No. 7


John Kinsella  


On Commissioning the Collected Poems 
of Andrew Taylor for Salt Publishing

As is obvious and constantly restated, a collected poems is a survey of a life’s work in poetry, but also, no matter how depersonalised a poetry might be, a life itself. Furthermore, it’s not surprising to find a huge range in any poet’s oeuvre if it’s been formulated over forty to fifty years.  What makes an interesting starting-point for the discussion of Andrew Taylor’s work is how these obvious declarations prove to be unusual and unique in their physical manifestation. Taylor writes a poetry that can be intensely personal, but also highly detached emotionally. It can be up close and distant at once, and even poems that some might call confessional are distracted by the default position of the “idea in language”(the idea as thing-in-itself), which is at the core of all Taylor’s poetry. 

So, there’s a constant, a thread that unifies the work — so much so that you can read the work like a narrative of the evolution of ideas, or maybe, more precisely, a consideration of ideas from different angles, vantage points, and contexts. The narrative itself is driven by change — in personal circumstance, experience, physical location (especially travel), ageing, conversation, contemplation, and the process of writing. Writing has never been static for Taylor — a true innovator, he has combined formal control (astonishingly in place right from his very first book, The Cool Change, published in 1971), with the desire for formal dexterity generated by the need to move, to reassess all ideas that cross his broad scope.

Interviewing Andrew Taylor a few years ago, my first two questions involved the notion of changing place, and the tension within his poems between the materials used in the poem — animals, objects, location and so on — and the direction of ideas away from these. The two matters are closely related. When Taylor writes of a specific city, be it Adelaide, London, or Ithaca, he captures the “thingyness” of the place, just as much as he captures the “thingyness” of socks and shirts, or of a watch; but he also places it in a “landscape of ideas” (The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature), and “self”-critical light. I have changed — or maybe modified — my views regarding the “tension” in a Taylor poem. I used to think it was primarily a case of paradox, contradiction, or tautology, but have come to consider it in more theological terms — a secular theology, almost. There’s a clash between the material world, and an absence of the spiritual. A cold hardness of vision that seeks to reconcile itself with a more optimistic outcome. The apparent contradictions are often not contradictions at all, but rather explorations of how difference fuses and transforms, even if it leaves a bitter aftertaste (or the venom of scorpion or spider). 

In his often disturbing Cat’s Chin and Ears: A Bestiary, the poems cross a light-hearted, almost whimsical humour, with something far more aggressive. Violence is an ever-present undercurrent in many Taylor poems. Animals in this bestiary aren’t considered in the light of their benevolence or pleasure-giving, but in their clash with and distance from the human. With the manners of a satirist of the ilk of Rochester or Dryden, with a side-glance at Aesop and Fontaine. Taylor produces disturbing encomia to modernity. The natural world is never really nature (despite what some critics claim about nature in Taylor’s work), but an almost cybernetic ally connected by fate to the human. Taylor doesn’t praise human dominance; he laments it, and is bemused by it.

A more telling example of Taylor’s restlessness — so formally contained — between subject matter and “message”, can be found in the magnificent poem “Adelaide Winter”. Benignness of place crosses over with terror of potential and fact. Consider

          Winter — real winter — never comes
          to Adelaide. Its long shadow
          brushes us from south and east

          when birds leave, and the trees
          stir a little, uneasily, 
          as a dog does at night

          sensing another creature in the dark.

Initially, the suggestion of the benign comes from the lack of a real winter — nothing can be as harsh as winter might be imagined. However, the seeds of the apparent contradiction build with the “uneasily”, and the threat of “sensing another creature in the dark.” This pattern, or maybe template, expands and branches through the poem, like a network of veins. Even in his more satirically dry poems (and this is not a dry poem), Taylor lets the poem breathe and develop at its own will. His poems are organic. 

Eventually, we reach a point in “Adelaide Winter” where even the affirmation of children (sick, healed) pulls away from the certainty of the poem’s “voice”: “This is a city where children / disappear...” to the loss that is universal, the loss of “innocence” that is focussed through the materiality of the “city”, even through “nature”, until the loss is universal as well as personal: “Magpies/ savaged me this morning, defending/ the young they’ll never see after this year.”

The absence of loved ones echoes through Taylor’s work. In poems of great sensitivity, but with characteristic structural and philosophical rigour, a distant lover is brought close, only for the grasp to be lost again. The physicality of relationships is as much in memory as reality, and always awaited, expected. There’s a cycle of presence and absence that works like tidal change through the work.

Briefly returning to the Adelaide Winter poem, before offering a substitute for my original notion of tension driving a Taylor poem, I’d like to consider section IV in which the nursing of a sick child and her resurrection through familiarity and security (though “my lazy, almost forgetful /pulse carried her home” epitomises the constant irony of the self that walks the boards here, in the most serious of moments), is counterpointed with the killing of a thrush in the garden with a shovel (counterpointed, as Taylor’s verse is consciously a musical notation):

                                            ...Our cat

          had broken both wings and eaten
          part of the breast and neck.

          Although I was trained to kill

          — not only animals but people too —
          my bones weighed heavily and sick until
          I bore the illness of that child.

The life-death/nurture-kill contrasts are clear, but I’d argue that these aren’t presented as alternative choices, as possible avenues that resolve in an accepted tension (that is, “just as nature is...”), but rather as a material reality that works alongside a conceptual unacceptability. In the real landscape they co-exist in tension, but in the “landscape of the imagination” things are changeable, and challengeable. That’s what thinking is — the formalism of the argument (the shape of the poem), and also the freedom to innovate, change, escape the logic. You see this literally demonstrated in poem after poem in Taylor’s Collected: in the two innovative major works of the mid-70s Parabolas: Prose Poems and The Crystal Absences, the Trout, in Sandstone, in the sublime Swamp Poems of recent years.

Maybe it’s been a confrontation with mortality, straddled by the enigmatic and visually stunning Swamp Poems, that confirms this argument. These are clearly spiritual poems that retain their critical edge, their empirical analyses of materiality. Imagistic and contemplative, the eye of the observer is both witness and participant — is removed from the scene as observer, but directly implicated as part of a greater whole. These are poems of terror and beauty, but subtly woven into a space where “nature” and the “constructed” fuse and morph. They are small journey poems that open large vistas:

          I navigate it now
          inspecting such decay and loss
          as could rip the shell of my craft
          with new and circumspect

As is shown in his much praised “Sandstone” sequence, Taylor is a poet of edges, but edges that define a space and also erode and change. Nothing is fixed but the need to create the poem, to love, to observe, to witness.

So, finally, my theory. I feel that we need to look where Gerard Manley Hopkins looked in developing his ideas of inscape and instress: the medieval theologians. The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy says of “haecceity”: “First proposed by John Duns Scotus (1266-1308), a haecceity is a non-qualitative property responsible for individuation. As understood by Scotus, a haecceity is not a bare particular in the sense of something underlying qualities. It is, rather, a non-qualitative property of a substance or thing: it is a “thisness” (a haecceitas, from the Latin haec, meaning “this”) as opposed to a “whatness” (a quidditas, from the Latin quid, meaning “what”).” 

Taylor’s poetry abounds in haecceity, but it never lives on its own. In apparent contradiction, but in actuality existing in parallel, there’s also a selfhood that combines with a vision of nature, what might be termed “ipseity”. In essence, there’s a spirituality of ideas to this tough and often ironic take on the world. The more real the world he creates, the more it is invented — or reinvented — in this world of ideas. Even an animal and its fate become the common object, even the death of a father and the inability to do more than shake the hand rather than meet the mother’s wish of bestowing a kiss — the failure to do so, not leaving a vacuum or negated view of the world, but one in which the wish to do so can be expressed in the act of writing the poem, if the material failure to do so is the remembered reality. 

In a poet as experienced and professional as Andrew Taylor, you could make an endless list of those he has read and admired. There are clear influences on Taylor’s work, but many of them come from visual art, music, and especially the experiences of cultural difference. It’s a complex portrait. But for me, the ability to place the idea and image together, to think and see at the same time, brings most to mind the Wallace Stevens of “Notes Towards a Supreme Fiction”:

          Begin, ephebe, by perceiving the idea
          Of this invention, this invented world,
          The inconceivable idea of the sun.

Consider Taylor’s cathedral poems, especially The Windows:

          Windows are the invention of fire
          in glass our story burns at the sky
          light lives in the eye the eye itself
          held in a wall knocks endlessly 

Nature (fire, sky, spirituality) in tension (the window) with the constructed world (the cathedral, religion) — neither being independent of the other.

     Andrew Taylor’s Collected Poems presents a life as a jigsaw puzzle. The pieces are constantly being added, and though the images are clear as the pieces go into place, we are never sure what the picture will end up looking like. An innovator and a maverick, as he continues to add to his life’s work, he will keep us guessing, though offering firm clues as to how to follow him on his journeys.




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