Book Review

Bruce Taylor, The Longest You’ve Lived Anywhere, Poems New and Selected, 2013

Reviewed by Adam Halbur

To be honest, I found myself falling asleep during the 7+hour Satan’s Tango (Sátántangó) directed by Béla Tarr, a filmmaker who is known for long panning shots of the Hungarian plains.  I suppose I could blame the wine, but my impatience or lack of attention speaks to the ability of Béla’s image to bare cosmic truths, rather than feed my neuroses.  Some could argue his style pushes the boundaries of pure boredom, but I believe, in his own words, that his films achieve dignity, psychological continuity, and loneliness, three attributes also apparent in Bruce Taylor’s The Longest You’ve Lived Anywhere: New & Selected Poems.  Like Béla’s devotion to Hungary, Taylor’s attention to his own location, which has been Eau Claire, Wisconsin for the past 40 years minus jaunts to China and Korea, turns his particular poems toward the universal.

The opening poem, “Our Body” from the section Everyday,details the mundanities of having sex: “If this could be longer / harder, sharper, / if that weren't so soft, / so palpable and moist.”  There are four if-clauses in all that build up to the penultimate: “If only it didn't fill / and empty, didn't ache / so sometimes to be held / and others to be let go.”  Here the rhythmic pacing of the “if” clauses provides poetic dignity as well as psychological continuity while the divide between what is wished for and what is, intensified by the comparatives ending in “-er” and the intensifier “so”, drives home loneliness.  I am reminded a bit of the sex(y) poems of Heather McHugh in how the poem gets at the truth of sex, what Slovanian philosopher Slavoj Žižek describes as, albeit terrifying and monstrous, the most spiritual of all our daily acts in that we perform it not to merely procreate but to purely enjoy.  Sex in its middle-age manifestations is a common reoccurrence of Everyday, which makes up the bulk of the new and selected poems.

The Longest You’ve Lived goes for four sections. In the next, These Days, each poem captures one or more seasons, fulfilling Anton Chekov’s dictum that no writer is a good writer that doesn’t know nature. And as Chekov would have it, Taylor is simple with his seasonal descriptions.  In “Our Back Yards,” the neighbor’s wife appears first “in a clean apron / among her chrysanthemums” and then “under a vaguely / threatening sky.  Sanka in one hand, / a Lucky Strike tight in her mouth.” At the same time, we are let in the know that her husband, who is quietly reading the “Trib,” is dying of cancer.  Similar to the divide in “Our Body,” the tension between what is seen and what is known, intensified here by the adjectives “threatening” and “tight,” hangs in the last line when the speaker, with AM radio on, tells us “September is ‘Nostalgia Month’ / and sometimes we’re almost ashamed / at how little it takes to make us happy.”  Taylor captures the composure of a couple who keep on with their simple routines and pleasures though they are utterly alone in their certain sorrow as winter and death approaches. Everyone in the community, on the other hand, cannot deny bearing some guilt in not only keeping up appearances but being satisfied with doing just that. 

And with that, Taylor turns from the domestic and turns Jim Harrison for a moment in section three, Living Like Thugs, and sets us down with “Fat Guys bellied up to the bar” in “Singing ‘The Stones.’”  The poem with its pathetic rhyme scheme acts as an index of the entire section, a requiem for Midwestern masculinity, and makes a list of male professionals: Salesman, Dentist, Grave digger, Shrink, Plumbers, Bankers, and Painter. The poem then broadens into categories general enough to include, if not all men, all men who go to taverns and bars: “The Guys who had it made, nearly, / and Guys that don’t know it but do. // The Little Guys on the tall stools, / The Fat Guys bellied up to the bar. / The Young Guys trying to be so cool / and the Old Guys so sure that they are.”  Though I am not able to reveal Taylor’s exact age, weight, height, and level of success, he is certainly taking a few jabs at himself.  Such self-deprecation is venerable in that it is hard to trust the man, or poet for that matter, who cannot laugh at himself, and yet dark humor is indicative of that private mourning at the heart of laughter provoked.

Such humor pervades The Longest You’ve Lived from the beginning with a dark but laughable quote by writer Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.  Section Everyday, then, starts with something more serious from French philosopher Gaston Bachelard, These Days with a line from actor W.C. Fields, and Living Like Thugs with a self-condemning question posed by convict Charles Manson. This Day, the last section, begins with something Zen from Russian poet Boris Pasternak, another icon of Taylor’s generation: “You are afraid whether you will rise from the dead or not, but you rose from the dead when you were born and didn’t notice it.” We are at the beginning of the end and at the end of a new beginning, and indeed, there is an eternal yearning amongst these last lines for the will have been: “the world that is his,” “A craving the color of morning,” “lips parted slightly,” “the world you’ll wake in / in a moment,” “a negative of the beautiful,” “the sigh of the stew / of the onion / in its many skins,” “the day and the body that / the dead, if they awaken, / awaken singing,” “a mysterious brew of nostalgia or regret,” “small arms unmoored / by desire,” and “this / further blue / our longing / awakes in.”  And finally, in that final poem, “For Dancing,” beautifully, “not the string played but / the string next to it // not music but what / in music makes us / wish we were dancing / in the present arms / of not forgotten lovers.”  This poem is the (k)not for all Taylor’s longing, tying the thread of being (a)part running the length of the book. 

There is always a danger of drawing too close a comparison for convenience sake, but in the The Longest You’ve Lived I can see scenes from Satan’s Tango: in the reverence for body, the scene in which Mrs. Schmidt washes her sex after her regular affair with the village cripple; in attention to nature and daily affairs, cold autumn rains soaking the doldrums of the farming collective; in dark humor, the drunken doctor and the collective members all attempting to take advantage of each other; and in yearning (or perhaps the anti-thesis of yearning), bodies ricocheting in chaotic dance to a repeating tune played on an accordion.  For both Taylor and Béla Tarr, there is poise in the pacing of their lines and images, respectively, and I re-watched the parts of Satan’s Tango that I had missed in order to appreciate the work in its fullness. Of course, I also have found myself dozing off reading Taylor, like he himself does in his “Another Poem You Try to Read,” but I suppose that’s OK.  That’s just the ontological speaking.  I just have to sit up, stretch, and take a sip of something before I find a likely place to begin again.

For his first book of poems, Poor Manners (Ahadada Books, 2009), Adam Halbur was chosen the 2010 resident poet of The Frost Place, the Robert Frost homestead in Franconia, New Hampshire.  His work has also appeared in the anthology Never Before: Poems about First Experiences (Four Way Books, 2005) as well as in various journals.