EL CERRITO -- In August of last year, poet Tess Taylor of El Cerrito spent a day in the studios of NPR as a "NewsPoet," a writer-in-residence observing the development of news and programs from around the world. In conclusion, she ties together the experience in a poem. She was the second poet to take on the task, preceded a month earlier by another locally raised poet and a Pulitzer Prize honoree, Tracy K. Smith.
Tess Taylor is featured at a free reading from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Dec. 5 at the El Cerrito Library, 6510 Stockton Ave., along with Keith Ekiss and Jennifer Elise Foerster, both published poets and former Wallace Stegner Fellows in Poetry at Stanford University.
The radio newsroom assignment was appropriate for Taylor, whose poetry, as reflected in her recently published collection, "The Forage House," shows an interest in assimilating a barrage of disparate images, responding to them personally and, perhaps, randomly, and then leading the reader to a thought, an awareness, or a conclusion. Such an ending takes a jumbled box of pictures and clarifies a meaning.
In a recent interview, former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins spoke of moving "away from the casual beginning of the poem into something a little more serious," toward something "more ambiguous or speculative," which is precisely what Taylor does.
Even before reading the individual poems, simply flipping through her collection, one notices that the poems are constructed primarily in short stanzas -- couplets and tercets often -- some complete as images, others enjambed in a chain-link manner to the following stanza.
Reading more closely through the collection, one is taken into a vast variety of settings, some familiar to East Bay residents, others to people who have traveled to historical sites across the nation and elsewhere.
They are like snapshots taken quickly, sometimes with a brief personal sigh or reaction. But in the end Taylor pulls in a thought that takes the observations from mere views into an understanding or universal conclusion. In a bigger sense, she develops an order from the chaos and assault of images.
The collection is presented in four untitled sections, and the reader can only speculate on whether these represent themes or creative periods or something else. In the first is a collection of images of family, of written wills and letters, of times recent and past, of places both in California and in the South, and, most strikingly, of people -- slaves -- who have been mistreated.
There is a wistful tone to hold on to days gone and at the same time to express anger and guilt over how people were used and then almost forgotten.
In the second section, Taylor seems almost to be recounting personal responses during a visit to familial and historical sites in Virginia, Maine, and Pennsylvania: The Wilton plantation, the Museum of the Confederacy, a highway exit, some parks, and an antique show.
It all leads to the final line of the last poem in the section, a description of broken objects in a roadside junk or antique store. She says, "May anyone who likes to mend, come mend." We realize that it is more than objects that need mending; it is history and lives that cannot really be mended except through resurrection in observed items that awaken memories or visions of past days and affect the conscience.
In the third section, she focuses on Monticello and Thomas Jefferson, considering the contradictions presented by the great inventor, historical personage, and leader who also kept slaves and fathered children whose relationship must now be confirmed through science and DNA analysis.
She can only cry out to him in guilt and hopelessness, "O great rhetorician, tell me: What should I say?"
A frustration continues as Taylor in Poem V lists in single rhythmic verses images of Native Americans, animals, scientific objects, and household items, none of which reveal the real man who is hidden "behind/your multitude of portraits."
Finally, she returns to the literally and figuratively unstable land of fault lines in the earthquake land of California with thoughts of all that Jefferson has taught her of history and gardening. The section ends with a wonderful pun, referring to him as a "foundering father."
Back home in El Cerrito for Section IV, Taylor starts with some images of town scenes that must be familiar to local residents. Some are even named shops. And there are trees and homes.
And, then, she gets into a car and drives to the beach (open to the world) and sees the moon, and her small town life becomes a moment alive in the universe.
Similarly, in "Song for Sonoma" there is a list of down-to-earth images, all referred to as "dear": "Dear sad ducks, Dear boats and truck./Dear barn in the fallow field./Dear vines in winter. Dear deer & such--" and many others.
But those images are all placed in the context of the world and the sky. It is again a move from the specific images to a universal understanding.
In "World's End: North of San Francisco," a variety of seemingly unrelated references are juxtaposed (wild animals, the Renaissance, Miwok gods, war machinery, a Chinese cargo ship, 19th century novels, family, plant).
Again, nothing seems to relate, but Taylor takes this chaos as she "stand[s] on a crumbling fortress, making bouquets of thistle." The harsh and the decaying can still be gathered in a cluster for her to hold as she also finds an ability to put together the vastly different pictures that her observations provide.
To come to an end, Taylor actually returns to time before her own birth when her parents meet among the smells and sights and sounds in India, and then she is conceived in Brooklyn, and is born to a mother who starts her, the poet, on the path toward understanding of herself, her world, and her universe -- her own created universe, created in her mind and poetry, because as her "mother says, you haven't listened. No, it wasn't like that really -- ..."
Tess Taylor's poems should not be regarded as heavy, dark, philosophical ruminations. Rather, they are lyrical and successful attempts to find wholeness and meaning in a miasma of observations made while meandering around home and the world, while contemplating the present and the past.
Tess Taylor is featured at a free poetry reading from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Dec. 5 at the El Cerrito Library, 6510 Stockton Ave., along with Keith Ekiss and Jennifer Elise Foerster, both published poets and former Wallace Stegner Fellows in Poetry at Stanford University. Taylor's first book, "The Forage House," was recently published by Red Hen Press. Details: 510-526-7512.