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April's Book
Earth Bones
by Richard Taylor

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Bill:
Visualize a pastoral setting, a country store, an aging stone wall. Now close your eyes and feel—really feel—these images. Richard Taylor invites you into his world for this experience in his artfully crafted book of poems entitled Earth Bones. bookclub@ket starts now.

Let’s talk about Richard Taylor’s Earth Bones. And a fitting beginning might be just what the title means. Does it suit the selections that Richard Taylor has put together?

Wilma:
Well, it does suit the selections. In fact, I like both words, “earth” and “bones,” because he does sort of cut to the bone of his philosophy about the earth ... These are poems about the earth, and of course, he has the thought that we have somehow, as human beings, perhaps damaged, you know, the integrity of the earth. And so I think this is a good title for this.

Gabrielle:
Yeah, I think so, too. And I think bones, too, when you are digging up bones and putting together pieces of what was.

Wilma:
Uh huh.

Gabrielle:
That has some history to it as well.

Dava:
Well, the name does say it all. But really none of the poems in the book really strays from this theme, and I appreciated the book because it was easy to understand the poems. A lot of times when I read poetry, I’m really ... I’m no expert, and I don’t know what’s going on. But ...

Bill:
We turn to Jonathan for those.

Dava:
... I don’t know what I just read. But in this case, I mean, I could understand what I was reading. I wanted to read a poem [but] it’s early ...

Bill:
Please.

Dava:
... to start off, but I mean, what better to do with a book of poetry? One of my favorites was called “Uncle Louis,” and it was titled with the years of his life, “1903 to 1973.” It says:

“The day his pipes burst
past all mending
we dreaded to leave the hens.
When they roosted at dark
there was no hand
to latch them in,
wire them from opossums or coons.

“Home the next night
we looked for the worst:
hen parts strewn in
a blitz of feathers,
nests full of suckered eggs.
When only the game hen was
Missing, we called it barter,
a death for a death,
letting both deaths settle.

“But three weeks later
back she strutted,
back from the barn
where she brooded on secret eggs.
Tailing close were ten chicks
the guinea fathered,
their peppered backs a gift
from my uncle
who yielded his bargain eggs.”

And I mean, there’s a message to that poem, and it’s easy to understand, and I was grateful.

Wilma:
Actually, that was one I liked, too. And I liked it especially because it had that little twist to the end. You know, they thought they had given a life for a life somehow, but they were cheated because the hen was still alive—and not only alive, but had brought chicks with her. And I kind of liked that idea.

Sometimes I think the author overstates things. The business at the beginning—“the day his pipes burst past all mending”—that was a little too much for me. But I did like the idea of Uncle Louis being put to rest, and they are worried, you know. They don’t have time, as anyone does in that situation, to get things right—you know, to put the hens in and so on. They just have to do the best they can, and here it worked out well. But I’m like you—that’s something I think we can all relate to. It has a message in it and we can relate to it.

Bill:
In defense of the simple and the straightforward, I think that you peg it really well. It’s that ... It’s pretty much words on the page that really you see their meaning and you understand it well. And as you also said about “earth bones,” most of the poems—there may be one or two exceptions, and we’ll talk about that—do relate to this ... sort of the same general theme. And Jonathan, you wanted to say something about the title, too; we didn’t want to leave you out.

Jonathan:
Well, no, I think that it’s a good title, Earth Bones, because it seems to contain within itself not one but two ideas explored in the poetry, and there are two parts to the book. We should remember that the first part is “The Beasts of the Field.” I don’t know if you can see that [he shows the page from the book with title and illustration]. And a lot of those poems are about animals and about animals in the field, and in that sense it is about the earth, because the animals are part of the nature all around him.

And then the second part is called “Baring the Bones,” and I don’t know if you can see that or not on the camera [again he shows a page from the book] ... A lot of this is about what’s underneath the earth, including the bones of dead people and dead animals. And as you can see from this very beautiful drawing in the start of that, the roots of the tree actually look like bones.

Bill:
Uh huh.

Jonathan:
And so, in a sense, “earth bones” brings together the idea of the earth and the idea of the bones. There is one poem which I’ll just read called “Adena Mound,” which is about Adena Mound out there on Iron Works Pike. And it brings together the idea of the bones of the Native Americans who are buried there and the roots of the trees in such a way [that] the roots of the trees are growing in and around the bones, so they are almost come together. And in that poem the bones really are earth bones.

“When they dug it up
they found tribal bones
clutched by enormous oaks,
skeletons encased in fine hairs,
ribs sucked up through the roots
an elbow in the limbs.”

And the word “limbs” there both suggests the limbs of the tree and the limbs of the person. So I like it as a title, and I like the way that it synthesizes the idea of the earth and the idea of human history and the bones of the dead. And one of the things that he’s interested in here is the idea that the landscape around him is an historical landscape, and therefore it contains bones within it.

Bill:
Uh huh.

Jonathan:
It reminds me of an Irish poet’s remark about the Irish landscape. He said, “The landscape was a manuscript we had lost the skill to read.” The landscape was a manuscript we had lost the skill to read. And here I think that Taylor is trying to read the landscape and to see what describes it and to see what’s in it and what was behind it. That’s why I think he begins with Boone’s vision of the Kentucky River: because he is looking at the history of the Kentucky landscape very much.

Bill:
So there is a kinship, then, between, more or less, the first section and the second section, which you pointed out. Yet they are different in some ways, too. You wanted to say ...

Wilma:
No, I was just thinking about the poem that Jonathan read, and I liked it also because he sustained the metaphor. And that’s where I have a problem with him. Sometimes in the middle of a poem, a little bit longer poem, he’ll start out with one metaphor and move to something else. I was thinking about “Tent Caterpillars.”

Bill:
Uh huh.

Wilma:
He started out on that very well:

“Each spring they hatch bolder.
And now,
not 80 feet from the porch
they bivouac in a cherry,
string tents in the crotches,
silky clusters of ravenous worms.”

So he starts out with that metaphor of the army, which I think is very good because they are tent caterpillars. He moves on to that in the second stanza:

“Their nests are sprung lanterns
glutted with light,
gaudy thatching that nets
the sun in splinters.
Outside, the black-striped larvae
fatten on shade
and shred each limb to winter.”

But then in the third stanza, he gets away from that metaphor, and I don’t know why he does. He talks about cotton candy, which for me just didn’t work:

“When the whole is stripped bare,
these webs stick like cotton candy,”

You know, he has been talking about the army, which I love. That metaphor, it was right. And then we just all at once have cotton candy:

“marooned in branches
whose vanished leaves,
each welded silver blossom,
reviving in wings of jittery moths.”

In other words, I kind of like the sustained metaphor in a poem. I don’t like jumping from one imagery to another; that bothers me. And he does that sometimes, and I’m not fond of that. I don’t think it holds together as well.

Jonathan:
It doesn’t bother me so much, I must say, but it’s interesting. Different eyes come with different perceptions. That doesn’t bother me. In fact, that’s one of the poems where I thought it has some very good imagery, and one of the things that I value in Richard Taylor’s poetry is his restless desire to come up with imagery. Now in your view, he does it too much?

Wilma:
Yeah, I think he forces it, in my view.

Jonathan:
Yeah.

Wilma:
You know what I’m saying?

Jonathan:
Yeah, but I think he’s got some wonderful images in the poetry. One of the remarks made by another poet about Richard Taylor’s poetry—A.R. Ammons, contemporary American poet—he said, “The fine perceiving that gives substance to these poems is wonderfully equalled by the forming freshness of the words. I find that the pinpointing here and there, rather than narrowing the vision, illuminates whole landscapes.”

Now, what I understand him to mean by pinpointing is the way in which Richard Taylor zooms in on a particular object like tent caterpillars. And he really studies them, and he perceives them with great intensity, and he does find, often, a fresh language to describe them. And you know, this pinpointing, I think, is one of the most valuable things about Taylor—his ability to see closely and to describe it inventively.

Dava:
Well, Gabrielle and I talked about this poem earlier: “Poem for My Father.” I think this pinpointing, this idea, works in this poem specifically. It says:

“Days after his death
we found the faith he left us
in the shed:

“six late tomatoes
resting on the sill,
stems carefully plucked,
green skins to the sun,

“the last of his garden
surviving frost
to ripen in our blood.”

Bill:
That’s very nice.

Wilma:
It’s a good poem.

Dava:
And he uses the tomato to ... A lot of poems are very cyclical—talking about death and then birth and then things from the earth that are very much things from the people that have died and gone back into the earth—and it works in that poem.

Wilma:
It does work.

Bill:
You know, we talked about this before with our books of poetry on the bookclub, and that is that sometimes, oftentimes, certainly for me, you have to go back and read the selections or the entire book. And this is a very, I think, simple, very uncluttered small booklet. And it helps to go back and re-read those. And I think back to your point—well, both your points, surely—that for me, reading some a third time, a fourth time, is that he makes you sort of see and visualize something that you didn’t imagine before or that you did not think about—whether it’s a tent caterpillar or a bluegill or ... What are some of the other examples?

Wilma:
Or cicadas

Bill:
Yeah. So he takes this sort of ... And I was going to ask you, Jonathan, because you mentioned Ammons: Is he that same sort of naturalist? I mean, I would think that Richard Taylor would be that sort of observer of the world.

Jonathan:
Yes, Ammons also writes like that, and he also is fond of short, short stanzas and short lines ...

Bill:
Uh huh.

Jonathan:
... which are kind of ... They are, you know, short; they are meditative. But they’re not really exhausted. Nothing is exhaustingly described.

Bill:
Yeah, yeah.

Jonathan:
Small brush stokes, really. Short lines.

Bill:
Uh huh.

Jonathan:
And like Taylor, he’s very perceptive. But Taylor, I think, is somebody ... By the way, we shouldn’t [discuss Taylor] in this program only in terms of this book, Earth Bones. Could I just mention this?

Bill:
Certainly.

Jonathan:
His first book, which came out some years earlier than Earth Bones, was called Bluegrass, and that was published by Larkspur Press. And then Earth Bones came in ’79. And then In the Country of Morning Calm is one of his recent books, published also by Larkspur, and that came out in 1988, and then Stone Eye in 2001. And these are all Larkspur books. Now the book we are reading is from Gnomon Press ...

Bill:
Uh huh.

Jonathan:
... which is, I think, beautifully printed. And I very much like the use of the green in the titles above the drawings.

Bill:
Uh huh.

Jonathan:
But I wondered: Is there any particular poem that—Wilma, that you would like to mention as being one that you liked?

Wilma:
That I did like?

Jonathan:
Yeah.

Wilma:
Well, the one I liked a great deal was the one that Dava read, and it’s the one about the father. And I thought that was just so ...

Jonathan:
“Elegy for Father.”

Wilma:
... good because it’s the same idea. And I liked that, where the father is gone and yet something is left behind. He was still arranging his life, still doing something for the future, still putting the tomatoes on the windowsill to ripen.

Gabrielle:
Ripen, yeah.

Wilma:
And so that was left behind him, and I love that idea. I think that is one of his better poems. It’s when, I think, he can’t sustain a metaphor that it bothers me, and in some of the longer poems he jumps from one idea to the other. “Cicadas” was a particular problem for me. Again, not as deep a poem as the one about his father, you know. I mean, that showed real emotion, and I thought it was very touching. “Cicadas”—again, one of those pinpointing poems that you said ...

Jonathan:
Yeah.

Wilma:
You know, in every little stanza he pinpoints something about the cicadas. But he jumps from, you know, a knife imagery to a—and I even wrote them down—to fire. I liked the fire imagery, but then it jumps again. It goes to jewelry, it goes back to the army, it goes to rain. What I’m saying [is] for me it’s just too much. You know, I don’t mind the looking in at the cicadas, and it makes me look at them differently. It is pinpointing. But for me it’s too much.

Bill:
You have a favorite, Gabrielle?

Gabrielle:
I had a couple favorites. I’m just going to read the first stanza of “The Orchard.”

Bill:
Uh huh.

Gabrielle:
This is another way that we were talking about pinpointing, and he’s talking about:

“The trees we plant are antique apples,
types not fit for commerce,
thin-skinned locals easily bruised,
stay-at-homes
too delicate for crates.”

Just the imagery, like Jonathan was saying, really pops off the page for me. And the other one that I liked was “Water Snakes,” I think.

Bill:
Read a little bit of that.

Gabrielle:
OK:

“Winter for them is pause,
a space between suns,
another skin to shed.

“Each spring three or four
turn up on the ledges
under the bridge,

“revived commas wriggling
to catch
the earliest sun.

“As the rocks grow warmer,
some slide off to clumps
of wild parsley,

“their steel backs freckling
with delicate shade
riddled with light.

“Scale-cipher, hieroglyph,
something keeps
drawing me back

“Daily I edge to the rail,
craning over to stare
on insolent fat of the biggest,

“coiled muscles that tremor
on minnows and frogs,
knobs of dwindling flesh.

“Or fixed to one smaller,
dangling efficiently in water,
aloof in all currents:

“Its white head emerging,
the unblinking eyes;
this creek, its necklace.”

Bill:
Here’s “Bluegills,” which again goes back to sort of this simple, uncomplicated theme that we’ve talked about:

“Barely visible
they blend so well,

“their glossed scales
merge with light.

“Bass know them only
by their telltale shadows,

“blunt-tipped cigars
that nose along the bottom,

“light snacks slipped from cover
to flit past bedrock,

“cross sulphurous leaf
and silt mound, trembling.”

It’s almost as if he was really searching for the subject matter and stumbled on these acts of nature and decided to write it down, to sort of record it. And I think it also helps, Jonathan, to know that this was—and I’m not sure we mentioned this—first published in 1979. ’79! So it really goes back quite some time, and at that time Richard Taylor had joined sort of the back-to-the-earth movement, so to speak—moved to a rural area and did some work in the country and that sort of thing. And I think that’s where a lot of this comes from, certainly back then. I don’t know about his later work—if he moved on to other things.

Wilma:
I did find another one I liked—apparently I like his shorter poems. This one was ... I liked this a lot, and it’s not a nature poem. It’s the “’52 GMC.” It says:

“Running my pickup is like Emperor Maximilian
winning and holding the Mexican Empire:
no matter how secure the capital,
rebellion always flares in one of the provinces.”

And I liked ...

Bill:
Wow.

Wilma:
... that a lot.

Bill:
Talk about that a little bit. Why did you like that one?

Wilma:
I liked it just because ... It was the idea: He was trying to hold everything together on his ’52 pickup. And things ... No matter how secure the capital was—you know, the engine or whatever—rebellion was always flaring somewhere else. He always had a problem with the pickup truck, and so he was comparing it to the idea of an emperor trying to hold his army together—it is just impossible. And I thought that was funny. It’s four lines, it’s to the point, it’s cute—it’s nice.

Bill:
All right, we accept that.

Dava:
Yeah, the first glance, it might be, like, “Why is that poem in here?” It really doesn’t run with other themes ...

Wilma:
Yeah.

Dava:
... but I guess, you know, still ... Nature, yeah.

Wilma:
Falling apart, yeah.

Dava:
Order and chaos.

Bill:
Well, is there also, maybe, a sense of some other writing—whether it be fiction, nonfiction, novel—from other Kentucky writers in here? For example, Wendell Berry? I mean, is there a sense of sort of back to the land and the environmental movement then, 20-25 years ago? For example, in some of them, like “Premises” or ...

Dava:
“Subdivision.”

Bill:
“Subdivision”; right. Yeah. Some of those, I mean, they sort of get away from ... Well, they do and they don’t. They don’t really get away from that theme, but they have a little bit harder edge. You think?

Wilma:
Well, yeah. I mean, he has a point, and that’s all right, you know, in a book ...

Bill:
Oh sure.

Wilma:
... to make a point, to have a political point. But I mean, his point is that he doesn’t like the change, you know; he doesn’t think that it’s progressive. You know, it’s a change, but he doesn’t see it for the better when we take out fields. I think in that poem he said something like the [poplars] were the last to know. You know, it was ...

Bill:
Yeah.

Wilma:
It was the idea that the bulldozers came in, they disrupted the wildlife, with the [poplars] that were leaning against the fenceposts the last to know that life had changed forever. It’s a good idea, and a valid thing to put in poetry. You know, I was thinking, though, since I’m talking ...

Bill:
Go right ahead. You have the floor.

Wilma:
We’ve had some top-notch poets—Nikky Finney and ...

Bill:
Frank X Walker.

Wilma:
... Frank X Walker and Maurice Manning.

Bill:
Uh huh.

Wilma:
And I found more in their poems than I did [in] this. Let me put it that way—you know, in comparison.

Bill:
Why, though?

Wilma:
I don’t know. Maybe I like the succinctness of their images better; maybe it just spoke to me more. I’m not sure the themes were all that different, because they had some of the same themes themselves, but ...

Jonathan:
I personally would say that those other poets are great poets—and we discussed them—but they are so different, really, in what they do.

Wilma:
They are.

Bill:
That’s what I would think.

Jonathan:
I would say this about Richard Taylor: These poems are really, in my view, excellent examples of this meditative pastoral poem, which does not actually try to make a point. I mean, they are not really poems of protest; they are not poems trying to reach conclusions. It seems to me they’re accurate descriptions of what’s seen—and seen up close. And in that meditative perception is great integrity and honesty, which in itself is valuable politically, as it’s valuable in human terms as well.

I mean, some of these poems are very reminiscent to me of Ted Hughes, the English poet laureate’s poetry about dead animals. Some of these are very reminiscent of that. Some of these are very reminiscent also of the 1970s poetry of Seamus Heaney, the Irish poet. Again you get these short lines, these careful quatrains, the meditation, the focus on particular animals, particular scenes, particular landscapes and trying to meditate into it, you know. “The Dead Cow in the Creek,” for example, is a poem that seems to me brings together the influence of both those poets in meditating on a dead animal and using wonderfully original and careful, honest language to describe it. And it doesn’t really make a point because he is just, in a sense, describing what he sees. And it seems to me a lot of poems do that, but it’s not what everybody wants to do. Some poets try harder to make points and to reach conclusions ...

Bill:
Do you think ...

Jonathan:
... and so on. But it seems to me ... Frank X Walker and Nikkiy Finney: excellent poets in their way. Maurice Manning: excellent poet in his way. But this is a very different kind of poem you are talking about. Now, for instance, Manning’s poetry—wonderful use of masks and personas and other voices, whereas this is always the same meditative, narrative, perceptive voice.

Bill:
Uh huh.

Jonathan:
It seems to me that’s very similar to a lot of poetry from the ’70s in that way, but I think ...

Wilma:
But he is making a point.

Jonathan:
He does make a lot of points, but ...

Wilma:
Yeah, that’s what I mean. He has an agenda.

Jonathan:
I don’t think in every poem there is a point, you know. I think the point is that the language is honest, and that in itself reflects an integrity all of its own.

Bill:
Do you think he has been influenced by some of these writers that you mentioned? Or are others ... I mean, there is a quote, and I don’t ...

Jonathan:
There are some phrases that you hear that are reminiscent of other poets, but that sometimes can mean that he’s been influenced by someone but then has absorbed it and then makes it his own.

Bill:
Let me ask you about, if you can turn quickly toward the end—there are no page numbers, but to the Jim Porter poem: “To the Tavern-Keeper, Giant Jim Porter, Who Died at Shippingport, Louisville, 1859.”

Jonathan:
Well, this is one of the more satirical ones.

Bill:
Yeah.

Jonathan:
This is definitely one of the ones which is contrasting what something should be to what it is.

Bill:
Uh huh.

Jonathan:
And you’ve got the sense that change and modernization and development is an aspect of modern America that has, in a sense, ruined the place. And this final image of people “crazed with hamburgers”—“we hoot from bleachers to grouse about our death.” That’s that ...

Bill:
“Zippers close our pants.”

Jonathan:
... meditative.

Bill:
Is that the reference to ... buttons used to do it for centuries, and now we’re using [zippers]? I mean, I guess maybe if any of the poems separated itself from sort of the nature theme, maybe this one did, although it does maybe speak to—like “Subdivisions” and “Premises” and so forth—sort of the growth movement and giant boxes of department stores and so forth. Is that what they call them? You know what I’m talking about. But that one sort of is a bit different.

Jonathan:
Yeah, that’s right. I mean, this is definitely an outspoken social satire.

Wilma:
Right.

Jonathan:
In that sense the book does contain, you know, attitudes. I mean, they are not all meditative pastorals, and they are not all satires. And then that’s fine, you know. That’s an interesting poem because it’s about this guy who was a somebody out of history who [was] freakishly tall for his time ...

Bill:
Yeah.

Jonathan:
... and then it gets him thinking about basketball players today, you know. Great Kentucky theme.

Bill:
How did you like “A Poem Lizz”? I think maybe you don’t have to know [who Lizz is]; could be anybody.

Dava:
Lizz?

Bill:
But it turns out it is his wife. Or was his wife. Or ... I don’t know if that is an amorous few words to her, maybe, or ...

Wilma:
It’s the last.

Gabrielle:
It’s right before that.

Wilma:
It’s before the [second] section.

Gabrielle:
Yeah.

Wilma:
There it is.

Bill:
I’m searching for it myself.

Wilma:
Yeah, page numbers would be good.

Bill:
As you all know, our crack research team made me realize that the Diana Fritillary is a butterfly.

Jonathan:
Hmm.

Bill:
You knew that, of course.

Dava:
Well, I didn’t really think much about that one.

Jonathan:
I guess it was ... Yeah.

Bill:
Which again is kind of nice. I mean the poem—kind of nice and simple.

Wilma:
I enjoyed that fact.

Bill:
Thank you; thank you very much. Kind of nice and simple in its own way; yet there is no point to that one either. I mean, those are just ... I would think that would be written maybe as a tribute to her or as a ...

Jonathan:
Yeah, it’s a love poem.

Bill:
Yes.

Jonathan:
To Lizz. Now I guess Lizz is his lover or wife.

Bill:
Right.

Jonathan:
Or is it his daughter or ...

Bill:
His current wife. We are getting way far away from where we should be, but it is named Lizz.

Jonathan:
OK. Well, I mean it’s one of the ones that actually does look up close at insect life. And then ...

Bill:
Yeah.

Jonathan:
... and then it brings in a person.

Gabrielle:
Right.

Jonathan:
So [in] some of the others [it’s] like he is a lens gazing at nature and describing it. But in this one he ...


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