Saturday, December 20, 2014

Paige Taggart, The Ice Poems

photo by Jes Shimek (, from the DoubleCross Press site
Paige Taggart’s The Ice Poems (DoubleCross Press, 2012) is a sharply constructed little chapbook with letterpress covers that sparkle subtly, imitating the quality of ice itself. The physical package (designed by Jeff Peterson) is a fitting complement to a quite excellent series of poems by Taggart, poems which often subvert syntactical expectations to dazzling, sometimes dizzying, effect. Initially dense and hard to penetrate, these untitled pieces soon shine through with a little bit of work on the reader’s part (at least, that’s how it was for me). They are never literal but succeed by layering themes and ideas throughout the course of the series, relying on repetition and juxtaposition to make their meaning(s).

Once I got into Taggart’s method — about halfway through my first reading of it — the poems really began to come across for me, and I then immediately went back and reread the whole thing. When poems are able to give you that intangible inward buzz via their own inherent aesthetic effects, just by reading the words themselves on the page, you know there’s something worthwhile going on. This was one of my favorite sections:
offensive myth in chronological order
can’t take baby wait
outside a twine ball unwinds down the sidewalk
ancestry is hereditary

the bridge is tied under the water // in rain snow melted on sidewalk showing nothing had come before // backwards becoming undone // by the none other than escape
So what does it mean? Does there even have to be easily identifiable meaning all the time? I don’t think so, but again I can see themes here — in the case of this excerpt, of the influence of the past on our individual lives, of families, of disconnection, of personal transformation. I like the sudden, brief static image (“in rain snow melted on sidewalk”) amid poems that overwhelmingly function kinetically. By this I mean that it’s the quality of the language itself, its disruptions, and at times outright oddness that seem to move these poems forward — rather than basing them on Poundian snapshots — and so when one such snapshot does appear, it stands out effectively.

Though we would probably call this poetry “avant-garde” in some way, I think Taggart works less in the tradition that leads from Pound to Language Poetry (though her language-play does occasionally recall something of Stein), and instead gestures toward the methods of Dadaism and Surrealism. For example, the line “we have an inside of another us” suggests a cut-up of something like “we have another inside of us” (though of course I’m speculating here), while “the face of the mountain lapped up my mind into a whirlpool // birds outside crystallized into imaginary migrations // an eggshell in times of my mouth grew weary // an egg in the snow // . . .” puts me in mind of Joyce Mansour or Charles Henri Ford, more so than of, say, Susan Howe (which is not a value judgment; I love Susan Howe).

One difference between what Taggart does and what Language Poetry typically does, is that emotional resonances are very much to the fore in Taggart’s writing, and the “lyric I,” if obscured, remains very much present. In a recent online interview, she said of another poem of hers,
This particular poem was written with extreme clarity and written all in one sitting from beginning to end and it was all TRUTH > memory forming thought to gain better clarity about the present . . . sometimes I write in pursuit of pure language, love, and want to impact my emotions into a vessel that can ride like a philosophical seahorse, and this was definably that kind of moment.
I think something similar is going on in The Ice Poems, where emotions are suggested in mystifying metaphors and weird veers of thought and grammar: “I fell entirely through the ice // swim and sank into invisible patterns / pulled from inside my memory bed // it was thick // it was crowded with me” — yes, this is good stuff.

But perhaps my impulse always to contextualize or situate a work in a tradition is unnecessary. It is also enough to see Taggart’s work as engaging on its own terms, or as part of its own scene — Taggart is prominent among a particular group of poets based in New York City, specifically Brooklyn, and maybe in some way she reflects the zeitgeist of that informal circle (and I wholeheartedly affirm the idea of groups of poet-friends). In any case, as someone who is not part of the same social group but who comes at Taggart’s work as an interested reader and poet, I’ll end by simply saying that The Ice Poems appealed to my own particular tastes, and for whatever it’s worth I very much recommend them.

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