By Henry Taylor. LSU Press, 2020. 216 pages. $50/hardcover; $29.95/paperback or eBook.
The publication of a collection of new and selected poems by an acclaimed poet is often an occasion for celebration, and this volume certainly is! Covering over 50 years of publishing, Taylor’s new book is wonderfully selected (a major and often challenging collaboration between author and editor) to present us with the best of the best.
This volume shows Taylor as a master storyteller. Many of his poems are engaging narratives that share experiences from his broad-ranging life. An additional pleasure is the author’s stunning ability to choose meaningful details along with his impressive restraint: that is, he “shows rather than tells.” Taylor avoids preaching and moralizing. He lets an experience speak for itself.
The poet William Meredith once remarked, in a conversation with students at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, that “our job is to ask questions. And if we ask enough good questions, we become entitled to one guess at an answer. And if it is a good guess, it will lead us to more questions.” The older I get, the more prescient that statement seems, and Taylor’s narratives strike me as musings around the further questions that he has found himself asking, especially in the section of new poems.
The focus of these poems often revolves around questions that invite us to consider, along with the author, what meanings we have made (or can make) of our lives. Taylor’s narratives are precise snapshots that point toward more macroscopic engagements with many of life’s most embracing questions: What is meaningful? What possible sense might I make of my experience? How do I know and understand? These are questions that do not have final answers but remain, nonetheless, more and more absorbing. These are questions that, in Taylor’s words, “argued with each other” and “soared into a darkling absence that abides.”
Taylor’s poems seem consistently informed by his understanding that “the story strides into the future,” where, perhaps, full understanding lies. But until that time, they, like a neighbor from his youth, contain a “learned elegance,” one that leaves me as a reader feeling richly satisfied that I have been in the presence of poetry that is deeply authentic, both humble and wise—as in his poem “For William Mathews,” which begins
If nothing ever happens more than once,
we still think we know enough to entitle us
to a few expectations, and to love
those moments when anticipated pleasures
strike us sweetly numb.
I might note how the effectiveness of the line break at the end of the first stanza above is an example of one of the many brilliant ways that Taylor holds and honors the paradox of the perspective that age and history give to a mind that pays attention, like the couple Taylor points to in the poem “At the Thursday Night Jam, Remembering an Absent Singer,” who
. . . when they dance, are dancing now
and dancing years ago . . .
Taylor’s poems both address and respect the profound implications of the question “What can we know?” in the poem “A Firm Stance on Level Ground.”
Artists notice. They pay attention. They gather details and then select the ones that are most necessary. Henry Taylor does that with a master’s touch that records, in the poem “Not Quite Lost in Space,” how it is that
I stand here coiled in orbits, head to foot,
because this tilted world is where I live.
His poems explore “the sharp surge of recollection” even while acknowledging that the things we remember are the streams we “can’t set foot in twice.”
I have focused my comments here mostly on the new poems from this new and selected collection, not just because they are new but also because they have especially delighted my mind and spirit. I do note with pleasure that most of my very favorite Henry Taylor poems are included in this volume, such as “Shapes, Vanishings,” a stunning poem about a young student learning that being right does not necessarily create might and how age and experience offer us the kind of understanding and perspective that make for both humility and wisdom.
Throughout this collection, Taylor shows how experience can teach us to be mindful and humble about what we think we know and who we think we are in this tilted world where we live.
Michael S. Glaser is a professor emeritus at St. Mary’s College of Maryland and a former poet laureate for the state of Maryland. He and Kathleen recently moved to Hillsborough, N.C. and now live on a plot of land embraced by trees near the top of Pickards Mountain.