by Sawnie Morris
“Happenstance and extravagance meet, have sex, make syntax,” says Judith Taylor’s speaker in a poem titled “The Thinking Woman’s Dust Mop.” The thinking woman in Sex Libris is apparently middle-aged with a swashbuckling past, a gymnastically agile sense of waking reality, and a dream life with the pull (at times) of an undertoe. Oh, and there’s the broken heart she’s at pains to conceal or at least out-dance within linguistic non-sequiturs and aphoristic observations. At a glance, one could walk away from these poems with the sense of having witnessed only a circus act of pyro-technics (Judith Taylor’s poetics are skilled). But those willing to give a more considered read will find that the speaker’s witticisms mask (a word that appears on a number of occasions) the courage of incremental self-confrontation and do so with beguiling humor: “Lucky. I love the deep chancy Black/ Lagoon from where what’s possible/ Lumbers out,” she says.
Taylor is fond of fairy-tale allusions – in particular wolves, witches, and ghosts – but she’s also well-versed in classical art, opera, theatre, European folk dance, and Medieval tales and spells, as well as at least a touch of eastern philosophy. “Nothing I crave resembles anything I used to crave,” her speaker opines at the end of the first poem, “En Pointe, En Garde.”
For those unfamiliar with balletic terms or fencing, “en pointe” describes the dancer with his/her body weight resting on the tip of vertically extended feet, which is to say, on her toes – an apt analogy for a poet with Taylor’s command of craft. But the analogy extends further – according to Wikipedia: “Pointe technique resulted from a desire for female dancers to appear weightless and slyph-like….” – and more generally into the speaker’s life and the predicament of having outgrown the youthful terms for female “accomplishment” in terms of appearance. By contrast, “En garde,” a less culturally compliant stance for women, is the warning given to the participants at the start of a fencing match, and translates from the French to mean “on your guard.” In the opening couplet, when the speaker compares herself to a specter-like and mad Giselle, as well as to “Miss Muffet, regurgitating after smashing the spider,” (for the spider, think of the goddess Neith, ancient Egyptian spinner of destiny), we are given to understand that Miss Muffet is intent on altering her fate. Regurgitating may reference the desire to “appear weightless,” but it also indicates a refusal to take in what has been dished out.
What follows is a search for reorientation that involves a sifting of the daily with the shadowed and fantastic, much of it achieved in airy double-spaced five-line poems composed of paratactic lines and images (“The narcotic of utterance: it can cure or kill. / Such a simple, cunning word carried by a bird”), often linked – and not arbitrarily – by rhyme (“coffin” and “forgotten”). Taylor’s single stanza poems face one another on opposite pages and are arranged so that the lines on one page line up with the lines on the opposite page. As a result, her parataxis also allows a collection of shadow poems to emerge when one reads horizontally across the bardo of the binding, from the interior of one poem into the other.
The poem “Night Hag,” appears early in the book and is written in alternating three and two line stanzas, as though to suggest the conscious self, the unconscious self, and, periodically, a third being, the Medieval “Mera, night-hag who made/ nightmares” that plague the speaker’s dreams. The poem begins with the familiar self-effacing and sardonic voice frequently featured in Taylor’s poems, then dips abruptly, near the end, into the entirely earned and – surprising in this collection – tone of the lyric confessional:
Last night, on
the dim repetitive stage of pale hours,
I craved not to be the star of my visions,
to be the understudy who never
goes on. Night moved through itself,
inexorably. Trees on shore like Chinese
cutouts, papery. No help, no help
this hypnogogic morning. On my chest
the night-hag squatted, pressing. It takes
longest to wake when you’re broken.
One way to read the lines “I craved not to be the star of my visions,/ to be the understudy who never/goes on” is as an admission of the desire not to die, to remain one of the star-gazers rather than becoming, once again, a matter of carbon. Alternatively, it is the “understudy,” who studies what transpires beneath surfaces, beneath superficialities, that beckons – even though for the speaker the night-hag is, at this point, still the plague of sleep-paralysis or perhaps the haunting of a life. One can’t help but hear as well, in the context of the rest of the book, this contention with the hag as a grappling on the part of the speaker with an internalized misogyny. However, by the end of the book and in a poem with a related title, “Black Pot,” a gratifying, kick-ass shift has occurred:
Witches with their phallic
broomsticks were the bad girls of yesteryear,
the ones with guts, the untrammeled.
And while we’re on the subject, what happened
to a certain witch’s wayward nature?
On day she woke, shorn of her wild
turbulent mane. Nearby, mountains ride
the air, stands of ancient oaks remain.
Every thing of the earth’s aging, too,
but slowly, slowly. How easy it is now
for her to be tame. It has nothing to do
Taylor’s speaker is emotionally and psychologically complicated (and aware of it), erudite, up against the wall of age, and wrestling with the “Replication of mistakes: the thread of what might be called fate,” with a panache just cracked enough to let her readers in – and in these last lines, it seems she finds, in concert with the “earth’s aging,” a place to stand.
What Books Press, 2013
(Cover art: Gronk, Untitled, 2012)