usually presented in a tone of wry, bemused acceptance, underpin Taylor’s keen sense of the interconnectedness of all his experience. As he writes in “The Future” where, as so often in these poems, the possibility of death is present, “When I whip round I can almost see them, my son, my father together.” Elsewhere he concludes, not as grandiloquent statement but as a finding, that “each life is twinned — what happens and what could.”

Appropriately for a younger poet, his emphasis is on the potential, the possible. Thus in “Poems,” about an elder brother now dead, he writes:

We had Nickelodeon on and we were talking
about Dad, about the Dad you knew before I was born
who was so busy while your mother was so sick
and how unerringly happy he managed to stay  
through it all, as if he couldn’t even see the darkness
let alone be swallowed by it. How you’d almost
forgiven him for that.

If the cumulative effect of these poems is not depression, it is partly because his language, while devoid of rhetoric, is laced with serious wit. Sometimes, as in the book’s longest poem “Lazienski Park,” set in Warsaw, it’s simply a matter of a neat but unexpected visual image — “a tour group, fifty strong, rolls in -/ a startled hedgehog spiked / with selfie sticks” —  but more often it is a single unobtrusive word, as here in “King Tide” where, watching his son at the seashore, he writes

                                    I need to know
what you thought of water when it first
again, surrounded you (my emphasis)

In a similar vein “On the occasion of my mother first forgetting my name,” with the title itself ironically evoking the literary tradition of the Occasional Poem, he laconically juxtaposes his son’s playing with building blocks with his babysitting mother’s inevitable decline caught in the last lines: “Then comes the soft knock /of one block placed / on top of another.”

Rob Taylor

Yet despite the at times almost unbearably personal nature of his subject matter, Taylor’s poetry is not confessional. Its main motivation seems, rather, to be exploration and meditation, a coming to terms. As a result he doesn’t just help us feel our way into his family’s life and history, but makes us care about it and see its relevance to a wider context.

At first reading I felt the book less unified than his second, The News, where the poems interweave the nine months of his son’s gestation with what was happening in the wider world, but on re-reading the myriad cross-references fall into place. Whether he is searching his way through “all the winding corridors” of his mother’s dementia or documenting his child’s learning process, acquiring language while the child’s grandmother loses hers, these poems’ disarmingly frank explorations of self knowledge represent a major advance on an already impressive poetic career.

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Christopher Levenson in Zurich, August 2019. Photo by Oonagh Berry

Born in London, England, in 1934, Christopher Levenson came to Canada 1968 and taught English, Creative Writing, and Comparative Literature at Carleton University from 1968 to 1999. He has also lived and worked in the Netherlands, Germany, Russia, and India. He has written twelve books of poetry, the most recent of which is A Tattered Coat Upon a Stick (Quattro Books, 2017). He co-founded Arc magazine in 1978, was its editor for the first ten years, and was for five years Series Editor of the Harbinger imprint of Carleton University Press, which published exclusively first books of poetry. He has reviewed widely, mostly poetry and South Asian literature in English, in the UK and Canada. With his wife, Oonagh Berry, Christopher moved to Vancouver in 2007 where he helped re-start and run the Dead Poets Reading Series. Editor’s note: Christopher Levenson has recently reviewed books by Kevin Spenst, Derk WynandDaniela ElzaSarah de LeeuwSusan BuisMiranda PearsonE.D. BlodgettNicholas BradleyDavid Zieroth, and Kate Braid.

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