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Under the Pudding Skin: A Conversation About Bruce Taylor

Under the Pudding Skin: A Conversation About Bruce Taylor

Two poetry lovers discover a “master versifer” in Taylor’s new collection, No End in Strangeness.

David Godkin (formerly David Kosub) has written poetry and fiction reviews for literary journals across Canada, including the Malahat Review, Prairie Fire, Arc, the Fiddlehead, Quill and Quire, Books in Canada, and What! He has a masters degree in English Literature from York University, is a prolific singer-songwriter and writes the weekly poetry blog Speaking of Poems.

Mathew Henderson is a recent grad of the University of Guelph's MFA program. Originally from Prince Edward Island, he now lives in Toronto, writes about the prairies and teaches at Humber College. His first collection of poetry, The Lease, is forthcoming from Coach House Books in the Fall of 2012. His poem "Service Rig" appears in the current issue of Maisonneuve.

Bruce Taylor is a two-time winner of the A.M. Klein Award for Poetry.  He has published four books of poetry.  His most recent collection, No End in Strangeness, which combines new work with selections from his earlier books, was published by Cormorant in the spring of 2011. He has been a teacher, a puppeteer, and a freelance journalist. He lives in Wakefield, Quebec, with his wife and three children.

David Godkin: What do readers look for in a poem? There are many answers to that question, of course, but I would say our most basic expectation is competence. We want to feel that we're in good hands, that the poet has control of his or her materials and that someone on the other end of the line is actually talking to us. It's readily apparent when these qualities are missing, but when they are present, as they are in Bruce Taylor latest book No End in Strangeness, it's an occasion for celebration.  

Bruce Taylor himself is less well-known here in the West than he is in the East, where he has twice won the A.M. Klein Prize for Poetry and the E. J. Pratt Medal for Poetry. And while I have some reservations about his work and how far he is prepared to take it, it's a shame we don't know more about him. He has a great deal to teach us about the formal properties that make up a good poem. A case in point is the first of two breathtaking stanzas from "Marbles":

Once I had jars of them, a fascinating glut,
and, not knowing our time was short,
I spent whole mornings lifting them up to my eye,
trying to climb inside them, where the swirling
capes and scarves were, shapes unnerving & nonsensical,
a lemony helix, a lick of flame, propellors of begonia petal,
hem of a flamenco skirt, some spearmint leaf,
a vibrant line, a swirl of purplish fumes, and those
that looked like little model planets, streaked
with milky gases, and the ones that were perfectly clear
but so dark you could barely see in, soaked
in a crimson so deep that it damaged your heart.

Now I don't know how you spent your time growing up, Mathew, but when I was a kid a game of marbles was a way to escape the world of adults. Marbles embodied everything adults tried to protect us from: colour and chaos, the irrational and the joyous, etc. Three things strike me about how the objects are treated here. The first and most obvious is the enormous richness of the imagery and Taylor's sure-handed use of consonant rhyme, e.g. "a lemony helix, a lick of flame, propellers of begonia petal." The line is a complete delight; together with the rest of the stanza it's fuelled by a rolling, irrepressible energy, underpinned by a proposition I wish more poets would take to heart: that language is to be enjoyed and that to be enjoyed it has to be engaged.

Notice something else, too—the opening line: "Once I had jars of them, a fascinating glut. Simple enough, I suppose, until you pause to consider the careful balancing of those stabilizing monosyllabics in the first half of the line against the four-syllable spill of the word "fascinating," followed by that nice Anglo-Saxon punch at the end. This is only a small example of how Taylor uses rhythm to support meaning and provide aural pleasure. I'm a sucker for this way of using language, impressed by how simple the effect is, knowing it's not easily done. Taylor does it incredibly well.

A third thing I'll point out is how beautifully and unobtrusively Taylor helps us understand what's on his mind. Take a look at what happens, for instance, after the first line. "Once I had jars of them, a fascinating glut/and not knowing our time was short/I spent whole mornings lifting them up to my eye." The line communicates both the loss of youth and our general mortality, but more significant is the way the ideas are merged together, i.e. the end of playtime and our adult sense of impending death conjoined in that single phrase "not knowing our time was short." It's a lovely double entendre, a formal poetic device that Taylor delivers with enormous artfulness and discretion.

Mathew Henderson: I'm glad you picked this poem to start us off, as it was one of my favourites. The second half of the poem offers a penetrating glimpse into the poet as a child. "But nobody I knew ever bought one, they were just / there to be fought for, gambled or procured in trade" captures perfectly the child's acceptance of the world around them. Taylor concludes with "each one a pure / vitrified yearning, a lens through which to enlarge / whatever was scarce and untouchable, / treasure, the future, the body of a girl." What a fantastic ending: the playfulness, wonder and gentleness of the poem suddenly falling away to end in this vulnerability. I won't point out the wonderful control of form and sound that Taylor uses in this poem, because I think you've done a great job and I would simply be adding more of the same. I want to mention that although Taylor is, as you said, best known in the East, and though I grew up on the East Coast, this is my first time reading him, so it was really a pleasure to discover both enjoyable content and a deft hand to lead me through it.

I like your description of what a reader is looking for in a poem. I would add that a poem should also feel like a genuine effort at communication. That is to say, a poem should have a purpose. Too often I read poems that do nothing more than showboat the poet's intelligence or skill. Certainly, Taylor demonstrates his skill in these poems, but packed into the rhythm, rhyme and structure of his poetry is genuine feeling. I get a very clear sense, as you certainly did in "Marbles," that Taylor is writing with purpose and direction. For instance, in the first poem of the book "Nature," Taylor describes the almost panicked restlessness of childhood:

Stand still, and tufts of moss
would fur your thighs 
and little plants would cover up your eyes
and where you were, 
a soft green pelt 
would root and spread and grow.
Which goes, I'm almost sure, to show
that standing still is not
the way to go.

Here Taylor guides us with his rhyme and calls to mind the chants and songs of childhood. The meter of the poem seems to tumble gracefully between hard rhymes, reminiscent of a child's warning song. The next stanza, however, is where the poem really comes together for me:

And nature, what is more, is not
a set of laws,
or scenic vistas
or a goaty little god,
but something ravenous
that walks abroad.
A wind-borne pestilence, a thin
old hen that pecks you on the glasses.
Ticks that pick their way
across your skin.
A black squirrel gnawing at the soffits,
desperate to get in.

When I first read this I was struck by the shift from the vegetative images of the previous stanza which were unpleasant, to be sure, but not nearly so menacing as that "black squirrel." Naturally, the form here matches the content as rhymes and rhythm both become tighter, steadily reminding the reader of the very ravenous, inevitable force that Taylor describes. It is worth mentioning too that, though the poem is written about childhood, the poet is no child. Rather, the consistent and controlled rhythm reveal a man whose own desire to reflect and find meaning in the small things of youth, marbles and mould gardens is just as unstoppable as the "ravenous" force we meet in the final stanza.

DG: Yes, I like the "Nature" poem very much, too. And I agree that what we have in Taylor is a mature poet, not a child. At the same time, I can't help but be struck by the palpable debt Taylor owes to children and to how their literature influences some of his better poetry. An obvious example is the way Taylor's clarity and directness reminds us of the way children are often unexpectedly open and direct about the world and people around them.  Less obvious are the obverse qualities children occasionally possess: their obliqueness and their unwillingness to give everything away, a shrouding of intention and knowledge often recreated in nursery rhymes, songs and chants by children's authors, such as Lewis Carol and Dr. Seuss. We see this in "The Slough":

What's under the pudding skin, down in the slough
where the weed-pods root whose heads poke through
to goggle and bob in their seedy hats,
pithless and punch-drunk, chewed by gnats,
knocked flat by a damp, disagreeable breeze,
gusts of bad weather, abrupt as a sneeze
and stilt-birds sunk to their bamboo knees
in whatever is under the slough?

Here is a thoroughly "adult" poem informed by the properties and power of kid's verse (e.g. end rhyme, iambic tetrameter, nonsense). Poems like "The Slough" and "Nature" show him at his best as a very precise observer of the objects that make up his world, minus his opinion of them (another quality in all but the most precocious children, in my experience). Taylor does not describe things so much as allow them to grow on the page, without the abstract intrusions that so often infect contemporary poetry. Taken further, this ability to see clearly and create a concrete, kinesthetic poetry reaches its nexus in "Little Animals", a poem about another keen observer—Antonie Philips van Leeuwenhoek, the "father of microbiology"—and about what he finds "down in the grey/and mazy darkness of the pond."

glittering clattertrap City of Madness,
with its glass ladders, and lemon-green
spirals and a sky traversed by
delirious weirdos, one
like an angry emoticon, with two long hairs
embrangled on its scalp,
one like a revolving cocklebur,
and another like an animated spill
(as if an accident could live!)
and crescent moons and popeyed gorgons, things
with knives for hands,
frenetic writhers, tumblers, bells
on stalks, a sort of great loose
muscle flinching and contracting,
diatoms like crystalline
canoes serenely gliding
down a coast of brown decay, and suddenly,
what looks to be a throbbing bronze
Victrola trumpet
rocketing around as if it won the war!
And you can almost hear the fanfare
as it plants its small end in a clump of muck
and starts to stretch itself,
and stretch until it is
as long as an alp horn,
as long and quivering as a plume of smoke,
as long and quivering and dreadful as a cyclone funnel,
working the furious hairs of its mouth to suck
its lessers down its throat

It is a thoroughly adult enterprise at this point, undertaken by a mature poet who has married the naive wonder of the child with the sophisticated control of a master versifier. The lines are an unmetrical unleashing of energy that still manages to observe the principles of good metrical poetry: powerful images and forceful rhythms modulated by the judicious deployment of stresses and rests.

MH: I was going to mention "Little Animals" as well; it's interesting that we seem to be hitting on the same poems. This was my favourite poem, new or old, in the book, but I will say that I was frustrated by the slower pacing of the early sections. I think my frustration is due to Taylor's control of momentum. From the very beginning of the poem he hints at the rush of menacing energy that will come in later sections like the one you quoted and the one that I will quote a little later. We catch the sound of Taylor revving up in early sections like this one:

So, here was a man who looked
at pieces of his world and found
more worlds inside them,
which is the natural order: worlds
where dainty worldlings
dwell, and each one
is a world as well, some
milling in the streets of Delft and others,
pulsing through pondwater.

The repetition of "world" and the steady "w" sounds in this section give the sense that the poem is speeding up, rushing toward something, but, just a little after this, we find the rhythm and subject slowing considerably:

But for now there is only this excellent one
by Clifford Dobell to enjoy,
and I have neglected to mention
the best part, which is the bookplate pasted
on its inside cover, ornately framed
in the Art Nouveau style,

While the section is interesting in isolation, and Taylor in no way loses control of his rhythm, both the content and the pace of these lines falls flat and slows down when compared with the preceding and forthcoming sections. It should be mentioned that this very effect matches the "pulsing" of Taylor's "worldlings," and I believe that it is intentional; Taylor is too fine a hand with pacing and flow to have accidents. Still, the momentum of his quicker sections was so affecting that the shift back to more measured verse left me disappointed. Though Taylor does use similar pacing in his other poems, most of them are short enough that the effect is a quick pulse between rhythms. The length of "Little Animals," however, draws attention to the alternating pace. My issue here may be that, in some of his longer poems, we can too easily see the poet as artificer at work behind the words.  And yet, this poem was one of my favourites. See the ending, which closely mirrors the selection you quoted earlier:

you will see what is eating
these holes in the world, what chews
at the black straggle
and clings to those rafts of algae,
and cries up from the pages of a
strange old book, and hangs
in the damp sycamores
hollering for sex, sex, sex,
and probes in the dark muck
with its snakelike head,
if that thing is its head,
then opens its sudden mouth
with its wheel whirling hairs
and starts to pull one
world after another
into its throat.

Again, like in "Nature," Taylor builds a steady rhythm to drive the reader forward. He does this here, in large part, with the repeated use of "and," combined with the repetition of "s" sounds. We cannot help but begin to feel that, as the poem reaches this point, we are returning to a place we have already been, reaching an inevitable conclusion. This is how I want a poem to feel, and Taylor really does have a talent for endings. By the time I get to the last three lines, I've forgotten that there was ever a lull in the long poem's action, instead of remembering the pauses, I'm launched into the white silence represented by the empty half page following the poem.

DG: It seems we've gotten well down into the weeds in our comments and neglected to provide some general evaluation of Taylor as a poet. But before I talk a little more about that, I want to add to what you've had to say about Taylor's talent for endings. Generally, I agree with you, though Taylor endings are sometimes weak, particularly when he abandons his strategy of reserving judgment about the things he observes and feels compelled to make obvious statements about life and nature. In "Life Sciences" he telegraphs this impulse early on by offering one interpretation of his poem as a "yielding to weak sentiment / or a salesman's trick / slapping a coat of moral uplift / on this nihilist trade." Frankly, I would have preferred that he'd stuck to that trade and spared us the undeniably true but pedestrian proposition that inside each of us is something "fearless which adores its life," and not ended the poem with an appeal to a generalized love of children. This was designed to disarm our nihilistic arguments, it seems to me, rather than engage with them.

Still, so much of this is mere caviling when measured against Taylor's undeniable strengths: his ability to have fun with the language, his facility with rhyme, with metrical and non-metrical forms, his wide ranging diction and a conversational tone that drew me in immediately and that is no less serious for being gently delivered. Notwithstanding what I said about his resistance to abstraction, there are also some wonderful moments (all too few, in my opinion) when Taylor gets metaphysical on us, providing us with a discreet, sure-handed development of ideas—notably his treatment of the death figure that opens the portion of "Little Animals" you quoted:

nor is it Death
that incises those lines
in our cheeks
and lays his corrupting touch
on a Dutch girl's breast,
or calls up to us
from the cool earth
under the ice-covered pond —

Are there poems that don't work? Sure. More often than not, they're poems lacking in development, such as "400 Jobs in Murdochville" with its rather conventional observation about human perseverance or "Foreigners," with its cultural cliché. There's falling off in momentum about half way through the book. This is due, I think, to the increasingly declarative nature of Taylor's thoughts. But he recovers nicely in poems like "Really There," which tackles the question of the efficacy of language with depth and intriguing ambivalence and "I Will Meet You There," a teasingly elusive narrative that offers us a different and rather surprising take on the love poem.

Above everything, it's the ease of these poems and Taylor's style overall that makes him so readable in my view, accomplishing something I wouldn't have thought possible in the turgidity that makes up so much modern poetry, i.e.  poetry as page turner. No End in Strangeness is a book that hits far more often than it misses. A real pleasure to read and easily recommended.

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