Tess Taylor, The Forage House (Red Hen Press, 2013)
I am convinced most of our country-people have no idea or have forgotten just how weird American history actually is. Thomas Jefferson has always seemed to me the great embodiment of American contradiction: on one hand, a radical, an iconoclast, a true visionary, and on the other, a man willfully blind, wrongheaded, and creepy. Tess Taylor addresses all of these faces of Jefferson (and therefore America) in her thoughtful and ambitious collection, The Forage House. A descendant of Jefferson, Taylor mines her ancestry for answers to complicated questions. Like Dempster, Taylor uses the poem as a mode of examination and questioning. She tries to come to terms with her slave-owning ancestors, she takes Jefferson to task for his most egregious shortcomings, and she asks how deep issues of race, ownership, and freedom might get passed down and internalized across generations.
As Dempster discovers, piecing together the scrapbook of history (and the scrapbook of family history) is a difficult process. Both poets turn to non-poetic sources for poetic inspiration; in Taylor’s case it’s recipes, wills, to-do lists, maps, journals, and other ephemera. Taylor understands that “documents” is both a noun and a verb, and you can see how she is interested in using the poem as a form of documentation capable of telling stories backward into the past. Both she and Dempster share a fondness for giving voice to those whose words history has either erased, ignored, or never allowed to be spoken.
One of my favorite pieces in the book is the beguiling “In May Whitcomb’s Letters,” a two-part poem that appears to be entirely documentary. The first part of the poem is a series of instructions for prisoners of war during World War I who wish to write letters home. The second part is the highly redacted/censored letter Whitcomb sends from a POW camp. The tension and interplay between authoritative and censored text is a linguistic metaphor for larger issues of social and political power. Who determines who speaks and who is heard? What is written and what is erased?
The overdetermined voice of the lyric poet stays away from this poem. The only speakers are the named but powerless Whitcomb and the nameless but all-powerful voice of colonialism. Taylor, masterfully, lets the documents speak for themselves. In “Southampton County Will 1745,” however, Taylor enters into dialogue voices of the past—her slave-holding relatives Etheldred Taylor and one Thomas Jefferson. The poem begins ominously:
I, Etheldred Taylor, 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
What we inherit, both literally and symbolically, is perhaps the great question Taylor’s book poses. To what degree do we get to choose the traits we inherit? Are there some for which we have no say? Mr. Jefferson keeps returning in this regard. In the second section, Taylor recognizes a reluctant alignment with the man:
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.
The ghost of Jefferson haunts the poet most dramatically in “A Letter to Jefferson from Monticello,” the book’s longest and best poem. Jefferson is big enough as a founding father, but as an ancestor, he must feel huge. Taylor, though, is not afraid to kick him to the curb. The final lines of the opening section throw down the gauntlet: “O hypocrite—you make me tired. / Like Whitman, you contradict yourself.”
Linking Jefferson and Whitman is a nice move. They seem utterly opposite, but each occupies a different but complementary embodiment of Americanness.
From there, the poem takes on, praises, critiques, examines, and reflects on Jefferson’s legacy as well as his contributions and failings. The poem ends, where it must end, with a mixture of acceptance and resistance, words that America, especially in the wake of Ferguson, Missouri, should be saying to the world right now: “O architect of hopes and lies, / brilliant, fascinating— / ambitious foundering father I revere & hate & see myself in.”