Review: He Sings with Humane Affection
By Robert Farnsworth
John Tagliabue’s long-awaited New and Selected Poems: 1942-1997, handsomely published last spring by the National Poetry Foundation at the University of Maine at Orono, offers such an avid, expansive coherence, such variety of form, image, and impulse that I believe its readers will agree with my conviction that American poetry could use a dozen poets half as joyful, generous, and energetic as Tagliabue here proves himself to be. An amazed alertness to the world and a spontaneous devotion to the daily work of making poems distinguish every page of this volume. Take, for example, the witty, headlong music of this poem, “Crowded Shanghai Market Including and Surrounded by Many Vegetables and Trucks and Bicycles”:
Slop from the sea, slime, slithering, a million tiny eels,
the butchers’ tables, fantasies about to be cut, slippery, and
hour after hour and century after century, the centaurs or
squat, square off, squander, prepare a thousand Chinese suppers,
mother eels fester, festoon, squid, crabs, fish not yet catalogued
or metaphors, seas sliding, Proteus drowsy, dolphins diving,
more fish arriving,
the tides tremble, the crescendos of rivers enter the sea,
the nets are plentiful,
the Shanghai fish market stinks to high heaven, Marxist
the profit motive of fish proceeds, in the wet active time many seek,
to be hooked, cooked, bowls of undecipherable Chinese hieroglyphics
from the deep seas,
handy, the marketeers squash in their wet hands the prolific
catching, selling, and eating we enter the ancient routine
of the new day.
Some retrospective collections of this sort offer an explicit narrative of development, of a writing life begun in sensual rapture or technical apprenticeship, turning increasingly toward philosophical meditation. (“When one is young,” wrote Wallace Stevens in his Adagia,“everything is physical, when one is old everything is psychic.”) Tagliabue’s volume will not submit to such an easy summary; it is organized in an overlapping chronology that foregrounds his lifelong fascination with travel, and with a wide array of Eastern and Western cultural traditions. Certainly one of the pleasures of reading this book is discerning in its pages the people and events, private and public, of Tagliabue’s career, and savoring the lively wisdom that comes into focus in the closing four sections. From the earliest poems to the most recent, however, one marvels most at the humane affection Tagliabue’s poems sing back to the world he has so widely and carefully observed.
Despite its cosmopolitan breadth of experience and its various and layered frames of cultural reference — Buddhist, Taoist, Hindu, Christian — the book is profoundly American. In the tradition of Whitman and Williams, it gathers forceful beauty by a process of addition, clustering poems that share patterns of image or theme. The stylistic experiments with anaphora, with vertical, shaped, or parallel page layouts, and long capacious sentences spontaneously invite the miraculous ordinary things of this world — bees, elephants, bicycles, vegetables, flowers, friends, family, weather, and waters — to enter into a dance of celebration. Tagliabue also has a generous alertness to the cues that poetry, music, and visual art offer him; the French Travel Journals, for example, offer a fine series of poems prompted by the paintings of Seurat, Van Gogh, Monet, and others. Tagliabue’s inclusive sensibility isn’t given to renunciation or self-flagellation, nor to making dark distinctions; it celebrates the generative, spontaneous connections between body and spirit, self and world. I can think of few American poets who have taken such pleasure in the essentially amphibious nature of human experience, who revel, that is, in both the spiritual and the material aspects of that experience with such insouciant, winning confidence.
In keeping with his devotion to Buddhist thought, and its emphasis on opening the mind, Tagliabue is, as Keats wrote that the poet must be, ever “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching out after fact and reason.” The essential optimism of his bright gaze is certainly tinctured by the shadows of flavors of whatever he beholds, but he also brings a perfectly calibrated wit (gentle, wry, hilarious) to that beholding, as in the poem “Becoming More Nimble and Amused at My New Task”:
To protect the ripening tomatoes from frost,
I have a new task;
I’ve become alert and professional about it;
every night before supper
I go out there and quickly cover each tomato plant
upheld by a green stick,
its small and large tomatoes expanding in view,
cover each plant with a large
plastic bag, at times feel like
a French dressmaker tucking the skirts in,
feel very familiar with these
ladies, and as it grows dark
I feel sort of Rabelaisian
there bending over and
enjoying a whiff of
the odor from the
In the closing section, “New Poems (1984-1997),” I find some of the most moving writing in the book. Here the lush inventories of desire and wonder take on lovely shadows, the wit sharpens, the fondness for people and things and weather develops a gently elegiac flavor. Tagliabue turns both to the deep past and the future with balance and clarity, confronting loss, but transforming it through his undiminished faith in the rituals of language. As an achieved instance of this faith there are few better examples than “Related to The Numinous Nomenclatures”:
I see you there in the dictionary,
between haw-haw and hawksbill turtle,
imagine what you are like in actuality and in Original Reality!
in flight or in huddle waiting, in thought and in gorgeous death or
I can imagine some of your particular spots, beauty and motion,
your dangerous co-existence with us and storms and all kinds of
weather, and other
birds and words of many feathers; here you are in the dictionary
and it’s not complete and
more words in distant futures will be added to it, here you
are surrounded by
thousands of words and many are in the memories of millions of
people everywhere and
will be in the writings that take wing, will be in the
barbarous and cultivated minds
all sorts of astonished
strong ones in the future.
Those Bates Magazine readers who were fortunate enough to study with John Tagliabue will find in this collection lasting confirmation of the comprehensive, agile delight he has always brought to his teaching and his writing. Bates was home for forty-odd years to a poet of distinction, dedication, and great gifts. This book testifies not only to his literary achievement, but also, I believe, to the unforgettable impression his intensity made upon ten cohorts of students. As a fellow poet and (until recently when he and Grace moved to Providence, R.I.) his next-door neighbor, I have been privileged to learn from the example of John’s devotion to the art, to enjoy the gift of his conversation, to share discoveries of poems and poets from all over. So I gratefully take and offer in closing, as heraclitean counsel and imaginative encouragement, his recent poem, “Sliding into the Future”:
what is there to achieve? the event occurs at its
as the sea shell is made or the volcano erupts
or the lines
of a Shakespeare play are memorized; in due time
momentously temporarily, the snow cap melts,
the sea anemone
blossoms, the lizard’s shadow is etched in the
The anguish in the sick bed is engraved on
Forms keep changing; clouds as much as deities;
is bewildered, transformed. The opulent is found
or lost in
the twinkling of an eye. Someone performs a
ritual in the shadows.
The lover leaves his bead; none knows what will
Achievements flare up like the flames of orange moths
Faces keep appearing from the distant past. Boats appear
with cargoes never seen before.
Poet Robert Farnsworth has been a member of the Department of English faculty at Bates since 1990. He is the author of Three or Four Hills and a Cloud andHonest Water, both published by the Wesleyan University Press.
Sarah Hammond Creighton ’84. Greening the Ivory Tower: Improving the Environmental Track Record of Universities, Colleges, and Other Institutions,Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1998, 337 pages. Before taking steps to reduce its impact on the environment, a college must first analyze, measure, and understand comprehensively the extent of that impact, says Creighton, former head of Tufts CLEAN! at Tufts University. She analyzes her school’s landmark environmental program and includes examples from other institutions (including Bates), offering extensive insights into what makes such a program work. Creighton is now an energy conservation planner with the Massachusetts Division of Capital Planning and Operations.
Jeanette Smith Cureton ’67 and Arthur Levine. When Hope and Fear Collide: A Portrait of Today’s College Student, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Inc., 1998, 188 pages. The authors find a generation of college students motivated by a conflicting sense of hope (they want to make a positive difference in the world) and fear (of being hurt physically or emotionally, of racial and gender issues). The book, drawing on extensive surveys of college students today, examines how students deal with these pressures and then draws conclusions about their futures.
John R. Illig, head coach of women’s squash and tennis.Trail Ways, Path Ways: An Appalachian Trail Through-Hike, Mount Desert Island: Windswept House Publishers, 1998, 184 pages. The author — trail name “Sneakers,” because he hikes in running shoes — offers a step-by-step account of his hike of the world’s longest continually marked footpath, complete with insights into the culture, terminology, and customs of the trail, plus musings and anecdotes about fellow hikers met along the way. The book serves the serious hiker as well as the casual, interested reader.
Alan D. Neustadtl ’79, Dan Clawson, and Mark Weller.Dollars and Votes: How Business Campaign Contributions Subvert Democracy, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998, 271 pages. The title says it all: Drawing heavily from interviews with corporate business executives, the authors argue that money, most of it flowing freely and copiously from big business, continues to exert a disproportionate and corrupting influence on the U.S. political campaign system. Neustadtl is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Maryland.
William E. Sherwonit ’71. Alaska’s Accessible Wilderness: A Traveler’s Guide to Alaska’s State Parks,Seattle: Alaska Northwest Books, 1996, 120 pages. This soft-cover book, published in photo-essay style, is the first to explore Alaska’s state parks system, encompassing 3.2 million acres of land spread among 120 park units. The book focuses on six of Alaska’s wildest, most alluring parklands, painting portraits of each in words and pictures. Besides the main travel narrative, the book includes visitor information for each of the six parks.
William E. Sherwonit ’71. Alaska Ascents: World-Class Mountaineers Tell Their Stories, Seattle: Alaska Northwest Books, 1996, 296 pages. This first-ever anthology of Alaska climbing stories gives voice to Alaska’s great peaks and to the people who have climbed them, while taking readers to all of Alaska’s major mountain ranges. Fred Beckey, Jon Krakauer, Royal Robbins, David Roberts, Hudson Stuck, Jon Waterman, and Bradford Washburn are among the mountaineering writers included.