Oyster Boy Review 21  
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» Levee 67


"As if This Moment Were Ageless and Could Always Return"

With His Lyre, Singing within the Cataclysm

Jeff Davis

  Ins and Outs of the Forest Rivers.
Nathaniel Tarn.
New Directions, 2008.
103 pages, $16.95 (paperback).
ISBN: 0811217981 (Library of Congress).
Buy at Amazon.

tarn (tärn) n. – A small mountain lake, especially one formed by glaciers. [Middle English tarne, of Scandinavian origin.] i

And in French, the language of the country of Tarn's birth, Tarn is also "(Placename) a river in SW France, rising in the Massif Central and flowing generally west to the Garonne River. Length: 375 km (233 miles)" ii

The water references of the poet's self-selected name seem especially appropriate, on so many levels. River-like, the verse can flow in cascades of paratactic associations; lake-like, ripple with implications.

His voice: here's a selection from an interview I did with Tarn in Buffalo in 1971. I'd asked him about the voice in Beautiful Contradictions, an early long poem:

Tarn: Yes, I think the basic thing in me is still the lyrical impulse, which makes the Beautiful Contradictions a very tricky thing, because the sustaining of a lyrical impulse over that length, is tricky . . .

I don't think that I'm thinking when I write about the whole sort of "I" lyrical stance . . . You know that in linguistics or communication theory generally there's never a speaker without a listener. It's heresy to say that any kind of communication takes place unless those two poles are involved. Well, of course poets have always known there is a speaker without a listener, and they've tried to define this in terms of "the first voice of poetry" or "monologue" and so on. I'm feeling right now like looking into this. Now whether this is a reflection of certain things which have been on the whole unconscious in the "I" stance of Beautiful Contradictions, I don't know, it may well be. I was thinking much more in Beautiful Contradictions of expressing certain concerns, certain content concerns, with all the various things which I've been mixed up with: privately, politically (and there, of course, politics of nature as well as politics of society), and expressing them through a kind of combination, I suppose, of viewpoints in which the ego moves out and begins inhabiting other figures. So that for instance in a rather complex section like the one about the old Wagnerian singer, you know it's quite clear at certain points who's talking, at other points it's not. I mean it really does become . . . there is something very complex going on there between the narrator, hero, Siegfried, Christ, so many other things . . .

Tarn, a little later in the conversation, after I'd noted changes in voice between his earlier work and the Beautiful Contradictions, and noted that for me, the Contradictions combined or fused elements of those previous voices:

I would say that to me it's a sign of the success of the poem, that those two things have been pulled together more than they were pulled together before, that is the personal voice and the various personae, the other voices. There is a kind of mystery here . . . I've always felt that poetry is a process of listening certainly before speaking and maybe more than speaking, listening to a voice which is in fact uninterrupted in us . . . Now the mystery is, and I believe this almost as a sort of credo, as an article of faith, and I can't really put my finger on why I believe this—it's quite simply that the deeper you listen to your own voice, the more it is simultaneously your own and everybody else's.

A few minutes later, after I'd mentioned some comments Robert Bly had made in an attempt to frame the question of the relation of human ego to the imagination as it acts in poetry, and cited Tarn's lines from the Contradictions, "and I'm not so sure that this desire to encompass all is vanity. It may be the only effort most of us are allowed to make at wisdom," Tarn added this:

It is possibly a negativa-positiva thing, you know . . . He's following a certain path there, which is also a path of interest to me, but I am sort of coming at it from a different side. I mean the point surely is that if you look at it in a sense of the ego emptying itself out completely in order for something—it's still the world flooding in. So you either do it by emptying yourself completely, which is negativa, or you do it by filling yourself completely, which is positiva, and maybe the Jewish tradition, which is a very positiva tradition, is so strong in me that in spite of a very long-standing interest in Buddhism, the instinctive poetic reaction is a positiva reaction.

Ins and Outs of the Forest Rivers certainly provides, forty-odd years on, evidence of a constant vision. Tarn's insight into the valences of his imagination still pertains. And his work still speaks with the lyricism that's characterized it since the beginning. If the lyrical ego that inhabits Tarn's work extends into the world, it also meets there its contingencies, in all their forms. Sometimes in the work these contingent facts, these others, remain, for me, unrealized and unvoiced, but more often image is transfigured into much more than ratiocinative counter, and Tarn leads us into an encounter that becomes felt and experiential indeed. Try "Sadness, They Say My Home," part four of a sequence concerned with, among other things, drought and the destruction by insects of the forests of the American west, of which these are but the concluding lines:

sadness you see my house, never to heal, everyday house,
every night house, never to be departed from, never again
to be beginning but always end, sadness an ending
of all things, the breaking of all things,
    the life I cannot leave—
the dark sun of this weeping, molten moon,
what is that star of sadness in the sky, behind the sun,
that cannot ever set, and cannot ever break, and cannot
ever drown into the sky: please allow dying now,
that dark abandonment among the sucked-out trees,
please allow coming home to sadness never drowning. (41)

Or "A Language of Absence," or the final long poem that gives this book its title, "Ins and Outs of the Forest River," or . . .

The world is imbued by, saturated with, our watery consciousness of it, and it is Tarn's gift, as a poet also trained first in the mysteries of diverse human cultures, to explore this fact in a way that does full justice to self in its manifold variations, and to the world. With passion and compassion, he bears full witness.

i The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition, New York, 2000 (Houghton Mifflin Company). Updated in 2009.

ii Collins English Dictionary: Complete and Unabridged, New York, 2003 (Collins).

. . .